Aviation Task Force: The Military Helicopters Responding To Coronavirus

All three services in the British military are delivering around-the-clock aviation support to the NHS during the coronavirus outbreak.

The Aviation Task Force provides a dedicated helicopter capability across the UK's response to COVID-19 - British Army, Royal Air Force and Royal Navy aircraft operating 24 hours of the day.

The force is transporting medical staff and equipment as well as carrying out evacuation flights for patients.

Many crew members have seen deployment on operations in Afghanistan and Iraq.

"This is very different for them," says Group Captain Adam Wardrope, Commander of the task force.

No longer transporting military personnel and equipment to and from combat zones, the focus of experienced pilots has shifted to a civilian-centred task.

"It's made even more challenging by the fact that we're having to operate in some areas [with] high risk," Gp Capt Wardrope added.

"PPE [personal protective equipment], decontamination, social distancing measures - these are all completely new ways of working for us."

A Puma helicopter at RAF Benson.
RAF Benson in Oxfordshire is the hub of the new Aviation Task Force.

The Aviation Task Force's helicopters belong to Joint Helicopter Command - which combines personnel and aircraft from the three military branches to deliver joined-up humanitarian and warfighting capability.

RAF Chinooks and Pumas, Army Air Corps Wildcats and Royal Navy Merlins form a total of 12 helicopters working across the UK.

They have already carried out multiple medical evacuations, and remain on standby as the UK begins to move out of lockdown.

One of those took place on the Isle of Arran, off the coast of Scotland.

Squadron Leader Johnny Longland was captaining the Puma crew which successfully transferred the critically ill patient from to Kilmarnock for treatment.

"It's not the first time we've done medevac, but primarily for us it's military," he explained.

"We've done lots between us in Afghanistan and in Africa.

"It's the first time any of us had the chance to support the NHS or to support the civilian agencies in the UK."

Reflecting on the role of the task force, Gp Capt Wardrope says he is pleased with how it has adapted to its new working environment.

"They're really enjoying it because they've got a purpose," he said.

"They're very much doing their bit for their country and, whilst they're used to operating in places like Afghanistan and Iraq, what they're seeing here is a real benefit to their families, their friends."

Cover image: MOD.

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