THE GREY TIGERS AT SEA – RAN 816 SQN S-70B2 SEAHAWK OPERATIONS

20110811_9999_1GREY TIGERS AT SEA

For over 80years the Royal Australian Navy has operated, at times a variety of different types of fixed wing aircraft and helicopters from a large number of aircraft carriers, warships and support ships. They have been used in a variety of roles to help defend and support the fleet.

Located on the southern coast of NSW close to Nowra, is HMAS Albatross, the home of the Royal Australian Navy’s only aviation base housing the entire Fleet Air Arm Wing. The Fleet Air Arm is one of the main “Forces” within the RAN’s Fleet Command structure. Their main focus is on overall mission effectiveness, units reliability, operational sustainability and ensuring all operations are conducted with careful attention to operational safety.

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The FAA gives the RAN its own organic aviation force and provides assorted naval aviation capabilities which are required to fight and overcome an opponent at sea; and to contribute to military support operations. Various FAA squadrons are currently located at HMAS Albatross which include 816 – Seahawks, 723 – Squirrels/Bell 429 and 805 – MRH-90s. 817 – Sea Kings was decommissioned in 2011.

AOPA was given access to 816 Squadron’s Sikorsky S-70B2 Seahawks and their personnel to examine what the unit does when deployed either locally or overseas.

 816 – SQUADRON HISTORY

816 Squadron has a long history with operating aircraft and helicopters in the RAN, stretching back to WW2. Before the Seahawk arrived the squadron operated Fairey Fireflies, Fairey Gannets, Dh Sea Venoms, Grumman S-2E/G Trackers and Westland Wessex, thus gaining many years of experience in using very different platforms. The squadron has been decommissioned and absorbed a few times over the years as well, indicating the ever changing tempo facing the RAN.

 Since 1988 the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) has operated a formidable frontline defence naval helicopter from its surface warships – the Sikorsky S-70B2 Seahawk.

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In early 1988, the S-70B2 Seahawk Introduction and Transition Unit (SITU) was formed to bring the S-70B-2 into service and to provide the first fully-trained crews for trials. Part of this setup also created the first ships’ flights. The SITU program was interrupted when, in response to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in August 1990, two S-70B2 Seahawks were deployed to the Gulf region onboard FFG HMAS Darwin and Adelaide in support of trade sanctions against Iraq. The Seahawk was given an early start into its combat career, much early than anyone ever expected.

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 Taking over from SITU, 816 Sqn was commissioned in its current form on 23 July 1992 with 16 Seahawks allocated. From 1992 onwards the Seahawks have been deployed all across the Middle East and Asia in deployments and in numerous natural disasters across Australia saving lives and putting out fires.

816 CURRENT OPERATIONS

The aircrews fly their assigned 16 S-70B2 Seahawks in a mix of training missions, operational and overseas deployments, which can see them potentially operating around the globe wherever the RAN is required to be on call at. 816 has seen active service in various military and combat operations such as Kuwait 1991, East Timor 1999-2000,  Persian Gulf 2001-03 and Iraq 2003.

The key duty for the 816’s Seahawk and personnel when deployed onboard the Navy’s FFG and FFH frigates, is to provide the much sought after role of anti-submarine warfare and anti-surface surveillance. These tasks are a core element of the RAN’s organic aviation capabilities which take in not only the warships sensors but the S-70B2 onboard sensors.

The Seahawk carries a highly capable navigation, communication and sensor suite making it a formidable helicopter in anti-submarine and anti-surface warfare. The sensors include: the Super Searcher radar, magnetic anomaly detector, processing for both active and passive sonobuoys, forward-looking infra-red (FLIR) and electronic support measures. The helicopter’s primary weapon is the MK 46 torpedo used to sink or damage warships, vessels or submarines.

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When required for self protection or fleet escort roles, the fitting of a 7.62 mm door mounted general purpose machine gun. In addition to the primary roles, the S-70B2 has an extensive range of secondary/non core capabilities, which makes it an ideal platform for performing roles including: search & rescue, troop lift and tactical insertion, utility operations (winching and external load lift) and fire bombing.

TEAM SEAHAWK – THE AIRCREW

Each S-70B2 Seahawk carries 3 members on each mission The RAN mission structure has each crew members doing independent job tasks, tho when all combined, makes the Seahawk work as a very effective naval weapon system.

AIRCRAFT COMMANDER / PILOT

The pilot is the aircraft captain or commander, who controls the helicopter and is responsible for its overall safe operation. They are seated in the right front seat, next to the mission commander. A typical naval fleet mission may involve the pilot needing to fly the S-70B2 off the warship and on “station” or location or around the warship for up to four hours with some of these flights flown at low-level over the sea. The pilot has to deal with conditions varying from daytime to night time environments, operating the helicopter in all weather states such as hot/wet/cold/sandy/foggy etc.

