Fast, sleek, agile and sporty; words which are often used to describe and sum up the Westland Lynx – a helicopter that, in March 2017, will finally reach the end of a remarkable forty-one years of service with the Royal Navy. Mark Kwiatkowski reports from the last home of the Royal Navy Lynx, RNAS Yeovilton.

The maritime variant of the Lynx began life with four navalised WG-13 prototypes, the first of which flew from the Westland Helicopters Ltd factory at Yeovil on the 21 March 1971. Intended as a replacement for the company’s diminutive Wasp small ships helicopter, design work had begun as early as 1963 and, in 1967, a package deal was agreed between the British and French governments to collaborate on a series of new helicopters; the Puma, the Gazelle and the WG-13, now named ‘Lynx’.

Despite the Army Air Corps’ Army Helicopter (AH) being numerically designated first, the Royal Navy’s HAS Mk.2 was actually first to enter British military service, joining 700L Naval Air Squadron at RNAS Yeovilton when it was commissioned on 1 September 1976. The squadron was unique in being initially joint Anglo-Dutch, operating the Dutch Navy SH-14 variant with Dutch air and ground crew alongside the HAS Mk.2 to share the early intensive flying trials before returning home to the Netherlands. In 1978, 700L was recommissioned as 702 NAS at RNAS Yeovilton and, in January 1981, was followed by the first front line unit (815 NAS) acting as the Headquarters Squadron for all embarked flight aircraft. Both 702 and 815 NAS moved during July 1982 to RNAS Portland, which was to become the home of the Lynx for the next 17 years.

The first real test for the Lynx occurred in 1982 with a number of aircraft being deployed with the Royal Navy task force to the South Atlantic as part of Operation CORPORATE and the re-taking of the Falklands Islands. Three aircraft (XZ251, XZ242 and XZ700) were not to return when the ships on which they were being carried (HMS Ardent, HMS Coventry and MV Atlantic Conveyorwere sunk by enemy action all within four days in May 1982.

Nick Last, former Lieutenant commander with the Royal Navy, recounts the event when, flying as an 83 Flight Observer (FLOBS) from HMS Penelope, he fired a Sea Skua during Operation CORPORATE taking out the Argentine patrol boat Río Iguazu:

The initial damage was done by Sea Harriers weeks earlier, however when we spotted the patrol boat at Button Bay at the time we were unaware of its condition and believed it was an operational vessel. We fired a Sea Skua missile which struck the bridge on the port side destroying all of its internal equipment and damaging the superstructure beyond repair due to extensive shrapnel.

From that point on, the Royal Navy Lynx have seen deployments around the world and, in the year following Operation CORPORATE, Lynx were used in conjunction with other British helicopter assets in the evacuation of British nationals from war-torn Beirut. The 1980s also saw the start of the long-standing ARMILLA Patrol, protecting British shipping interests in the Persian Gulf following the Iran/Iraq war of 1980, for which two new ‘Gulf Mod’ sub-variants were created; the HAS Mk.3GM and HAS Mk3.GMS. In 1986, several embarked flights were transferred from 815 NAS to the recommissioned 829 NAS, also at Portland, with the two squadrons sharing this task until 1993.

Lynx HAS Mk3s from HMS Manchester, Gloucester, Southampton and London were all to see action against Iraqi fast patrol boats in the Gulf during Operation GRANBY in early 1991 with two of the Flight Commanders being awarded the Distinguished Service Cross in recognition of the part they played in the ousting of Iraqi forces from Kuwait.

Nick Last was 91 Flight Commander onboard HMS Manchester during the Gulf conflict recounted the part he played engaging with the Iraqi Navy:

Royal Navy Lynxs worked in combination with US Navy Seahawks during the Gulf War. The American helicopters lacked an effective anti-ship missile, but had a superior surveillance capability compared to us. They would locate hostile boats for us, and we would then attack the targets with Sea Skua missiles. During the conflict our flight fired one Sea Skua at an Iraqi patrol boat totally destroying and sinking it. We also initially disabled an Iraqi Spasilac minelayer and followed that up with a secondary attack with two missiles the following night completely destroying and sinking the vessel.

In March 1993, 829 NAS disbanded and the front line tasks once again returned to 815 NAS and, in 1999, both 702 and 815 NAS relocated from RNAS Portland to RNAS Yeovilton.

Beginning in 1993 and running through to 2002, the final major upgrade programme saw many of the Lynx converted to HMA Mk.8 standard which increased the all-up mass to 5,330 kg, fitted with a reverse-direction tail rotor, repositioned the Seaspray radar and gave a new ‘stepped’ nose structure to allow the fitting of the turret mounted Sea Owl Passive Identification Device.

