Heritage: The Westland Sea King

In the Cold War days of the late 1960s and early 1970s, the Australian Government was troubled by the spread of communist insurgencies in South East Asia, and the growing Soviet naval presence in the Indian Ocean.

Following the 1968 British withdrawal East of Suez the establishment of Soviet naval bases in the Gulf of Aden were viewed with unease; likewise the steady increase in Soviet warships and submarines making their presence felt in the Indian Ocean. The expansion of the Soviet submarine fleet in the Pacific was yet another maritime security concern.

In the face of these uncertainties the Australian Government remained committed to a modern Defence Force.     

 RAN Sea King in Brief 

Manufacturer: Westland Aircraft Ltd, Yeovil, Somerset, UK
Type: Carrier-borne Anti-submarine / search and rescue / utility helicopter
Crew: Four (2 pilots, observer/tactical coordinator, aircrewman)
Number ordered: 10 x Mk50s; two replacement Mk50As & one ex-RN updated to Mk50B
First Delivers: 1974/5
Last Delivered: 1983
Rotor span: 5-blade main rotor 18.9 m
Length: All rotors 22.75 m; Fuselage 17.02 m – 14.5 m main rotor & tail pylon folded
Height: Top of tail rotor 5.13 m
Weight: 9,525 kg max take-off
Speed: Max 124 knots (230 km/h); cruising 108 knots (200 km/h)
Range: 499.5 nautical miles; (925 km); endurance max. 5 hrs
Engines: Two Rolls Royce Gnome H.1400-1 gas turbines
Performance: IROC 3000 ft/min; ceiling 14,700 feet (4,480 m)
Armament: Mk46 torpedoes, depth charges, 7.62mm door mounted MAG 58 GSMG 

By 1970 the Wessex HAS31B’s limited endurance and ageing technology prompted the RAN to search for a replacement ASW helicopter. After reviewing the options, the Westland Sea King was chosen for its capabilities. It had been in service with the Royal Navy (RN) since 1969 and proved to be highly effective when operating alone or in company with other aircraft or surface vessels. Built at Yeovil, in the UK, the Westland Sea King was a license-built version of the USN Sikorsky SH-3D.

Given the RAN’s long association with Westland, and the justifiable claim that the Sea King was the most advanced ASW helicopter in service at the time, it was a logical choice. On 15 August 1972 an order was placed for 10 Sea Kings to equip HS817 Squadron at RANAS Nowra, and for service at sea on HMAS Melbourne. The first Sea King Mk50 deliveries began in 1974/5.

Westland Sea King Mk50 Overview

The RAN’s Sea King Mk 50 was a variant of the RN HAS Mk1 but included a number of improvements to meet Australian requirements. This included the more powerful twin 1535 shp Rolls Royce Gnome H.1400-1 gas turbine engines with upgraded gearbox, a six-bladed tail rotor, and the upgraded ASQ-13B sonar. Like their British counterparts, the Mk50s were fitted with an advanced automatic flight control system (AFCS), linked to a doppler navigation system for auto-hover capability. Weapons included Mk46 homing torpedoes and depth charges. A 7.62mm MAG 58 light machine gun could be mounted at the cabin door if needed. Apart from its primary ASW role the Sea Kings were also well suited for surface Surveillance, Search and Rescue (SAR),  and Transport and Utility roles.

The Sea King Mk 50 had a crew of four: two pilots in the cockpit, and an observer/tactical coordinator and a sensor operator in the rear cabin. Sensor equipment included dorsal mounted ARI 5995 radar, and the US Bendix AN/AQS-13B deep dipping sonar. A cargo hook under the fuselage could carry up to 2,700 kg with slings. The rescue winch above the cabin door had a 73 metre (240 feet) cable, able to lift 273 kg (600 lb) or hoist two people simultaneously. The twin Gnome engines could use the aircraft’s batteries to start if needed, free of outside power supplies, and the main rotor blades spread and folded automatically for ease of stowage and more effective deck operations. 

Single engine performance was limited but could get you home. Hovering on one was only possible if the aircraft was very light, in ideal conditions. In the event of ditching, however, the Sea King’s boat-shaped fuselage would float in moderately calm water, aided by its outrigger wheel housings and deployable floats. In transport mode the Mk50 could carry up to 10 passengers, increasing to 18 with its sonar equipment removed. The Sea Kings were a versatile helicopter able to operate day and night in all weather, with a multi-role capability. They were, by any measure, a considerable advance on earlier generation Wessex they replaced. 

