The Royal Australian Naval College at HMAS Creswell is considered to be the cradle of the Royal Australian Navy (RAN), graduating its first cadets in 1916. As such, a vessel sitting nearby offshore in Jervis Bay is nothing particularly unusual.
However, as part of the recently developed Helicopter Aircrew Training System (HATS), based at HMAS Albatross at Nowra NSW, this vessel is serving a pivotal role in the training of not only today’s military helicopter pilots, but much more. And she goes by the name MATV Sycamore.
By Owen Zupp
ANSWERING THE CALL
When HATS was conceived under the initial guidelines of the AIR 9000 Phase 7 project, the goal was to “provide a new training system incorporating both live and synthetic training elements to consolidate Navy and Army helicopter training into a single joint helicopter aircrew training system”. In doing so, it brought the two services together geographically at Nowra, combined under the banner of the Fleet Air Arm’s 723SQN.
The new facility boasts purpose-built classrooms and new technologies, including virtual reality, to train the next generation of rotary-wing pilots and crew. It has merged the skillsets of Army and Navy instructors who brought their own expertise, from significant Night Vision Goggles (NVG) experience to deck landing familiarity respectively.
From marshalling to winch operations, flight simulators to flight training in a new 15-strong fleet of the twin-engined Airbus Helicopters EC135 T2+, no aspect of training has been left unconsidered. And still, for all of the benefits that HATS has brought, a key element was needed beyond the perimeter fence at Nowra that no amount of ground-based facilities could provide – real ship’s deck operational experience.
The ongoing issue was a matter of logistics. Availing the likes of a frigate, destroyer or amphibious vessel for the purpose of helicopter deck training was difficult on a number of counts. Firstly, the vessel had to be tasked to be proximate to Jervis Bay and secondly, it may draw the ship away from its primary role, an especially difficult ask considering Navy’s high operational tempo of the past two decades or more.
But even if it was possible to organise an operational vessel to be available for training, there was no guarantee that it wouldn’t be called away for an operational duty, such as humanitarian relief in one of Australia’s Indo-Pacific neighbours.
Consequently, a dedicated vessel was needed, and the Multi-Role Aviation Training Vessel (MATV) Sycamore was commissioned.
There is very much more to the Sycamore than meets the eye.
At first glance, the 93-metre vessel does not necessarily catch the eye of the onlooker. With a beam of 14.4 metres and a relatively shallow draft of 3.90 metres, it is not bristling with armament nor does it possess the towering superstructure that many associate with a naval vessel. But, the Sycamore is not a typical naval vessel.
Entering service in 2017, the MV Sycamore is not one of Her Majesty’s Australian Ships, and is instead on the civil register. The Commonwealth has engaged Teekay Shipping (Australia) to crew, operate and maintain the vessel, while the flightdeck operational support team is provided under contract by OPSTAR.
Consequently, the ship maintains a civilian crew of 21 including a paramedic on board. There is a single naval liaison officer who provides the conduit between the many roles the navy tasks for the Sycamore and the civil contractors that provide the service. Even so, many of the contractors have themselves previously served in the Navy, and as such bring with them a wealth of experience.
Beneath the decks, an engineering team of four sees to the ongoing serviceability of the vessel. Environmental systems, engines, fuel, oil, hydraulics, water, ballast, waste and electrical power are just some of the systems that are monitored and maintained.
And while the team keeps the Sycamore operational, as with Navy crews, they are also trained and able to assist in firefighting duties should they be needed. With the vessel only planned to dock for scheduled maintenance every five years, the Sycamore possesses both sufficient redundancy and a crew that can conduct repairs and maintenance at sea.
The civilian contractors rotate through the Sycamore on six-week shifts, while the naval liaison officer – CMDR Karl Brinckmann – alternates between sea and land duties every three weeks. But with 91 bunks on board, the vessel can be home to more than two hundred people in any particular week as various units transit through the ship. This calls for an ongoing process of rotating bedding and towels, while the well-equipped galley provides high quality meals to those onboard.
CMDR Brinckmann’s duties are wide-ranging on a vessel that provides more than 300 sea days per year. In addition to his aviation role, he coordinates visits from new entrant officer course students, or NEOCs, and trainees from the Sailor Recruit School who arrive in numbers to have their first ship-borne experience, staying overnight on the ship.
