Cleared to Land at Sea. by Owen Zupp.

MATV Sycamore Low Res

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 today’s military helicopter pilots. And she goes by the name, ‘Sycamore’.

There is very much more to the MATV 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. However, the Sycamore is not a typical naval vessel – it is an advanced asset for the training of personnel in a range of roles at sea.

Below decks is home to air crew. Their locker room is dimmed with green light, allowing preflight testing and adjustment of night vision goggles in a dedicated bracket while across the way, the briefing room is decked out with sizeable seats and the walls are fitted with screens and boards. Major Cameron-Davies points out that while the briefing room appears rather comfortable, it is also where the air-crew 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 operating system for ScanEagle. It 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 flight deck control area where Commander 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 Commander 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. Commander Brinckmann communicates with the aircraft, the bridge and the flight deck 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 flight deck 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 has seen 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. Major Cameron-Davies adds that an Army aviator may not have seen a deck landing until well into their career but now the combined nature of 723 Squadron and the Sycamore allows trainee Army pilots to have the benefits of naval instructors’ deck experience, while the Sycamore 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. Commander 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.

The benefits of joint service helicopter training can readily be seen at HMAS Albatross and the land-borne facilities of 723 squadron. However, 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, the ability to train all manner of roles has become significantly more accessible and frequent. The challenges of operating aircraft at sea will always remain substantial but through the Sycamore, those asked to do so will be better prepared than ever before.

Read more about the MATV Sycamore at ADBR. Click here.