Sea King training in the UK

In February 1974 two RAN pilots (LCDR Eddie Bell and LEUT Andrew Craig) were posted to 706 Squadron at RNAS Culdrose in the UK, for Sea King conversion to training. On completion of the course they secured Hangar B4 as a base, and on 23 October the Australian Sea King Flight UK was formed (bearing the rather inelegant acronym ASKFUK) with the now CMDR Bell as OIC, LCDR Craig as Senior Pilot, and LCDR Ray as Senior Observer.

The Flight’s task was to train RAN personnel to maintain and operate the new Sea King Mk50s.

Above: The first two RAN pilots at their Sea King conversion on 706 Squadron, RNAS Culdrose – LCDR Eddie Bell and LEUT Andrew Craig (the tall guy!) Others in the photo are RN aircrew, although S/Lt Tanzi Lea, behind and to the right of Andy Craig, would later join the RAN and become the most experienced Sea King pilot in the FAA. (Click on image to enlarge).

Above: The arrival of the first Aussie Sea King at Culdrose, flown in by Eddie Bell, Keith Englesman and Andy Craig .  We know some of the names of the welcoming group, but you can help us fill in the blanks if you know any (Click to enlarge and use the ‘Contact Us’ box below).  Left to Right: [1-3] Unknown [4] CPO Blue Edgar [5] Pat Arthur [6] Keith Engelsman (with beard) [7] Unknown [8] POA Colin Cook (Partially obscured) [9-12] Unknown [13] Eddie Bell [14] John Wilkie [15-16] Unknown] [17] John McCaw (on steps), [18] Bill Shurey [19] Paul Fothergill [20] LS (or PO) Mick Rooney?? [21] Carl Daley [22] WOA Fred Atkinson [23] Susie Wong [24] Peter Hart (ALO) [25] Andy Craig [26] POA Bill Hornstra [27] Alex Wright [28] PO Peter Penny, and [29] PO Graham Selkirk.

Flight personnel posted to Culdrose comprised 12 pilots, six observers and six aircrewmen, plus an engineering officer. Initially 706 Squadron helicopters were used, until 14 November when the first RAN Mk50 arrived  – with two more following soon after. On the technical side, 24 senior and junior maintainers began training, some with 706 Squadron and others at the Westland plant, thus forming a core of expertise for the return to Australia.

Two photos reminiscent of the Sea King Flight’s time in the UK. Above. The RN sold Sea Kings to many nations, all of whom were hosted/trained at Culdrose, but very few of them were called upon to help with the National Search and Rescue effort. The Australians were a notable exception, joining the SAR roster not long after the Flight was stood up – a reflection on the professionalism and experience of the Unit. Here, an RAN aircraft hovers over the stern of the ‘Asia Freighter’, most probably in November 1974.
Left: Two RAN Sea Kings fly past the control tower at RNAS Culdrose (HMS Seahawk). Culdrose was the premier RN helicopter base in the UK, hosting most of the Royal Navy’s Sea King Squadrons as well as many other lodging units.  Whilst Culdrose could provide much in the way of training airspace, operational training with other ships and submarines required a transit to the Portland Exercise Areas, about 90 minutes to the north-east. 

Flying the Sea King

After completing their Sea King conversion, the Australians began the serious business of accruing flying hours, including on ASW exercises. By then the UK winter had set-in, so  “actual” instrument flying (including in icing conditions) was common – a novel experience for most RAN aviators who were accustomed to more benign Aussie weather. They were experienced aircrew, however, and before long the Australian Sea Kings joined Culdrose’s SAR duty roster, with call-outs on several occasions.   

From mid-January 1975 the Mk50s were flown to RNAS Portland for ASW workups in the RN exercise areas. Two or three aircraft would detach for several days a week depending on the program. These ASW workups continued through January, February and March, together with deck landing practise on HMS Bulwark; torpedo drops with the RN Aircraft Trials Unit, and duties on the Culdrose SAR roster.

By mid March of that year the Flight began winding-up with the last ‘operational’ flight over St Michaels Mount – a picturesque attraction in Cornwall. The three Mk50s were returned to Westland for shipping to Australia, and by early April RAN personnel were returning to HS817 Squadron, to prepare for the arrival of the Sea Kings at NAS Nowra.

Above Left:  The Australians didn’t just learn how to fly the Sea King whilst in the UK: they learned how to fight it too. Here one of the RAN aircraft drops a Mk.44 homing torpedo in waters off Falmouth, Cornwall.  It would have been operating in concert with a second aircraft which had its dipping sonar deployed and was vectoring the aircraft over the suspected submarine contact, to prosecute it.  Above Right:  Australian Sea Kings make a last flight over St Michael’s Mount, a local attraction about 15 miles to the west of  Culdrose.  No doubt the flight ended with a flypast over the air station. 

