The 31st of March 2016 heralded another sad day in the history of UK military aviation as the iconic dark green Westland Sea King HC4 Commando helicopters, affectionately known as ‘Junglies’, were retired from active service after nigh on 36 years of providing a heavy lift and troop carrying capability to the Royal Navy and the Royal Marines.
Born out of a requirement by the Egyptian Air Force and designated the HC1/HC2, the most notable change in the Sea King’s appearance was the removal of the side floats and the main undercarriage being ‘welded’ down and placed on new stub sponsons. The Royal Navy designated the aircraft ‘HC4’ with the first new build aircraft (that being Sea King HC4 ZA290) being flown on the 26th September 1979 , and delivered to the Royal Navy on the 10th December 1979 – beginning the legend of the ‘Junglie’.
A total of 43 airframes were built from new (42 HC4s plus a single HC4X for the Empire Test Pilot School), with three notable airframe losses during the Falklands war in 1982 including the first built ZA290, which was destroyed by the crew on a beach in Chile during Operation Plum Duff – a Special Forces reconnaissance staging mission for the planned and cancelled Operation Mikado (the operation intended to deploy the Special Air Service to strike Rio Grande, the home base of the Argentinian Super Etendard fleet and more importantly, their deadly Excocet anti-shipping missiles).
The first Naval Air Squadron (NAS) to receive the Sea King HC4 was 846 based at RNAS Yeovilton, converting from their Westland Wessex HU.5 aircraft. Other Naval Air Squadrons that operated the HC4 were 707 based at RNAS Yeovilton and JHCFS Aldergrove, 845 based at RNAS Yeovilton, 772 based at RNAS Portland and 848 at RNAS Yeovilton – who were the final operator of the type and saw out its decommissioning in 2016.
The HC4, crewed by two pilots and a single aircrewman, was a very capable aircraft with the ability to transport up to 27 fully laden troops, albeit a little cosy, or 6,000 lbs of stores internally. It could also lift 2.5 tonnes underslung loads, including such items as Land Rovers or 105mm Howitzer guns. Fitted with two Rolls Royce Gnome 1400-1 engines producing 1,400 Shaft Horsepower each, the Sea King HC4 could cruise at 129mph at sea level and had a range of 246 miles whilst fully laden.
The ‘Junglie’ was a veteran of many conflicts -perhaps most famously the Falklands war of 1982, but just as vitally serving in the Balkans, both Gulf Wars, Lebanon, Afghanistan and Sierra Leone.
One particular airframe, ZA298/Y , has rightly earned the title of ‘King of the Junglies’ as it has survived being shot down during its service in three different conflicts; The Falklands, Bosnia and Afghanistan. After being shot by an Argentinian Skyhawk in the Falklands and damaged by small arms fire in Bosnia, ZA298’s last rebuild was the result of an attack by Taliban fighters, who used a rocket propelled grenade (RPG) to score a direct hit whilst ZA298 was deployed with 846 Squadron in Afghanistan. The RPG hit the aircraft on the starboard side, just behind pilot Lt Commander Steve Brown’s head, wounding a Marine door gunner. Due to the level of damage, the aircraft was airlifted out by Chinook and eventually sent back to the UK and the workshops at Gosport where it was repaired and returned to service.
The good news is that ‘The King of the Junglies’ will be preserved at the Fleet Air Arm museum at Yeovilton in due course, and displayed along with the panels that were hit by the RPG. What happens to the other retired aircraft is unknown but Lt Cross of 848 Sqn joked “they might be auctioned off – but with no careful owners!”
Indeed, a few of the Junglies have already been put up for auction through Witham Specialist Vehicles Ltd including ZD476, ZA312, ZF120 and ZF122. With a price tag of £150,000 and supplied WITHOUT engines, you will need very deep pockets to own a piece of Naval aviation history.
The Commando Helicopter Force (CHF) Commanding Officer, Captain Niall Griffin MBE RN, has over 3,000 hours on the HC4 and, during the media day held in February 2016, he spoke fondly of the aircraft:
“Everyone that has flown the Sea King recognises what a forgiving and enjoyable aeroplane it is to fly and how well it has served us. It has been truly remarkable. For me flying the Sea King is like putting a comfortable pair of gloves on.”
848 squadron, as previously mentioned, had the sad task of decommissioning not only the Sea King HC4 but also the squadron itself , which was originally formed in 1945 as a torpedo bomber squadron. The squadron has won battle honours in Normandy, Okinawa, Japan, Falkland Islands and Kuwait and also saw operations in Northern Island, Bosnia, Iraq and Afghanistan. The mission statement of 848 NAS sums up the work ethics of the Sea King and the Commando Helicopter Force – “To provide tactical mobility in all weathers, by day and night in all climatic conditions”.
With a flypast of the Southwest of England on March 21st 2016, and with five of their remaining seven aircraft present (ZF117 “X” flew out for disposal the same day), 848 NAS said farewell to the local community flying over many landmarks that had been regular haunts of the venerable Junglie over the years. The decommissioning ceremony took place two days later at RNAS Yeovilton with a parade and a three ship flypast of Junglies. Three aircraft then departed on their final ever Royal Navy sorties on Wednesday 30th March to Fleetlands in Hampshire to be stored and await their fate.
As the Sea King HC4 and 848 NAS bow out, 846 NAS (to be joined by 845 NAS later this year) take over the Royal Navy / Royal Marine frontline maritime troop deployment role with their inherited AgustaWestland Merlins from the Royal Air Force. The aircraft will gradually all be “navalised” – a process that includes the installation of folding rotors and tail, and eventually a new digital cockpit – transforming the aircraft from HC3 to HC4 standard. Several aircraft have already been, or are being converted to, an interim HC3i standard which includes the addition of lashing points, upgraded undercarriage, RRB India band transponder for easier tracking and identification of the aircraft at sea and folding blades. Eventually around 20-25 Merlin aircraft will be split between 845 NAS (currently undergoing conversion) and 846 NAS.
Whilst Captain Griffin is sad to see the Junglie retire, he has much praise for the incumbent Merlin:
“The Merlin is a far more modern and capable aircraft. It is larger, allowing for more troops in the back, and it can carry more weight further and quicker than the Sea King. Add to that the avionics systems and aircraft upgrades that are part of the package and we have a far more modern and up to date battle field helicopter to serve our Commando customers.”
The 31st of March will be a bitter sweet day, a day that the Sea King HC4 starts a new life in the history books, and a new era for The Commando Helicopter Force utilising its new steed, the mighty Merlin. The Junglie may no longer grace our skies but the memories, photographs and stories will live long for this legendary military work horse.
Fear God – Honour The King!
AeroResource would like to thank 848 Naval Air Squadron and its personnel along with the RNAS Yeovilton and CHF PRO’s for their assistance and access during the media day. We would also like to thank David and Paul at Withams for their assistance.