History of Fleet Air Arm SAR Helicopters

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Wesland Sea KingHAR mk 5 from 771 NAS RNAS Culdrose recovering the SAR diver a role which was evenyually retired from the RN SAR helicopter crew in 2006

The Fleet Air Arm relinquished its SAR Helicopter Role on the 31st December 2015, when the last Royal Navy Search and Rescue crews stood down at HMS Sea Hawk at RNAS Culdrose and at HMS Gannet at Prestwick in Scotland bringing to a close Military Search and Rescue Flying in the United Kingdom as the Responsibility will be passed on to Bristow Helicopters who have been awarded the Coast Guard Contract to provide SAR helicopter provision in the United Kingdom through to 2026. 771 NAS the parent squadron for the Royal Navy’s’ two SAR helicopter detachments has the distinction of being the Royal Navy’s first helicopter squadron receiving the Sikorsky R-4 in February 1945. The helicopter revolutionized Search and Rescue operations with its arrival at the end of the Second World War and by 1950 the Royal Navy had begun operating the Westland Dragonfly on plane guard duties and in 1953, it replacing the fixed wing Sea Otter Amphibians.

Westland Dragonfly H R Mk 1

Westland Dragonfly H R Mk 1: Crown Copyright

During the 1950s the Royal Navy had 11 air stations operating SAR helicopter flights and 9 of its Aircraft Carriers flew Dragonflies on Plane Guard Duties, with the first Dragonfly being deployed in 1953 in the search and rescue role, replacing the fixed wing Sea Otter Amphibians. The Whirlwind followed the Dragonfly into service in 1958 and subsequently the Wessex entered service in 1970 with the ultimate military SAR helicopter the Sea King HAS Mk 5 which was developed from the ASW cab, with its sonar gear removed arriving in service in 1987, although from 1981 a number of the Fleet Air Arms ASW Sea Kings were deployed to complete longer range Search and Rescue sorties. Just as the helicopter has evolved.

With the Sea Kings of both the RAF and the Royal Navy reaching their Out of Service dates the British Government has opted to harmonise the provision of search and rescue helicopter services under a new contract with Bristows’ under the control of the HM Coast Guard from 2016 rather the replacing the existing helicopters which will bring to a close both Royal Navy and RAF Search and Rescue operations. The Royal Navy SAR helicopters from Culderose have been involved in some of the UK’s most difficult and memorable rescues, including the 1979 Fastnet Race disaster, the 1989 rescue of the crew of the MV Muree, the Boscastle Floods of 2004 and the grounding of MSC Napoli in 2007. And North of the Border the Sea Kings from HMS Gannet have been no less active and have performed a wide variety of Rescue operations from the Mountains of Scotland including that of three climbers in a blizzard from the notorious Tower Ridge on Ben Nevis in 2007, six crew from the stricken MV Riverdance ferry in Blackpool in 2008, a climber from an avalanche in Glencoe in 2009 and, most recently, a climber with an ankle injury from Argyll’s Beinn Sgulaird in 2011.

The first Royal Navy SAR operation took place on the 31st January 1953, when 12 Dragonfly H R 1/H R 3 helicopters from 705 Naval Air Squadron based at Royal Naval Air Station (RNAS) Gosport/HMS Siskin responded to urgent requests for help following extensive flooding in East Anglia and The Netherlands. After seven hours of flying the Royal Navy’s helicopters had brought to safety 840 people, one piloted having pulled 111 people to safety closely followed by a second single pilot who carried another 102 to safety. 705s Commanding Officer Lieutenant Commander H R Spedding received the MBE and Aircrewman IS Craig received the British Empire Medal for their part in the operation. The first of many “gongs” that have been awarded to the Royal Navy`s SAR helicopter crews over the last six decades. Members of the Royal Navys SAR Helicopter force have recieved no less than three MBEs, one British Empire Medal, twelve Air Force Crosses, three Air Force Medals, six Queens Gallantry Medals plus two bars and two George Medals.

Westland Dragonfly H R 3

Westland Dragonfly H R 3  Crown Copyright

As the service has developed and more advanced helicopters have entered services, the number of bases has been reduced and the service has been integrated with the Search and Rescue Helicopters being flown by the Royal Air Force and the Coast Guard and the secondary role of rescuing civilians eventually took over as the major tasking for the Royal Navy`s SAR Flights today 99% of call out are to civilians.