Sea Kings Join HS817 Squadron 

On 12 May 1975 the first two [of 10] Sea Kings arrived at Sydney’s Darling Harbour in crates. They were transferred to the landing craft HMAS Labuan and transported to Jervis Bay, on the South Coast of NSW. At JB the crates were disembarked and sent by road to RANAS Nowra, where they were unpacked and the aircraft test flown before being assigned to HS817 Squadron. Further shipments arrived at regular intervals during 1975. As soon as the Sea Kings were delivered to HS817 the process of converting Wessex pilots began, together with other aircrew posted to the squadron. 

On 12 June 1975 the visit of the Governor General, Sir John and Lady Kerr provided a welcome relief from training when they were given a 15 minute flight around the Air Station. They were the first of many VIP passengers to fly in RAN Sea Kings. Sir John, as Commander-In-Chief of Australia’s Military Forces, was touring service units around Australia. 

On 23 September 1975, two Sea King helicopters flew from Nowra to Canberra for a midday winching demonstration over Lake Burley Griffin – an astute PR exercise to show-off the new helicopters to Members of Parliament. On a more serious note, however,  the first Sea King was lost during a night-time winching exercise on 21 October. The aircraft’s main gearbox lost oil pressure, requiring it to ditch in the Shoalhaven Bight.  The aircraft capsized, shearing off its rotor blades and sinking in 210 ft of water. Fortunately the crew were rescued by another Sea King, and the helicopter was later salvaged. A gear box oil leak was found to be the problem – the likely cause of two similar crashes later on. You can see a chronological list of the RAN’s Sea King losses here, and read an account of the ditching and rescue of 906’s crew here.

Left.  N16-117 (906) became the first Sea King to ditch only five months after arriving in Australia.  The loss of oil pressure to the main rotor gearbox was a critical fault that, in the early years, necessitated an immediate ditching.  Significant modifications to fix oil filter bolts and to allow the gearbox to run without lubrication for a limited time eventually fixed the issue, but not before more aircraft were lost.  906 was salvaged but never flew again, and its remains were eventually donated to the Fleet Air Arm Museum. 

Work-up Exercises at Sea

By February 1976 HS817 Squadron’s Sea Kings had become fully operational as the front-line ASW helicopter, relegating the old Wessex 31Bs to a secondary role. (They became fleet utility helicopters doing plane guard and other SAR duties, and from 1980 to 1986 playing a leading part in Operation Bursa. They were finally delisted in 1989. 

HMAS Melbourne, to which HS817 belonged whilst embarked, was undergoing a major refit in Sydney when the Sea Kings arrived at Nowra, but the first RAN Sea King Mk50 landed on the ship on 27 April 1976 to conduct trials with flight deck teams.    

Another milestone in 1976 was the arrival of the Flight Simulator. The Simulator was an important training aid, reproducing the flight and tactical characteristics of the Sea King, making training more realistic and cost-effective for both front and rear seat crews alike. The Australian electronics industry assisted in the Simulator development program which used separate compartments for pilots and sensor operators, as well as providing back-up services. 

In July 1976, with Melbourne at sea again, HS817’s Sea King aircrews began flight deck exercises to obtain their day and night-time flight deck qualifications. In August they embarked for work-up exercises in Queensland waters in preparation for exercise ‘Kangaroo 2’ which took place in October, together with submarines and ships from the Royal Navy, New Zealand and US Navies – including the carrier USS Enterprise. During November Melbourne visited the city of Melbourne, where a Sea King flew 250 km to Hall’s Gap to rescue badly injured hang glider pilot from a tree before conveying him to Ballarat Hospital.  

The work-up exercises at sea and the experience gained during ‘Kangaroo 2’ was valuable in further developing the aircrew’s understanding of the Sea King’s impressive ASW capabilities. The Doppler Navigation system, automatic hover capabilities, the superior performance of the sonar system and lengthy on-station endurance, demonstrated a significant advance in helicopter ASW operations – boosting the fleet’s anti-submarine capabilities. 

Pacific & UK Deployments

A major event in 1977 was the February/March ‘RIMPAC 77’, with units of the US and other navies operating from Pearl Harbour. This was one of the biggest naval exercises of its kind for HMAS Melbourne and her Carrier Air Group (CAG). This included the Sea Kings which engaged in ASW activities, working together with the Tracker and Skyhawk aircraft in various war games during the RIMPAC 77 exercise.

HMAS Melbourne, with a detachment of RAN Sea Kings aboard, called into Hawaii on 16 March 1977 to deliver some USN aircraft carried from San Diego as a favour. Note the replacement S2-F Trackers on the flight deck. (RAN image. Click to enlarge.)

