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Feature Extract: Westland Wessex in Profile

Photo: Two Wessex HC.2s serving with 28 Squadron in Hong Kong. (All photos Key Collection unless noted)


Felix Rowe takes a close look at a true Cold War icon – a hugely versatile Anti-Submarine Warfare and utility helicopter combat veteran, equally known for its search-and-rescue role.

Clouds of black smoke billow out from the deck of RFA Sir Galahad, which has taken several direct hits. At around 2pm local time, three Argentine A-4 Skyhawks unleashed their deadly 500lb bombs, leaving the landing ship logistics vessel paralysed and burning in the bay. Helicopters are seen coming to the rescue of the troops trapped on board. They occasionally disappear into the smoke to winch personnel to safety, using the down thrust of their rotor blades to push the life rafts away from the ship and towards to the shore. The year is 1982 and the location is Bluff Cove on the Falkland Islands.

A Wessex crew practising whinching at sea during an exercise with a Royal Navy submarine.

Many will remember the harrowing images playing out on their television screens, some 37 years ago. The scene could easily have been from the Second World War, if not for the colour film and modern helicopters immediately bringing the reality home to viewers. The ship’s captain was later awarded the George Cross for his bravery. While 48 service personnel lost their lives in the attack, many more were saved, in large part thanks to the heroics of the valiant helicopter crews. But it was the sheer existence of helicopters themselves that made such an evacuation possible, not least the Westland Wessex.

 While 48 service personnel lost their lives in the attack, many more were saved, in large part thanks to the heroics of the valiant helicopter crews

The Rise of the Helicopter

The Second World War hastened the introduction and development of countless technological advances. Once such example, only in its infancy as hostilities broke out, was the helicopter. In the race for aerial supremacy, the war saw various aeronautical engineers test the theory with growing intensity. The British, French, American, Japanese, Nazi and Soviet regimes all developed early rotor-wings during this period, with some limited deployment predominantly in an observational role. It was US engineer Igor Sikorsky’s VS-300, first flown in 1939, that would prove the concept’s practical viability. Ultimately, this led to the mass-production of the R-4 for the US military, or the ‘Hoverfly’ as it was known in Britain. A handful of R-4s saw action in the conflict, notably in Burma and China for medical evacuation and transporting parts and supplies in the South Pacific.

While the helicopter’s initial role was decidedly peripheral on all sides, there were already hints of its capabilities and strategic advantages that would prove instrumental in ensuing conflicts – particularly the Korean and then Vietnam Wars. These attributes included vertical take-off and landing, negating the need for runways – a major benefit in seaborne deployment – and considerably greater manoeuvrability compared to a fixed-wing aircraft. The ability to both hover and land in previously inaccessible terrains made the ‘chopper’ ideal for observation, delivering troops and supplies and evacuation.

Search and Rescue became one of the type’s primary roles.

Development of the Wessex

Wessex is a rather fitting name for this English military icon, conjuring up images of the fearsome Anglo-Saxon warriors. Its manufacturer, Westland, headquartered in Yeovil, had already used the Wessex name for a fixed-wing aircraft, developed in the interwar period. Yet the helicopter more typically associated with the label actually began life in the US.

As Westland gradually moved away from its fixed-wing origins to concentrate on rotary craft in the 1950s, the company entered into several licensing agreements with US manufacturer Sikorsky to progress and build its existing models. The Wessex was one of several helicopters developed in this way, with Westland having already enjoyed success with the Dragonfly and the Whirlwind (adapted from the Sikorsky S-51 and S-55 respectively).

As Lee Howard has noted in the excellent Haynes manual, it was considered an unusual and bold move for Westland to take this approach rather than develop its own in-house designs. The immediate downside of this strategy was that Westland wouldn’t be eligible for Ministry of Supply (MoS) funding. However, through licensing established designs Westland could avoid pouring limited resources into R&D of untried and untested designs. Instead, the company could jump right in at a higher level. As time has shown, Westland’s strategy to refine rather than reinvent the wheel would prove decisive.

  As time has shown, Westland’s strategy to refine rather than reinvent the wheel would prove decisive

The Wessex started life as the Sikorsky H-34. Looking at the two aircraft in profile they appear almost identical, certainly from the cockpit backwards. Aesthetically, the only immediate giveaway is the more pronounced nose of Wessex, compared to the relatively snub nose of the H-34. The other crucial difference is concealed within: Westland’s introduction of gas turbine powerplant(s) in place of the original piston engine – initially a Napier Gazelle engine, then subsequently twin de Havilland (later Rolls-Royce) Gnome engines. The Wessex was the first mass-production helicopter with a gas turbine engine, and this innovation meant that the exhausts of the Wessex are noticeably different to their US counterparts.

A product of the Cold War, the Wessex was originally developed exclusively as an anti-submarine helicopter for the Royal Navy, its first incarnation being the HAS.1. The first British-built example, serial XL727, took flight in June 1958 before officially entering service in 1961. This anti-submarine variant was improved further with the introduction of a radome, alongside other refinements to upgrade the avionics. The resulting HAS.3 entered operation six years later, predominantly converted from existing HAS.1s.

HMS Hermes with her wing of Wessex, Gannet, Buccaneer, and Sea Vixen, off Aden in November 1967.

However, it quickly became apparent that its versatility made the Wessex suitable for adaptation for a range of roles and uses, both military and civilian. The RAF ordered a fleet as troop carriers with a capacity of 16 fully-kitted personnel – 73 of these HC.2s were built after the initial prototype converted from an HAS.1.

While the Wessex’s load capacity was inferior to the tandem-rotored Bristol Belvedere, its rugged, hard-wearing build ultimately proved advantageous. With the Belvedere’s retirement in 1969 after a relatively short-lived career, the Wessex soon picked up the slack. The HU.5 Royal Navy troop transporter benefited from the twin Rolls-Royce Gnome turboshaft engines which, compared to the original HAS.1, increased its power output by most 2:1.

In total, there were 12 distinct variants of the Wessex across its career, each fitted out for a specific utility. Indeed, many of the qualities that made the Wessex particularly favourable in anti-submarine warfare also made it ideal for search and rescue (SAR) – namely fast response times owing to the ‘rapid starting’ Gazelle engine, the ability to fly in a range of weather conditions including at night, a larger load capacity and a decent range.

The Wessex has been used extensively across UK for SAR, converted to become the HAR.2. Many civilians, particularly those living in coastal or remote regions, will fondly recall the distinctive grey and red ’copters roaming the skies.

Wessex Mk.31B N7-200 (810), the first of 27 examples operated by the Royal Australian Navy from 1962 to 1989. (RAN)

For the rest of this exciting review of the Wessex, see the June issue of Britain at War, on sale from May 30!

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