75 Years of 860 SQN
The big rotor creates a large downwash on the platform while taxiing to the runway. It is a sunny morning at the Kooy airfield and the men and women of 860 SQN are busy to get two helicopters airborne. The big grey helicopter is the NH90, the newest helicopter of 860 SQN. This year marks the 75th birthday of the squadron. This article tells the story of 860 SQN, its rich past and its future.
The early years of 860 SQN
It was June 15 1943, in the middle of the second world war, when 860 got born. It happened on RNAS Donibrustle, an airfield close to Edinburgh in Scotland. 860 SQN was part of the Fleet Air Arm of the Royal Navy and its task was to provide aircraft for the two Dutch Merchant Aircraft Carriers (MAC). These carriers where actually nothing more than Shell oil tankers converted into an aircraft carrier by building a flight deck on top of it. Both ships were equipped with four Swordfish biplanes flown and maintained by Dutch military personnel. Despite their military task both MAC ships kept their civilian status and crew. The MAC ships were destined to protect the trans-Atlantic convoys from German submarine attacks. The work of 860 SQN was very successful. The Dutch aircraft protected no less than 36 convoys crossings without a single loss.
At the end of the second world war 860 SQN returned to shore and subsequently the Swordfish was replaced by the Fairey Barracuda. First of all, they were stationed at RNAS Maydown in Northern Ireland but later moved to RNAS Fearn in Scotland. After the capitulation of Japan 860 SQN moved to Holland and received the Fairey Firefly.
The Royal Navy Historic Flight has still an airworthy Swordfish like used by 860 SQN from the Merchant Aircraft Carriers.
Post war years
Shortly after returning home 860 SQN embarked on the Dutch Aircraft Carrier HNLMS Karel Doorman and departed for operations in the Dutch East Indies. There they stayed until the independence of the East Indies in 1950. The squadron moved back to Holland and received the Hawker Sea Fury aircraft and embarked on the newly bought aircraft carrier HNLMS Karel Doorman II. When not at sea the aircraft were based at Valkenburg airfield close to The Hague. The Sea Fury stayed into service until 1957 when it got replaced by the Hawker Sea Hawk. This type was operated until 1964 when both the Seahawk and the Squadron were disbanded.
From fixed wing to rotary wing
It took only until 1966 when 860 SQN got operational again, this time on The Kooy airfield near Den Helder. This time not as a fixed wing squadron but as a rotary wing squadron. Its first helicopter was the small Westland Wasp used as a frigate helicopter. In 1979 the replacement of the Westland Wasp arrived by the introduction of the much bigger Westland Lynx. By then the Lynx became the workhorse of 860. By that time there are two Dutch Navy squadrons operational. The first one SQN 7 was responsible for all training and search-and-rescue tasks while 860 SQN provided the operational units on board of a frigate. The Lynx left service in 2012 and was replaced by the NH90-NFH (Nato Frigate Helicopter).
The Lynx helicopter has been the workhorse of 860 SQN for more than 35 years.
Currently 860 SQN is strictly speaking not under naval command anymore. Since 2008 the squadron is part of the joint Defence Helicopter Commando (DHC) but the majority the personnel is still in service with the navy. However, the tasks of 860 SQN did not change when it became part of DHC. The main task of 860 SQN is still supporting the Royal Netherlands Navy with onboard helicopters. The introduction of the NH-90NFH gave 860 SQN a much better asset to perform this task compared to the Lynx. The big advantage of the NH-90 is its integrated mission system and sensors. The minimum crew consists of three persons, which has not changed compared to the Lynx. The two cockpit seats are taken by a pilot and tactical coordinator. In the back you can find at least one sensor operator. For other maritime missions the crew can be enlarged with a door gunner, sniper or diver.
The Dutch military currently operates 20 NH-90 helicopters from airfield De Kooy near Den Helder.
One of the tasks of the NH-90 is that of anti-submarine warfare (ASW). For this task the helicopter can use its HELRAS (helicopter long range active sonar), its sonobuoys and its FLIR (Forward Looking Infra-Red). To locate a submarine the helicopter hoists its HELRAS down into the water. The HELRAS will transmit a sonar sound wave into the water and listen to the reflections. The hull of the submarine reflects the sonar signal back to the HELRAS. Unfortunately, the submarine can hear the sonar beeps. To prevent a submarine from escaping the helicopter then drops a pattern of sonobuoys which are passively listening to the sounds in the water. When the position of the submarine is determined the NH-90 could use its two Mk 46 torpedoes to destroy the submarine.
Another task of the NH-90 is anti-surface warfare (ASuW). For that task the helicopter can use its ISAR (inverse synthetic aperture radar) radar and Forward Looking Infra-Red (FLIR). The data of these sensors can be shared with the mother ship which can use it as input for their missile launches. For self-protection it is possible to mount an M3M 50 Cal. heavy machine gun in the door. This gun is very effective on smaller targets due to its high firing rate.
The machine gun is often used during counter drugs and counter piracy operations. During such missions there is often also a sniper on board with a HK417 sniper rifle. To stop escaping fast vessels, the sniper in the helicopter eliminates its outboard engines. This enables an easier arrest of the vessel’s crew. During counter drugs operations in the Netherlands Antilles 860 SQN has intercepted thousands of kilograms of drugs over the past three years.
Here seen is the Belgian M-frigate F930 Leopold I steaming on the North Sea. One of the main tasks of the M-frigates of the Karal Doorman class is ASW, in which the ship heavily depends on its helicopter. To support the NH90 helicopter the flight deck of the Dutch and Belgian M-frigates has been elongated over the past years.
Currently the Dutch military operates twelve NH-90NFH helicopters and eight NH-90TNFH helicopters. The first type is fully maritime mission capable and the second one is a tactical version of the NFH which is used as a maritime transport helicopter. The TNFH is roughly the same as the NFH but lacks the ASW-station and dipping sonar. In exchange the helicopter has a missile warning system to protect it during tactical operations. Currently the whole NH-90 is modified to the latest standards and will get an extensive software update of the mission system. It will take until 2020 to bring all the helicopters to the same standard. The next project already on the horizon is the replacement of the 50-year-old Mk 46 torpedo by a new light weight torpedo. The replacement process is scheduled to start in 2023 so at this time there is no successor known yet. With all the currents upgrades the NH-90 helicopters of 860 SQN will provide the Navy which a seaborn helicopter capacity for at least the coming decade, and thus assures 860 SQN can continue its maritime role in the Dutch navy.
We would like to thank the Dutch MOD for having us.