On completion of RIMPAC Melbourne sailed for the USA, berthing at San Diego on 12 March to collect 16 replacement S2F Trackers for transport to Australia [see “Out of the Ashes“]. On 05 April 1977 eleven Trackers were launched offshore for Hawker de Havilland at Bankstown, with a further five disembarking at Jervis Bay for NAS Nowra. The following day Melbourne berthed at Garden Island and began preparing for the Royal Silver Jubilee and the Spithead Naval Review in the UK.

Setting Course for Spithead

On 28 April 1977 Melbourne sailed from Sydney Harbour with the CAG embarked, in company with Brisbane and HMNZS Canterbury. After a two day stop at Fremantle, Melbourne was approaching the Cocos Islands on 09 May when a Sea King crashed into the sea about 100 yards astern of the ship during a night landing exercise. Although the crew were rescued, the aircraft was lost. After passing through the Suez Canal  Melbourne conducted exercises with RN and USN units before arriving at Portsmouth on 13 June. 

In England a Sea King, along with several Trackers and Skyhawks, participated in an International Air Tattoo on 25-26 June. The Silver Jubilee Review was conducted on 28 June involving some 175 ships from 18 nations assembled at the Spithead anchorage. Unfortunately a flypast of RAN aircraft was cancelled due to appalling weather on the appointed day.    

Exercise ‘Highwood 77’ & Home

Departing Plymouth on 04 July Melbourne and Brisbane joined exercise ‘Highwood 77,’ a major RN/RAN air defence exercise conducted in the North Atlantic and North Sea. Despite flying operations being curtailed due to bad weather, many lessons were learnt and Melbourne’s air group enjoyed considerable success. In the North Sea Soviet surveillance ships followed the fleet. The Sea Kings showed their cargo-lift value by flying 70 loads of replenishment stores from RFA Stromness. After visiting Rotterdam, a Harrier jet landed aboard the flagship in the English Channel for a demonstration.    

But it was time to go home, and on 02 August 1977 Melbourne and Brisbane slipped their moorings and turned south for Australia via the Mediterranean where, between port visits, exercises with RN and USN units were completed – including with the nuclear submarine USS Nautilus. After clearing the Suez Canal further exercises with RN, French, USN, Indian and RNZN navies took place. The ships’ companies enjoyed visits to Bombay and Singapore and port calls in Australian waters before finally reaching Sydney on 4 October 1977, where  the Sea Kings disembarked to NAS Nowra.

An interesting result of the UK deployment – stemming from the exercises with allied navies along the way – was the conclusion that the Sea Kings had given a tremendous boost to the RAN’s ASW capability. The Sea King’s four-and-a-half-hour endurance, doppler navigation system and search radar gave Melbourne unprecedented coverage of the situation, both above and below the waves, far in advance of the ship’s position. The RIMPAC exercises, then the ‘Highwood 77’ and USS Nautilus exercises were of great value in reaching this conclusion.   

 The Challenges Ahead

Upon return from the UK Melbourne entered dry dock for a refit. By now she was beginning to show her age and a replacement carrier was being considered.  At NAS Nowra the debate raged about new directions for naval aviation, including what fixed-wing aircraft might be suitable for the new carrier. There was also discussion on the suitability of smaller helicopters for the new ‘Adelaide Class’ frigates, as their hangar was too small for the Sea King (although they could land aboard them). In the event, Defence chose the Kaman Sea Sprite for the new buy, which was ultimately a disastrous decision. See the story here.    

After completing her refit Melbourne sailed for Jervis Bay on 12 January 1978 to begin shake-down exercises, including practise deck-landings with elements of her Air Group. This continued through February with pilots completing deck qualifications. The Sea Kings and full CAG embarked at the end of February, in preparation for the forthcoming mid-Pacific JUC98 exercises, scheduled for 29 March with Canadian and Royal New Zealand Navy units. 

On completion Melbourne returned to Jervis Bay where a ‘Task Force’ of government officials spent a day watching flying operations to gain a better understanding of the role of an aircraft carrier. It was all part of the continuing research about the carrier replacement – a vexing issue that remained unresolved until the concept was finally axed some years later.  

The Sea Kings at Sea  

After a lengthy maintenance period, HMAS Melbourne began a shakedown cruise in May of ’79 with the Carrier Air Group embarked, including six Sea Kings. On 23 May a Sea King suffered a tail rotor drive shaft failure whilst attempting to land aboard. Control was lost and the aircraft  ditched alongside, hitting the ship’s side on the way down. Although the aircrew were rescued the aircraft was not recovered. 

Later that year cracks were found in a Sea King airframe near the main transmission, leading to the aircraft being grounded for a time. But confidence in the Sea King as a leading ASW aircraft was evident, as an order was about to be placed for two replacement aircraft for those lost.

