Wildcat helicopter Fleet Air Arm Royal Navy
Navy

Know Your Navy – The Fleet Air Arm

An overview of the aircraft and squadrons supporting today’s Royal Navy.

Wildcat helicopter Fleet Air Arm Royal Navy

The Royal Navy may be the UK’s ‘senior service’, but without air support it would not be an effective fighting force today.

Today, that air support comes from the Fleet Air Arm (FAA), which was brought under Admiralty control in 1937.

The Fleet Air Arm is one of the five fighting arms that make up today’s Royal Navy, the others being the Royal Marines, the Royal Fleet Auxiliary (RFA), the Submarine Service and the Surface Fleet. For an overview of the vessels in the Submarine Service, Surface Fleet and Royal Fleet Auxiillary, click here, whilst a separate look at the RFA can be found here.

What follows now is an overview of the FAA’s various squadrons and the aircraft they currently fly in support of the Navy.

Training, Auxiliary And Support Squadrons

While it is intuitive to think of the Royal Navy’s air component as consisting of ship-borne attack planes and helicopters, the reality is that a number of additional formations also make up the FAA. These units are as vital to the FAA as the FAA is to the Royal Navy, since they collectively provide the essential training and maintenance required to keep the force operational.

In some cases, these support units are also a little unconventional. At least, one might describe 700X NAS (Naval Air Squadron) in that way. Traditionally, the main task of this squadron has been to experiment with new aircraft, including the Merlin and the Wildcat helicopters detailed below, though it now experiments with drone technology (the X stands for ‘experimental’.) The unit trains not only members of the Royal Navy in the use of this technology but also members of the Army and RAF.

More conventionally, there is also 703 NAS, which carries out Elementary Flying Training (the first phase in Royal Navy pilot training) in the Prefect T1 airplane. This stage of training at RAF Barkston Heath enables new pilots to get important experience in the air and for their instructors to evaluate their suitability for future roles flying different kinds of aircraft.

A Prefect T1, or Grob 120 TP Prefect (picture: Shutterstock 1124276867)
A Prefect T1, or Grob 120 TP Prefect (picture: Shutterstock 1124276867)

705 NAS meanwhile trains helicopter pilots, not just for the Royal Navy, but also for the other two services (the Army and the RAF.) It does this with the Juno HT1 helicopter, of which the British military has 29, though these are used by the RAF as well as the FAA. 705 Naval Air Squadron is based at the No 1 Training School in Shawbury along with 202 Squadron of the RAF.

727 NAS also trains pilots, with two Royal Navy personnel and civilian pilots all based at RNAS (Royal Naval Air Station) Yeovilton in Somerset. They use the Grob 115E Tutor plane. The role of the squadron is not only to train new pilots for service with the Navy, but also to assess the skills of potential Navy pilots via its introductory flight courses.

RAF Juno HT1 helicopters at the No 1 Training School in Shawbury (picture: MOD)
RAF Juno HT1 helicopters at the No 1 Training School in Shawbury (picture: MOD)

As well as foundational training, the Navy’s Fleet Air Arm also has a number of squadrons that provide ongoing support to its frontline elements. 744 NAS is a support squadron with a range of different capabilities, including delivery of Crowsnest, an advanced radar system based within Merlin Mk2 HM helicopters. This is meant to give advanced warning of air, sea or land-based threats to the fleet.

750 NAS is responsible for training those involved in communication, navigation and weaponry for either Merlin Mk2 or Wildcat HMA2 helicopters. (HM means Helicopter Maritime while HMA stands for Helicopter Maritime Attack). 750 NAS also makes use of the King Air 350ER plane (or Avenger T Mk 1) for training.

A Grob 115 Tutor plane (picture: Shutterstock 1070967842)
A Grob 115 Tutor plane (picture: Shutterstock 1070967842)

1700 NAS was formerly known as MASF, or Maritime Aviation Support Force, and it gives engineering, aviation and logistical help to naval exercises and operations around the world. This can include flight-deck crews, firefighters, military police, medics, weapon engineers, aircraft controllers and more.

