As 2013 draws to a close the Westland Sea King makes the news for answering questions in the House of Commons, Philip Dunne, Minister for Defence Equipment, Support and Technology has confirmed that following on from an emergency landing by Sea King helicopter a new inspection regime has been introduced after a Royal Navy Sea King HAR mk 5 from HMS Gannet SAR Flight made a precautionary landing in Glencoe during a training exercise in September.
The Minister has confirmed that “In accordance with standard operating procedures, an immediate investigation was launched following a precautionary landing. The investigation was carried out by the MoD and AgustaWestland, the design organisation for the aircraft, and concluded that the risk of this type of fault leading to a serious safety issue is very low. As a precaution, an inspection regime has been instigated to inspect and monitor the gearboxes of all of the MoD Sea King fleet,” he said.
The Sea King involved in the incident (ZA130) made an emergency landing after the helicopter crew identified a potential problem with the aircraft’s transmission system during the training sortie. The helicopter was later recovered by an RAF Boeing Chinook H.C.Mk.3 from the landing site near the Kings House Hotel to the Glencoe Mountain Resort car park before being recovered by road to HMS Gannet
The Sea King has been a real work horse of the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force Search and Rescue force as well as being deployed as an Anti Submarine Warfare Helico
pter, Air Borne Command and Control Helicopter, and Amphibious Support Helicopter. The Ministry of Defence is planning to retire the last Sea Kings by 2016, by which time the type will have been in Service with the Royal Navy for Forty Seven Years.
The type is currently used in the Search and Rescue role by both the RAF and Royal Navy and versions of the helicopter continue in use with the Fleet Air Arm as a Command Helicopter and Airborne Command and Control Platform. Both the RAF and Royal Navy Search and RescueSea Kings will be replaced when the new Harmonised Civilian SAR helicopter contract secured by Bristows earlier this year comes into force. The Command Helicopter Sea King H C Mk 4 amphibious support helicopters will be replaced by the transfer of the RAFs Merlin HC mk 3/3As to the Fleet Air Arm and the Airborne Command and Control role will eventually be migrated on to the Fleet Air Arm Merlin H M Mk 2 helicopters as part of the Governments Crows Nest Project, although a capability gap will develop between the departure of the Sea Kings in 2016 and the delivery of the Crow’s Nest Project the timing of which remains unclear.
The timescale for the Crow’s Nest requirement is unclear. Funding constraints imposed by the government could see the delivery delayed until 2022, a parliamentary committee was told in 2012 that the “main gate” decision to select a winner and fund the program would be taken in 2014. The MoD later requested a correction for the written record, to 2017.
During last Septembers Defence Security and Equipment International (DSEI) show it was reported that the MoD’s Crow’s Nest procurement team has told LMUK and
Thales the two companies competing for the contract to provide the Royal Navy’s Queen Elizabeth Class Carriers with “Eyes” to expect a down select in early 2015 so that the system can be in service beginning in 2018.
But in the meantime the Sea Kings continue to serve. 2013 was also the year that has marked the 60th Anniversary of the Royal Navy s Search and Rescue from its beginnings in 1953, with the Westland Dragonfly helicopters being deployed to assist in flooding in East Anglia and in Holland, progressing through the Westland Whirlwind and the Westland Wessex. Before the Royal Navy phased the Wessex out of SAR service, a number of Sea King HAS.5 airframes where identified that would not be needed for the HAS.6 conversion programme. These were stripped of the ASW equipment and fitted for SAR work, and began re-equipping 771 Naval Air Squadron with the ultimate SAR Sea King in October 1987.
I took this photograph off the coast of Scotland in a during a Search and Rescue Training Exercise in 2001, shortly before 819 Naval Air Squadron disbanded, and the search and rescue flight became the HMS Gannet Search and Rescue Flight after the ASW Cabs departed in October of that year, as aprt of the process of introduction of the Merlin H M Mk 1 Helicopter