As British forces consolidate at fewer and fewer bases in southern Iraq -- and as the threat from IEDs grows -- air transport is becoming more important. Choppers and airplanes operating from Basra Air Station haul supplies and troops, monitor tribal troops and religious militias and spot smugglers sneaking across the Iranian border. Perhaps most importantly, helicopters are on call to evacuate casualties from far-flung mobile forces. Thanks to their choppers, British troops are never more than an hour away from the surgeons who might save their lives.Like their U.S. counterparts, British aerial medics will make do with any helicopter available, whether it be a cramped Army Lynx or a larger Royal Marines Sea King. But their favorite platform is the Royal Air Force Merlin, at least five of which are deployed with the Joint Helicopter Force at Basra Air Station. The Merlin "is much bigger inside, has got more room and got longer legs," says medic Sergeant Nichola Underwood, adding that the three-engine bird boasts "a smoother ride" too. That's an important when you're trying to treat a casualty while flying at 160 knots over hostile terrain.The Merlin's not just a kick-ass air ambulance. Mobile forces operating in the southern Iraqi deserts prefer the Merlin for resupply missions, as it can get to you quicker and has a more voluminous hold than its stablemates. While the best hauler is the twin-rotor Chinook, those massive birds are all deployed to Afghanistan where their powerful engines and long range are vital. For flatter, less remote Iraq, the Merlin is perfect. Commanders' only complaint is that there aren't enough of them. With one usually assigned to the medics and at least another in maintenance, just two or three are available for new taskings.The Brits aren't the only ones in love with the Merlin. The Marine Corps is buying an American-made version for its new Presidential Helicopter. And the so-called US.101 model is a strong contender for the Air Force's 141-plane competition to replace the ageing HH-60G Pave Hawk.--David Axe
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