The Royal Navy's Merlin helicopters are to start flying from the decks of the UK's new aircraft carrier by March 2017, a senior official said at the Farnborough air show Tuesday.

The Queen Elizabeth is due to start sea trials next year before its first deployment in 2021, followed by its sister ship, the Prince of Wales.

The Merlins will start "low risk, simple" flights from the Queen Elizabeth next March, followed by first-class flight trials in early 2018, said Captain Kieran O'Brien, the Merlin team leader for the British Ministry of Defence's Defence Equipment and Support procurement arm.

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With Lockheed Martin as prime contractor, the Navy is upgrading 30 Merlins to Mk2 status by 2018, giving them enhanced capabilities.

Subsequently, all the helicopters will also be modified to carry the Crowsnest rotating radar, to be supplied by Thales. Although a contract has yet to be finalized for 10 systems, the Navy is seeking to have them in service in 2018 or 2019.

Cmdr. Darran Goldsmith, the Navy's Merlin helicopter force commander, said Merlins had been involved in an array of operations and exercises in recent months, including a deployment from a Type 23 frigate alongside a ScanEagle UAV.

During migrant rescue operations in the Mediterranean, the helicopters flew from the HMS Bulwark — a challenge since the ship has no helicopter hangar — and from Italy's Cavour carrier, Goldsmith said.

Tom Kington is the Italy correspondent for Defense News.

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Defense News Weekly Farnborough Special, July 22, 2018
On this special edition of Defense News Weekly, we're at the Farnborough Airshow outside London, learning about the future of airpower. We'll see the British future fighter design, some outstanding aerial displays--and get the latest on the F-35 program.