1970 – A personal story about the first year operating with the Navy’s new ‘toy’.

On December 2nd 1969, I flew the last mission of my Operational Flight Training. It was a CASEX with an ‘all-student’ crew – S/Lt Graham Lee in the right-hand seat and S/Lt Ray Wynchcombe in the back with Leading Seaman Chrossan. The Wessex Mk3, XM833, was our trusty steed and the one hour and thirty-five-minute flight left us with just our minimum reserves of fuel when we landed on RNAS Portland’s ‘imitation’ runway. The Wessex Mk3 was a truly magnificent example of electronic wizardry at its finest although its analogue design was to prove a handful for the avionics guys. The autopilot system allowed for ‘hands-off’ flight at our sub-hunting, low altitude profile of just 150 feet – day or night, fair weather or foul.

After that final training flight, the four of us were cheered by recent news of the life that now lay ahead. Looking back at the aircraft as we walked away to the crew-room together I recalled the occasion of my first night ‘mutual’ Casex with a similar all-student crew. My cheerfulness was tempered by that memory

That flight took place on a dark and horrible, moonless, rainy night – and it was my turn to act as first pilot. Lt (later, Rear Admiral), Dick Cobbold, was the Observer and in command, ‘Dougle’ Douglas was alongside me as copilot and Leading Seaman Chrossan had the misfortune to be our sonar operator alongside Dick in the back. I say misfortune for it must have been nerve racking to be with a bunch of ‘makey-learny’ aviators on their first night sortie together. What? No instructor???

As I climbed up the side of the aircraft my knees were knocking and to say I was scared silly would be to understate my apprehension. The glow of the red cockpit lights in the Wessex created a surreal environment in that tiny space and the blackness beyond the rain-spattered windshields heightened my anxiety.

The engine controls ere between the pilots on the inter-seat console. Starting it was a two-handed procedure; starter button with the right hand and HP cock with the left. Holding the start button down allowed high pressure air to turn the starter motor. When ten thousand RPM were indicated on the NG gauge it was time to open the HP cock. The muffled roar beneath my feet meant that the engine’s fire had been lit and it was bursting into life with flames pouring from the two exhaust stubs on my side of the aircraft. The engine speed would stabilise around nineteen thousand RPM and the flames morphed into plumes of hot gas. The world outside was just a curtain of pearly lights as the rain drenched start-crew hurried round the aircraft completing their pre-departure checks.

The wipers were switched on for the taxi out to the runway and through this ‘letterbox’ of clear screen I peered into the darkness. A few minutes later we were cleared for take-off and lifted into the hover, the dear old Rolls Royce Gazelle engine roaring under my feet. We slid away from terra-firma, over the oily reflections of Portland harbour and into the very blackest of black nights. The climb to our transit height took just a few minutes and we turned south to search out the make-believe ‘enemy’. I was sweating inside my uncomfortable goon-suit and shaking with a mixture of excitement, exhilaration and fear.

It’s difficult to explain to those that have not experienced flying at very low level over the water at night. You cannot see a hand in front of your face so it is a test of nerve as well as a test of skill. I instructed the autopilot to turn the helicopter into the wind and then descend into the hover so that we could deploy our sonar system. It was an act of faith in the equipment.

The autopilot delivered the aircraft safely into the hover all by itself. The ‘transition down’ light goes out and the ‘hover’ light goes on. You have arrived safely with engine pounding at close to maximum power so you steal a second away from your flight instruments to glance out of the window beside you and reassure yourself that you really can see the churning of the waves in the downwash forty feet below. The reflected glimmer of the green starboard navigation light reveals white tipped wave crests in the rotor downwash.

Like the tempering of fine steel it was to be nights like that one that would turn us raw recruits into hardened anti-submarine helicopter pilots, proud to be called by the soubriquet ‘pinger’.

Though our thoughts of the future replaced our memories of the dear old Wessex 3 we were to find that it did have its good points. From the ‘no-sore-bum’ point of view, the 1 hour 30 minutes ‘on task’ time was a pilot’s dream, but the advances made by the Soviets was beginning to show up the weaknesses in our ASW capabilities. The Wessex Mk3 was one of those weaknesses, but the MoD had a plan to upgrade our capabilities to overcome those shortcomings – the mighty Sea King.

