Okay, it’s a pretty implausible situation. You’re driving your Land Rover along some remote track and the road ahead of you has been washed away. You can’t go forward, and retracing your steps will mean a detour of hundreds of miles. What do you do? Wouldn’t it be great to be able to pick up the Land Rover and just lift it over the obstacle?
As unlikely as that sounds, it has happened. The Land Rovers in the 1985 Camel Trophy had to be airlifted forward by helicopter. Which is why I’m with the guys of 848 Naval Air Squadron to learn how to load-lift a Land Rover, just in case I ever find myself in that position and I happen to be able to summon
a passing helicopter.
It’s the perfect time to meet up with the squadron – following on from the Defender ending production, the Sea King that has been their load-lifting mainstay for several decades is being phased out of service at the end of March 2016, and is being replaced by the higher-capacity Merlin.
We’re flying from RNAS Yeovilton to Merryfield, a satellite airfield in Somerset. The Westland Sea King Mk4 we’re in is being flown by Dan Howes and Tom Nason, while leading air crewman Paul Iche is looking after the aircraft, guiding the helicopter in for the lift and watching the back – there’s hardly any rear vision from the flight deck.
The Sea King has rudimentary seating for 27 passengers, but the capacity isn’t determined by how many they can cram in – it’s all down to weight. The heavier the load, the more fuel you use, so the less flying time you have. You can’t carry more fuel, because that increases weight so you burn even more fuel.
‘We can carry 5000lb of fuel,’ says Paul Iche.
‘That gives us around four hours’ endurance with no troops or load.’ Paul continually makes calculations on the clear panel built into the leg of his flight suit, working out the flying time based on wind speeds, pressure and load.
‘High-pressure, cold days like today are much better for flying,’ he continues. ‘In Afghanistan, low-pressure, high-temperature days were more common – and that reduces the engine’s output and therefore the load we can carry.’
We’re talking across the aircraft’s intercom – each flying helmet has a built-in headset and microphone. They also have clear and tinted visors; essential for working with the side door of the aircraft open.
We’ve had the safety briefing and been shown how to fasten – and release – the tethers that will keep us attached to the aircraft. There’s a lot of banter between Dan, Tom and Paul as we’re flying but as we approach Merryfield, the chatter turns to the job we’re about to do.
‘No need to duck…’
We spot the XD (Wolf) 90 on one of the runways and the guys from the Mobile Air Operations Team (MAOT). Their job is to create and secure a landing site. ‘Stints’ is in charge, ‘Johnno’ is also rigging and ‘Max’ is on the radio. The pilots’ eyes are on the ground.
Dan and Tom land the helicopter to let us out. ‘There’s no need to duck,’ assures Paul. ‘You’re not going to get hit by the rotors.’
We’re greeted by Stints, who runs through what’s about to happen. He’s a proper Land Rover man – he has a Lightweight and has recently bought a 107-inch Series I with some mates. But he doesn’t get the opportunity to lift Land Rovers that frequently. He says:
’That’s partly because Land Rovers can normally be driven to where they’re needed and partly because as the Sea King has gained extra kit, its carrying capacity has dropped. But there are Jadteu [Joint Air Delivery Test and Evaluation Unit] sheets for all military equipment, showing how to rig it for lifting.’
Stints and Johnno consult the Jadteu sheet, preparing the Wolf to be lifted. Lifting points have become regular parlance within the Land Rover community – Jate rings were designed for lifting and approved by the Joint Air Transport Establishment (hence ‘Jate’).
Before the lifting chains can be attached, the Land Rover has to be prepared. Just like a workshop manual, the Jadteu sheet explains every step, no matter how mundane. First step is to apply the handbrake and engage first gear.
After that it’s a case of securing everything. Antennae have to be stowed inside the vehicle, loose fittings such as seat bases need to be restrained and the ignition key, fire extinguisher and doors need to be secured. Then attention turns to the exterior.
Any loose items that can’t be removed get taped in place with duct tape, so the door mirrors are folded in and taped in place, as are the wiper blades and fuel filler cap. Light guards and any pioneer kit on the bonnet and wings are secured with 1200lb NBC rope, while the front bumper tow pin is checked and retained with a 150lb tie, if required.
Wooden battens are fitted to the front and rear to prevent damage from the chains and a cargo net is passed over the rear of the soft top and clipped on to the tub’s cleats – this will restrain any gear if it does become loose.
Then the lifting chains are attached. Stints and Johnno work at opposite ends of the vehicle, feeding the 4.5-metre chains through the Jate rings underneath the chassis, clipping the end grab hooks on to the chain to form 40 link loops on the front and 10 link loops at the rear. The four-legged sling is attached to the chains, then the guys swap to check each other’s work. Everything is double-checked and Max calls in the aircraft.
A huge amount of static electricity builds up on a helicopter in flight, which needs to be discharged before you touch it – you don’t want to become the earth. So as the helicopter approaches, Johnno gets ready to ‘catch’ the helicopter’s lifting hook with a static probe to discharge it.