Early in 1980 Melbourne’s CAG worked-up for RIMPAC 80 in Hawaii. Two Sea Kings participated in a ‘sub-smash’ exercise, but for technical reasons they did not take part in the main exercise. On 18 August the Sea Kings again embarked on Melbourne for the ‘Sandgroper 80’ exercise in the Indian Ocean. The Sea Kings were in constant use during the deployment, which included ‘Operation Elephant Walk’ with the Indian Navy. Visits to Jakarta and Colombo were included, with notable encounters with Soviet surveillance ships in the Arabian Sea. Besides ASW duties the Sea Kings were busy with personnel transport, medivacs and cargo transfers.

Farewell HMAS Melbourne

Above Left: On her final voyage the former HMAS Melbourne, now decommissioned, is taken in tow by a tug bound for Dalian (China) where she was broken up for scrap. Above Right.  The new Adelaide-Class FFGs provided six more decks for the Fleet.  The Sea King could just fit on them, but was too big for the hangar so was never deployed on this class of ship.  Here, Sea King 02 conducts a VERTREP aboard FFG02, HMAS Canberra. 

In November 1981 Melbourne’s CAG disembarked to NAS Nowra for the last time – bidding a sad farewell to their mother ship as she moved into ‘contingent reserve’.  

The debate around a replacement aircraft carrier had continued from 1977, and right up to 1983 there was hope a new vessel would be procured – but in March 1983 the new Labor Government finally put the concept to bed with the announcement there would be no replacement for Melbourne.  It was a huge blow to the Fleet Air Arm as all fixed-wing assets were axed too, marking the end of an era. 

Although the end of fixed-wing flying caused turmoil at NAS Nowra, the future of a rotary wing force was assured.  The RAN had years of experience with helicopters, starting with the Bristol Sycamores in the 1950s, followed by the Bell Iroquois and Kiowa, the Westland Scout and Westland Wessex, and now Westland Sea Kings and Aerospatiale Squirrels. It was a solid core of expertise on which to build, so the task was to shift from a carrier mentality to small-ship operations.   

The Shift to Rotary Wing

When Melbourne decommissioned in 1982, 817 Squadron Sea Kings made their home base at NAS Nowra. While continuing to engage in ASW exercises off the NSW coast, the Sea Kings began trials on fleet ships with helicopter platforms. In 1983 Sea Kings did test landing on the frigate HMAS Adelaide and other FFGs. Because the Sea Kings were too big for the hangar on this class of ship they were unsuitable for permanent embarkation – but the FFGs could be used for refuelling, training and as landing points during exercises. 

Better suited to larger ships, the Sea Kings were embarked on the heavy landing ship HMAS Tobruk in 1984, and the replenishment ship HMAS Success in 1986; then the amphibious transport ships HMAS Kanimbla and Maroona in 1994. The Westland Wessex were already serving on helicopter capable ships in a utility role including on Sydney, Stalwart, Tobruk and Success. By now the S-70B Seahawks and smaller Aerospatiale Squirrels were embarked on the Adelaide class (FFGs) and Anzac class frigates. Earlier the Westland Scouts had operated from the survey ship HMAS Moresby until replaced by the Bell Kiowa, which served on other ships as well. Operating single aircraft on ships involved significant training and technical support challenges.

The Sea King Resurgence

By 1983 two replacement Sea King Mk 50As had been delivered, which were similar to the Mk 50s but cabin space was enlarged. In 1984 a Sea King was embarked on Stalwart for exercises during a three-month South East Asia deployment

Sea Kings were often used in search and rescue operations. In June 1985 the patrol boat HMAS Wollongong hit rocks near Gabo Island while sheltering from a storm. A Sea King flew  in flotation bags and rescue equipment, contributing to its re-floating several days later. 

WORKING ON THE SEA KING

I worked at 817 from early 1984 until 1992 then 2000-2005.

My early years on the Sea King were at 817 SQN, when ASW was the primary role. I recall extremely busy days with a line prepared with as many aircraft as possible and flying planned from early morning until late evening.

On most days two aircraft would launch and depart as a dip gang out to the East Australian Exercise Area with max fuel for 4-hour flight. On most occasions the plan would be to ‘hot’ refuel the aircraft and change crew, and then turn around to continue ASW exercises. However, vibration in the ‘dip’ was extreme, and the majority of the time either one or both aircraft suffered a number of faults preventing them from continuing.

In most cases the spare or both spares would be required to ensure flying could continue. The unserviceable aircraft were shut down and returned to maintenance, and on most occasions had numerous faults that would have several trades busy with obligatory fault-finding and repairs for the remainder of the shift. This scenario could play out for the rest of the day, and on some occasions when we looked at the Flying Program there would be comments like “a spare for the spares for the spare”. As mentioned, the main reason for these faults was the extreme vibration in the hover while dipping, remembering that most of the avionics were quite complex for its day.

