An integral part of the Fleet Air Arm SAR story, the Westland Wessex was the mainstay of UK aerial SAR operations for many years, entering service with the Royal Navy in 1961 and serving until its final variant operated by the RN, the HU5, was withdrawn from service in 1988.
Whilst a very effective platform for Search and Rescue, the Wessex was actually the first helicopter operated by the Royal Navy to be designed from the outset as an anti-submarine platform. It was also the first helicopter in the world to be produced in significant numbers with a free gas turbine for an engine. The free gas turbine is effectively a jet engine where the exhaust gases revolve a turbine wheel, which in turn provides drive to the gearbox. This replaced the older piston engines which had powered previous helicopters.
The design features which made the Wessex such an effective anti-submarine helicopter were also highly desirable in a Search and Rescue helicopter. Fitted with an early automatic pilot system, the Wessex could operate in day or night and in all weathers. The Wessex was also quieter and less prone to vibration than piston-engine helicopters, qualities which were invaluable to the rear seat crews who were attempting to treat casualties. The load carrying capabilities of the Wessex were also a marked improvement on its predecessor, the Whirlwind, which allowed the Wessex to carry a greater number of casualties. Finally, the Wessex's new Napier Gazelle engine allowed the aircraft to be started very quickly, enabling the crews to respond to emergency calls quicker than they had been able to do previously.
In the anti-submarine role, the Wessex was developed from the HAS1 (Helicopter Anti Submarine Mk1) into the HAS3, whose advances included a superior radar and avionics fit, a more powerful engine, a more advanced weapons system and improved navigation features. However, it was the HAS1 which continued to equip Fleet Air Arm SAR squadrons, as many of these modern and expensive technological advances were geared more towards Anti Submarine Warfare. The next step in the aircraft's evolution was the Wessex HU5 (Helicopter Utility Mk 5) which was initially produced to meet the requirement for a battlefield transportation platform capable of moving Royal Marines from the decks of assault ships into action. The HU5 was adopted by the Royal Navy's SAR force, entering service with 772 Naval Air Squadron in 1976 before 771 Naval Air Squadron followed suit in 1979.
The HU5 was the most capable version of the Wessex for Search and Rescue. It was powered by two Rolls Royce Gnome gas turbines, providing nearly double the power of the HAS1. This gave SAR crews an extra range of some 90 miles, hugely expanding the area of SAR cover which could be provided throughout the UK and out to sea. This extra power also gave more options to SAR crews in actually carrying out rescues, as this greater power margin allowed the helicopter to be operated in more challenging conditions.
The Wessex finally finished its long and distinguished service with the Royal Navy in 1988, being replaced in its Search and Rescue, anti-submarine and commando transport duties by the Sea King. Whilst perhaps best remembered for its roles in the Falklands War, the red and blue SAR Wessex saved countless lives across the UK for many years during its illustrious service career.
Westland Wessex HU5 XT761
Constructors Number WA483
First flight 3 Oct 66 by Mr LCE De Vigne
707 Sqn Culdrose (uncoded) 6 Feb 67
848 Sqn (“Z”) by 7 Mar 67
RFA Resource Flt 23 May 67
848 Sqn (“J”) 4 Sep 67
847 Sqn (“J”:”J/S”) 2 Jul 69
847 Sqn (“J”) 24 Feb 70
848 Sqn (“J/A”:”J/B”:”VU/B”) 10 May 71
848 Sqn (“VU/B”) 4 Aug 73
846 Sqn (“VU/B”) loan 30 Mar 76
771 Sqn Culdrose (“521/CU”) 1 Jun 79
845 Sqn (“(Y)P”) 6 May 82
Airfreighted from Yeovilton in Heavylift Belfast G-BEPS to Base Flt, Ascension Island(“(Y)P”), arrived 12 May 82
To UK in RFA Oliver 28 Nov 83
Marshalls of Cambridge 3 Jun 86 (refinish)
Royal Naval Aircraft Yard, Wroughton 6 Nov 86 (reserve for 771/772 Sqns)
Air Electrical/Engineering School, Lee-on-Solent by road 12 Apr 88 as GI Class GRB A2767
To Shepperton Film Studios by road 5 Sep 91
Air Electrical/Engineering School, Lee-on-Solent by road 9 Sep 91: Re-allocated May 93 as GI Class GR(2) A2678(2)
Air Engineering & Survival School Sultan, Gosport by road 6 Nov 95
Static display at International Festival of the Sea, Portsmouth 24 Aug 98
Air Engineering & Survival School Sultan, Gosport by road 2 Sep 98
Extant Dec 08 (allocated to RN Historic Flight) (TFH 2776.05)
Westland Wessex HU5 XT771
Constructors Number WA553
First flight 1967
Taken on strength with the Royal Navy as XT771 6 Dec 67
707 Sqn (“WR/ VL”) 1968
772 NAS (“620/PO”) 1982
Air Electrical/Engineering School, Lee-on-Solent 11 Apr 88: Re-allocated as GI Class GR(2) A2761(2)
AEES, Gosport 14 November 1995: Re-allocated as GI Class GR(2) A2673 (2)
Allocated to RN Historic Flight (TFH 2673) 2006
School of Flight Deck Operations, Culdrose (“620/PO”) by May 2014
The Westland Wessex was a British-built, turbine-powered development of the Sikorsky S-58/H-34. It was developed and produced under license by Westland Aircraft (later Westland Helicopters). One of the main changes from Sikorsky's S-58/H-34 was the replacement of the piston-engine powerplant with a turboshaft engine. The Wessex was the first large mass-produced helicopter designed around the use of a gas turbine engine. Early models were powered by a single Napier Gazelle engine, while later builds used a pair of de Havilland Gnome engines.
The Wessex was initially produced for the Royal Navy and later for the Royal Air Force; a limited number of civilian aircraft were also produced, as well as some export sales. The Wessex operated as an anti-submarine warfare and utility helicopter; it is perhaps best recognised for its use as a Search and Rescue helicopter. The type entered operational service in 1961, and had a service life in excess of 40 years before being retired in Britain.