705 NAS received 12 licensed built Westland WS-51 Dragonfly H R Mk 1s helicopters between January and June 1950, built by Westland`s under license from Sikorsky. These where followed into service by a further 58 Dragonfly H R Mk 3 which had metal rotors, in Mar 1953, The Dragonfly served in total with 15 RN shore bases and aboard 9 Royal Navy Carriers during the 1950s. The Dragonfly had previously been deployed in a plane guard role aboard HMS Indomitable in Jan 1951 and a second embarkation aboard HMS Glory in April of the same year, replacing the destroyers which would shadow the carriers whilst they were launching or recovering fixed wing aircraft, in order pluck to safety any aircrews should the aircraft get in to trouble. The final version of the Dragonfly was the H R Mk 5 which was retired in 1965, twenty five aircraft where upgraded from the fleet of Dragonfly H R MKs 1 and 3 with improved communications and instrumentation as a result of lessons learned during the 1953 Floods. The last Dragonfly flown by the Royal Navy was an H R 1 from the Britannia Royal Naval College finally being retired in June 1967.

Westland Whirhlwind HAR mk 9

Westland Whirhlwind HAR mk 9 Crown Copyright

The Westland WS-51 Dragonfly was followed into Naval service by the Whirlwind HAR 1 a licensed built version of the larger more advanced Sikorsky S-55 which entered service with the Fleet Air Arm after evaluation of the H-19 as the US military version of the aircraft was known and severed with the Royal Navy for 25 years between 1953 and 1977, 167 helicopters were delivered to the Royal Navy by Westland’s and they severed as plane guards, ships flight and Tactical Transport, Commando Assault, anti-submarine warfare and search and rescue helicopter. The Westland Whirlwind had a 300 nm mile range and a top speed of 106 mph. Early versions of the Whirlwind where limited by the power of the Wasp and Cyclone engines but these were replaced by the time the HAR Mk 5 with the Alvis Leonides Major engine and ultimate development of the Royal Navy`s fleet was the Whirlwind HAR Mk 9 which was powered by a Gnome turbine engine which could rescue eight people.

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One of 826 NAS Sea King HAS MK 2A from HMS Eagle Lifts Whirhlwind HAR mk 2 with a Whirhlwind HAR 9 Crown Copyright

Next from Westland’s came the Westland Wessex HAS 1 in 1961. The Wessex was again an angicanised version of the US Sikorsky S-58, and became the Royal Navy`s primary ASW platform until they were replaced by the final licensed built Sikorsky machine the Sea King HAS Mk 1 in the ASW role. The Wessex also served with the Fleet Air Arm in the plane guard and SAR roles with last development of the Wessex twin Gnome powered Wessex H U Mk 5, which was also used by the Commando Helicopter Force, having the capability to recover 16 people with a range of 478 nm and a top speed of 132 mph, until the Wessex was replaced by the Sea King HAR Mk 5 in 1988. Although from the early 1970s after the Sea King HAS MK 1 entered service the Wessex continued to provide SAR cover, but with the Anti-Submarine helicopters were deployed for longer range SAR operations due to its increased range of 598nm and greater endurance of 4 hours. The Royal Navy`s ASW helicopter crews are also trained to undertake SAR tasking’s as a secondary role unlike those of the RAF where they fly as SAR specialists.

771 NAS Westland Wessex H U mk 5

771 NAS Westland Wessex H U mk 5 Crown Copyright

During the 1950s the Royal Navy had 11 air stations RNAS Eglinton/HMS Gannet near Londonderry, Northern Ireland, RNAS Ford/HMS Peregrine near Littlehampton in Sussex, RNAS Brawdy/HMS Goldcrest in SW Wales near Haverfordwest, RNAS Gosport/HMS Siskin in Hampshire, RNAS Lee-on-Solent/HMS Daedalus in Hampshire, RNAS Portland/HMS Osprey in Portland Harbour, Dorset, RNAS Culdrose/HMS Seahawk in Helston, Cornwall, RNAS Yeovilton/HMS Heron in Somerset, RNAS Lossiemouth/HMS Fulmar near Elgin in north east Scotland, RNAS Anthorn/HMS Nuthatch on the Solway Coast in Cumbria, RNAS Prestwick/HMS Gannet in Ayrshire, with SAR Flights and 9 of its Aircraft Carriers flew Dragonflies on Plane Guard Duties.

