'WOKKA' OVER STANTA by Gary Parsons
Each year, a major exercise in combined Air Power is played in the wilds of Thetford forest, Norfolk, where the distinctive wokka sound of the Chinook can be heard on a daily basis.
The 'GRYPHON' series of exercises have been running for a number of years, each one tailored to suit the needs of the day. Each exercise takes on a new name, such as Gryphons Eye, Gryphons Flight or Gryphons Clasp. Each provides a continuous training routine for the airborne elements of the Army and Royal Air Force, now combined under one unitary command structure, the Joint Helicopter Command. A combination of the Army's 16 Air Assault Brigade, supported by 3 Regiment of the Army Air Corps based at nearby Wattisham Airfield, and the RAF's Support Helicopter Force, play part of the wider exercise involving ground units of the Army, often on a nationwide basis. For example, some 2000 troops, 400 vehicles and 30 helicopters can be involved throughout the two week period, culminating in a major final attack toward the end. On occasion, the exercise is not confined to British forces, as Belgian, Dutch and German troops can be involved as a combined unit operating against the baddies, often played by the Royal Anglian Regiment.
Stanford Battle area, known as Stanta, is an area of heathland approximately one hundred square kilometres to the north of Thetford, comprising of both forest and open plains, providing a realistic scenario of the possible battlefields of Northern Europe. Out of exercise periods, the area is open to the public but sparsely populated except for sheep, most of the buildings that exist being used for military training purposes. Fans of the Dads Army television series will be familiar with the roads and fields of Stanta as the unspoilt nature of the area and restricted access provided a most suitable location for filming. Another suitable feature for modern day battle training is the location of several airfields around the periphery, most notably Honington, and other disused ones such as East Wretham, Watton, and further to the north, West Raynham and Sculthorpe. The latter two have only recently been vacated by ground personnel but now provide extensive hard landing areas and open sites on which to execute mobility exercises, flying from one site to another with either troops or ground equipment, as was extensively practised in Gryphons Clasp during 1996.
A typical 'Gryphon' exercise encompasses a scenario similar to that of 'Clasp, played out in July of '96; the UK is split into neighbouring countries, Massala and Rowena, and relations have deteriorated as a result of a number of disputed areas, noticeably the 'Wiltshire enclave' and Haven ports, in Massala. After the second world war, Massala joined NATO and Rowena was taken over by a military regime that sacrificed the economy for a strong military force. Rowena is now concentrating attention on the disputed areas to take attention away from its perilous economic circumstances, because of which Massala suspects Rowena of supporting ethnic guerrilla movements close to the borders together with the intention to mount a full scale incursion into the disputed areas using regular forces. Thus, Massala has asked NATO for assistance who agree to deploy lead elements of the Allied Rapid Reaction Corps (ARRC) including 1 (UK) Armoured Division and 24 Airmobile Brigade, the deployment of the latter being played on the Stanta and Stanford battle areas around Norfolk.
The RAF deployed Chinook and Pumas at RAF Honington, some ten miles south of the battle areas. Aircrew and aircraft were drawn from 7 and 33 Squadrons at Odiham and the RAF's role was to move the elements of 24 Airmobile Brigade (predecessor to 16 Air Assault Brigade) to the battle front-line, the Lynxes of 3 & 4 Regiments AAC being used for the attack role with the AH7 variant and reconnaissance using Gazelle AH1s and Lynx AH9s, flying direct from Wattisham to the battle area. Joining the British aircraft at Honington were CH53Gs of Heer FltRgt-15 from Rheine-Bentlage, Germany, operating with the Chinooks as part of a combined troop lifting force. The inter-service co-operation was exemplified by the fact that an Army Air Corps pilot was on exchange with 7 Squadron and was piloting a Chinook for the exercise. All operations were conducted from the HAS complex previously occupied by 13 Squadron, giving the unusual sight of Pumas and CH53Gs parked outside shelters (the Chinooks parking on the northern taxiway outside the complex).
