Junglie Farewell: Sea King HC4 Retires from Royal Navy Service

Written and photographed by Tom Mercer | March 31st 2016

The mighty Sea King HC4 has served with the Royal Navy for decades and throughout that time it has been the airborne platform of the Royal Marines. Wherever Marines deployed, the mighty ‘Junglie’ of the Commando Helicopter Force followed, supporting troops both in the air and on the ground. Today, after more than 35 years, the Sea King HC4 is to be retired from active service at RNAS Yeovilton, marking the end of an era for the Fleet Air Arm.

For almost four decades the ‘Junglie’ Sea King has been the backbone of international Royal Marine deployments. During this time the big green helicopter has been responsible for the transportation of personnel, their kit, supplies and heavy battlefield equipment; the Sea King has done it all.

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The HC4 is one of the most heavily modified versions of the Sea King family and owes it’s rugged versatility, believe it or not, to the Egyptian Air Force.

The Egyptians had shown a lot of interest in the Sea King but due to the nature of the environment it’d be operating in, they saw little need for the navalised add-ons. As a result, Somerset-based helicopter company Westland proposed the ‘Commando’, a design which most notably would see the removal of the side-floats and a reinforced landing gear.

The Ministry of Defence were so impressed with the Commando prototype that, with the addition of folding rotor blades to allow for storage on a carrier, an order was placed with Westland for a large number of new-build aircraft and these were officially designated HC4 by the Royal Navy. After it’s maiden flight towards the end of the 1970s, the HC4 quickly earned its predecessor’s ‘Junglie’ nickname and became a vital platform for the Commando unit.

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The Commando Helicopter Force deployed to Afghanistan throughout OP HERRICK but due to the incredibly harsh desert environment, the ‘Junglie’ needed even more upgrades.

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The aircraft that went to Afghanistan with 845 and 846 NAS were upgraded to HC4+ standard and these featured much-improved rotor blades to cope with the challenging landscape, defensive aids to combat incoming enemy fire and night vision goggles which were an essential piece of kit when crews were tasked with flying through the night.

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The Sea King HC4 has been a formidable asset in the hands of the Royal Navy and is a type that will be sorely missed by all involved.

Just a few weeks ago we were invited to RNAS Yeovilton and given the opportunity to sit down with Cdr Gavin Simmonite DFC, Commanding Officer 848 NAS, and discuss all things ‘Junglie’.

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“Crikey, where do I begin? All the way back to the Falklands and through every operational theatre that the UK has been sent to, the Sea King has been there and it’s been pretty relentless. We added it all up last year and worked out that it had been more than 25 years constantly on operations somewhere around the globe, which in itself is probably unparalleled for UK defence work. It’s been in the harsh environment of Afghanistan and Iraq in the last decade or so, and Northern Ireland, Bosnia and the Falklands before that. We also provided humanitarian aid as recently as OPERATION PATWIN in the Philippines a couple of years ago. The Sea King is/was versatile, forgiving and incredibly capable for its time.”

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The HC4 has been a phenomenal and exceptionally reliable platform for both the Commando Helicopter Force and Royal Marines over the years, with each member of the crew having their own unique memory of the mighty green giant.

“I don’t think we’ve lost a single one in a fight…sorry, actually no, one ditched in the Falklands but that wasn’t due to battle damage! To give you an idea, a colleague relayed a story from Afghanistan where he was under-slinging supplies for troops on the ground in the mountains and took seven rounds through the aircraft in the process.

“To be frank”, he said, “it would have been easier to remove the things that were still working on it rather than those that the rounds had taken out.” 

It was that good an aeroplane that he was still able to fly it away, recover to the operating base, repair it and then put it straight back into action a week or so later. To take seven rounds like that through some pretty complex systems and to still be able to fly it away shows just how good an aircraft it really is.”

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The stories don’t stop there though, you know what it’s like to drive through a blizzard, don’t you?

