Whirlin’ Merlin announces HMS Westminster’s return
A Culdrose Merlin from 829 Naval Air Squadron whipped up the surface of Plymouth Sound as HMS Westminster welcomed her first helicopter in two years.
With the Type 23 frigate anchored at a buoy in the Royal Navy’s traditional training ground, the Merlin helicopter made the 50-mile flight from its base at RNAS Culdrose to conduct basic landing and take-off drills.
The spray kicked up by the 14-tonne helicopter – pictured here from the relative shelter of Westminster’s port ‘waist’ passageway – was a reminder to the flight deck team of Merlin’s powerful down draught, which is far stronger than a Lynx or Wildcat. Merlin is also considerably larger, leaving little room for manoeuvre for the pilots before its safely lashed to the deck.
Before going into refit back in 2015, the ‘capital’s ship’ was the Royal Navy’s premier submarine-hunter, thanks to a combination of equipment (Merlin, Sonar 2087) and personnel (some of the most senior anti-submarine specialists in the RN headed by the Captain Anti-Submarine Warfare).
There could be no thought of resuming that role without the presence of a Merlin – which carries torpedoes or depth charges, as well as a sonar on a long wire and state-of-the-art touch-screen computers to monitor what is going on beneath the waves. “The combination of Westminster’s sophisticated sonar and the range and agility of the Merlin forms a comprehensive submarine hunting package,” explained Lieutenant Commander Matthew Cox, the frigate’s weapon engineer officer.
His ship emerges from refit at the same time as sisters HMS Montrose and Argyll – having undergone one of the most comprehensive revamps in her 24-year career. Systems and sensors have been enhanced, the Seawolf missile system replaced with the newer, longer-range Sea Ceptor, and a refurbished main 4.5in gun reinstated on the forecastle. Like everything else aboard it’s been silent for two years…until the moment the words: ‘Four-five engage’ echoed around Westminster’s operations room.