Royal Navy warship HMS Trent pushed aircrews to the limit during a series of drills in the Mediterranean. The patrol ship has served as a testbed for two weeks of trials with a specially-modified Navy Wildcat helicopter, testing the aircraft in different weather and sea conditions, with different weights and loads by day and night to determine the limits at which aviators can safely operate.
The Trent, one of five second-generation River-class patrol vessels deployed from Mexico to Singapore, is assigned to the Mediterranean and West Africa. The helicopter trial was by far the most extensive test, with the information collected allowing not just Wildcats to operate from the River-class vessels but also help larger Merlin helicopters and similar NATO/allied aircraft.
The test saw a Navy Wildcat helicopter being dispatched with an elite team of pilots and scientists from defense firm QinetiQ. The trials involved four test pilots from the Rotary Wing Test and Evaluation Squadron and two QinetiQ flight test engineers. In addition, two QinetiQ flight physicists, an analyst, and more than 20 engineers and technicians made sure that the aircraft was in top shape at all times.
Several sensors fitted on both the Wildcat and the patrol ship, many of them not normally available to the air or ship’s crew, were used to record crucial details with a good two terabytes of data. In all, the helicopter landed – and took off from – Trent’s flight deck more than 200 times in as many different circumstances and conditions as possible, day and night. When it got dark, the pilots practiced operating with or without night vision goggles.
The goal of all this was actually to determine what aviators call Ship Helicopter Operating Limits – the boundaries for safe flying. The test expands the ship’s potential role and missions, hugely benefiting operations as varied as search and rescue, board and search/maritime security, delivering humanitarian aid, and launching commando raids.