The Sea King HC4 has been in service since 1979

Westland Sea King HC4 Commando Helicopter

Royal Navy’s Long-Serving Troop-Carrier

Sea King Commando Helicopter

The Westland Sea King HC4 Commando helicopter has been in Royal Navy service since 1979 but now has just days left in service. Known as the ‘Junglie’, owing to the Royal Navy Commando helicopter squadrons’ Borneo operations history, this remarkable helicopter has proved a solid, enduring and highly deployable asset. Having supplied well over three decades’ Royal Marines support – from the Falklands to Afghanistan and many other operational areas – the Sea King HC4 is now giving way to the newer Westland Merlin HC3/HC3A. It will be retired on 31 March 2016 – the same day that 848 Naval Air Squadron – its final operator – is decommissioned.

Sea King HC4 Origins

First flown on 11 March 1959, US manufacturer Sikorsky’s SH-3 Sea King would forever change the helicopter’s capabilities: no preceding rotary-winged design having been able to operate from land and water. Westland Helicopters (subsequently AgustaWestland – now Finmeccanica) manufactured license-built Sea Kings in the UK from 1969 onwards. These Westland-built Sea King models were tasked with – amongst other duties – search and rescue and anti-submarine warfare. Ordered in July 1978, the Sea King HC4 was developed from a Sea King version for the Egyptian Air Force (which ultimately took delivery of 28).

Sea King HC4 Features

Sea King HC4 Features

Several new features were added to optimise the Sea King HC4 for the Commando-carrying role. They included folding rotor blades and tail rotor assemblies, making an easier business of storage inside warships’ tight hangar confines. A hook and a winch were two further Sea King HC4 features present from the outset. Placed underneath the fuselage and above the cargo door, they were introduced to allow underslung load-carrying and permit fast-roping, respectively. Other changes saw all search and rescue equipment stripped out and a fixed undercarriage introduced so that, especially with hostile ground fire present, the helicopter could rapidly insert troops or quickly evade the scene, without the worry of whether the undercarriage was lowed or not.

Sea King HC4 Operators

The first Sea King HC4 flew on 26 September 1979. 846 Naval Air Squadron took delivery of the first in-service example on 3 December 1979, just three months later. Ultimately, 42 Sea King HC4s were built and four more Royal Navy squadrons would become equipped with them. These squadrons were 707 Naval Air Squadron (which operated Sea King HC4s between 1983 and 1995), 845 Naval Air Squadron (from 1984 to 2015), 772 Naval Air Squadron (1988 to 1995) and 848 Naval Air Squadron (1990-to-present, although not consistently). In 1997, the then-remaining Sea King HC4 operators all became part of Commando Helicopter Force (CHF), itself part of the UK Military’s Joint Helicopter Command. Commando Helicopter Force’s homebase remains Royal Naval Air Station Yeovilton, Somerset.

Sea King HC4 Capabilities

Sea King HC4 Capabilities

The Sea King HC4 can accommodate up to 28 combat-ready troops or, alternatively, internal cargo up to a maximum weight of 6,000 pounds (2,722 kilograms). Underslung loads such as a Land Rover, an L118 105mm howitzer or any other object up to 5,516 pounds (2,500 kilograms) in weight can be carried externally. The helicopter’s maximum speed is 144 miles per hour (231.8 kilometres per hour) and its maximum range is 764 miles (1,230 kilometres). Sorties can be flown up to a maximum service ceiling of 10,000 feet (3,048 metres).

Sea King HC4 Operations

The Sea King HC4 made its operational debut during the 1982 Falklands Conflict, transporting Royal Marines from ships to shores in its amphibious assault support role. Thereafter, a whole host of operational deployments followed. Operation Desert Storm involved 845 and 848 NAS Sea King HC4s. Both were active in the Gulf region between January and March 1991. Operation Haven – the UK’s participation in the Operation Provide Comfort humanitarian aid sorties – was next, then came 845 NAS’ SFOR (Stabilization Force) missions in Bosnia. These took place from December 1996 to February 2002. In between, Sea King HC4s were sent wherever the Royal Marines went, including Northern Ireland (1994) and Sierra Leone (2000).

Sea King HC4 Operations

2003’s Operation Telic – the UK military’s actions in Iraq from March 2003 onwards – saw a four-plus month deployment for 845 NAS’ Sea King HC4s. They played a vital role in this operation’s opening hours by putting Royal Marines down on Iraq’s Al-Faw Peninsula and thus helping enable its successful capture. Operation Herrick – the UK Military’s military actions in Afghanistan between 2002 and 2014 – involved much lengthier deployments. Both 845 and 846 Naval Air Squadrons were dispatched – each spent four years out there. During this period, 3,800 individual sorties were flown and the Commando Sea Kings spent a combined 12,500 hours airborne. Approximately 80,000 troops were transported and around 700,000 kilograms of equipment was relocated. 845 NAS subsequently returned for a six-month ‘Op Herrick’ deployment, spanning June-to-December 2014.

Sea King HC4 Upgrades

During the Afghan deployments phase, Commando Helicopter Force Sea Kings were upgraded to better tolerate the area’s extreme environmental conditions. These Sea King HC4 upgrades saw Carson swept-tip composite rotor blades, five-bladed tail rotors (replacing the six-bladed rotors of old) and an FN Herstal M3M .50 calibre (12.7mm) port door-mounted weapon system (taking over from the preceding 7.62mm machine gun) all added. Night Vision Goggles were another addition, permitting tactical mobility missions by day or night. Equipped with these new features, the Sea Kings were redesignated, becoming HC4+ models.

Sea King HC4 Future

Sea King HC4 Future

2010’s UK SDSR (Strategic Defence and Security Review) heralded the end of Royal Navy Sea King HC4 service. Both 845 and 846 Naval Air Squadrons have recently become Merlin HC3/HC3A-equipped, leaving 848 NAS as the sole surviving Sea King HC4 operator. On 1 April 2016, both this squadron and its mount will be no more.

Sea King HC4: Key Facts

Role: Medium-lift support helicopter
Length: 55 ft 9 in (17.0 m)
Rotor diameter: 62 ft 0 in (18.9 m)
Engines: Two Rolls-Royce Gnome H1400-2s, producing 1,660 shaft horsepower each
Maximum speed: 144 mph (231.8 km/h)
Maximum range:  764 miles (1,230 km)
Maximum height: 10,000 ft (3,048 m)

One pilot, one aircrewman

Weapons:  One 7.62mm machine gun
First flown: 11 March 1959 (Sikorsky SH-3)

Sea King HC4 images copyright Paul Fiddian, US Marine Corps (courtesy Wikimedia Commons) and US Navy (courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

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