Hovering just feet above the Land Rover, Paul lowers the end of the extension strop, Johnno catches it with the earth and clips the sling to it. Stints checks it and the MAOT guys jump down off the Defender. Paul’s still holding the guide rope for the strop – the lifting hook is under the belly of the Sea King, so the guide rope gives him an idea of what’s going on.
Slowly the aircraft is manoeuvred above the Land Rover and the slack in the strop/chains is taken up. The helicopter starts to lift the Land Rover. Stints stretches out his left arm to the side to indicate it’s a clean lift. Then when the Wolf’s wheels are off the ground, he extends his right arm fully – the Sea King has the load.
They rise slowly, checking the balance and getting used to the load before heading off. The Defender sits slightly nose-down, which helps reduce the strain on the hood sticks.
The unladen weight of the 90 is 4255lb (plus 101lb for the lifting kit). With that load, the Sea King has a flying time of 20 minutes – it can’t lift the Land Rover with a full load of fuel. And its cruising speed drops from around 90 knots (103mph) to 50-70 knots (57-80mph). So it can carry a Land Rover just over 25 miles.
But then they don’t need to shift the vehicles long distance: the ‘terrain’ Land Rovers are least suited to is the sea so, even if they’re deployed by ship and unable to make dock, the vessel will still be close to land.
The squadron’s primary role is load-lifting and troop support, but they also help with disaster relief, moving supplies from ship to shore. In stark contrast to the airfield we’re using, a ship’s deck is small and busy. And with disaster relief, longer connecting strops are used, to minimise the risk of causing more damage with the downwash from the blades.
Unleashing the Wolf
Max and Paul help guide the aircraft in. With the vehicle safely on the ground, Paul releases the strop from the 6000lb hook under the Sea King and it gently lifts away. Everything to do
with load-lifting is always done very slowly and very carefully.
‘We carry a wide range of kit: Land Rovers and 105mm guns are heaviest; trailers are easy. It’s up to the rear crew to ensure the pilot keeps a good line,’ says Paul. ‘We need to have a nice patter to the pilot, so we can work as a crew effectively – if something is about to happen, we need to stop it being a problem.’
And if it does all start to go wrong, the crew can jettison the load. ‘However expensive the load, breaking both the load and helicopter is more expensive.’
But the Land Rover is safely down this time. ‘We can quickly secure the lifting chains so the Land Rover can be driven away if we’re in a hostile environment,’ explains Stints. ‘We don’t need to de-rig everything.’
Enter the Merlin
A Merlin iMk3 from 846 Squadron is on its way in. The MAOT lads get to work checking that everything on the Land Rover is still secure. ‘You might want to move back a bit,’ advises Stints. ‘The downwash from the Merlin is considerably more than from the Sea King.’
He’s not wrong. I’ve been able to stand not far from the Land Rover when the Sea King came to lift it, but I’m nearly being blown over by the Merlin – even though I’m further away.
While loads for the Sea King are calculated in pounds, the Merlin’s are metric, so the crew know the load they’re lifting is 1930kg, plus the 46kg for the slinging and restraint system.
The Merlin is also better equipped for load-lifting. ‘With the Sea King we lose sight of the load when we get over it,’ Paul tells me. ‘The Merlin’s hook is through a hole in the floor, so the crew can see what’s happening beneath.’
The lifting strop is earthed and attached, the MAOT guys get clear and the Merlin starts to rise, but one of the lifting chains is about to snag on the wing.
Stints signals this to the crew, the aircraft lowers, the chain is re-aligned and this time it’s a clean lift. The din means you’d never be able to hear even shouted instructions, so visual communications are best – though Max, on the radio away from the direct vicinity of the aircraft, remains in verbal contact.
The Merlin has a greater capacity than the Sea King – it can lift at a maximum all-up weight of 15,600kg, which includes aircraft, fuel, crew and payload and is cleared to lift 4100kg on the hook. Comparing the two aircraft is like putting a Series IIA up against a Discovery 4 in a towing contest; both will do the job, but the D4 will do it so much easier.
The Merlin’s extra stamina means it can carry the Land Rover for longer, so we hop back into the Sea King, put on the belts that tether us to the fuselage – we’ll be flying with the side door open – and take off to catch up with it.
As we bank sharply to get round it, the sky disappears from the doorway and it’s replaced with fields. The helicopters can bank up to 30º with a Defender slung underneath – and if you’ve ever been in a Land Rover at that angle, you’ll know how extreme that feels.
We quickly catch the Merlin and shadow it back to the airfield, where it lowers the Defender carefully to the ground, exactly where it picked it up from. Training like this pays off – being able to land an object exactly where it is needed is a necessity if you’re moving kit to and from ships with their correspondingly smaller area.
The MAOT team quickly de-rig the lifting gear, stowing it in the back of the 90, remove all of the tape from the ancillaries and return the 90 for full use in a matter of minutes, driving the Land Rover away. Job done.
Admittedly, most of us won’t ever be in the position to call in a helicopter to help move our Land Rovers around, but it’s good to know that it can be done – and that there are people who know how to do it!
This feature appeared in the Spring 2016 issue of LRO. Current and Back issues are available to download on digital devices here. Please note, we only hold stocks of the the last three back issues.