It was an historic day for a venerable Naval air squadron yesterday when the last pilots and aircrew that it will ever train to fly Sea King Mk4 helicopters were presented with their wings at Royal Naval Air Station Yeovilton.
When 848 Naval Air Squadron was first formed back in 1943 it was a torpedo bomber and reconnaissance squadron, flying Avengers. In 1952 it reformed to fly Whirlwind helicopters on anti-terrorist protection duties in Malaya. In 1958 it became the first Commando aviation unit, and in 1964 was reformed to fly Wessex helicopters. After being again disbanded it was reformed in 1982 for the Falklands campaign and disbanded once more when the conflict was over. But international crises are never far away, and in 1990 the squadron was reformed with Sea King Mk4s for the First Gulf War, undertaking casualty evacuation, among other duties, in appalling weather.
In 1990 it reformed to carry out Commando flying training, teaching Naval and Royal Marines servicemen the skills they need to be peacekeepers as well as defend troops. Its graduates have gone on to carry out demanding missions in the Navy's Commando Squadrons in Afghanistan.
Now, after 44 years of service, that old war horse the Sea King is soon to retire, and the squadron is disbanding. It will reform in September to teach a new intake how to fly the bigger, three-engine Merlin helicopter, which is replacing the Sea King.
Yesterday's parade was a day for remembrance as veterans mixed with the rising generation of Commando pilots. The station's volunteer band played and a screen showed filmed clips of the squadron's proud history.
The squadron's commanding officer, Commander Richard Sutton, was born in the same year that the Sea King went into service. He said: "Merlin will give the Commando forces an exciting future into the long term, but it is sad to say farewell to this venerable old aircraft, which has served the nation immensely well over 44 years. There is a lot of emotion tied into this old airplane."
In each of its 18 years the squadron has trained around 16 pilots, 16 aircrew and around 100 engineers.
Commander Sutton's flying career now ends, and he will "fly a desk" in Whitehall, working on defence security policy for southern Africa.
As well as their wings, two students won special awards. Navy pilot Dom Savage won the AgustaWestland Award for best overall performance, while Royal Marine James Bowerman won the Bill Murton Award for the student showing the best "Junglie" attributes and spirit.
Lieutenant Savage, said: "I joined the Navy because my father and grandfather were in the Navy. My grandfather fought in the Second World War and my grandmother's cousin was sunk on HMS Hood – and the family is from Chatham."
Captain Bowerman's father was an RAF Tornado GR4 pilot. The course was tough but all have the satisfaction of achieving one of the world's most rewarding jobs.