Not 24 hours after HMS Prince of Wales – the second of the UK’s new aircraft carriers – sailed into open waters for the first time, a Merlin helicopter was guided safely into land on the expansive deck…

For the first time in 50 years the announcement “Hands to Flying Stations” echoed throughout the 280-metre-long warship and specialist aircraft handlers, who’ve spent the past year practising for this day on a replica flight deck on land at Culdrose in Cornwall, readied to welcome the helicopter.

At 1115am, Leading Aircraft Handler Stephen Ashcroft guided the helicopter – callsign Dolphin 14 – safely down on to four acres of sovereign British territory just off the east coast of Scotland.

At the controls of the Merlin Mk2 was pilot Lieutenant Rob Prior, assisted by fellow pilot Lieutenant Tim Willis, Observer (navigator/weapons and sensor specialist) Lieutenant Carl Davis, aircraft commander Lieutenant Commander Steve Ivill, aircrewman Chief Petty Officer Lee Elliott and photographer Leading Hand Alex Ceolin.

Barely had the 14-tonne submarine-hunting helicopter been lashed to the deck by the handlers than it was released to take off again. The Merlin landed and took off six times as various problems and emergencies were practised by the air and ground crew, while HMS Prince of Wales’ air traffic controllers guided the helicopter fliers in circuits around the aircraft carrier.

Directing the inaugural landing from the second of HMS Prince of Wales two distinctive towers was the naval officer in charge of all flying operations conducted by the ship, Commander Air (aka ‘Wings’) Commander Phil Richardson. He hailed “a momentous occasion” for the Royal Navy:

“This deck landing represents a key aviation milestone in the hugely-successful HMS Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carrier programme. The ability to fly fast jets and helicopters from two fifth-generation Royal Navy aircraft carriers puts the UK at the very forefront of maritime aviation.”

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