The Royal Air Force’s fleet of Merlin helicopters has begun a four-month training course in the US in preparation for deployment in Afghanistan by 2009.

The Merlins will provide support to ground operations and increase UK helicopter lift capacity in Afghanistan by 25%.

Exercise Merlin Vortex will train helicopter crews to perform in 35°C-50°C temperatures in the US desert and on high mountain ranges to prepare for the high temperatures and altitudes of Afghanistan.

RAF flight sergeant John Stone said that to train effectively for survival aspects in theatre airmen need to be operating with all the same equipment that they would have on operations.

“From a tactics point of view I believe that the combination of live firing ranges, to practise self-defence, and representative terrain have enabled us to put together a comprehensive and realistic package of pre-deployment training that is well paced,” he said.

RAF’s Merlin helicopters are a part of the Joint Helicopter Command, a triservice organisation responsible for battlefield helicopters.