From late 2005, a Joint Rapid Reaction Force (JRRF) was created which was later retitled as the Operational Readiness Unit (ORU), subsequently becoming ‘B’ Section and ultimately the Maritime Interdiction Flight for Maritime counter-terrorism duties. In 2006, three flights were deployed to Northern Ireland as part of Operation BANNER, one such aircraft being the last to leave the Army’s Bessbrook Mill base in April 2007 before its closure. In the latter part of the decade, Operation ARMILLA became KIPRON, extending the area of responsibility for the protection of international shipping from pirates further south to the coast of Somalia – a mission that has dominated the final years of maritime Lynx service alongside counter-terrorism and counter-narcotics operations. A recent demonstration of the counter-terrorism mission closer to home came during 2012 when Lynx of 815 NAS were based on board HMS Ocean moored on the Thames to conduct security operations as part of the London 2012 Olympic Games.

Alongside operational commitments, the Lynx has also become an airshow regular after the Royal Navy helicopter display team, The Black Cats, was formed in 2004. Often operating a pair of aircraft with formation and opposition manoeuvres, distinctive special schemes with the team’s logo were applied to two of the regular display mounts. In recent years, along with the transition of the Lynx to Wildcat, the same has happened with The Black Cats team, with them displaying first with a single example of each aircraft and recently with a pair of Wildcats.

In July 2014, 815 NAS became the sole operator of the Maritime Lynx with the decommissioning of 702 NAS and the final run-down of the 815 NAS Lynx Mk.8 fleet began in earnest in April 2016 with the introduction to the squadron of the new Wildcat HMA.2. Retired aircraft are being ferried to Middle Wallop and placed into a spares donor programme to harvest components in order to maintain the last of the aircraft and for common items to be used in Wildcat.

The very last pilot trained on the Lynx was Lieutenant Max Cosby who talked about his progression on to the Lynx, his experiences of flying the aircraft and the transition over to Wildcat:

I joined the Navy in September 2010 and began my flying training in September 2012 beginning with a little bit of observer training up in Lincolnshire and then six months down in Cornwall with 750 NAS in Culdrose.

I started my Lynx flying in January 2014 when I joined the Operational Conversion Unit (OCU) at 702 squadron at Yeovilton. That course lasted a year during which I went from someone who only knew their way around the South West of the UK, to someone who is capable of deploying with the Lynx aircraft anywhere around the world and trained in war fighting, winching, search and rescue and a whole range of other things that come up in the air at any given moment that we have to adapt and deal with. I then qualified on the Lynx and got my wings in February 2015. My course was the last course to go through on the Lynx and I was the last person to finish on that course, so I am the very last trained Lynx navy pilot which is a nice feeling and a bit special.

After that I went to do some understudy sea work and joined a flight where the observer, who was the flight commander, would have a lot more experience than me and was able to bring me up to speed in how to do things once I was frontline. For this I was very lucky to go and join 224 Flight deployed on RFA Lyme Bay (Bay-class auxiliary landing ship) and went off to the Caribbean for six months during which we did quite a lot of defence engagement, two disaster relief operations, various exercises of a disaster relief nature with lots of different islands and quite a lot of counter-narcotic flying looking for drug plantations ashore and also looking for boats for drug running. That was a fantastic opportunity to put all of that training in to practice. What was wonderful was to do the disaster relief work and to use the Lynx in that mode of operation. It made it so rewarding to have such a big impact with such a small helicopter.

My Lynx time sadly finished in June 2016 when I began my conversion across to the Wildcat, for which I’ve still got around a week left to complete the conversion course and then I’ll be qualified on the Wildcat. Then it’s a case of building my experience on type from there and getting as much flying under my belt as I can. We had 40 years experience Lynx flying to draw collectively on, I’ve got quite a limited number of hours as a junior aviator combined with a new aircraft means we’ve got our work cut out as a force to learn about Wildcat.

The transition over from the Lynx to the Wildcat in some ways is easier as I’ve just come off one type and it’s straight on to a new type. In other ways it’s frustrating as you get to know a particular type of aircraft very well and then you convert on to another and suddenly you have to learn things from scratch again. For the pilots it’s a bit like going from an Mk1 Golf to the latest version – the Golf is a Golf, it might look the same but it’s got the newer kit on the latest generation. For an Observer it’s like going from a Nokia 3310 up to the latest iPhone. By the end of the Lynx’s life it was the equivalent of having your mobile phone taped to your fax machine taped to your computer taped to your digital camera! Then you get the Wildcat and it has one integrated system.

The Lynx does have a lovely old feel to it, it smells like an old aircraft and I very much feel like it’s the first car you get – a car coming to the end of its days but well looked after by our engineers here. It’s got a lot of character in it and you can feel it. A very responsive aircraft, the pilots really enjoy flying the Lynx because it’s a very agile aircraft. The Wildcat is equally manoeuvrable but we don’t need to throw it around as much as we do with the Lynx because the systems and sensors are so good on the Wildcat we can get information on a ship 40-50 miles away which in a Lynx we would have to get right down low jinking to avoid enemy radar and that’s why it was designed to be some much more manoeuvrable on a day-to-day basis.

Commander Richardson, who started flying the Lynx back in 2003 and will be the last to finish flying on the type in March 2017, gave a few words on what it’s like to transition over to the Wildcat from the Lynx

It’s a six month transition over. The actual flying side of it, so the ‘stick’s and poles’ isn’t the difficult piece, if you drive a car you can still drive another car but you need to know how to start it, you need to know how to operate it and crucially in the case of the Wildcat you need to know how to fight it, because ultimately we are talking about a weapon system here.

