The RAF joined forces with the wings of the Royal Marines on a rainy day in RNAS Yeovilton CREDIT Royal Navy
The RAF joined forces with the wings of the Royal Marines on a rainy day at RNAS Yeovilton (Picture: Royal Navy)
Technology

Ready, set, refuel: Hercules tops up tanks of Merlin Mk4s for first time ever

The RAF joined forces with the wings of the Royal Marines on a rainy day in RNAS Yeovilton CREDIT Royal Navy
The RAF joined forces with the wings of the Royal Marines on a rainy day at RNAS Yeovilton (Picture: Royal Navy)

Two Merlin Mk4s have been successfully refulled from a Hercules for the first time in a practice operation at Royal Naval Air Station Yeovilton.

In typical autumnal British weather, the operation proved to be a success, with the RAF saying the link-up ran "flawlessly despite torrential downpours".

The first-of-a-kind exercise lays a strong, albeit wet, foundation for future joint operations in the field.

The Merlin Mk4 helicopters are part of the Commando Helicopter Force (CHF), which, along with the Wildcats, comprise the 'wings' of the Royal Marines.

The Merlin Mk4 on RNAS Yeovilton's airfield CREDIT UK MOD © Crown copyright 2021
The Merlin Mk4 on RNAS Yeovilton's airfield (Picture: MOD).

The Mk4, the new kid on the block, is the latest addition to the CHF, having appeared at RNAS Yeovilton in 2018.

In contrast, the Hercules is an old RAF workhorse, the backbone of UK operational tactical mobility tasks since its latest version was brought into service in 1999.

The Hercules is highly flexible and capable of airdropping life rafts, emergency supplies and paratroopers anywhere in the world.

What joins the two aircraft together (apart from a refuelling hose) is the fact that they can both operate in adverse environments including Arctic and desert scenes – capabilities that may see them working alongside each other in the future. 

The Hercules gets around and is no stranger to refuelling various aircraft, including Sea Kings, Chinooks and even Wildcats. But it was its first time with a Merlin Mk4.

For the first refuelling training of its kind, Hercules flew to RNAS Yeovilton, the home of the Merlin Mk4s.

The exercise went well, so it won't be the last. The practice run happened in the safe and controlled environment of a smooth Yeovilton airfield, giving the Merlin air and ground crews a glimpse of what to expect were they performing refuelling in a proper field.

A proper field will, in fact, be the next location for refuelling training in the near future – Salisbury Plain or the Otterburn ranges in Northumberland are both potential locals.

A long stretch of beach could also serve as a temporary landing site for refuelling to take place. It may sound like a romantic location for a future potential link-up, but aircrew have to be trained and ready to refuel in any setting where a Hercules or Merlin can land.

If refuelling must happen far from ships or air bases the RAF and CHF both have specialised support teams making sure the aircraft get the fuel and ammo they need – wherever they may be.

The CHF has Mobile Air Operations Teams, while the RAF has the Air Mobility Air Force, with the Tactical Supply Wing that specialises in the refuelling of helicopters out in the field.

A Royal Air Force C130J C4 Hercules caught mid flight CREDIT UK MOD © Crown copyright 2022.jpg
A Royal Air Force C130J C4 Hercules caught mid flight (Picture MOD).

The mighty Hercules is to be retired at the end of March 2023 – variations of the aircraft have been in service since 1967 – so, if a Merlin is to link up with a Herc again, it has to happen before then.

The end of March will undoubtedly be an emotional day at RAF Brize Norton, the home to the Hercules fleet.

The RAF will look to the successor of the Hercules C-130J – the Airbus A400M – to provide a similar service with ALARS, the Air-Landed Aircraft Refuelling System.