The AgustaWestland AW159 Wildcat is the latest helicopter type to enter service with the UK Army, Royal Marines and Royal Navy. MS&T’s Dim Jones visited Royal Naval Air Station Yeovilton to take a look.

Previously known as ‘Future Lynx’ and ‘Lynx Wildcat’, the AW159 Wildcat is the product of a replacement programme, initiated in 1995, for the Lynx Mks 7, 8 and 9. However, and although it bears a visual resemblance to its forebears, to regard Wildcat as just a development of Lynx would be to do it a disservice.

RNAS Yeovilton, otherwise known as HMS HERON, is in the southwestern part of England, in the county of Somerset, and has for many years been the principal shore base of the Fleet Air Arm. The decision to base the entire UK Wildcat fleet (comprising 34 AH1 for the Army and Royal Marines (RM), and 28 HMA2 for the RN) at Yeovilton was made on the grounds of logistic and support costs and, indeed, many elements are shared, including the Wildcat Training Centre (WTC), a purpose-built facility owned by the MoD, but run under contract by Leonardo, AW’s parent company. It soon became apparent to me however that, although the AH1 and HMA2 are similar in almost all respects, their roles and operating philosophies are very different.


Taking the Army and the AH1 first, the Wildcat unit is 1 Regiment, Army Air Corps (AAC). Together with 5 Regt, its sister unit, which operates Gazelle, Islander and Defender, 1 Regt forms the Aviation Reconnaissance Force, the reconnaissance element of Joint Helicopter Command (JHC), a tri-service organisation which brings under one command the battlefield military helicopters of the RN/RM and RAF. The AAC Wildcat’s primary role is battlefield reconnaissance, and 1 Regt comprises two operational squadrons, Nos 659 and 661, and a training squadron, No 652, whose business is the Conversion to Type (CTT) and Conversion to Role (CTR) of both ab-initio and previously-qualified aircrew. The AH1’s crew is three – two pilots and a crewman – with the right-hand seat (RHS) normally occupied by the handling pilot, and the LHS by the aircraft commander, whose principal task is the operation of the mission systems, and specifically the primary sensor, the L-3 Wescam MX-15Di electro-optical/IR nose turret.

Ab-initio pilots arriving at Yeovilton will have completed their Phase 1 training at the Defence Helicopter Flying School (DHFS) at RAF Shawbury, and their Phase 2 (Operational Training Phase – OTP) training on 670 Sqn, still on the Squirrel but learning to operate it tactically. DHFS will this year become part of the UK’s Military Flying Training System (MFTS) under the MoD PFI with Ascent Flight Training, and the Squirrel is due to be replaced by the Airbus H135, to be known as the Juno HT1. The crewmen will have undertaken a joint crewman course, also at Shawbury. On arrival at 652 Sqn, the trainees are immediately despatched to the WTC for a comprehensive groundschool course. The WTC also trains groundcrew (for aircraft handling), Royal Electrical & Mechanical Engineers (REME) (for maintenance – mechanical and avionics), and Royal Signals for Mission Support System (MSS) and Crypto roles; Leonardo provide all courseware. As well as state-of-the-art classrooms, there are three aircraft fuselage training rigs, for live engine work, refuelling, and weapons. Aircraft are also made available on the line for aircraft ground handling training.

Groundschool complete, pilots now embark on a programme of CTT training, for each phase of which live flying is dovetailed with synthetic training. The WTC has a cockpit procedures trainer (CPT), two Indra full mission simulators (FMS), and an FTD, which is essentially an FMS without motion and is currently mostly used for development work. Wildcat Integrated Synthetic Training (WIST) instructors, who are civilian contract personnel but exclusively ex-military and mostly Qualified Helicopter Instructors (QHI), conduct simulator instruction during the CTT phase. Uniquely (as far as I am aware), the WIST instructors teach from the LHS of the simulator. Some simulator sorties are ‘crew buddy’, with trainees in both seats. There is no provision for the crewman in the simulator; although there is a third seat, it is not well positioned for the flight deck, and is not representative of the crewman’s environment. The most realistic training involves the crewman sitting alongside the Instructor Operating Station (IOS), on intercom, and participating in the mission from there.

The live flying conversion phase comprises nine sorties of general handling, culminating in an Intermediate Handling Test (IHT), following which the trainees return to the simulator for an instrument flying phase, then back to the aircraft for a two-sortie Instrument Rating Test (IRT). Next up is ‘reversionary’ (i.e. eyeball) night flying, then back to the simulator for a three or four-sortie NVG foundation phase, followed by three sorties of live singleton NVG ops and three of pairs formation. The CTT phase, which has lasted about six months, finishes with the Final Handling Test (FHT), on successful completion of which pilots are qualified day/night 1st Pilot. At this point, each trainee is recommended for either R or LHS; ab-initios generally go to the RHS and experienced aircrew (e.g. Sqn Cdrs) to the LHS; any LHS aircrew will be qualified in both. The needs of the receiving operational sqns are taken into consideration, and formal streaming takes place. From this point, and apart from familiarisation sorties, each pilot will fly course sorties in the allocated seat, and most of the flying, in line with preferred operations, will be at night.