The Soviet navy had developed their nuclear-powered submarine fleet into a force that could attack a surface task force from behind as well as their traditional tactic of attacking the force from ahead as it moved towards its objective. Underwater speed was the game-changer for until the arrival of the new submarines the task force could outpace them. Conventional diesel-electric submarines were slow and had limited underwater capabilities. The weapons used against surface ships were also changing and along with a nuclear capability came surface to air missiles that could be launched from up to 50 miles away from the target. The area to be searched by our helicopters grew dramatically so a machine capable of going further for longer was needed.

The OFT Course had been tough and demanding but had hardened our resolve to become professional front-line anti-submarine pilots and we were eager for our first appointments. The news that four of our course were being appointed to the first Sea King Squadron, 824, to be based on HMS Ark Royal would was a huge morale booster. The four lucky guys included me.

Training was over, now for the real thing. Excitement is a word that barely covered the joy and anticipation, even if it did mean we all went straight back to school for the technical and flying courses back at RNAS Culdrose.

On the 9th January 1970 I flew my first lesson in Sea King XV653, with my instructor, Lt Mike Burnett. All was not how it seemed however. The Sea King Intensive Flying Trials Unit was behind schedule but the commissioning of 824 could not be delayed if Ark Royal’s programme was to remain intact. My type conversion course therefore began before those instructors in 706 Squadron had themselves received their Sea King Training. The solution to a seriously compressed training programme entailed the instructors flying with one of two Sea King qualified QHIs (Lt Cdr John Horscroft and Lt Mike Clark) in the morning, and then teaching that very same lesson to us newbies in the afternoon. Needless to say. it was pandemonium and with new recruits being drafted in all the time the nascent 824 was slowly emerging from The Appointer’s notepad and into the 706 crew-room. It grew with each passing day and when the IFTU was finally over a large bunch of recruits arrived in one final wave.

The course was a rude introduction to the amazing capabilities of this beast. As one crew commander explained from his hover in Falmouth Bay to a worried ATC back at a fogbound RNAS Culdrose, “No, I am not concerned about the weather, I have enough fuel on board to divert to Lossiemouth if the weather gets too bad.” The Sea King had a nominal ‘on-task’ time of four hours but actually had enough fuel for a five-hour flight.

We were to discover that the Achilles Heel of the new bird was undoubtedly the seats. Many a Sea King pilot was to suffer the vagaries of this one unfortunate failure in the cockpit design. It was alleged, in a famous cartoon that the driver’s seat was a bit of an afterthought. It pictured a worn-out Sea King pilot sitting in a seat bearing the manufacturer’s data plate. It said…

“Manufactured by the ACME Screen Door and Window Company”

The conversion course continued apace and with each passing day we learnt a little more about the machine’s idiosyncrasies. The automatic blade-fold system was an intriguing ‘dance’ that we went through for each flight. The blades performing their fascinating routine at the beginning and end of the sortie so that we could all gain experience prior to ship-borne operations. Almost everything about the Sea King was impressive, its size, its reliability compared with its predecessor and above all its capabilities. Everything about it seemed to be three or four times better than the Wessex. It was faster, could fly further, fly for longer and above all could carry a significantly greater load. The one area that was a step backwards from the Wessex 3 was the quality of the flight instruments. The Nav Display on the Wessex 3 was a beautifully designed piece of equipment, the Sea King’s was a bit of a budget work-a-day come-down and a trifle confusing.

There was no doubt about the fact that the Fleet was about to gain a huge improvement in capability in every department and Ark Royal in particular was about to find out what the Sea King could do to assist with its own re-entry into service following a long refit.

As operating experience was gained we were to discover that not all was perfection. The hydraulic windscreen wiper motors would only work when the fluid was cool so after five or ten minutes they stopped dead. We found that lowering the landing gear would revive them for a minute or two but then they would once again come to a grinding halt. It was a trick you could only use once so lowering the landing gear in a rainstorm at night was often delayed until the optimum moment on short finals.

