RAF helicopter forced to ditch off Isle of Skye

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The Independent Online

One of the Royal Navy's newest helicopters crashed into the sea off the west coast of Scotland yesterday.

One of the Royal Navy's newest helicopters crashed into the sea off the west coast of Scotland yesterday.

The state-of-the-art Merlin aircraft, one of several undergoing evaluation tests before entering active service, was taking part in a military training exercise when it was forced to ditch off Skye.

All five crew were airlifted to hospital, one suffering from back injuries, as a Navy salvage vessel sped to reach the stricken helicopter before it sank.

"It must have been something major that happened. The pilot would try anything rather than bringing a helicopter down in the sea," said a spokesman for RAF Lossiemouth, from where the helicopter had been operating.

Yesterday's incident was the first Merlin crash since the Royal Navy started trials with the aircraft in March last year. It was not, however, the first safety incident involving the £28m attack helicopter.

In July, a fuselage panel fell from one as it flew over the seafront at Worthing, Sussex, en route from a Belgian air show to the Royal Navy air station at Culdrose, Cornwall. The 3ft panel missed one sunbather by only a few yards.

The Navy has ordered a total of 44 Merlins at a cost of £4.5bn. Although its primary naval role will be that of submarine hunter, the Merlin's weapons capacity means it can also be used effectively against surface targets. It is designed to operate from the decks of ships and can fly in severe weather thanks to its sonar equipment, radar altimeters and two computers that manage both the aircraft and its mission system. It has a range of more than 200 nautical miles, a top speed of 150 knots and can be flown by a single pilot, although it usually carries a crew of three, including an observer and an aircrewman.

A Navy spokesman said it was "not unusual" for extra personnel to be on board during training exercises. All the Navy's Merlin helicopters are currently based at Culdrose and are due to come into service towards the end of next year.

An RAF Jaguar plane also crashed in Scotland yesterday. The fighter bomber, from RAF Coltishall, Norfolk, came down five miles north of Dumfries.

The pilot, the only person on board, parachuted to safety but was treated at the scene for minor injuries. The Jaguar crash happened shortly before 11am, about an hour after the Merlin ditched into the sea.