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They then have to often experience recovering to a warship’s deck that cam be due to the wind and waves, pitching and rolling dramatically thus making a vertical landing a real challenge. To make it even more dangerous is that the landing area is often wet and slippery with sea spray which is another hazard to contend with.

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They are also assisted by the Mission commander and Senso – who also doubles as the winch / load master on the helicopter. When operating with winch loads or external loads, the pilot is intensely focused on flying by their instruments and using visual clues.

MISSION COMMANDER / TACCO

The tactical coordinator (TACCO) is an observer who is responsible for the tactical employment of the aircraft. They are situated in the left front seat next to the pilot.. With its array of many unique naval developed sensor suite and integrated weapons systems, the Mission Commander is the centre of the flying operations on each of the S-70B2 Seahawks. By not only directing the role of the Seahawk but by using the computers and sensors onboard, the TACCO effectively extends the combat radius of the ship offensive and surveillance network, by helping to detect, locate and engage/attack where appropriate, any type of surface vessel or submerged submarine. These targets can be independently engaged by the TACCO beyond the range of the warship due to onboard weapon systems if required using the Mk-46 Torpedo carried under the stores pylon. Their role can see them also doubling as a replacement qualified pilot/flight crew member and fly the S-70B2 when required. This additional duty would be mostly undertaken if the pilot is incapacitated for any reason.

SENSO

The sensor operator (SENSO) is responsible for the operation of the aircraft’s sensor equipment, weapon controls and is situated in the rear left hand side of the cargo bay section of the Seahawk.

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RAN Seahawks aren’t always involved in hunting down submarines or vessels that are at sea.

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They can be used in vertical support / utility roles alongside the MRH-90 and as seen with the retired Sea Kings. The SENSO is tasked to operate the winch and hook operations when the S-70B2 is performing secondary utility roles such as resupply which involves the moving of freight/cargo either internally or externally by sling load. During combat operations, they will additionally man the 7.62mm machine gun which is mounted in the doorway for self protection or offensive duties as required.

PEOPLE BEHIND THE TIGERS

SQUADRON XO – CDR SHANE CRAIG

The boss or Executive Officer / XO of 816 Squadron when AOPA visited was Commander Shane Craig. Cdr Craig key role is to ensure that the Tigers meets its daily assigned tasks and functions as directed to by Fleet Command. Cdr Craig reports to the Commander of the Naval Aviation, on operational and personnel issues affecting the squadron.

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Discussions about operational deployments, training tactics are planned and then passed on to implement by delegation to senior members of the squadron. During his naval career he has travelled far and wide with the RAN, since he started as an apprentice Airframe and Engine Technician in 1982. After completing his training he was posted to 723 Sqn in 1984 and further movements saw him onboard HMAS Adelaide and HMAS Stalwart. Shane then undertook studying to develop his skills and career, which saw him graduate from the Royal Australian Naval College in 1990, where he was appointed the College Captain and awarded the Naval College Medal. His long term aim was to learn to become a helicopter crewman. In order to reach this position he needed to undertake more training and operational deployments to qualify. His next step in this career path saw him go to RAAF East Sale for the School of Air Navigation. Cdr Craig’s skills and dedication to training was recognised in that he was named as Dux of Course, trophies for Leadership qualities, awarded Best Practical Navigator, and received the Australian Institute of Navigation prize for maintaining a distinction average whilst on the course. Upon being awarded his flying wings in 1991 he was posted to the Seahawk Introduction and Transition Unit in 1991 and was a member of 816 Squadron’s commissioning crew, which saw him operate alongside others, the newest weapon system in the fleet. He then served onboard more warships before coming the Operations Officer for 816. He then was transferred to HMAS Anzac and also did a stint as an exchange posting to the Royal Navy. He joined 814 Sqn and went on deployments to Middle East and Kosovo crisis. When back to HMAS Albatross, now Lt Cdr Craig, he was again posted to HMAS Melbourne and Sydney as Flight Commander managing the onboard flight detachments. He saw further travels to Middle East. During 2004 he became an Executive Officer (XO) in 816 Sqn. Further studies and appointments saw him take command of 816 in December 2009.

SEAHAWK PILOT – LT CDR PETER TALBOT

Lt Cdr Talbot is one of the aircrew members who is a pilot and flies the S-70B2. His duties are to fly the helicopter as directed to obtain the required mission outcomes. Flying a helicopter is more demanding than an aircraft, as a pilot has to think more in 3 dimensional aspects and rely heavily on the instruments in the cockpits. Peter joined the RAN to become a pilot and that saw him learn to fly at Tamworth on CT-4 Airtrainers for 9 months, then RAAF Pearce for 9 months on the Pilatus PC-9 turboprop trainer. At Pearce all RAN aircrews are trained in extensive instrument skills as this is how they will end up flying a helicopter by relying on instruments mainly besides visual clues.