In the hover the Sea King was a dirty aircraft: the aircraft would come back absolutely filthy with carbon exhaust soot from the engines blown down the tail area, requiring regular washing – never a pleasant job.  

In the late 1980s the Counter Terrorist Role was given to the Sea king with the Wessex being phased out. This was always a busy time as the role required removal of the ASW equipment and Sonar rack, to configure the aircraft to a partial troop mode including fast roping. By early 1990 the ASW equipment was becoming unsupportable, however: especially the reeling machine and its diminishing 450 ft cables. Like its predecessor the Wessex, the Sea King’s ASW role was removed and it assumed a pure Utility role. This marked a notable improvement in serviceability, which I presume was from significantly less hovering at 40 feet over the ocean in the dip.

Vibration from the five main rotor blades and six tail rotor blades was another bugbear and required constant balancing and tuning to get the aircraft within limits. The original main rotor blades were manpower intensive with the blade tape on the leading edge requiring regular replacement, especially after the aircraft had operated in moderate rain. The metal blades were eventually replaced in the 90s with composite ones, which were definitely more robust and required less maintenance compared to the previous type.

The engines were good but were quite finicky as they always operating close to max power margins and required regular tuning to maintain their require performance characteristics.

The overall construction of the aircraft was excellent although were some corrosion issues – but this was considered normal, especially around the cargo door area from wet winching.

When the Sea Kings were retired from service their airframe hours were, I understand, quite low compared to other operators of the type.

Working on the Sea King always provided challenges, but also afforded the opportunity to serve with some extremely dedicated and professional people.

Anthony Bathe

In 1985 there was a request for assistance from the Australian Antarctic Division whose ship ‘Nella Dan’ was locked in pack-ice and unable to resupply the Antarctic Research Expedition Base at Macquarie Island. Stalwart was deployed with her Sea King arriving at Macquarie Island on 6 December. Prior to anchoring, Stalwart’s Sea King began airlifting ANARE personnel ashore, then cargo to the main settlement. During the 60 hours at Macquarie Island the aircraft was airborne for more than 29 hours, doing over 130 helicopter lifts, landing 200 tonnes of cargo, and making 115 personnel transfers.

An important function of the Sea Kings was to exercise with fleet submarines, honing the skills of aircrew in detecting and destroying submarines – and allowing the submarine crews to refine their evasion techniques. The Sea Kings were also engaged in ‘showing the flag’. On 24 January 1986 a flypast over Sydney Harbour featured a huge RAN White Ensign. Over the years flag-flying Sea Kings were frequently used for State and National celebrations.  

Following the demise of HMAS Melbourne, the Fleet Air Arm had to learn how to operate small Flights off relatively small decks: a new challenge in terms of logistics and training in particular.

In June 1987, following coup in Fiji, a flight deck was quickly fitted on the training ship HMAS Jervis Bay and a Sea King commenced landing trials at sea off Sydney. Jervis Bay was about to sail to Fiji as part of Operation ‘Morris Dance’ ready to evacuate Australians if disturbances continued, but the situation quickly stabilised so the task was cancelled. 

Attracted by a smoke flare, Stalwart’s Sea King rescued five men on 12 July 1988, who had been adrift in a life raft for almost a week. Their fishing vessel had been swamped in heavy seas and sank off the NSW north coast. Winched aboard the men were examined in Stalwart’s sick bay then given a hot meal. A few days later they were landed at Brisbane. 

On 04 October 1989, the first of 16 Sikorsky S-70B-2 ASW helicopters was accepted at NAS Nowra. The S-70B-2 Seahawks were fitted with sophisticated radar, acoustic magnetic anomaly detection processors, a powerful datalink system, and RAST recovery equipment for use on the Adelaide and Anzac class frigates. The Seahawks gradually took over the ASW role, and the Sea Kings, with their sonar equipment progressively removed, were then reassigned purely to utility and amphibious work.     

Life of Type Update

The original plan was to retire the Sea Kings in 1997 and procure new utility helicopters. But the Sea Kings were still a highly capable aircraft and could readily switch to the maritime utility support role. The RAN therefore began a renewal program for the Sea Kings in 1975: the first upgrade since the aircraft entered service some 20 years earlier.

