NOT since the Falklands War has a Royal Navy pilot earned their wings while on active operations – until now.
In a 30-year first, Lieutenant Barry Barkey completed his training while on the job, as his ship was unexpectedly redeployed to Sierra Leone to assist in the battle against Ebola.
In challenging conditions – the vessel packed with life-saving medical equipment and hundreds of personnel – the 29-year-old from West Calder not only proved his capabilities but enjoyed a rare flight deck ceremony to receive his honour.
Speaking from Sierra Leone, Barkey said: “Prior to deployment we spent a lot of time training both in the air and in the helicopter simulators at Culdrose, but nothing beats flying in an operational environment.
“The concept of taking off and landing on a moving ship was all completely new to us, and so it was very unusual learning on board a deck that was full of high-powered vehicles and marines.
“The night-time deck landings en route to Sierra Leone were very challenging, however our training prepares us to be ready to react to whatever the day gives us.”
The pilot – along with four other trainees – are usually based at the Royal Naval Air Station Culdrose and were due to round off their training on the Royal Fleet Auxiliary aviation support ship RFA Argus this month.
At the last minute, the ship was sent on a vital life-saving mission to Sierra Leone.
Captain David Eagles, who presented Barkey with his wings, said: “I believe this is the first time since the Falklands War that we have carried out training en route to an operation, so this is a unique situation.
“The conditions out here are quite challenging so these five men and the training team have done remarkably well.”
After receiving his wings, Barkey has now been handed over to the 820 Naval Air Squadron – an elite force that usually spends its time combating pirates, drug traffickers and terrorists. But this time around, they will provide logistical support in the fight against Ebola as part of Operation Gritrock. The operation has seen the UK commit the expertise and resources to support 700 new beds in various treatment facilities.
Barkey said: “I love every minute of it. For me, there was never another career option. Some kids wanted to be a doctor, others a farmer – all I ever wanted to be was a pilot.”