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After finishing at Pearce, he then transitioned to HMAS Albatross to learn on the basic RAN trainer helicopter, the Eurocopter Squirrel for 6 months. He then under went more extensive training covering how to fly a helicopter in different roles and conditions. After he finished this advanced training, he was after nearly 6years now ready to be allocated to a fleet squadron. He was posted to 816 Squadron and transitioned onto the S-70B2 Seahawk.

Peter’s skills as a Seahawk pilot are put to the test, whenever he takes off and lands onboard the various RAN ships. Landing and taking off from the rear of the vessels requires much attention to due factors such as wind flow over the ship structure, ship pitch and the QNH of the area. These factors combined with night flying, strong winds and the demanding sea environment can challenge pilots but the extensive training undertaken ensure the RAN pilots are able to handle these tasks 24hrs a day. Peter when airborne, is directed by the Mission commander in the left hand seat to fly the helicopter as required by following maps and visual clues. To achieve these tasks, Peter steers the S-70B2 by the collective and rudder pedals to the assigned heading and then once is at assigned area, will then either descends or rise as requested to provide the necessary platform positioning to carry out the mission directives.

MISSION CONTROLLER – LT CDR SIMON LAW

Lt Cdr Simon Lam is another of the squadron’s XO and known as a reliable problem solver. He was interested in the RAN and took up the challenge to become a naval aviator after school. Simon’s main role when airborne is as a Mission Controller, where he is active in ensuring the mission is conducted and all tasks are completed.

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His role is to utilise the Seahawks sensors, data and computer systems to co-ordinate detection and if required the removal of unfriendly surface vessels. Simon when not airborne, works with Lt Cdr Craig to ensure the Squadron is running as required and can meet its goals. Simon is kept busy assisting others in making the squadron work and ensuring they can work through problems as they arise.

FLIGHTGERAR

All aircrew wear specific naval flightgear from Nomex flight suits, Alpha flight helmets and Beaufort Life Preservers. These are stored between mission in a climate controlled room and maintained by dedicated skilled ALSE technicians.

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TIGER CARE – LT MATT GILLIES

Lt Matt Gillies is a key link in having the Tigers in the air, as he oversees all the maintenance that is carried out on the Seahawks for the squadron. Matt’s role see him interact closely with Lt Cdr Craig to discuss and assess issues such as daily and weekly operational issues, maintenance resource requirements and what is working or not working for the helicopters after each flight. These issues can include corrosion control, rotor blade inspections, flight controls covering both mechanical and electrical systems. The Tigers have extensive hangar space on the base to conduct overhaul and repairs as required.

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With the rotation of the various ship flights through the base, there is always a demand for some form of either light or deep maintenance on the Seahawks. Maintenance crews operate to ensure the S-70B2 fleet is flyable and also are maintained with proper care after each flight. Being head of the maintenance ensures Matt has a variety of issues to constantly have to delegate and resolve with his maintenance teams members. The team members work in very tidy and controlled hangars with their workshops close by. OHS and care is taken to ensure all the repair jobs are done properly according as the set out in the associated technical manuals/procedures.

TIGER ICON

816 Sqn is known as the ”Tigers”, due to their choice of a ferocious unit icon. The 816 Squadron Crest depicts the head of a Bengal tiger on a black field in allusion to its warlike and courageous qualities. The motto, ‘Imitate the Action of the Tiger’, is drawn from the extract of William Shakespeare’s ‘Henry V’. Using the colours of a tiger, gives the squadron a colourful and popular status at the base. Walk down the hallways of 816, poke a head into offices, crew rooms and also on flight suit patches – chances are you won’t be far from seeing the bright black and orange colours of the Tiger.  At various places in the main building are large displays with Tiger heads staring at you, giving the impression that they and the squadron are intimidating to any potential opponent who dares to take them on.

If you are interested in a career either flying helicopters like the S-70B2 Seahawk, operating the sensor systems or helping to maintain the fleet on the base or sea, it is recommended you get in touch with Defence Force Recruiting at: www.defencejobs.gov.au/recruitmentcentre or by calling 13 19 01.

816 Sqn will be upgrading to the MH-60 model in a short while and this was reflected by a patch –

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 Acknowledgements – AOPA appreciated the time and effort given to organise this visit.

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I wish to thank the 816 members – Cdr Shane Craig, Lt Cdr Simon Lam, Lt Matt Gillies and Visit Liaison Officer Dallas McHough for making this article possible.

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