John Deere's go-anywhere Gator is reaching new heights this summer as part of the RAF Merlin helicopter flying display team. A specially liveried Trail Gator utility vehicle has been provided to No 28 (AC) Squadron, based at RAF Benson in Oxfordshire, for the 2005 summer airshow season.
For the air displays, the Gator is strapped into the cargo bay of a Merlin HC Mk3 support helicopter, which is designed to carry up to 24 fully combat-equipped troops. Featuring three Rolls Royce Turbomeca 2100hp engines, and normally flown by one pilot with one co-pilot/navigator and two crewmen, this is the same type of helicopter that has been chosen to fly the US President in the future.
During the air display's normal stunting and bunting routine, the helicopter lands and the Gator is rapidly driven off the rear ramp by one of the crewmen, flying both RAF Careers and 28 (AC) Squadron flags. The driver, who is dressed as a World War Two pilot, then gives an official salute to the airshow organisers and other dignitaries, before driving along the crowd line waving to all the spectators. After the display is over, the Gator is also used to hand out RAF careers information and John Deere product literature to the public.
Squadron Leader Mark Beardmore first saw a John Deere Gator being used by the US military while on active service in Bosnia, and thought it would bring something new and different to his team's air display. “So I simply contacted the company at Langar, and we were invited to fly up to try the Trail Gator for size in the Merlin's cargo bay,” he said.
“After a few rehearsals and adjustments we managed to get the unloading time down to just three seconds, so it makes an impressive sight when we land the aircraft. The advantage of the Gator is that it's easy to drive, light and manoeuvrable, and it can drive straight on and off grass and tarmac. It also makes it easier for us to interact with the public - it's been a great addition to the display.”
The 6300hp Merlin HC Mk3 helicopter weighs over 14 tonnes, has a top speed of 192mph and a range in excess of 600 miles on internal fuel. The 18hp Trail Gator weighs over 500kg, has a top speed of 18mph, and can travel up to 250 miles on one tank of diesel.