An opportunity to fly with the Chinook force on the last full day of the exercise demonstrated the high degree of professionalism of the aircrew and ground troops, as within a two hour sortie no less than three different airlift movements were made within the one aircraft, including two refuelling stops at a mobile location within the forest. The first leg of the mission involved the removal of thirty Belgian troops from Sculthorpe back to Stanta, but no sooner had they disembarked (all via the rear loading door) then the Chinooks interior was swiftly altered in readiness to accommodate a British light gun complete with crew from West Raynham. The speed in which the gun and troops were loaded, then securely strapped, was impressive and no more than two or three minutes were spent on the deck, an important consideration in a real battle environment. The last movement of the sortie saw a medical unit complete with Land Rover and underslung load withdrawn from West Raynham to Stanta. At no time were the engines shut down, even the refuelling completed in a matter of minutes so turnaround times were kept as short as possible. Normal cruising speed is about 135 knots clean, i.e. no underslung loads when the speed is dropped to 100 to reduce oscillations. Maximum speed is in the region of 160 knots, although the crew rarely take the beast that far, as they "like to see where theyre going"; one thing the new HC2 hasnt improved is the smoothness of the ride. In theatre, the Chinook is capable of lifting nearly eighteen tons, having three lift pints along the fuselage; one in the centre, capable of lifting twelve tons, and one fore and aft each lifting nearly nine tons. This capability makes the aircraft suitable for odd tasks such as moving gate guardians around the country, an example being Phantom FGR2 XV420 (albeit stripped down) which was airlifted from Wattisham to Neatishead earlier in 1996.
All Chinooks used were to the latest HC2 standard, the last original HC1 airframe having now been returned from the Boeing factory in Philadelphia, USA where conversion to the HC2 took place. The $224 million HC2 upgrade brings the aircraft to the CH47D standard, in line with the US Army, involving the redesign and replacement of the dynamics, engines, transmission and hydraulic systems to improve reliability, maintainability and operational availability. The aircraft have been completely dismantled and rebuilt as zero-time airframes, although they retain their original RAF serial. The Lycoming engines have been upgraded from T55-L-712E to T55-L-712F standard, the work being done at the Royal Naval Aircraft Yard at Fleetlands, reflecting the quite high percentage of work done on the project by UK companies. Most of the other changes are internal, the only visible change being the colour from standard camouflage to LIRR (Low Infra Red Reflecting) Green and the inclusion of large duct at the base of the rear rotor pylon, which provides additional cooling to the gearbox systems. The biggest benefit crews have experienced is a vast improvement in serviceability, as all aircraft are a common specification and more reliable. Over ten years of service, the HC1 was subject to a myriad of minor modifications and refinements resulting in no two airframes being the same, something the HC2 programme rectified. The first HC2 (ZA718) was delivered to A&AEE at Boscombe Down during May 1993 with the second (ZA681) going straight to Odiham the following September. By January 1994 the first HC2s were accepted by 27(R) Squadron, the training unit for the RAF Support Helicopter Force, but the first loss occurred a few months later with the well-publicised crash in Scotland of ZD576/G of 7 squadron, with the loss of all twenty nine people on board, many being important security officials involved in the troubles in Northern Ireland. Although the aircraft has gained a certain notoriety through such incidents, it has a good reputation with the aircrew that fly it.
As an indication of the importance of the Chinook and similar types to today's battlefield scenario, the British Government has recently announced the intention to purchase fourteen new build Chinooks, eight to a further refined HC3 specification, and twenty-two Westland Merlin HC3s (EH101), deliveries to begin in 2000. The order for the Chinook includes for six attrition replacements, with eight aircraft being added to the fleet, in addition to the three new aircraft ordered in 1992 as the fleet upgrade commenced, the first of which (ZH777) made a debut airshow appearance at Waddington in 1996. Odiham has become an all Chinook station, with 7, 18 & 27 Squadrons, the Merlin HC3 will be based at Benson with 28 Squadron, alongside the Pumas of 33 Squadron, and at Aldergrove with 72 Squadron. It is heartening to see a modest expansion of a fleet in an era of cutbacks and squadron disbandments.
Acknowledgements: The author would like to thank Dale Donovan of Strike Command CPRO and the guys of 7 Squadron, Odiham.