Exercise Virgo - Salisbury Plain, Wiltshire

On Thursday 28th January 2016, Aviation in Action was present on Salisbury Plain Training Area (SPTA) to witness the Swiss and Norwegian Special Forces during a training operation called Exercise Virgo. The week long exercise provided an opportunity for these two Units to work together during various different scenarios. The Thursday AIA were present would see Swiss Forces undertaking aerial insertion/extraction procedures in a built up area called Copehill Down (a purpose built abandoned village owned by the military on SPTA). In addition later on that day, the Norwegian Forces were undertaking para drops over the same area.

To begin a very cold day, AIA Headed to Knook camp on the very Western side of Salisbury Plain as the Swiss and Norwegians were staging out of the facility as their Forward Operating Base. The Norwegian Air Force provided four of their Bell 412's for the exercise and the Swiss Air Force contributed a pair of Eurocopter AS532 Cougars. Unfortunately by the time we had arrived at Knook, two of the Norwegian Bell’s had departed back to RAF Brize Norton in preparation for their return to Norway. In addition and making a couple of brief appearances during the week was a Royal Norwegian Air Force C-130J Hercules. This provided the Norwegian Special Forces a different mount to para drop from whilst undertaking night operations.

After taking a few images of the assets parked at the camp, we headed off to Copehill Down Village after noticing a lot of ground based units on our travels to Knook. We felt that this would be an ideal spot to park up and wait. It wasn't too long before the Swiss called up on radio to run in towards the village, resulting in a Cougar performing tactical troop insertions, then shortly after extracting the same troops on completion of their task. An interesting method used by the Swiss whilst extracting their troops was the implementation of a Special Patrol Insertion/Extraction (SPIE) system. This enabled multiple troops to hook onto a rope without the need for the Cougar to land, resulting in a swift departure whilst the troops hang below the airframe on the rope.

The Bell 412 is a twin-engine utility helicopter manufactured by Bell Helicopters. It’s a development of the Bell 212 with the major difference being the composite four-blade main rotor. Initially ordered in 1986 as the Bell 412SP Tactical Transport Helicopter, it entered service for the Norwegians in 1989 known as the Arapaho. As a Force, they have previously deployed to Kosovo and Afghanistan.

The Swiss Air Force Cougar or the AS532.UL/AL is the long version of the Cougar family and is powered by two Turbomeca Makila 1A1 turboshaft engines. It carries a crew of 2 and up to 29 troops or 6 injured passengers on stretchers plus 10 others. As with the other versions of the Cougar, the AS532.UL/AL can lift 4.5 tons by means of a sling.

The exercise ended on Friday 29th January as the Swiss Cougars departed towards Southampton where they made a fuel stop before flying back home directly. The remaining two Norwegian Bell 412's departed back to RAF Brize Norton where they were disassembled and loaded onto a NATO C-17. They were eventually transported back to their home base over the weekend.



Credits: Article and photography by Darren Willmin, additional imagery by Aaron Paxton