The AgustaWestland AW101 Merlin is a medium-lift helicopter used in both military and civil applications. It was developed by joint venture between Westland Helicopters in the UK and Agusta in Italy in response to national requirements for a modern naval utility helicopter. Several operators, including the armed forces of Britain, Denmark and Portugal, use the name Merlin for their AW101 aircraft. It is manufactured at factories in Yeovil, England and Vergiate, Italy; licensed assembly work has also taken place in Japan and the United States.
Prior to 2007, the aircraft had been marketed under the designation EH101. The original designation was EHI 01 but a transcription error of a handwritten note changed this to EH101 and the designation stuck. In 2000, Westland Helicopters and Agusta merged to form AgustaWestland, leading to the type's redesignation as AW101. The AW101 first flew in 1987, and entered into service in 1999. Since the AW101's introduction it has replaced several older helicopter types such as the Sikorsky S-61, performing roles such as medium-sized transport, anti-submarine warfare, and ship-based utility operations.
The Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) operates a variant of the AW101, designated CH-149 Cormorant, in the air-sea rescue role. Another variant, designated VH-71 Kestrel, was developed to serve in the US presidential transport fleet, however the program was cancelled. Civil operators also use AW101s in roles such as passenger and VIP transportation. The type has been deployed to active combat theatres, such as in support of coalition forces during the Iraq War and the War in Afghanistan.Royal Navy
The RN's final order was for 44 ASW aircraft, originally designated Merlin HAS.1 but soon changed to Merlin HM1. The first fully operational Merlin was delivered on 17 May 1997, entering service on 2 June 2000. All aircraft were delivered by the end of 2002, and are operated by four Fleet Air Arm squadrons: 814 NAS, 820 NAS, 824 NAS and 829 NAS, all based at RNAS Culdrose in Cornwall. 700 NAS was the Merlin Operational Evaluation Unit from 2000 to 2008. In March 2004, Navy Merlins were temporarily grounded following an incident at RNAS Culdrose in which a tail rotor failed due to a manufacturing defect. An improved tail rotor was designed and adopted on most AW101s; according to AgustaWestland the redesigned rotor also significantly reduced associated maintenance.
In 1995, it was announced the Navy's Westland Lynx helicopters would be retired in favour of an all-Merlin fleet. However, the subsequent 2010 SDSR stated the future naval helicopters to be the Merlin and the Wildcat, a derivative of the Lynx. Royal Navy Merlins have seen action in the Caribbean, on counter-narcotics and hurricane support duties, as well as maritime security duties in the Persian Gulf. Merlins have also seen active duty in Iraq, providing support to British and coalition forces based in the region.
The Merlin HM1 has been cleared to operate from the Royal Navy's aircraft carriers, amphibious assault ships, Type 23 frigates and several Royal Fleet Auxiliary (RFA) vessels including the Fort Victoria-class class; it is also to equip the Type 45 destroyer. 30 aircraft are being upgraded to Merlin HM2 standard under the £750m Merlin Capability Sustainment Programme which runs to 2015. The HM2 has a new mission system, digital cockpit, electro-optical camera and multi-static processing for the sonar system. The HM2 performed its first ship-borne test flight in September 2012 and achieved IOC on 30 June 2014, after nine HM2 had flown 480 hours from Illustrious during Exercise Deep Blue earlier that month. It was also reported that some of the eight airframes not scheduled to be upgraded for financial reasons may be updated.