One other small problem that became a notorious ‘gotcha’ was the arrangement of the fuel switches on the fuel panel. In the beginning the Cross-Feed switch was identical to the two Engine Fuel Valve switches but after a series of inadvertent in-flight engine shutdowns this was changed to a rotary type. It solved that problem – for most pilots anyway!

By mid-February 1970 the first batch of Sea King crews graduated and joined the ranks of the embryonic 824 NAS. The first Sea King Squadron was duly commissioned on the 24th February and we set about preparing for life on board Ark Royal. First stop was a short spell chasing submarines in the Moray Firth hosted by NAS Lossiemouth. The next step was a trip to RAF Ballykelly in Northern Ireland for a ‘JAS’ Course.

Their Lordships, in their wisdom, had just handed the RAF base over to the Army due to ‘The Troubles’ and it was re-christened ‘Shackleton Barracks’. The venue was to be the HQ for a huge Joint Anti-Submarine exercise involving ships, submarines and aircraft from many NATO nations. The influx of officers and men overwhelmed the base facilities so all the 824 Squadron officers were billeted at a local hotel called Broomhill House. This may not have been the smartest of moves. It became known as RNAS Broomhill House Hotel and for almost three weeks we gallantly attempted to seriously damage the Guinness stocks in the Londonderry area and generally made a nuisance of ourselves in the many small bars and pubs in the City. We were ably led, I might add, by one Lt Terry Loughran (later Rear Admiral T. Loughran). Terry led the community singing each evening in darkened city-centre bars and somehow managed to ensure that we sang all the wrong songs in all the wrong bars such that, in retrospect, we were extremely lucky to escape in one piece.

The Sea King, meanwhile was being tested in ‘war-games’ off the North Western Approaches and stunning everyone with its capabilities. We returned to Culdrose at the end of May.

On the 12th June we embarked on Ark Royal and headed for the North Sea off the Scottish coast to assist with the embarkation of the fixed wing Squadrons. The Sea King helped enormously with this process and shifted a huge volume of stores from Lossiemouth, some carried externally and some internally. We were busy going backwards and forwards to the ship with all manner of seemingly vital supplies. Together with SPLOT, I moved an entire 6000lb Phantom engine in its cradle then found myself hauling a mixed load of 50lb practice bombs and a large number of cardboard boxes labelled ‘Glenmorangie’. I think the Lossie based Buccaneer squadron – 809 – had an ‘arrangement’ with the local distillery.

The early fixed-wing days on Ark were dogged by problems with the ‘Jigger Wires’. These were attached to the four arrester wires and used to reset them after each arrested landing. They were arranged in pairs so that one jigger wire would reset No 1 and No 3 arrester wires and another the No2 and No 4. When a jigger wire broke it would leave the fixed wing guys with just two wires to aim at – not good. The stock of jigger wires ran out very quickly and the reserve supplies were back in Devonport. The good old Sea King stepped into the breach and set off on a 1,000-mile round trip to bring back more jiggers. This long-range support for the ship was not only a vital lifeline for the ‘Stovies’ (fixed wing) but also saved huge amounts of debilitating downtime for the ship and enabled the bulk of our work-up tasks to be accomplished. Hauling spare parts for all on board Ark as well as the accompanying task force earned the Squadron many Brownie Points but the greatest satisfaction came from being able to bring mail to Ark and her escorts from far off stations. Collecting newspapers and distributing bread made in Ark’s bakery became a pleasant routine. Needless to say, it also helped to build a bond between the chopper boys and the ship’s engineers. Something that facilitated many a mess-deck repair or assistance of a liquid variety.