“Anyone who’s flown in Norway can relate to this story, it’s just about the harshest environment anyone can learn to fly in, which is why training there is SO good. I was number three in a formation of four and in Norway, because it’s that cold, you get into really poor visibility because of the heavy snowstorms. You can’t go up because it’s too cold and icy, you can’t go backwards because someone is behind you and to either side you usually have other obstacles, so below was the only option. The aircraft in front slowed down so much that we had to effectively go over the top of it and when we landed, the pilot of that aircraft got out and started examining the top of his Sea King,

“What are you doing?” we asked, “I’m checking for your tyre marks!”

That’s how close it was!”

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Of course, as much as we could have talked about the Sea King all day long, this retirement also marks the beginning of something still relatively new to the Royal Navy and the Commando Helicopter Force.

“Whereas the Sea King is like putting an old comfortable pair of gloves on, I think that the Merlin will probably catch me out if I don’t have a good instructor next to me. Flying the Sea King just feels natural, like an extension of your own body. The view you get from the cockpit of a Sea King is actually much different to the view from a Merlin. You can, believe it or not, actually see a lot more from the Sea King; the Merlin has a much more nose-up attitude in the hover compared to the Sea King which makes it a little harder to maneuver in a confined area. However, the Merlin is much more stable in the hover so it’s also a little easier in that respect.”

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As part of an MoD re-shuffle, the Commando Helicopter Force were assigned the Merlin HC3/3A fleet from the Royal Air Force. In time these airframes will also be upgraded to HC4 standard so that they are completely fit for amphibious use. The upgrades will include a folding main rotor-head and tail section, an all-glass cockpit, new avionics and an improved undercarriage.

“Merlin is a far more modern aircraft, for starters you can get more troops in the back. In theory you can sit 27 in the back of a Sea King but they’d have to be tiny troops in all honesty, Merlin will comfortably take 24 with all their kit. It can carry more, under-sling more in terms of load lifting, it can go a lot further and a lot quicker. Add to that the modern avionics and upgrades, and it brings it up to a far more modern, up-to-date platform. Further, faster and more capable; a much greater improvement for our fleet.”

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“We will have less than half the number of Merlins compared to Sea Kings but bear in mind that when the Sea King was first  introduced, the size of the Royal Marines and Royal Navy was much, much bigger. The scaling down in numbers is adequate to the size of the task at hand in assisting with the Royal Marines today. We simply don’t need as many to complete the task as we would have with Sea Kings.”

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Whilst it’s true that the reliability of Merlin isn’t ideal at the moment, Cdr Simmonite explains that it’s only a matter of time.

“Merlin is a far more complex airframe in terms of avionics, warning systems, management systems telling you when things are going wrong on it. We’re just getting used to it really, we’re learning a lot from our compadres at Culdrose who have been flying the Merlin (HM2) for some years now. For the moment it’s not as reliable as we’d like #Junglie Farewell: Sea King HC4 Retires from @RoyalNavy Service #Aviation #FlyNavy #Article #News #EndOfAnErbut that will only get better as we get more used to it. We’re using and learning from some of the engineers who have operated and maintained the Culdrose Merlins. We’ve had them coming into Yeovilton to assist us along the way. It absolutely will be just as reliable, I’ve no doubt about that.”

Whether you’re a Pilot, Crewman, Marine, Engineer or maybe just an enthusiast of the industry, the remarkable ‘Junglie’ Sea King will go down in history as one of the most versatile helicopters ever built.

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“Those of us that have been fortunate enough to fly the Sea King fell in love with it, it’s been a great honour. I don’t think there’s any particular one thing about the Sea King that we’ll miss, just the Sea King itself, it’s a phenomenal aircraft.”

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Aviation Highlights would like to take this opportunity to thank the Royal Navy Commando Helicopter Force and personnel of RNAS Yeovilton for being so incredibly welcoming during our visit. None of this would have been possible without your help.