With the advent of the delivery of the Whirlwind and Wessex helicopters shore based Royal Navy SAR began to be concentrated at RNAS Portland, Lee-on-Solent, and Culdrose and from 1971 at RNAS Prestwick centered on five Naval Air Squadrons Nos 771, 772, 781 and 810 and 819 Naval Air Squadrons, the latter two units being front line ASW squadrons with embedded SAR capability. As the Fleet Air Arm contracted the SAR provision at Lee-on-Solent and Portland was taken over by the Coast Guard, who have utilized at least eight S-61N Mk II at various times, between 1987-2008 operated by Bristow Helicopters Ltd under contract 3 AW 139 two at Lee-on-Solent, and one at Portland under the current Interim SAR contract .

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The removal of the ASW gear has made the Sea King HAR Mk 5 airframe lighter allowing the stowage of more fuel for long range operations along with increased passenger space. Being a Military service the Royal Navy`s SAR helicopters continue to support Naval Operations and have been deployed aboard the Invincible Class Carriers and during the Falklands Campaign a number of Blue and Red Wessex H U Mk 5s where deployed with the task force.

A unique feature of Royal Navy SAR up until 2007 was the SAR Diver when the role disappeared, the SAR divers role was primarily to recover stricken aircrew from a sinking aircraft known as the “Dope on the Rope” he would deploy immediately that the helicopter arrived over the scene, jumping from the helicopter to dive down and recover the pilot from a sinking aircraft. The SAR Divers BASAR equipment allowed the diver to dive for 40 minutes down to a depth of 30m, Today’s Royal Navy Sea Kings are flown by two pilots an observer and an air crewman who are on 15 minutes’ notice during the day and 45 minutes at night and supported by a standby helicopter from two out of the twelve UK SAR stations located around the UK. With 771 NAS operating out of Culderose and HMS Gannets SAR Flight from the Royal Navy Enclave at Prestwick Airport.

Royal Navy Sea Kings where flown by two pilots and an observer and an Aircrewman. who are trained to not only rescue any casualties wherever they may be but are medically trained to Hazardous Environment Medical Technician (HEMT) standard (equivalent to NHS Ambulance technician). Aircrew being drawn mainly from the Fleet Air Arm, made up for personnel wearing Royal Navy or Royal Marine uniforms but have been joined by exchange pilots from the Royal Air Force or from the commonwealth navies and the Kreigsmarine, who regularly join the Fleet Air Arms Sea King units. So far in its sixty year history the role of the Aircrewman has been a mainly male preserve and it was not until earlier this year that, LACMN Sarah Christenson, became the first female “Aircrewman” to join 771 NAS.

Flight Deck of Sea KingHU MK 5

The flight deck of a Sea King HU Mk 5 from HMS Gannet SAR Flight Outbound from Prestwick

Sea King HAR Mk 5 from HMS Gannet SAR Flight

The Observer at the Radar console of one of HMS Gannet SAR Flights Sea King HAR Mk 5

During the run down of Military SAR operations it was recorded that 95% of call outs involved civilians according to the last published 2014 Military SAR Statistics which have shown that HMS Gannets SAR flight has shared the title of the busiest SAR Flight with the now disbanded C Flight 22 Squadron at RAF Valley over the last five years, in 2014 HMS Gannets SAR flight responded to 299 Callouts with the average length of each flight being 1 hour 53 Minutes and an average range of 58 miles from base and 771 NAS responded 252 times with the average sorties being around 1.28 Hours and 32 miles from Culdrose.

The Sea King as it has got older needs a lot of TLC from the ground crews and on average for every hour the helo spends in the air she needs 30 Man hours of engineering support from the maintainers on the Ground. The majority of the Sea King Fleet now have over 10,000 hours on the clock and the whole fleet has logged over 1.5m flying hours. A fully laden 55ft 10 ins long Sea King will weigh in at in at 9,525 kgs although its two Rolls Royce Gnome H1400 Turbines will allow a maximum take off weigh of 9,707 kgs to be lifted by the 62ft diameter five bladed rotor, they have an operational radius of about 250 miles and can reach a top speed of 129 mph and can climb at a rate of 10 m/sec.

