The legendary Sea King HC4 retired from Royal Navy service earlier this year. Andy Aitchison looks back at the service history of the venerable ‘Junglie’.
On Wednesday 23 March 2016, three Sea King HC4s flew over the formal decommissioning ceremony of 848 Naval Air Squadron at their home base, RNAS Yeovilton, saluting the venerable helicopter as it bows out of Royal Navy service. Vice Admiral Ben Kay, Fleet Commander, told the assembled ranks, “What the aircraft and the Junglie Sea King stands for is an astonishing chapter in the Fleet Air Arm and Naval aviation”.
848 was the last squadron still operating the Sea King HC4 and this was both the farewell to UK service of the Sea King and, sadly, also the end of 848 NAS for the foreseeable future.
Two days prior to this, the Commando Helicopter Force (CHF), colloquially known as the Junglies, celebrated the final chapter of the much loved HC4’s 37 years of distinguished service in much more public fashion. A formation of all five remaining aircraft flew on a tour of many of the Junglies’ most regular haunts across the South and South-West of England.
Thousands of well wishers turned out to show their respect and the event was covered by national and local TV. The formation was led by ZA298/Yankee, known affectionately as ‘The King of the Junglies’.
This particular aircraft is famed within – and outside – the CHF for its battle honours. In the course of operations in the Falklands, Bosnia and Afghanistan this aircraft sustained severe combat damage three times, fortunately without loss of life on any occasion. On two of those occasions it also managed to return to base despite the presence of gaping holes in the fuselage.
Fortunately this aircraft is now destined for preservation in the Fleet Air Arm Museum (FAAM), located only a few hundred yards away from the type’s home base. It is currently in the FAAM’s nearby facility at Cobham Hall, being prepared to go on display later this year. It is to be displayed in the fit it would have carried during operations in Afghanistan.
The other three aircraft which remained at Yeovilton after the disbandment ceremony departed together a week later for disposal at Fleetlands.
These were the last flights of the Sea King HC4 in Royal Navy service and likely the last time three HC4s will be seen operating together. Thus ended the last chapter in the long service history of the most successful and popular rotary aircraft in UK naval aviation history so far. Here’s hoping one can returned to flight by a private operator in future – it would be a crying shame for such an historic type to be consigned to the history books.
The HC4 made its first flight on 26 September 1979. The HC4 is the troop carrying version of the Sea King, based on a design originally developed to an Egyptian requirement. It was extensively modified, with a stretched cabin theoretically able to carry 27 troops. Later significant upgrades included the fitting of Carson rotor blades, following which hover performance was found to have increased by 2000lb, and a forward speed increase of up to 49 knots had been demonstrated. At the same time Night Vision Goggles (NVG) were introduced to give a much needed head up capability for night ops. These upgrades were urgently needed at a time when UK forces were fully deployed in Afghanistan. Battlefield helicopters were desperately needed but the Sea King’s performance had been badly affected by the extreme conditions of heat, desert altitude and topography.
Though referred to as the HC4 or the Commando, the variant was more popularly referred to as the Junglie Sea King, so named after the Royal Navy squadrons of the Commando Helicopter Force, The Junglies, who were the type’s main operator. The main Junglie squadrons operating the HC4 were 845, 846 and 848 Naval Air squadrons. 848 performed the training and OCU roles. 848 disbanded in December 2013. However, when 845 NAS moved to Benson to reequip with ex-RAF Merlin HC3s, 848 stood up in May 2015 to take the remaining Sea Kings through to their out of service date. Examples were also regularly “borrowed” for extended periods by Boscombe Down for test and evaluation missions. This practice carried on until near the end of the HC4 in service. A total of 54 HC4s were built and delivered from 1979 onwards.
The type did not have to wait long for its first baptism of fire when deployed straight into the thick of the Falklands War in 1982. At this time the Junglies were still in transition, operating with a mix of Wessex and Sea King HC4s but 846 still lost three HC4s in the conflict, including the first production HC4, ZA290. That aircraft was destroyed on 18 May 1982 during an abortive special forces raid on Argentina. The objective of ‘Operation Plum Duff’ was to insert a small contingent of SAS into Argentina. Their objective was to destroy Super Etendard aircraft and the Exocet missiles at Rio Grande airbase. It was always going to be a one-way trip for the aircraft and crew, as they only had enough fuel to reach the coast. The mission hit problems early on when the helicopter ran into thick fog and was detected by Argentine radar. Fuel critical, the aircraft eventually landed on the beach at Agua Fresca, Chile. The crew set the aircraft on fire and surrendered to the Chilean authorities, to be deported back to the UK. The SAS force made its way into Argentina and observed Rio Grande airbase without attacking – the base had been substantially reinforced – and were later evacuated by submarine.
The Junglie Sea King subsequently went on to deploy operationally virtually continuously. Major theatres included Northern Ireland, the former Yugoslavia, Sierra Leone, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya and the Phillippines (and that’s just the ones in public knowledge.) In February 2016, 848 NAS hosted a specialist media event to mark the passing of the Sea King HC4. At that event the CO of the Commando Helicopter Force, Captain Niall Griffin MBE said that until the Junglie Sea King stepped back from front line service in 2015, “the Sea King has been in every single operation theatre that the UK has been in… 25 years constantly on operations somewhere around the globe, which is probably an unparalleled contribution to UK defence”. He also noted that even then, with only weeks left in service and only seven aircraft left, the squadron remained fully active and with five or six aircraft of those seven available on the line every day. Given that most of these airframes had over 10,000 hours on the clock, this speaks volumes of the ruggedness and reliability of the aircraft.
We will not see the likes of the Junglie Sea King again, not least because rotary aircraft design and construction has moved on so much in the six decades since the design’s original inception. There is also the unavoidable fact that the Royal Navy into which the type entered service was a very different and much larger force to the one which it retires from. Nonetheless the distinctive green Sea King will be sorely missed by all who worked with it and enthusiasts alike. Long live the King!
Tracey Clempson, Captain Niall Griffin MBE CO CHF, Cdr Gavin Simmonite DFC CO 848NAS, Lt Cdr Mario Carretta OBE RNR.