The observers role, which in a Lynx is to fight that aircraft, is exactly the same but they’ve got a whole new suite of next generation sensors and it’s how they employ those sensors is a long and challenging course because you’re the system manager much more so than perhaps in a Lynx. So the role of a Lynx versus a Wildcat is very different – you are low level in a Lynx and you’ve got a weapons system on the side of the aircraft and you would be used a probe asset to go around and get the maritime picture, yet on the Wildcat you are collating that picture and you are sending that to another unit which could prosecute it or, when indeed when FASGW (Future Anti-Surface Guided Weapon is an anti-ship missile designed and developed by MBDA) comes into service, that will then have the weapon system on the Wildcat, so can find, fix and strike all by itself.

In total four navalised prototypes and 91 production maritime Lynx aircraft were built by Westland for the Royal Navy. Four Royal Naval Air Squadrons were equipped, generated 45 embarked flights operating from a total of 137 ships ranging from frigates and destroyers, through ice patrol and training ships to aircraft carriers, Royal Fleet Auxiliaries and tankers.

Commander Gus Carine, the Royal Navy Lynx Wildcat Maritime Force Commander had this to say on the retirement of the Lynx:

What does it mean to us as the Lynx goes out of service? Well, she is our proven weapons carrier that the RN has had in the last 40 years; she’s been through several conflicts. The last proven air-to-surface missile system that we used in anger taking it through the first Gulf War. The Lynx continues in its various guises by the users across the world and it just shows how popular it is.

Within the Navy there certainly has been a move and there is more Wildcat than there is Lynx out on the dispersal. The Lynx is a really impressive piece of machinery that’s kept us going this long. It feels like a glove, we’ve worn it on our backs for the last 15 years, and in my case and others a lot longer. It’s a real piece of history for British defence. We are the last advocates in the surface flotilla that can really talk about it.

Many of the flight crews and maintainers have fond memories and words about the Lynx. Commander Philip Richardson, Commanding Officer of 815 NAS gave his thoughts on the passing of Lynx and just what a capable platform it was for the Royal Navy:

It’s a key aircraft for us in the Fleet Air Arm and the Royal Navy for 40 years and there are plenty of people, if you were to cut them in half, would bleed Lynx OM15 hydraulic fluid or F34 aviation fuel the aircraft means that much to them.

I have been and from a personal perspective inundated with a huge amount of good will and following from people who are not just serving now who have been working with the aircraft but lots of people over the 40 years when the Lynx was based down at RNAS Portland before it came up here, people really wanted to come and say goodbye to the Lynx. There is definitely an emotional attachment to this aircraft and it is one that has served the Royal Navy in extremely impressive ways.

One of the main qualities that the Lynx has given us is the impressive handling ability to operate from the decks of ships in the roughest seas. The design of the aircraft by Westland, an all-British aircraft, is absolutely ideally suited to the maritime environment. Now if you can imagine doing this at night, having salt water thrown all over you and being rather cold, that’s the environment where the aircraft lives and works. The other thing that was designed in to it was the fact that it has a very low centre of gravity but it’s very responsive with a fixed titanium head means that the aircraft has a lot of quick, dynamic movement around the deck which is what you need to operate safely in the harshest of conditions. The ability to ‘blow’ the aircraft on to the deck due to the negative pitch of the blades also aids in safer more stable deck landings.

Eminently suitable for the navy and maritime operations, very successful as it’s been sold all around the world to many different nations. Lots of different nations are continuing to use the Lynx in a maritime capacity with younger versions of the aircraft, we have got the last seven here in the Royal Navy inventory at 815 NAS but we are a squadron that is very much in transition, we have got the last two months now of operating the Lynx alongside the Wildcat so come the 31st of March the last Lynx will have been taken out of service and we will be an all Wildcat squadron. At the moment we are a 50 percent Wildcat (7 aircraft) and 50 percent Lynx (7 aircraft) squadron.

The last Lynx flight which is 208 flight embarked on HMS Portland are away on a 9 month deployment in the Arabian Gulf and the South Atlantic and they will be coming back on the 10th of March for their final disembarkation and that is a big moment for us as we welcome that crew back.

It may be ratty by modern standards; it may be oily and battle-scarred; but those who have flown and maintained this most versatile of helicopters for over four decades in operational theatres as diverse and widespread as the wastes of Antarctica to the heat of the Gulf and Caribbean will in no doubt mourn the passing of this, arguably the last truly all-British military helicopter.

Some key dates relating to the final rundown of the Royal Navy Lynx:

10th March – Last Lynx flight returns

17th March – Final flypast

23rd March – Decommissioning

AeroResource would like to thank the following for assistance in the production of this article: Cdr Gus Carnie RN (Lynx Wildcat Maritime Force Cdr), Cdr Philip Richardson RN (CO 815 NAS), Nick Last (former Lt Cdr, RN), Lt Max Cosby RN, Tracey Clempson (Public Relations Officer, Media and Communications at MOD) along with all the staff at RNAS Yeovilton (HMS Heron)