1710 NAS is based in Portsmouth but its personnel may travel around the UK and the world as they carry out their main role of giving engineering support and keeping helicopters in good, working order, not only within the Navy but also the other two services. They also perform a number of other roles, including aircraft recovery and the installation of the Airborne Traffic Avoidance System which helps to ensure safety in the air.

A side-by-side comparison of Royal Navy training aircraft:

Aircraft name

Length in metres

Speed in knots

Range in nautical miles

Grob 120 TP Prefect/Prefect T1

8.4

245

640

Juno HT1 helicopter

12.1

140

329

Grob 115 Tutor

7.59

182

446

King Air 350ER

14.2

312

2,650

The King Air 350ER or Avenger T Mk 1 (picture: MOD)
The King Air 350ER or Avenger T Mk 1 (picture: MOD)

Non-Royal-Marine Helicopter Squadrons

While the common perception of the Navy’s air element may be fighter jets streaking off aircraft carrier flight decks, the reality is that most of the FAA’s operational units are helicopter squadrons.

The first of these is 814 NAS, which uses the Merlin HM Mk2 helicopter, of which there are 30 in the FAA, each with five crew members and a lifting capacity of 3.8 tonnes. According to the MOD, upgrades to the Merlin Mk2’s sonar and radar systems makes it the most effective sub-hunting helicopter in the world. Its armaments include Sting Ray torpedoes, Mk11 Depth Charges and the M3m .50-calibre machine gun.

As well as this sub-hunting role, 814 NAS also helps protect the fleet from threats on the surface of the sea, carries out search-and-rescue operations and transports personnel, stores and equipment. The squadron is known as ‘The Flying Tigers’ because of its distinctive badge and it is supported by 824 NAS which provides training for the Merlin Mk2 helicopter.

Two Merlin HM Mk2 helicopters from 820 NAS (Picture: MOD)
Two Merlin HM Mk2 helicopters from 820 NAS (Picture: MOD)

815 NAS is the frontline Wildcat HMA Mk2 squadron, using the helicopter on the decks of frigates or destroyers in a combat role across the fleet.

The Wildcat is a multi-role helicopter, with the HMA Mk2 assigned to a fleet protection, anti-surface warfare and anti-piracy roles, though it too perform in an anti-submarine role. Like the Merlin, the Wildcat can also carry Sting Ray torpedoes as well as a door-mounted .50-calibre heavy machine gun. The Wildcat will also be armed with Sea Venom anti-ship missiles.

A Wildcat HMA Mk2 hovering above HMS Kent (picture: MOD)
A Wildcat HMA Mk2 hovering above HMS Kent (picture: MOD)

825 NAS supports 815 NAS and provides aircrew and engineers for the Wildcat HMA Mk2. Together, both squadrons help pilots and aircrew prepare for and perform Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW), Anti-Surface Warfare (ASuW) and Humanitarian and Disaster Relief (HADR.)

820 NAS is HMS Queen Elizabeth’s assigned helicopter force and its primary role is to protect the aircraft carrier and other ships in the fleet from submarines, though the squadron may also do search-and-rescue or the transport of cargo and troops. Like 814 NAS, 820 NAS also uses the Merlin HM Mk2.

Commando Helicopter Force

This is the portion of the Fleet Air Arm assigned to support the Royal Marines, ferrying those in 3 Commando Brigade by air to wherever they are required. Known as ‘The Junglies’ because of the force’s past deployment to Borneo, it consists of three squadrons.

The first of these is 845 NAS, which is based in Norway and has more than 230 personnel operating Mk3 and 4 Merlin helicopters. These differ from the Mk2 in that they feature a rear ramp for the rapid loading and offloading of troops, each being capable of carrying up to 24 Royal Marines. 845 NAS carries out roles such as Non-combatant Evacuation Operations (NEO), Humanitarian Aid and Disaster Relief (HADR), Deployed Search and Rescue (DSAR), Joint Personnel Recovery (JPR) and others.