The Life Of Type Extension (LOTE) program provided the Sea Kings with updated avionics, including radios, radio navaids, doppler navigation equipment and a new radar display. (See more information here). Changes to the rear cabin meant the aircraft could carry up to 18 passengers. Externally, an air filter (EAPS) was fitted in front of the engine intakes to protect the compressor blades from damage, and a heavy-duty footstep was fitted at the cabin door. The Sea Kings were progressively updated, from December 1995 to December 1996, extending their service life until withdrawn in December 2011. 

After the LOTE the Sea Kings role at sea was as a ‘Flight’ aboard the RAN’s amphibious and support ships – and with the sonar removed there was a weight and space saving. In this secondary role the Sea Kings gained a new lease of life; engaging in anti-surface warfare, troop carrying, search and rescue, cargo shifting and weapons carrying.  

Although not for that purpose, the Sea King LOTE really marked the change from an ASW multi-role aircraft to a maritime utility helicopter. HS817 Squadron continued to be based at NAS Nowra, but for maritime support individual Sea Kings routinely embarked on the amphibious ships Tobruk, Kanimbla and Manoora and supply ship Success. While able to land or stage on smaller ships, they did not permanently embark. At Nowra they were heavily engaged in training, SAR and other fleet tasks.

In 1995 two Sea Kings embarked onTobruk for exercise Kangaroo 95, spanning Northern Australia from Cairns to Derby in WA, together with units from the RN, USN, Singapore, Indonesia and PNG participating. One Sea King crashed after hitting trees during a night medivac at an unlit airfield, near Bamaga on Cape York; the aircrew escaped unhurt, but a RAAF nurse was injured. Following the crash, an ex-RN Sea King was purchased as a replacement.

Sea King Assistance

In January 1998, NAS Nowra Sea Kings flew search and rescue missions during the Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race when severe weather caused havoc. Operating at night one Sea King winched onboard three injured crewmen from the badly damaged yacht Sword of Orion while a Seahawk searched for the yacht Winston Churchill (which sank) rescuing two of her crew in a life raft winching them to safety. In both cases aircrewmen entered the water to help with the rescues. A remarkable example of rescue work in extreme conditions at night.[1]

During 1998 the Sea Kings assisted fire-fighters  in rugged, inaccessible places long the NSW/Victoria border area. The outstanding success of HS817 Squadron’s firefighting efforts meant the Sea Kings continued to be used in that role in other locations – notably in the large 2003 fires in Southern NSW and ACT. 

On 10 April 1999, on passage near Cairns, Tobruk received a distress call from the yacht Mayhem which ran aground on Pixie Reef. Tobruk’s Sea King rescued the yacht’s seven crew members, flying them to Cairns where they planned to salvage the yacht.

Timor Troubles and More

In September 1999, Tobruk and Success were deployed to East Timor for Operation Warden Stabilise, following an uprising with local militias creating chaos. With Australia leading the UN sanctioned INTERFET (International Force East Timor) Tobruk and Success ferried troops, landing supplies and equipment for the Australian Army peacekeepers. Because of limited wharf facilities at Dili the Sea Kings were in great demand to land troops, supplies and equipment to INTERFET positions in East Timor. By early November Tobruk and Success had withdrawn but 12 other RAN vessels and seven Sea Kings were variously involved at East Timor up to February 2000.

In June 2000 Tobruk was directed to proceed to Honiara in the Solomon Islands for the possible evacuation of Australian nationals due to a breakdown in law and order, codenamed ‘Operation Plumbob’. HMAS Manoora was also deployed with troops and helicopters. After the situation stabilised, international peacekeepers monitored conditions under ‘Operation Trek’. During this time Kanimbla and other RAN units were rotated to the Solomon Islands, withdrawing in March 2002. Again Sea Kings were gainfully employed with supply runs, personnel movements and surveillance. RAN ships continued to monitor the situation until 2004.

Heavy rain in early March 2001 on the Northern NSW coast led to hundreds of residents being isolated by rising flood waters of the Macleay River. Three Sea King helicopters (and three Seahawks) collected people from parks and paddocks from a wide area around Kempsey flying them to safety. A Sea King from Success flew 49 elderly residents from a retirement home, 17 at a time, across the flooded river to a waiting bus. Tonnes of cargo were moved, and assistance provided to State Emergency Services. In contrast Sea Kings from NAS Nowra were engaged in firefighting in the Shoalhaven/Jervis Bay area from 14 December 2001 to 14 January 2002. 

The Persian Gulf & Iraq

Boarding Party member fastroping from a Sea King Helicopter onto the flight deck of HMAS Manoora, 2002.