Sea King HAR Mk 5 from HMS Gannet SAR Flight

Sea King HAR Mk 5 from HMS Gannet SAR Flight

The Fleet Air Arm has had search and rescue helicopters at RNAS Portland, Lee-on-Solent, and Culdrose and from 1971 at RNAS Prestwick operated by five Naval Air Squadrons 771, 772, 781 and 810 and 819 Naval Air Squadrons, the latter two units being front line Anti Submarine Warfare squadrons with embedded SAR capability. As the Fleet Air Arm has contracted so has the number Navy’s SAR flights, finishing up with the two SAR flights one within 771 NAS at RNAS Culdrose and the second at HMS Gannet the Fleet Air Arm enclave at Prestwick airport which was originally part of 819NAS. The Royal Navy SAR helicopters from Culdrose have been involved in some of the UK’s most difficult and memorable rescues, including the 1979 Fastnet Race disaster, in 1989 the air lifting of the crew from the MV Muree, the Boscastle Floods of 2004 and the grounding of MSC Napoli in 2007.

Sea King HAR Mk 5 from HMS Gannet SAR Flight

Sea King HAR Mk 5 from HMS Gannet SAR Flight

And North of the Border the Sea Kings from HMS Gannet have been no less active and have performed a wide variety of Rescue operations from the Mountains of Scotland including that of three climbers in a blizzard from Tower Ridge, Ben Nevis in 2007, six crew from the stricken MV Riverdance ferry off Blackpool in 2008, a climber from an avalanche in Glencoe in 2009 and, most recently, a climber with an ankle injury from Argyll’s Beinn Sgulaird in 2011. Up until 2006 when the Fleet Air Arm lost its fixed wing aircraft the Royal Navy’s SAR helicopters carried a SAR Diver whose primary job was to enter the water from the helicopter and dive down to a sinking aircraft using a Breathing Apparatus (BASAR) and rescue the pilot from a sinking Fleet Air Arm aircraft, a skill set that translated into civilian operations just as effectively.

There is a story on the Navy-net web site which is said to have happened during the Fastnet Race rescues, which sums up the humor of the “dope on the rope” as the SAR Divers where known, The post said is said to have come from one Larry ‘Scouse’ Slaters crew during the Simon Le Bonn and Drum rescue.

“Allegedly, when Larry popped up inside the air pocket he asked which one of them was Simon Le Bon. When he identified himself, Larry said, ‘Right, unless you promise NEVER to make another record, you’re staying here!’

PO(A) Slater was awarded the George Medal for his part in the rescue in which he dived down into the up turned hull and rescuing the crew members who had been trapped in an air pocket in the capsized yacht.

The Royal Navy Sea King HAR Mk 5s are analogue machines in a digital age and are they have been maintained at 15 minutes’ readiness during the day and 45 Minutes at night, now for some twenty-seven years. Providing a life line to those in distress, Having flown on a training sortie with HMS Gannet SAR Flight from Prestwick you can understand why they train to honed their flying skills and they practice their drills that, for it is these skills make them a safe bet for when others are ready to role the aircraft in to the hangars these guys are ready to spring into action and snatch another body from Davey Jones Locker or to pluck a sole from a precarious cliff face. Due to their locations the Royal Navy’s Sea Kings have have also respond to more Hospital Transfers from the Highlands and Islands in Scotland and from the Scilly Isles in the South West, with around 20% of the RN SAR helicopters tasking’s being Medevac transfers.

Wesland Sea KingHAR mk 5 from 771 NAS RNAS Culdrose

Wesland Sea KingHAR mk 5 from 771 NAS RNAS Culdrose

So when the last Navy crews stand down on the 31st December 2015 it will bring to a close 63 years of of Royal Navy Search and Rescue operations along with the end of twenty-seven years of Fleet Air Arm Sea King HAR Mk 5 Search and Rescue Flying. The Royal Navy’s three oldest Sea King Sea Kings XV647 and 648 where both converted to HAR mmk 5s to fly Search and Rescue missions, while XV649 is one of the Fleet Air Arm’s ASaC Mk 7s having all stated life in 1969 as the first Sea King HAS mk 1 pingers to be delivered to 700S NAS. So as a chapter in British Military and Naval Aviation closes it is time to signal “”Bravo Zulu” Royal Navy SAR Helicopters”

Wesland Sea KingHAR mk 5 from 771 NAS RNAS Culdrose

Wesland Sea KingHAR mk 5 from 771 NAS RNAS Culdrose

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