If all goes to plan on Wednesday 26 September, the last Westland Sea King helicopters in UK military service will make a farewell flight around the Devon-Cornwall peninsula, where the aircraft have been a common sight, before retiring. It brings to an end just short of half a century of dependable and effective service. The Sea King was the culmination of a long and mutually beneficial relationship between the US manufacturer Sikorsky and the UK’s Westland, in which Westland took Sikorsky’s designs and developed versions for UK service that were perfectly suited to the roles required of them. As the Wessex had replaced the Whirlwind, the Sea King replaced the already capable Wessex, offering greater power, endurance, lifting power, payload and adaptability. The UK Sea King differed considerably from the original Sikorsky machine, including in crew arrangement, systems and powerplant. It was adopted with great success for roles including anti-submarine warfare, air-sea rescue, commando insertion, transport, and airborne early warning. In the UK it was operated by the Royal Navy and the RAF, and the Westland version was also bought by Germany, Egypt, Germany and India. The type was held in enormous affection in the Royal Navy, and will be much missed, though unquestionably the newer Merlin helicopters offer even greater capabilities, and the age of the airframes meant that the type’s much-trumpted reliability could not be maintained indefinitely.
It’s impossible to do justice to the Sea King’s service in one blogpost, so I’ll simply mark the occasion with a series of photographs, showing the Sea King in all its varied glory. The King is dead. Long live the King.
The cockpit of Falklands veteran Sea King HAS Mk 5 XZ574 at the Fleet Air Arm Museum, Yeovilton. The Mk 5, introduced in 1979, was the main late-model variant in the anti-submarine role which was the initial role for the Sea King. It was replaced by the HAS Mk 6, but all but six Mk 6s were upgraded Mk 5s
The cabin interior of the Fleet Air Arm Museum’s Falklands-veteran HAS Mk5 XZ574, showing the anti-submarine equipment’s operating consoles. The Mk 5 introduced a combination of sonobuoys and dipping sonar for significantly more effective detection
One of the RAF’s long-serving HAR Mk 3A Sea Kings, ZH544. The RAF started using the Sea King in the Air-Sea Rescue role in 1978. ZH544 is seen here at Duxford in September 2014, less than a year before it was retired by the RAF
Another of the RAF’s HAR Mk 3As, ZH542, seen lowering a crewmember in a demonstration off Clacton in August 2014. The Mk 3As were new build aircraft acquired in the late 1990s, requiring the production line to be started up again, old jigs put back into use and even retired staff recalled for their knowledge
ZH542 again, conducting a joint demonstration with the Clacton RNLI in August 2014. ZH542 was retired in 2015 along with the remaining RAF Rescue Sea Kings, and sold to the Belgian Air Force as a spares source
The Royal Navy also utilised the Sea King for Air-Sea Rescue, using a modified version of the ubiquitous Mk 5, designated HU Mk 5. The modifications were developed by the Royal Navy at RNAS Culdrose. This aircraft, ZA167 operated with 814 Squadron in the anti-submarine role, then with 771 Squadron after conversion to Search and Rescue format
Two Royal Navy Sea King HU Mk 5s at RIAT in 2009 for the centenary of British naval aviation, along with an Airborne Early Warning ‘baggy’ Sea King
Another highly successful adaptation was the commando-carrying Mk 4, known universally as the ‘Junglie’. This Junglie is seen at RIAT, 2009, in Arctic camouflage. The main basic external difference, simplified undercarriage sponsons without floats or retractable wheels, is apparent. Commando Sea Kings do not appear to carry readable serials, unfortunately, so the identity of this machine is unclear.
A ‘Junglie’ Sea King Mk 4 working with Archer-class Royal Navy patrol boat HMS Dasher, off Brighton in August 2015, with RFA Argus behind. The HC Mk 4 saw extensive service in Afghanistan and Iraq in its later operations with the Royal Navy, having earlier performed sterling work in Bosnia, Northern Ireland and the Falklands. The HC 4 was as much at home over desert or mountains as it was over the sea
The ‘baggy’ Sea King, otherwise known as the ASaC Mk7 (for Airborne Surveillance and Area Control) replaced the AEW Mk 2. The first AEW versions were developed with remarkable speed during the Falklands campaign, though it just missed the fighting, due to the RN’s lack of airborne early warning. The Searchwater radar is carried in the large retractable radome. This aircraft, ZE418, started life as a HAS Mk 5 before conversion to AEW Mk2A in 1996 and ASaC Mk7 in 2009. In this role it served with 849 Squadron
Close-up of ASaC Mk7 ZE422 at Yeovilton in 2017. The Mk 7s are the last Sea Kings in UK operational service. This aircraft served with 854 and 857 Squadrons, before finishing its career with veteran airborne warning and control unit, 849 Squadron
The distinctive retractable radar of the ASaC Mk7 ZE422, with its inflatable radome giving it its ‘baggy’ nickname
The Sea King ASaC Mk7 ZE418 above the type that has replaced it in most roles – the AgustaWestland Merlin. The aircraft are seen here at Fairford in 2009. It took the Merlin a decade to fully supplant the Sea King
Some Sea King references:
Sons of Damien – Sea King Marks page
Aviation Highlights – Junglie HC Mk 4 retirement
Helis.com – Sea King page (site contains lots of references on individual aircraft histories)
Naval Technology – Sea King page