Working month on-month off, paramedic Garry Vincent is a veteran of the NSW Ambulance Service and meets the wide range of medical demands that can take place, from sea-sick recruits through to more acute conditions. In a broader sense, the paramedic on board also needs to monitor the crew’s fatigue levels and hydration while keeping one eye on the nearest land-based medical aid in case a medical evacuation, or medevac, is required.
Elite clearance divers also use the vessel for training in a variety of skills including deploying for reconnaissance on the shores of Jervis Bay to practising clearance techniques which can be used to clear mines in a setting of conflict, or post-cyclone debris in a humanitarian role as they did in the wake of Cyclone Winston’s devastation in Fiji in 2016.
Utilising the Sycamore’s aft mission deck, the clearance divers can fine-tune the process of launch and recovery of their teams and equipment such as RHIBs.
Midshipmen populate the bridge, receiving intensive one-on-one tuition in what it takes to navigate and operate a vessel, as one day they hope to command their own ship. Again, as the Sycamore is a dedicated training vessel, training is the purpose rather than a by-product in an operational environment. Clint Walters, a former Navy officer now wears a civilian uniform and offers patient, personalised attention to each of the trainees.
Through this dedicated training, the midshipmen are exposed to multiple tasks, from approaching a buoy and performing duties as officer-of-the-watch, to man-overboard drills. Such is the nature of the Sycamore that, in their two weeks aboard the ship they are able to accrue 110 of the 250 bridge training hours required.
WHERE THE SKY MEETS THE SEA
Australian Army MAJ Mark Cameron-Davies previously served in the British Army Air Corps before moving to Australia, and has had a varied career that has seen him fly the Aerospatiale Gazelle, Bell 206 Kiowa, Tiger ARH, and now the Airbus EC135 as 723SQN’s Standards Officer. He is also wearing the only khaki camouflage uniform among twenty NEOCs in their blue-grey Navy disruptive patterned uniform as the launch skims across Jervis Bay during your writer’s visit to the Sycamore.
Approaching the ship, there is no mistaking that the ‘A’ in MATV Sycamore stands for aviation, as the aft helicopter deck is the first noticeable feature. Boarding the vessel, we are relieved of our life jackets and shown to the sizeable mess by CMDR Brinckmann, where a hot coffee awaits.
The towering forms of clearance divers move about, having re-joined the vessel in the early hours, while the NEOCs take their seats with an obvious air of excitement. Everything is spotless and well-equipped, and if it wasn’t for the coffee gently swaying in the cup, one could forget that we were on board a ship – although it must be said that we were still in the calm waters of Jervis Bay.
CMDR Brinckmann briefs us on the day’s operations, which began early and are varied in their nature. From an aviation perspective, a 723SQN EC135 will be operating onto the Sycamore in the afternoon. But before the helicopter arrives, there is still much to see and do.
The screen upon the wall in the mess also serves as the focal point for the aviation safety induction briefing which is delivered by the head of the flightdeck team, Kerwyn Ballico, from Opstar.
The briefing emphasises safety as a priority, and that many of the routinely accessible paths on the ship will be blocked off and marked with a scarlet ‘NO GANGWAY – FLYING STATIONS’ placard and will be unavailable from 30 minutes before flying operations. The potential of foreign object damage (FOD), the presence of deck lights and cameras and the lowered safety nets during operations are all covered for those experiencing Sycamore’s flightdeck routine for the first time.
The bridge of the Sycamore is equipped with a range of digital technology and radar screens, while an old-school compass can still be found, reinforcing the importance of the fundamentals and the need for redundancy.
The discussion moves to the role of the vessel in helicopter operations and the importance of SHOLs, or ship/helicopter operating limitations. Effectively, the ship is a moving landing platform that can be manoeuvred for the approaching and departing helicopter with the ideal direction of approach being from the stern, while the ship’s superstructure can create eddies and disturbances in the airflow that can affect the helicopter in these critical phases of flight.
The SHOLs are determined during a new class of vessel or a new aircraft type’s first of class flight trials (FOCFT), an intense period of flying by dedicated test pilots in varying sea states, wind conditions, and weather to evaluate and certify the limits of operating an aircraft from the vessel.