Two Wildcat HMA2s of the Royal Navy's Black Cats display team
Two Wildcat HMA2s of the Royal Navy's Black Cats display team. Image credit: MoD.

3-Crew Concept

The CTR phase concentrates on the operational employment of the aircraft, and a new 3-crew concept which sees the crewmen as an integral members of the Wildcat crew; they work in tandem with the RHS pilot to get the aircraft to where it needs to be, allowing the LHS to focus on the mission. Additionally, they manage the cabin and operate the aircraft’s weapon system. Wildcat AH1 is equipped with a machine gun on a pintle mount, either a 7.62mm General Purpose Machine Gun (GPMG) or an FN M3M .50-caliber. The trainee crewman will learn the basics and emergency drills in the classroom, then practise firing on the ground, followed by a pintle mount conversion (as undertaken by those learning to use this equipment on an armoured vehicle), and finally a progressive nine-sortie air conversion, starting with firing from the hover. There is a crewman instructor on 652 Sqn whose role is to supervise this training. Since the requirement that every passenger be strapped into a crash-proof seat was introduced, the capacity for movement of men is a little less than it was for the Lynx, although the Wildcat’s twin LHTEC CTS800 turboshaft engines, plus uprated rotor blades and transmission, increase maximum take-off weight by more than a ton over the legacy Lynx Mk9A.

The CTR training for the pilots involves exercises, practising Tactics, Techniques and Procedures (TTPs), with or without Electronic Warfare (EW) threat, at Medium and Low Level; post-Afghanistan, there has been an increased emphasis on low-level ops, starting at the Squirrel OTP. The EW exercises will involve self-deployment to the EW Training Range at RAF Spadeadam in Cumbria (Exercise ZENITH), and the live firing to an air-to-ground range (Exercise FURY). Every phase of the live flying is preceded by simulator sorties, in which instruction is given by Military Simulator Tactics Instructors (MSTIs) from the WTC, all of whom have tactical qualifications, and many of whom maintain flying currency. The MSTI on the IOS can act as a formation wingman or leader; the two FMSs will shortly be linked to make the training even more flexible. The Counter-Insurgency (COIN) package involves work with ground agencies, such as Joint Terminal Air Controllers (JTAC). Wildcat’s four large full-colour multi-function displays, part of a Thales avionics suite, can present a wealth of tactical information to the crew, much of it on a moving map display; data can originate in the mission tasking scenario, from the Defensive Aids System (DAS), or by text messaging through the Longbow system. Furthermore, the communications fit of three V/UHF FM radios and two Bowman radios allows the crew to exchange information and interact with other similarly-equipped aircraft and agencies, including Remotely Piloted Air Systems (RPAS), and also makes Wildcat eminently suitable as an airborne command post or tactical focus.

Having no integral weaponry, apart from the machine-gun, Wildcat’s role is to locate and mark targets, and in this it may operate with AH-64, either pair-on-pair or singleton-on-pair, marking targets for the Apaches. The LHS occupant of a Wildcat will also be qualified as an Air Observation Post (AOP), allowing the crew to communicate directly with the guns and they may also hold a Forward Air Controller (Airborne) (FAC(A)) qualification. The EO camera can provide a split-image zoom, colour or black-and-white, and the IR white-hot or black-hot. The nose-turret sensor alone can give a fairly accurate grid position on a target. The MSS allows crews to plan each mission in detail, incorporating all the information supplied from a variety of sources, which can then be downloaded digitally into the aircraft. The planning sequence can take many hours and, if that time is available – which I am assured it usually is – the sortie is painstakingly briefed and rehearsed, including a ‘walk-through’ in the hangar, which I described in my Apache CTR article in MS&T 3-2016 and which, as far as I am aware, remains unique to the AAC.

Following completion of CTR, the graduate aircrew are posted to one of the operational squadrons as Limited Combat Ready (LCR), and will complete a further work-up – including elements which are not taught on 652 – before being declared fully operational. The CTT/CTR course will have taken in the region of 45 weeks start to finish.

The WTC maintenance training hall, with engine, refuelling and weapons fuselage rigs
The WTC maintenance training hall, with engine, refuelling and weapons fuselage rigs. Image credit: Author.

