After almost 50 years of active operations, the last military Sea King helicopters flying in the United Kingdom, left RNAS Culdrose for retirement on Sept. 26, Royal Navy announced.
Aircrew from 849 Naval Air Squadron will then fly them to HMS Sultan for disposal. The fourth aircraft will travel by road.
The helicopters will refuel at RNAS Yeovilton and then fly over Westlands where the Sea King helicopters were made, and the various Naval establishments in the Portsmouth area. This very special aircraft has played a vital role in many operational conflicts including the Falklands, Iraq, the Balkans, Sierra Leone and Afghanistan.
During the past 49 years, the Sea King helicopter has been used for anti-submarine warfare, search-and-rescue missions, carrying Royal Marines Commandos into action and has provided airborne early warning and intelligence to the Fleet and ground forces. It’s in that last role – the Sea King Mk7 Airborne Surveillance and Control (ASaC) helicopter – that an aircraft designed in the late 1950s, flew its final operational mission earlier this year.
The Sea King Mk7 ASaC helicopters – known throughout the Royal Navy as Baggers – have been the ‘eyes in the sky’ of the Navy since 2002, searching for aerial threats to the Fleet – or suspicious movements on the ground in support of land forces. They owe their nickname due to the distinctive inflatable black sack or bag on the side of each helicopter.
It may look a rather cumbersome piece of kit from the outside, but inside that sack is the cutting-edge Searchwater 2000 radar capable of remarkably-accurate detection of surface and air targets. Once enemy units are detected, the helicopter’s observers can direct friendly air, sea or ground forces to intercept – as they did with devastating effect during the fighting in southern Iraq in 2003.
The Baggers have got an impressive operational history, having delivered successfully in many conflicts in areas including the Gulf and in Afghanistan where during their five year mission, they carried out over 2,000 operational sorties in temperatures ranging between 55˚C and -15˚C. The information they fed back to ground forces led to the arrest of 150 terrorist suspects, 40 tonnes of drugs and 172 tonnes of home-made explosives being seized.
However, the airframes are old. Therefore, the capability that the Baggers have delivered, will soon be transferred to the more modern Merlin Mk2 helicopters under a project called Crowsnest. The Sea King aircraft may be disappearing from the skies but the personnel and the capability will not. The ‘Airborne Surveillance and Control’ capability will transfer to the Merlin Helicopter Force.
A new system called ‘Crowsnest’ will be fitted to maritime Merlin Mk2 helicopters, based at RNAS Culdrose, which already perform a number of important roles for the Royal Navy, including hunting for submarines. Crowsnest will provide a vital intelligence, surveillance and tracking system for the new Queen Elizabeth Class aircraft carriers, capable of detecting any potential threats at sea. It will act as the eyes and ears for the Royal Navy’s ships, providing long range air, maritime and land detection and tracking capability.