On April 7, 1967, legendary French helicopter Test Pilot Jean Boulet took the Sud Aviation SA.340 on its maiden flight. To mark this important anniversary and celebrate the success of what we now know as the Gazelle, Threshold.aero organised a gathering of the type at the ‘home’ of Army Air Corps (AAC) aviation – Middle Wallop in Hampshire.
When designed by French company Sud Aviation, the intention was for the Gazelle to replace the companies Alouette II – in fact, the prototype itself flew with a tail boom from an Alouette II. This did not last for long though as the second prototype replaced the conventional tail rotor with a Fenestron tail – quite possibly the Gazelles most distinctive feature. In use with many subsequent designs of Sud Aviation’s descendant company, Airbus Helicopters, the Gazelle saw the first use of the system which sees multiple smaller blades (13 in the case of the Gazelle) contained within an enclosed housing thereby creating a large ducted fan.
With a primary mission of light attack and observation duties, the Gazelle soon caught the eye of the British forces who were looking for a new aircraft to replace the Westland Sioux leading to an agreement for Westland to build the UK variants of the type. Whilst both the French and British went on to become the most significant operators, smaller numbers have been exported or sold on to other countries along with the development of purely civilian owned and operated variants.
Making it to a half century anniversary is a massive occasion especially when you consider the advancements in aviation throughout the world during that same time period. Following the rapid development that took place in the early part of the 20th century, focus shifted from the building of new models to enhancing the equipment already in use. It is therefore only right that these anniversaries are celebrated and as has become the norm, a gathering of the type in a single location is one of the best ways to do just that. The intention of the Middle Wallop event was to gather as many examples of the Gazelle, covering as many variants as possible, together in one place for the public and enthusiasts to enjoy with 17 making it to the Hampshire base from an initial list of 25 expected.
As the primary military users of the type, support from both the Army Air Corps and the French Armée de Terre was a welcome sight. Although ageing and with some of its original roles now taken over by more modern aircraft such as the Apache and Eurocopter Tiger, the Gazelle still continues to play a frontline role with both forces with the UK intending to continue its operational usage until 2025.
The Army Air Corps provided three examples of their AH.1 variant (WA.341B) in standard green and grey camouflage scheme. Whilst two had already been towed out on to the airfield early in the morning (ZB692 and XX405) the third aircraft (XZ320) lifted from just inside the base (itself home to 671 Sqn, 7 (Training) Regiment that operate the type) giving visitors a good chance to see an AAC airframe in the air. Of particular note on this airframe were the two pylons protruding from the fuselage, which would normally carry camera and sensor equipment used in the observation role – one that is particularly utilised by 665 Sqn, 5 Regiment based at Aldergrove, Northern Ireland which operates XZ320.
Making the trip across the channel from north east France were a pair of SA.342Ms representing the two very different fits that are operated by the French Army. Based at Étain – Rouvres Air Base just east of Verdun, the attending aircraft are operated by 2e Escadrille d’Helicopteres de Reconnaissance et d’Attaqu (EHRA 2e), 3e régiment d’hélicoptères de combat (3e RHC). Not that dissimilar externally to its British Army counterparts, with the exception of the green, brown and black camouflage, the aircraft coded GEC (serial 4207) fulfils a similar role; however it was originally fitted for an anti-air role and equipped with the now retired Mistral air-to-air missile. One of its missions now includes interception of light ground targets involving the removal of all doors and the carrying of snipers in the rear cabin. The second aircraft, coded GBI (serial 4072), is equipped to pack much more of a punch – this being instantly noticeable from the machines external appearance. Mounted on the port side above the cabin is the Viviane thermal imagery camera system, whilst on either side of the fuselage are the mounting points for the wire guided Haut subsonique Optiquement Téléguidé Tiré d’un Tube (HOT) anti-tank missile system. In total, 3e RHC operate three Gazelle squadrons (EHRA 1, 2 and 3) with a total of 24 airframes. 1e RHC also based in the north east at Quartier La Horie and 5e RHC based at Pau on the edge of the Pyrenees also operate the type as does 4e Régiment d’Hélicoptères des Forces Spéciales (4e RHFS) which is also based at Pau.
Although initially planned for use within the AAC, other services soon acquired their own Gazelle variants although mainly for non-front line duties. The Royal Navy and RAF both utilised the Gazelle in a training role (variants WA.341C/HT.2 and WA.341D/HT.3 respectively) with the latter also utilising a version for communications and VIP transport (WA.341E/HCC.4). Once these left service, many found their way in to civilian hands and a number of these examples were present with some still clearly showing their miltary heritage.
Ex-Royal Navy machines were the most numerous on the day with four examples present. In operational service all these aircraft were operated by 705 Naval Air Squadron based at RNAS Culdrose wearing a red and white scheme which was represented by one of those attending, G-ZZLE, ex-XX436. This particular aircraft has been seen over the last couple of years on display with The Gazelle Squadron and now represents its links to the service as a Navy Wings associate aircraft. Like a number of the 705 Sqn airframes, G-ZZLE flew with the Sharks display team during its time in service – its current scheme representing just that.
