Written and photographed by Tom Mercer | May 9th 2017
The Falklands, Northern Ireland, Iraq and Afghanistan; under the control of the British Army, the Aérospatiale Gazelle has been at the forefront of some of the largest conflicts the country has been involved with. While it may not be the most powerful or technically advanced helicopter platform, the Gazelle is still being utilised by British forces (as well as other nations) today and looks like it’s service life will easily go beyond half a century.
The Gazelle has been in service with the British military since the summer of 1974 and was initially drafted in to replace the aging Sioux. While the helicopter was initially operated solely by the Army, their strengths were soon widely recognised and shortly, further orders were made so that the Gazelle could also operate with the Royal Navy.
The Gazelle came into it’s own as an observation and reconnaissance platform; the Northern Ireland campaign had led the Army to adapt in the way that it played the field and skills learnt back then were so crucial and advantageous that they were used again during the Gulf War. Usually flying in pairs with little protection, the Gazelles would head out to the battlefield and try to understand the lay of the land; whatever was observed was then relayed back to the trailing pair of Lynx Mk7s who would then follow up if firepower was required.
The Gazelle has the record of being the longest serving rotary asset in the UK armed forces and in fact has recently had it’s service life extended until at least 2025, where it will continue to operate in a reconnaissance, training and special forces capacity.
While it has been an extremely reliable helicopter for British forces, the Gazelle has also been operated by many other nations around the world. So with its 50th birthday on the horizon, Threshold.aero decided back in early 2016 that they’d like to help commemorate the event with a special fly-in at AAC Middle Wallop.
The team at Threshold.aero began preparing for this special commemorative event over a year ago and after much hard work and countless communications, close to 30 Gazelles were invited to take part.
All 23 UK-based Gazelles were amongst those invited, as well as numerous air arms, in some cases as far as Western Europe! While not all the invited guests turned up in the end, 19 arrived on the day which included two from the Armée de Terre.
“The French Army and their command structure were deeply honoured that we’d invited them and they did everything they could to attend. Even though we’d had word they were on their way on the Friday, there was still a very real possibility that they wouldn’t make it for a number of reasons – even when they arrived over the airfield there was still a worry they would land elsewhere!” – Threshold.aero
Threshold.aero teamed up with the Museum of Army Flying and proactively promoted the event successfully across the social media channels; as of the Friday afternoon some 1000+ advance tickets had been sold and a further 200+ tickets were sold on the gate on the day. These numbers are something that the organisers could have only dreamed of when they were planning the day, no doubt all helped by the glorious sunshine that was forecast for the weekend.
While the event was marketed as a fly-in, there were also a number of trade stalls in the public area that catered very nicely for both families and enthusiasts alike.
Once all visiting aircraft had arrived (this included additional aircraft other than just Gazelles), the airfield was opened up and people were allowed to walk around and interact with the crews.
Everyone seemed to be in good spirits and with a barbecue on the go by the museum cafe, who could blame them? The event felt extremely relaxed and had a lovely family feel to it, I don’t know whether it was just because of the weather but all crews involved seemed genuinely interested in talking to people about why they love their aircraft. The French in particular were extremely keen to get as many people to sit in their aircraft as they possibly could throughout the afternoon.
As the afternoon moved on we were ushered off of the airfield so that the visiting aircraft could prepare for departure, while it may have seemed a little earlier than expected, everyone’s home airfield had to be considered.
One by one the helicopters spooled up their little engines and lifted off to depart Middle Wallop; witnessing such a large amount of Gazelles depart in such a small time frame really was rather special.
The Gazelle 50th event brought about a very early start to the UK aviation event calendar but one that was very much welcomed by the enthusiast community. Holding an event in early April not only proved that it was possible but also that sometimes, if you cross absolutely everything, the weather may just turn out to be ok.
Threshold.aero really did exceed all expectations; it wasn’t really clear during the build-up to the event as to what the site would actually look like and knowing how difficult photography can be at Middle Wallop, that was a little worrying. However, everything turned out just right on the day and saw what the team believe to be the largest gathering of Gazelle helicopters anywhere since the early 2000s; that’s something that simply must be applauded.
The good news? This was just the first of many events that the guys are planning to run throughout 2017 and beyond. To find out more, head over to https://www.threshold.aero/.
All that’s really left to say is Happy 50th Birthday to the Aérospatiale Gazelle!