After a 1,000 mile flight across Europe Merlin helicopters from Royal Naval Air Station Culdrose have joined the Royal Navy’s flagship HMS Bulwark as she heads the UK’s mission – Operation Weald -to rescue migrants and smash the illegal traffickers of these desperate people.

The helicopters have began scouring hundreds of square miles of the Central Mediterranean as the Royal Navy’s humanitarian mission moves up a gear.

Devonport based Bulwark is one of the Royal Navy’s two Amphibious Assault Command and Control ships.

Hot on the heels of her recent rescue of over 100 migrants from a makeshift rubber dinghy, 814 Naval Air Squadron’s Merlin’s are scanning large swathes of the Mediterranean Sea on the lookout for people in peril.

The three Merlins from the “Flying Tigers” are acting as Bulwark’s ‘eyes in the sky’, while the ship herself co-ordinates the UK mission, together with Italian Navy and Coast Guard.

Operating from Sigonella Naval Air Station near Catania in eastern Sicily, the Merlin Mk2 aircraft will use Bulwark as a ‘lilypad’- a floating service station in the middle of the Mediterranean between the Libyan and Sicilian coastlines.

“HMS Bulwark is essential to the mission,” explains Commander Stu Finn, 814’s Commanding Officer. “I can extend my range out over the sea, see further, search for longer and report what I find back to the ship to co-ordinate the operation.”

In addition to providing fuel, the amphibious assault ship can launch her large landing craft – manned by Royal Marines and Royal Navy medics and packed with extra lifejackets, food and medical supplies – to conduct searches and be ready to rescue survivors identified by the Merlins.

Locating small boats in the middle of the ocean is, said pilot Lieutenant Morgan Jones, “a mission the Merlin is particularly good at doing”. He added: “We have done a lot of this sort of work in the past. Our crews are swept up, keen and looking forward to the challenges ahead.”

“Our radar was designed to find periscopes which are small and only appear for a matter of seconds, so it should be able to detect small, slowly-moving boats,” says Commander Finn. If that makes the mission sound easy, it is not. On each flight, the helicopter will scan hundreds of square miles of water. The crew wear special immersion suits, lifejackets, and flying helmets; it’s hot, cramped and physically and mentally demanding.

Should the Merlins encounter a stricken vessel, it will be their job to co-ordinate the rescue on the surface, using Bulwark’s landing craft to collect survivors, but the aircrew can intervene and winch around a dozen people to safety if necessary. Says Commander Finn: “This is something we are looking forward to; it’s a real-world situation, doing something for the good of others.”