A Merlin HC4 Helicopter from 845 NAS (picture: MOD)
A Merlin HC4 Helicopter from 845 NAS (picture: MOD)

846 NAS complements 845 NAS in that is has historically performed a primary ship-to-shore role (in other words, delivering Royal Marines to shore as part of an amphibious operation.) The squadron also hosts the Operation Conversion Flight, which trains pilots and aircrew specifically for the newer Merlin Mk4 helicopter.

Meanwhile, 847 NAS uses the Mk1 Wildcat AH (Attack Helicopter) in a combined reconnaissance, air support and anti-tank role. Its other roles might also include winching, casualty evacuation, combat recovery and disaster relief. According to the MOD, the squadron’s less-than 100 personnel are trained for extreme environments and can operate in everything from deserts, to jungles to icy tundra. Held perpetually in Readiness State 2, the squadron can deploy anywhere internationally in five days.

A side-by-side comparison of Royal Navy helicopters:

Aircraft name

Length in metres

Speed in knots

Range in nautical miles

Weapons overview

Merlin HM Mk2

22.8

167

440

Anti-sub torpedoes, machine guns

Wildcat HMA Mk2

15.2

157

420

Anti-sub torpedoes, anti-ship missiles, machine guns

Merlin HC3/4

22.8

168

440

Machine guns

Wildcat AH Mk1

15.2

157

365

Anti-tank missiles, machine guns

A Wildcat AH Mk1 helicopter, in this case one serving with the Army Air Corps (miage: MOD)
A Wildcat AH Mk1 helicopter, in this case one serving with the Army Air Corps (miage: MOD)

Fighter Plane Squadrons

The Fleet Air Arm also contains those who currently fly, or will fly, the Navy’s fighter jets. These are organised into two main squadrons:

809 NAS will, from 2023, be flying the F-35B Lightening II, a fifth-generation stealth fighter jet capable of air-to-air combat as well as ground attack. The B model of the F-35 is an STOVL (Short Take-Off And Vertical Landing) variant of the aircraft, making it suitable for use on aircraft carriers, though 617 Squadron of the RAF is also using the aircraft already.

Uniquely, the F-35B is designed so that its weapons are carried internally, something meant to decrease drag and increase speed, as well as to make it less detectable by radar, thereby increasing its stealth. It can, however, take additional bombs on pylons attached to the underside of its wings, taking its maximum bomb load up to 7,000 (or 6,800) kg. It is manufactured by a number of different companies, including Lockheed Martin, BAE Systems and Rolls-Royce.

Two F-35Bs on (and just above) the deck of HMS Queen Elizabeth (picture: MOD)
Two F-35Bs on (and just above) the deck of HMS Queen Elizabeth (picture: MOD)

Meanwhile, 736 NAS provides simulated air attacks on Royal Navy and NATO ships during exercises, as well as providing aerial combat training for students based at the Royal Navy School of Fighter Control. The squadron uses the Hawk T1to perform these roles and is based at RNAS Culdrose in the UK.

A side-by-side comparison of Royal Navy jet aircraft:

Aircraft name

Length in metres

Speed in knots

Range in nautical miles

Weapons overview

F-35B Lightening II

15.7

1,060

900

7,000 kg of bombs, missiles, 25mm cannon

Hawk T1

11.9

550

1,215

Sidewinder missiles and 30mm cannon

For more on the Royal Navy, check out our article on the ships and submarines in the surface, submarine fleets and Royal Fleet Axillary, which can be found here. And click here for a look at the Royal Marines.

And to read the Know Your Army series, click here, here and here.

A T1 Hawk from 736 NAS (picture: MOD)
A T1 Hawk from 736 NAS (picture: MOD)
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