On Monday October 23rd 2023, three 665 Squadron, 5 Regiment Army Air Corps Westland Gazelle AH1s departed RAF Aldergrove in Northern Ireland for a short tour of UK landmarks. This brings to an end this chapter of the aircrafts UK military service life with the official end of service date being October 31st 2023. Ian Harding was on hand at one of the locations to capture the final operational moments of what many refer to as ‘the chicken leg’. Additional supporting images have been provided by Mark Empson.

The formation of Westland Gazelle AH1’s departed at approximately 10AM local time using the callsign ‘Bat Flight’ with the three aircraft participating in this retirement flight being XZ320, ZA772 and ZA775. The aircraft made visit to a number of locations including 38X HQ Thiepval Barracks, Manchester Barton, RAF Shawbury, Hereford DE&S Abbey Wood, Army HQ Andover, Middle Wallop and Safran Aerospace. This was all before the three Westland Gazelle AH1 aircraft formation landed at the Defence Aviation Repair Agency (DARA) Fleetlands in Hampshire for the final time. This final flight represented the end of an important era for this light utility helicopter that has achieved so much and performed so admirably during its service life.

Unlike the Aerospatiale Gazelle which reached its 50 years milestone in 2017, this will not be the same for the Westland Gazelle AH1. The Westland Gazelle took to the air for the first time in U.K. service in 1974 (1975 for the Royal Navy) with the Army Air Corps (AAC). This final flight will bring to an end 49 years of continuous service, not the 50 years everyone expected especially when the aircraft’s end of service date was only recently extended to 2025. This retirement is all the more surprising given that earlier in the 2023, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) announced announced that the five Airbus H135 helicopters which had only been acquired in 2021 to supposedly replace the Gazelle were to be taken out of service having never flown. One can only presume that the feeling in Defence circles is that the threat situation in Northern Ireland had reduced somewhat and that the permanent stationing of these helicopters was no longer required. Only time will tell in this respect.

In total, the UK MoD ordered 282 Westland Gazelles in six batches from August 1970. Of these the AAC received 212 aircraft, the Royal Navy 32 aircraft, the Royal Air Force (RAF) 42 aircraft, with two entering service with the Empire Test Pilot School (ETPS) at Boscombe Down in Wiltshire. The last built aircraft was ZB693 which was planned to participate in the final UK flight tour but unfortunately didn’t.

Built under licence from Aerospatiale (formerly known as Sud Aviation, the Westland Gazelle was built and developed by Westland Helicopters Limited (now Leonardo Helicopters). Built in the UK in Yeovil, Somerset, it was the first helicopter to feature a fenestron tail rotor instead of a conventional tail rotor. In service with the British AAC, the Westland Gazelle AH1 received an uprated Turbomeca Astazou IIIN2 engine, enhanced radio and communication capability, 86mm SNEB rockets plus a night searchlight. Additional modifications as required by other UK services included the addition of a hoist to enable underslung loads plus surveillance equipment. The Westland Gazelle was one of only two aircraft to enter service with all three arms of the British armed forces; the other being the DeHavilland Chipmunk. In total, Westland Helicopters produced four different variants which were the AH.1 used by the AAC, HT.2 used by the Commando Royal Marines, HT.3 used by the Royal Navy,  and the HCC.4 used by the RAF and ETPS.

The first AAC unit to receive the Gazelle was 660 Squadron based at Salamanca Barracks in Germany in July 1974. One month later, the helicopter entered service  with the RAF at the Central Flying School Tern Hill in Shropshire. Four months later in December 1974, 705 Naval Air Squadron at Royal Naval Air Squadron Culdrose in Cornwall received its first Gazelle Helicopters. These were retired from service in March 1997 coinciding with he disbandment of 705 Naval Air Squadron.

Westland Gazelle Military Operations

As well as serving as a training, liaison helicopter and utility helicopter throughout the UK, the Gazelle served with distinction in operations at home and abroad following its introduction. During its early years, the Gazelle was working alongside the Westland Scout AH1 and other helicopters and was tested significantly during operations in Northern Ireland (Operation Banner 1967-2002). Despite the easing of tensions, the Gazelle continued its operations over the island until its recent retirement. During the Falklands war against Argentina (Operation Corporate 1982), the Gazelle earned huge respect supporting ground troops operating from ship flight decks. To enhance its capability, the helicopter was fitted with armour plating, floatation gear, folding blade mechanism as well as rocket pods which were used to good effect. Three Gazelle’s were sadly lost during the conflict including one lost in a friendly incident having been shot down by HMS Cardiff (Type 42 destroyer). The Helicopter gained much credit during the various Balkan conflicts supporting NATO forces ( Operation Grapple 1992, Operation Joint Endeavour 1996, Operation Guardian 1999) and in Sierra Leone (2000). The Gazelle perhaps earned its greatest operation respect during the various Gulf wars (Operation Fingal in Afghanistan 2002, Operation Telic in Iraq (2003-2014, Operation Herrick in Afghanistan 2006-2014); this is where the Gazelle excelled above other deployed helicopters in the ‘hot and high’ operational conditions. The conditions were so testing that some other helicopters including the Sea King required re-engineering.

During recent times as retirement approached, the Gazelle served with the 29 British Army Training Unit Suffield (BATUS) training site at Ralston Air Base in Canada until late 2022, and at home with 665 Squadron AAC in Northern Ireland, 7 (Training) regiment AAC, and 667 (Development and Trials) Squadron  both at the Army Aviation Centre at Middle Wallop in Wiltshire. The EPTS located at Boscombe Down retired its Gazelles on December 2019. 

There is no denying that the speed, agility and unique sound provided by its Astazou engine will be sorely missed in UK circles by those who operated the Gazelle and enthusiasts alike. For many years the Gazelle was displayed by both the AAC and Royal Navy with the Blue Eagles and Sharks display teams, and latterly the Gazelle Squadron who will continue to thrill crowds with their display. With around 20 nations including the like Cyprus, France, Lebanon, Morrocco, Egypt and Serbia continuing to operate the Gazelle, this is not the end of the type; it just means that enthusiasts will have to travel further to see them. With so many UK military Gazelles now retired, it will be no surprise to see some acquired for commercial private use. Bringing the Westland Gazelle’s retirement forward is perhaps no surprise given the increasing availability and performance of Leonardo Helicopters AW159 Wildcat in service with the AAC and Royal Navy, Airbus Helicopters H135 currently serving at RAF Shawbury, and the likelihood of a new helicopter entering UK military service when decisions are finalised regarding the entry of the proposed one billion sterling New Military Helicopter (an order Leonardo Helicopters AW149, Airbus Helicopters H175 and the Sikorsky H-60 are all competing for). That said, there will much disappointment at this recent announcement although it is not the end of the road for this much loved helicopter.

You can find out more about the Army Air Corps here: https://armyaircorps.co.uk

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