Military Exercise – Ex Aries Tor

Tom Howe reports for South West Aviation Photographers from the recent Ex Aries Tor.

© Tom Howe
Close up head on with ZJ136/U

Ten Tors is a very well known and popular annual event held during the second weekend of May on Dartmoor. The event allows over 2000 youngsters aged between 14 and 19 to take part in 35, 45 and 55 mile hikes across the moor in teams of six.  Regarded as one of the most gruelling challenges of its kind in the UK, event organisers are assisted by all three armed forces in the United Kingdom. This includes extensive support from the Royal Navy’s Commando Helicopter Force (CHF) based at RNAS Yeovilton. The joint military operation covering the event is collectively known as Exercise ARIES TOR.

For many years the Fleet Air Arm had supplied a pair of venerable ‘Junglie’ Sea King HC4s to carry out the various casualty evacuations (CASEVACs) and resupply duties required throughout the weekend. Following the retirement of the Sea King in March of this year, a pair of newly upgraded Merlin HC3is from 846 Naval Air Squadron took over the role for the 2016 event.

© Tom Howe
Resting at Okehampton Camp

The HC3i is an interim upgrade between the RAF HC3 and the future Royal Navy Commando Merlin (HC4). Seven airframes have been upgraded to HC3i standard to fill the gap left by the retirement of the final eight Sea King Commandos. This variant will remain in service until the majority of fully ‘marinised’ Merlin HC4s will be available in the early 2020s. The HC3i upgrade includes a folding main rotor head, lashing down points for operations from ships, as well as extra fast roping points for the Royal Marines.

With a Forward Operating Base (FOB) established at Okehampton Camp, and with the help of the local 1st Artillery Brigade of the Army, the aircraft retained a rapid search and rescue and resupply capability throughout the Ten Tors weekend.

© Tom Howe
ZJ118/B & ZJ136/U at the Okehampton Camp HLS

The aerial support began on the Friday with a field gun demonstration in which the Merlins were themselves involved. However, the regular CASEVAC operations did not pick up until the Saturday morning. In typically strong wind and rain, the two Merlin HC3is, marked up as ZJ118/B and ZJ136/U began airlifting injured participants off the moor and returning them to medical teams at the FOB.

The sorties provided the Merlin crews with invaluable experience in both low level navigational flying as well as deploying rescue personnel in rough and inhospitable terrain.

© Tom Howe
ZJ136/U low lovel departure

As well as CASEVACs, the Merlin force provided a crucial transport capability, particularly towards the end of the event, where the internal and under slung load capacity of the Merlin was utilised. This proves essential every year, particularly when closing checkpoints across the moor. Furthermore, it allows organisers to minimise the impact of the event on the surrounding landscape through a swift clean-up operation.

The poor weather which hampered photography during the Saturday morning soon blew over and the FOB was sunlit from mid-day right through until late afternoon, much to the delight of the small number of photographers who had gathered.

The afternoon was to provide a busy schedule for the Merlin crews including many short cadet flights to keep the FOB constantly active, with a number of supply and rescue missions in the mix.

© Tom Howe
ZJ136/U arrives back after another sortie.
© Tom Howe
ZJ118/B landing after a cadet flight.

The location of the Helicopter Landing Site (HLS) provides unique photography opportunities, especially later in the day as the sunlight moves around; with several angles available from higher ground. The surrounding hills and valleys are also popular with photographers wishing to get landlocked shots of the aircraft during their sorties.

© Tom Howe
ZJ118/B operating cadet experience flights.
© Tom Howe
Low level operations.
© Tom Howe
ZJ118/B is readying to depart from the HLS

The Saturday generally proved to be the best day for enthusiasts and photographers, with Sunday hampered with bad weather in the morning and aircraft reliability issues, which seem to be all too common within the Royal Navy’s Merlin fleet.

It is generally believed that the event itself would not maintain the same levels of efficiency and safety if the support of the Commando Helicopter Force was not available. The Merlin fleet will go on to provide more efficient transport service in future. The aircraft are capable of travelling twice as far, with twice the troop capacity in two thirds of the time of their predecessor; the Sea King HC4. Once 845NAS returns to Yeovilton from Benson in the summer of 2016, the CHF will be reunited and will have the aircraft to support Ex ARIES TOR for many years to come.

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All words and images are courtesy of Tom Howe.

© Tom Howe / South West Aviation Photographers 2016