Senior Service

Turning now to the Senior Service, although the Wildcat HMA2 is very similar to the AH1, the role and operational philosophy is entirely different and so, therefore, is the training. The crew is one pilot (RHS) and one observer (LHS), of which the more senior/experienced is the Aircraft Commander. There is no dedicated crewman, although the observer can act in this role if required, and one member of a ship’s flight, usually of Leading Hand rate, will be qualified as a winchman. The RN Wildcat training squadron is 825NAS, and the operational squadrons 815NAS (RN) and 847NAS (RM). There is one anomaly here, in that 847NAS flies the AH1 in the reconnaissance role in support of RM littoral operations, and RM aircrew complete the AH1 course alongside their Army colleagues, under the supervision of 652 Sqn. The HMA2s sensors comprise the same EO/IR nose-turret as the AH1, plus the chin-mounted Selex Galileo Seaspray 7000E Active Electronically-Scanned Array (AESA) radar. The HMA2 also has a fully-castering nose wheel, reflecting its shipboard role, whereas the AH1 has a trailing caster.

RN ab-initio pilots will arrive on 825NAS, having completed the basic Squirrel/Juno course at Shawbury, but will be cleared to fly as a single pilot, over the sea, in Instrument Flight Conditions and at night. Observers will have completed their Stage 1 training on the Grob 115E, progressing to the King Air 350ER Avenger on 750NAS at Culdrose. The HMA2 groundschool course at the WTC is essentially the same as for the AH1, but with the addition of a module on the radar. The CPT and simulator phases are flown as a student crew, including a malfunctions package, culminating in a check ride; the RN do not routinely use QHIs to instruct in the FMS itself, because the characteristics of the visual system result in a discrepancy between the RHS and LHS view; instead, the QHI runs the FMS from the IOS. As for the AH1 course, live flying phases are dovetailed with preparatory simulator exercises; all of the RN aircrew instructors at the WTC are part of Wildcat Maritime Force (WMF) HQ, and instruct both 815 and 825. Generally speaking, the QHIs (pilots) at the WTC instruct malfunctions, general handling, deck landing and IF and the QOIs (observers) instruct tactics. The fidelity of the simulator is not 100% for deck landing practice, but good enough to give grounding in handling and procedures. For the live flying phases, where the pilot is undergoing instruction, it will be with a QHI or other LHS-qualified instructor; a student observer will have a staff pilot in the RHS, and a Qualified Observer Instructor (QOI) in the cabin. Crew solo sorties may be flown with or without a QOI. The pilot syllabus includes general handling day and night VMC, progressing to an IF phase, including low level oversea IF by day and night, then an IRT, followed by an NVG phase, winching and load lift. The observers will practise medium and low-level navigation by day and night, use of the radar in Synthetic Aperture (SAR) and Moving Target Indicator (MTI) modes, and NVG ops. For live deck landing practice, the student pilot will fly with a QHI, while the student observer monitors from the cabin.

Embarked Operations

The Wildcat’s roles in deployed operations are varied, but essentially reconnaissance, anti-submarine (ASW) and anti-surface warfare (ASuW), and in these roles it complements the larger Merlin HM1. A Type 45 destroyer can carry two Wildcat or one Merlin, and a Type 26 frigate can carry one of either. In the future, Queen Elizabeth Class (QEC) carriers will be able to embark multiple combinations. When a destroyer or frigate deploys operationally, helicopter(s) will be assigned to it as its role dictates, and the embarked unit becomes that vessel’s RW flight, including aircrew, maintenance and deck handling personnel. In the ASW role, Wildcat can carry Stingray torpedoes and depth charges; for ASuW, although currently only equipped with the .50cal machine gun, the aircraft is due to receive both Martlet lightweight anti-ship missiles, for targets such as small boats and fast patrol craft, and the heavier Sea Venom (replacing the Sea Skua) for both sea and land targets, with a range of 20km, IN/GPS guidance and an IR seeker head, and data-link, giving it both man-in-the-loop and autonomous capability. Wildcat can mount up to 20 Martlet and four Sea Venom; IOC for both systems is expected in 2020. Auxiliary RN roles may include ship-to-ship transfer, search and rescue, narcotics and anti-piracy patrols, and disaster relief (a Wildcat from RFA Mounts Bay was the UK’s first on-scene to assist the people of Anguilla after Hurricane Irma last year). Possible enhancements to the AH1 include the AESA radar and a Helmet-Mounted Display (HMD); meanwhile, the RN would like to see datalink and additional fuel tanks for the HMA2.

I arrived at Yeovilton expecting to find a joint RN/RM/Army training unit. What I actually found were two essentially separate organisations, using a common training facility and logistic support, and with much commonality in equipment but a wide divergence in role and philosophy; I have to say that this makes both operational and economic sense. It is to be hoped that headroom will be found in the defence budget at some point to fund the enhancements that would make an already capable aircraft yet more so.

Originally published in MS&T issue 2/2018.