Come the Autumn we were preparing for a massive exercise called Northern Wedding. The NATO task force was steaming around the North Cape of Norway and we were playing the game of chasing imaginary ‘Charlie Class’ Russian submarines. Screening for this threat required the Sea Kings to operate way beyond the task force and to run a ‘ripple four’ schedule. One aircraft would be en-route to its screening sector, two would be ‘on task’ and a fourth would be on the way back to ‘mother’ (Ark).
Such was the non-stop nature of the flying that we were spending four hours in the air and four hours in our bunks. Thank goodness it only lasted a week. I flew 71 hours that month.

The next stop for Ark Royal was The Mediterranean and more exercises. We were heading back down through the North Sea in a Force 10 Gale when, on the third of October, whilst in the middle of the morning briefing, the Squadron was notified of a lightship sinking off the Dutch coast.

The Senior Pilot, Lt Cdr John (Courtney) Horscroft immediately sent the duty crew to man their allocated Sea King, 055 (XV659). The aircraft commander, Lt Barry Randle, was told to remain for a detailed briefing and the copilot, yours truly, with Observer, Sub Lt Dick Stephenson, and crewman, CPO Sweet, were instructed to start the helicopter and prepare for the SAR mission. I suddenly found myself in the right-hand seat on a ‘live’ rescue mission but there was no time for nerves only excitement at the first taste of a ‘real’ operation. The storm was generating gusts of 70 knots so the ship turned across the wind so that the rotors could be started in the lee of the island.

The four-man crew departed for the sinking ship to the northeast of their location. Shortly after, news reached us that the lightship crew had been rescued by a Dutch helicopter. The Sea King was recalled only to be re-tasked with a second mission, a vessel in difficulties to the south of their location. We returned to Ark for a refuel and received additional crew, a photographer and the ship’s SAR Flight diver, Ldg Cook Mather. We set off for the rescue mission outlined in the attached copy of C in C’s Commendation subsequently awarded to the crew after Lt Randle received a medal from the German equivalent of the RNLI. The Fleet Air Arm had a long tradition of treating such events as ‘part of the job’ but were embarrassed into making a gesture given the PR opportunities handed to them by the German embassy.

This was a scratch crew chosen randomly that had never flown together and, with the exception of CPO Sweet and Ldg Cook Mather, never conducted a live SAR mission. It wasn’t an easy mission by any means but its success speaks volumes about the quality of training delivered to FAA crews. At the time I had 650 flying hours to my name. It may not have been the first RN Sea King SAR mission but it was certainly the first SAR mission flown by 824. Hats off to the boss and the SPLOT who were man enough to entrust the job to a motley collection of ‘Squadron Joes’. My personal thanks to Leading Cook Mather whose calmness and professionalism helped to make the day a success. Here are some of the pictures taken that day.

After enduring the storms of the North Sea, it was time to sail for warmer climes and Ark headed for Gibraltar. Our arrival in the Mediterranean was the signal for some intense exercises for the entire air wing. The hard work was rewarded by two Self Maintenance Periods which were spent in Valetta Harbour, Malta. Each was two weeks long and courtesy of RAF ‘indulgence flights’ some of us were able to get our wives out for one of those periods. The Air Department worked a fairly relaxed routine having disembarked to RAF Luqa. Flying skills were maintained by conducting ‘reconnaissance’ flights around the islands

It was a happy time marred only by our coming together with a Russian destroyer when she tried to cross our path as the ship turned into the wind and took up ‘flying stations’. Sadly, some Russian sailors were lost overboard and Ark received a few ‘war-wounds’ to her bow, necessitating a return to the UK for repairs.

The collision occurred at night and when Ark hit the Rusky it was an important night for the Squadron’s Uckers championship and the 824 aircrew contingent, including team leader, Lt Terrance Loughran, were embroiled in a battle with the maintainers in the junior rates mess-deck, located in the bows of the ship. There was a good deal of liquid encouragement flowing so it was a sudden and unwelcome challenge to have to brave the horrendous noise of the collision and then to repair to the flight deck in goon-suits to conduct a night search for survivors.

By the end of the year, we could look back on some quite remarkable achievements. The Sea King had brought about a step change in capability and boosted my flying hours from 314 to 720. For a peace-time year, it has to be close to some kind of record. There was more to come, of course, for this was just YEAR ONE.