The first RAF Merlin helicopter has arrived in Afghanistan as part of a move to boost air support on the front line.Loading Merlin into C17 The full Merlin deployment to Afghanistan will be completed by the end of this year, providing a significant increase in UK military helicopters and flying hours available to commanders on the ground.The Merlin will perform a wide range of military tasks, making it a valuable asset for British forces – and increasing the capacity of the UK helicopter lift in Afghanistan by a further 25 per cent.  (Editor’s Note:  Despite the government’s constant assurances that we have enough helicopters there already!)The helicopter was stripped down and transported by a C-17 aircraft from RAF Brize Norton and has arrived at Camp Bastion for re-assembly and extensive pre-flight checks before it takes to the Afghan skies. The Merlin Force, based at RAF Benson in Oxfordshire, returned from operations in Iraq in August 2009 and will provide vital support to ground operations.  (Editor’s Note:  Here’s to Mark and his crew at Benson for busting their butts to make this happen…  Cheers!)Since returning from Iraq the crews have undertaken intensive pre-deployment training at El Centro Naval Air Facility in California, whilst the aircraft themselves have received a £45m upgrade that will give them improved performance in the harsh conditions of Afghanistan and protection against threats.Six Merlin helicopters are set to arrive in Afghanistan by the end of 2009.  (Editor Note:  6 helicopters to cover all of Afghanistan doesn’t seem like very much – especially as it is likely that at least one will be out of service or in reserve.)1. Capable of air-to-air refuelling.2. Particle separator protects engine in dusty environments.3. Cabin holds 30 seated or 45 standing combat troops with full equipment, and can carry vehicles. Machine guns may be mounted from cabin.4. Fuselage built to resist crash damage and small arms fire.(graphic, copyright BBC 2009)