Only 6 months after the agreement was signed between the UK and Denmark for the transfer of 6 EH101 helicopters from the Royal Danish Air Force into the RAF and exactly 2 months after Lord Drayson announced the formation of a second RAF Merlin squadron, 78 Squadron flew its first sortie at RAF Benson on 3 December 2007.
Although the Squadron have a formal ceremony planned for early 2008, the operational stand-up was marked by a flypast at RAF Benson. The formation consisted of a Merlin Mk3a crewed by OC 78 Squadron, Wg Cdr Nigel Colman, the squadron’s second-in-command, Sqn Ldr Pip Harding and Sgts Archer and Hack with the number 2 aircraft being a Merlin Mk3 crewed by OC 28 (AC) Sqn, Wg Cdr Rich Luck, Sqn Ldr Al Ritchie and Sgts Jones and Moore. The flypast was followed by the presentation of the wg cdr’s pennant to Wg Cdr Colman by RAF Benson’s Stn Cdr, Gp Capt Paul Lyall.
78 Sqn’s Commanding Officer, Wg Cdr Colman said ‘While starting an operational squadron from scratch is a fantastic opportunity, I, and indeed none of the Sqn personnel, are under any illusions as to the scale of the challenge ahead. This has been driven home by the fact that the formed flight we have inherited from our sister squadron as one of 78 Sqn’s operational flights is actually deployed, meaning that from day one 78 Sqn has personnel and aircraft deployed on operations in Iraq. Having said this, having a flight deployed from the outset will help us to build a reputation as an operational squadron while having the flight back in the UK by Christmas will give us the opportunity to begin building a squadron identity and ethos.’
Before the 6 ex-Danish Merlin aircraft can be added to the existing Merlin fleet of 22 aircraft they must all be modified to a UK standard at the AgustaWestland factory in Yeovil; however, 4 aircraft have been undergoing modification since the summer and are due to start being delivered in early 2008. The fleet of 28 Merlin helicopters will then be utilised by both Merlin squadrons at RAF Benson.
Gp Capt Paul Lyall said ‘forming a second Merlin squadron at RAF Benson has been a real team effort by personnel across not only the Station, but also across Defence. The Regional Prime Contractor (PriDE)and Defence Estates have delivered a range of infrastructure modifications around the Station to accommodate the additional squadron and associated personnel while also making provision for the relocation of Oxford University Air Sqn, 6 Air Experience Flight and 606 RAuxAF Sqn. The Station Estates Representative, Rachel Perry and the sub-contractor, Leigh Vickers (Inside Out Developments) have delivered against a very aggressive timescale and without the absolute commitment of all these individuals and organizations, introducing a third operational flying squadron to RAF Benson in the timescale would have been impossible.’
78 Sqn was formed in at Newhaven in 1916 in a home defence role having since been a night bomber squadron and latterly a transport squadron before converting to the Wessex helicopter in 1965. Reformed in 1986 in the Falkland Islands, the Sea King unit in the FI has now reverted to its previous identity of 1564 Flt with the 78 Sqn name-plate relocating to RAF Benson. 78 Sqn is planned to be fully up to strength with 3 operational flights by the end of 2008.
Editor: RAF Benson
Photographs: RAF Benson