The (LPA) HMAS Kanimbla arrived in the Persian Gulf with her Sea King on 2 December 2001 for Operation Slipper. This deployment was to support international security against terrorism (AL ‘Qaeda & Taliban) in the Middle East and Afghanistan. This involved protecting oil platforms, boarding ships to halt smuggling of oil and weapons. The Sea King was used for surveillance, personnel transfers and cargo operations. Kanimbla returned to Sydney on 3 April 2002

On 28 February 2002 HMAS Manoora arrived in the Persian Gulf to join Operation Slipper. She was stationed at Khwar Abd Allah to monitor shipping using her boarding parties to check cargoes for smuggling and weapons, Sea King Shark 02 flew 165 sorties for over 250 hours during this deployment. Manoora returned to Sydney in June 2002

HMAS Kanimbla next reached the Persian Gulf for Operation Falconer/Bastille on 15 February 2003, clearing the Abd Allah waterway and searching ships and dhows, seizing an Iraq ship carrying sea mines. Sea King Shark 07 flew some 205 hours in all, providing 19 support missions into Iraq, carrying more than 400 passengers and 123 tonnes of cargo, making good use of its endurance and heavy lift capacity.  On 13 April Shark 07 had a bearing failure on a low-level flight over Iraq but reached an RN base at Az Zubayr where the engines and gearbox were replaced. Kanimbla’s flight deck received 13 different helicopter types from four countries and often hot refuelled coalition aircraft. After 117 days Kanimbla departed the MEAO on 14 June 2003.    

Following the collapse of Iraq forces in May 2003, Manoora again sailed for the MEAO to assist in winding down Operation Falconer and to collect Australian Defence Forces’ (ADF) personnel and equipment. Manoora entered the MEAO on 3 June where her Sea King provided additional sea lift capacity in the area and began the back-loading of ADF equipment and stores for Australia. Manoora returned to Australia on 28 June.[2] 

Sea King Tragedy on Nias Island

Following the Boxing Day Tsunami on the west coast of Indonesia, Kanimbla sailed from Sydney on 31 December 2004 for Operation Sumatra Assist to help with disaster relief. Then, following an earthquake, the ship was deployed to Nias Island to provide humanitarian aid. On 2 April 2005, while engaged in relief operations near the village of Amandraya, Sea King Shark 02 crashed, killing nine ADF personnel and severely injuring two. It was the only fatal accident in the RAN Sea King’s history. 

Saluting the Sea Kings

In the very final chapter of their life,  RAN Sea Kings again played a critical role in rescuing scores of people in the emergency of January 2011 when Sea Kings Shark 21 and Shark 22 provided vital assistance during the devastating floods in Queensland and Northern NSW.

Finally, on 15 December 2011, in a fond farewell three Sea Kings performed a ceremonial flyover of Sydney and Canberra before returning to NAS Nowra for the last time, where 817 Squadron was decommissioned and the Sea Kings were finally paid off. One aircraft (Shark 07) remains at Nowra on display at the Fleet Air Arm Museum. The remaining airframes were sold to Aerospace Logistics Ltd UK, to be broken down for spares.  They left as they arrived – through the main gate of Albatross on the back of a truck (photo right).    

The Westland Sea King was an outstanding helicopter. It served the RAN for 36 years in a diversity of roles – firstly as a carrier-borne anti-submarine warfare and search and rescue aircraft, then changing to amphibious operations, utility work, disaster and humanitarian relief. The Sea Kings performed exceptionally well from the very first delivery in 1974 until the last flight in December 2011.

The RAN is rightly proud of the service the Sea King gave over so many years and the people that flew and maintained them.

Footnotes:

[1]Sea King 05 and 20 attended from NAS Nowra; whereas Seahawk 70 came from HMAS Newcastle and 74 from HMAS Melbourne.

[2]During Operation Slipper the RAN deployed Adelaide Class FFGs and Anzac Class FFHs with embarked Seahawk and/or AS350B Squirrel helicopters. Since 1990 the RAN has maintained a presence in the Middle East Region, as part of an international effort to counter terrorism and piracy, encourage regional cooperation, and promote maritime security.


With special thanks to the following for advice and assistance: Andrew Craig, Keith Engelsman, Paul Moggach, Anthony Bathe, Terry Hetherington, Nick Thorne, Brian Thompson, Ron Marsh and Tony Baker.  

The Sea King ‘History in Photos’ section (linked to this page) was compiled and captioned by Marcus Peake. 

References:

RAN 817 Squadron history
RAN Sea Power ‘Navy News’
The Navy League of Australia
Australian War Memorial
RAN histories for HMA Ships Melbourne (11), Jervis Bay (1), Kanimbla (11), Manoora (11), Tobruk (11), Success (11) Stalwart (11)
‘Flying Stations’ Allen & Unwin 1998

‘Wings Across the Sea’ by Ross Gillett, Aerospace Publications, 1988
Australian Aviation Magazine September 1997
ADF Serials & Wikipedia.

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