Five HM2s are in maintenance at any one time, leaving 25 available at readiness, of which 14 will be assigned to the Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carrier. In addition to its anti-submarine role, the HM2 will be able to carry an airborne early warning (AEW) pod under procurement through the Crowsnest programme to replace the Sea King ASaC7. In September 2011, Thales UK proposed re-using Sea King ASaC7 equipment, such as the Searchwater 2000, on the Merlin; Lockheed Martin has proposed developing a new multi-functional sensor for either the AW101 or other aircraft. Lockheed originally planned to use a derivative of the F-35's APG-81 radar but is now believed to be using an Elta system; both it and the Thales system will begin flight trials in the summer of 2014 with Main Gate in 2016. Ten pods are planned with IOC in 2019. On 22 May 2015, The MOD and Lockheed Martin UK, as the prime contractor for Crowsnest, selected Thales as the chosen bidder to provide the radar and mission system at the heart of the Crowsnest capability.
On 15 December 2009, plans were announced to transfer RAF Merlin HC3s and HC3As to the Commando Helicopter Force to replace retiring Sea King HC4 helicopters. The Sea King is to retire in 2016, after which the Navy will operate a combination of the Wildcat and Merlin. 846 NAS reformed with ex-RAF Merlin HC3s on 1 October 2014. 845 NAS will follow in 2017, operating the fully navalised Merlin HC4.
^ RAF Merlin HC3ARoyal Air Force
The RAF ordered 22 Merlin HC3 for transport missions, the first of which entered service in January 2001 with No. 28 Squadron RAF based at RAF Benson. The type is equipped with extended-range fuel tanks and is capable of air-to-air refuelling. The Merlin is frequently utilised for troop transport duties and for the transport of bulky objects, either internally or underslung, including vehicles and artillery. The Merlin Depth Maintenance Facility at RNAS Culdrose performed most tasks upon the Merlin HC3.
The Merlin's first operational deployment was to the Balkans region in 2003. RAF Merlins were first deployed to Iraq as part of Operation Telic in 2004, supporting coalition forces and were operated as the main medevac asset in southern Iraq; both Flight Lieutenant Kev Harris and Flight Lieutenant Michelle Goodman were awarded the DFC during this period. Merlins routinely operated around Basra until Britain's withdrawal in June 2009.
In 2002, Westland made an unsuccessful unsolicited offer to the British Ministry of Defence, proposing an enhanced Merlin variant intended to satisfy the demand for additional lift capacity. An alternative measure was the acquisition of six AW101s from Denmark in 2007; designated Merlin HC3A, these were assigned to the RAF, allowing Merlins to be deployed in Afghanistan. The HC3A is used for training and not for front-line operations due to various configuration differences. In December 2007, a second Merlin squadron, No. 78 Squadron was formed at Benson.
In 2009, five Merlin Mk3s were operating in Afghanistan, transporting troops and supplies. The deployment to Afghanistan was criticized as the aircraft reportedly lacked protective Kevlar armour. By July 2010, the Merlin fleet was fully fitted with ballistic armour. The deployment of Merlins to Afghanistan allowed the detachment of Sea Kings to be withdrawn from the region in October 2011. As part of the UK draw-down in Afghanistan Merlins were withdrawn from theatre in June 2013.
In 2012, RAF Merlins began the transition process over the Royal Navy's Commando Helicopter Force, due to be finalised by 2016 after modifications for extended maritime operations. Royal Navy personnel worked alongside the Royal Air Force at RAF Benson to build experience before the fleet is handed over to the Commando Helicopter Force. A £454m Merlin Life Sustainment Programme will see 25 HC3/HC3A airframes fitted with the cockpit electronics of the HM2, folding tails and main rotor heads, strengthened landing gear, deck lashing mounting points, obsolescence updates, fast-roping points and a common emergency egress system. The first HC4 will begin flight trials in September 2017 with IOC in early 2018; an interim folding main rotor head will be fitted to some HC3 for shipborne operations prior to the HC4 upgrade.Role:
Anti-submarine warfare (ASW) and medium-lift transport / Utility helicopterManufacturer:
9 October 1987Introduction:
In servicePrimary users:
Royal Air Force
Royal Danish Air ForceProduced:
US$21 million (2009)Variants:
AgustaWestland CH-149 Cormorant
Lockheed Martin VH-71 Kestrel