Each SHOL is specific to each helicopter type, be it an EC135, MRH-90 or MH-60R, and each particular ship class, and it comes in the form of an overlay which attaches to a circular slide rule, similar to the old-style flight computer pilots are blooded on.
By inputting the relevant environmental conditions, including the sea state of pitch and roll, the relative wind direction and speed can be ascertained to determine the limits for safe operations. As with the compass on the bridge, while the ability to calculate the SHOL via computer is becoming available, the manual method is a fundamental skill that needs to be retained.
The flightdeck team leader joins us once again and leads the briefing for the upcoming flightdeck operations. Following a standardised format, he details the potential hazards, communication procedures, weather and sea state, relevant airspace, and a range of additional details relevant to the safe execution of the exercise.
Leaving the bridge, the EC135’s arrival time is getting close, so we make our way to the aft of the vessel where CMDR Brinckmann is waiting, with one more stop along the way.
CLEARED TO LAND
Below decks is also home to aircrew. Their locker room is dimmed with green light, allowing pre-flight testing and adjustment of night vision goggles in a dedicated bracket while across the way, the briefing room is decked out with sizeable chairs, and the walls are fitted with screens and boards. MAJ Cameron-Davies points out that while the briefing room appears rather comfortable, it is also where the aircrew effectively live when not above deck and flying.
Another room below is assigned to service unmanned aerial systems (UAS). The Sycamore is the first Australian ship designed and built to operate unmanned aerial vehicles, and is fitted with the antennas and control system for the Insitu ScanEagle. It also has an adaptable module for the Schiebel Camcopter S100 unmanned helicopter to provide another asset for unmanned aircraft system support training.
Emerging into the sea air once more, we enter the flightdeck control area where CMDR Brinckmann has already conducted the preliminary checks of communications, both external and on board, as well as the status of the deck and lighting. With the systems checks complete, he now assumes yet another duty, effectively as the air traffic controller of the MATV Sycamore.
Fronted by broad windows equipped with massive windshield wipers, the control area is a sleek area with modern consoles and two substantial seats, although CMDR Brinckmann opts to stand and remain mobile. Television-like screens show various camera angles, while central digital gauges announce the vessels heading, speed, pitch and roll.
The radio announces the arrival of the EC135, crewed by two instructors from HMAS Albatross completing their recency requirements. CMDR Brinckmann communicates with the aircraft, the bridge and the flightdeck team in concise language that relays the latest environmental information as well as the relevant clearances.
The small black dot is set against the grey overcast, but slowly takes the form of an approaching helicopter. Aided by a visual glideslope system on board the vessel, the air-crew make their first approach and landing.
When the helicopter comes to rest on the deck, a finely choreographed manoeuvre sees the flightdeck crew lash the helicopters skids to the deck before exiting again. After a pause, they return, unlash the helicopter, clear the deck and soon the EC135 is airborne again. It is a process that is repeated nine times in 35 minutes, offering a level of efficiency and training that only the dedicated Sycamore can offer. And it is a process that once saw the Sycamore land-on helicopters 64 times in a day.
The sheltered waters of Jervis Bay allow the trainee pilots to undertake their first landings on a relatively stable platform, whereas there were no such guarantees when they first made a deck landing in the past. MAJ Cameron-Davies adds that an Army aviator previously may not have seen a deck landing until well into their career, but now the combined nature of 723SQN and the Sycamore allows trainee Army pilots to have the benefits of naval instructors’ deck experience, while the vessel facilitates an actual landing while still in training.
The buzz of activity subsides as the helicopter departs and the red gangway signs are taken down, returning the Sycamore to normal operations. CMDR Brinckmann removes his headset and hangs it by the console before readying to move off and attend to another activity that is about to take place on the ship.
A VITAL ROLE
The benefits of joint-service helicopter training can readily be seen at HMAS Albatross and the land-borne facilities of 723SQN. But the other key element in their success requires a slightly longer journey across the waves. Here on the relatively calm waters of Jervis Bay, the next generation of military helicopter pilots can hone their skills in the challenging environment of the potentially pitching deck.
Through the efforts of the MATV Sycamore and her crew, both military and civilian, the ability to train all manner of roles has become significantly more accessible and frequent. The challenges of operating at sea will always remain substantial but through the Sycamore, those asked to do so will be better prepared than ever before.
This feature appeared in the May-June 2019 issue of ADBR.