Another airframe with links to the Sharks is G-CBGZ, ex-ZB646. Although now in an all over metallic graphite color, the tail wears the teams markings along with 60th anniversary marks in honour of 705’s diamond anniversary in 1996. One of the more colourful examples on show G-CTFS, ex-XW857 certainly stood out in a blue scheme with silver and green striping. The final HT.2 on display was also that of the final construction number of the type – G-SIVJ, ex-ZB649 with the owner of this particular aircraft opening the doors and engine panels allowing an up-close look at the gearbox and the heart of the type, its Turbomeca Astazou IIIN2 power plant.
Representing the RAF HT.3 variant was G-CBSK, ex-ZB627, which served primarily with 2FTS at RAF Shawbury – a history that it continues to show with the markings carried in its civilian life. Another aircraft that is operated by the Gazelle Squadron, this helicopter formed one part of the pairs display that made their debut during the 2016 airshow season.
The final ex-military example attending saw service within the Army Air Corps as an AH.1 variant. Unlike its in service markings, G-CDNO, ex-XX432, could not be painted in a less conspicuous scheme – one that was regularly seen on the almost identical schemed Hunter, Miss Demeanour!
Despite its military origins, the Gazelle was also successful in the civilian markets with Sud Aviation building the SA.341G and, later, the more powerful SA.342J model. Six civilian examples were on display with G-GAZA, N341AS, N505HA, N901B and YU-HPZ representing the ‘G’ model and YU-HEY showing off the sole ‘J’ model on the day. Whilst obviously lacking a few of the external ‘bristles’ that are found on its military counterpart, the civilian variants look somewhat sleeker with many featuring a covered tail rotor drive shaft and redesigned skids, not to mention the plusher interiors and, in the case of N901B, a tinted front window section.
With the event designed to celebrate the legacy of the Gazelle, that wasn’t to say that other types weren’t present and a number of other rotary and fixed-wing aircraft attended. Arriving late in the morning were a pair of Autogyros, the enclosed cockpit Calidus (G-MARL) and open cockpit Bensen B-8MR (G-CBNX). A prime example of the continued use of the Fenestron rotor design was evident with Eurocopter EC-130 G-PERT, whilst one of the most numerous built choppers of recent years, the Robinson R44 was present with G-ROYM. Similar to the initial requirement that led to the design of the Gazelle, the US were also looking into their options around the same timeframe and, whilst not initially selecting the prototype design, this competition led to the Agusta Bell B206 JetRanger and G-KETH was present as an example. The final rotary aircraft was Hughes 500 G-HUEZ, another example of a civilian variant developed from a military design – that of the OH-6 Cayuse.
Completing the days visitors were a large number of fixed wing aircraft that were also used in the observation role and all part of the Auster family. Nine examples gathered behind the rotary types including AOP III G-BUDL/NX534, three Mark V’s – G-AKSY/TJ534, G-ANIE/TW467 and G-APAF/TW511 – along with a quartet of AOP.9’s G-BJXR/XR267. G-BKVK/WZ662, G-BURR/WZ706 and G-CEHR/XP241. The final aircraft was G-AWSW/XW635 – a Beagle Husky that was a development of the Auster Alpha – which was the only example of the type to serve within the RAF with No.5 AEF after being won in a raffle!
The day itself was a very relaxed and laid-back affair. With gates opening just after 9am, visitors were able to watch the arrivals, wander around a small number of trade stands or, as many did, take in the Museum of Army Flying for which the event raised funds. Later in the day, the gates were opened to allow just over two hours of wandering amongst the aircraft giving a chance to get up close. It was great to see just how happy the French aircrew were to be present with significant interested shown in their two airframes that they were more than happy to talk about, as were the AAC personnel with one of their own examples that was open. It was also pleasing to see a number of civilian owners open their own aircraft, even if just for a short time, to the crowd that attended. Of course, with all the visiting aircraft, there were plenty of movements as they left to head home once the public access had been closed. With the runway favouring viewing with the late afternoon sun, it gave a great view of the departures, especially the French who hover taxied directly in front of the onlookers back to their on-base parking spots in a hurricane of rotor wash!
This was the first major event for the new Threshold.aero group and, whilst there may have been some doubt initially over their ability to organise such a gathering, it has to be said that bringing 17 Gazelles and 9 Austers together at a military airfield cannot have been an easy task. Yet the attendance speaks for itself with over 950 tickets sold in advance and still many people (around 250) arriving on the day at the gate hoping to get in, thanks no doubt to the glorious weather!. When you think that the entrance price for a single adult to the Museum itself is normally £12, the extra £3 paid for the day’s events really was worth it. Middle Wallop isn’t known for its great photography opportunities due to the layout of the airfield and viewing points but, by allowing visitors on to the field itself, it gave much better options even if it was extremely busy for the first hour. Whilst you can’t judge anything from a single event, the signs for Threshold.aero are promising and AeroResource will certainly be keeping an eye out for future ones.
For a great highlights video from the event, check out the below from YouTube channel MotorsportVlogs.