The Westland Sea King has to be regarded as one of the most significant aircraft to see service with the British armed forces since the end of the Second World War. Proving to be more than an adequate replacement for the ageing Wessex, the Sea King was an exceptionally versatile workhorse, providing both the Royal Navy and the RAF with a helicopter that could adapt to any situation it was required to serve. From the perspective of the general public, the Sea King became a symbol of safety and reassurance, as these airborne sentinels would always be present in our hour of greatest need – no Search and Rescue Sea King would ever fly over a UK beach without immediately receiving the adulation of the holidaymakers below. As the Westland Sea King retires and slips into the aviation history books, it will leave a service legacy that is unlikely to be matched in the years to come.
The Royal Navy’s Sea King HC.4 ‘Junglies’ were specialist troop carrying helicopters and were synonymous with the Commandos of the Royal Marines and saw their combat introduction during the Falklands Conflict of 1982. Amongst the many roles performed by these relatively new aircraft included numerous rescue and replenishment flights and acting as decoys against the feared Argentine Exocet missile attacks. The threat posed by these devastating weapons resulted in a highly secret and extremely dangerous SAS plan to attack the Argentine airbase at Rio Grande and destroy the remaining Exocet missiles before they could be used. In advance of this attack, a small force of SAS troops were carried on board Sea King HC.4 ZA290, to be dropped off as near to the airbase as possible, so they could set up an observation post and provide intelligence. At the very extreme of the helicopters range, the crew of the Sea King knew this was a one way mission and after delivering their covert cargo, they were instructed to make their way to neutral Chile and destroy their aircraft.
Always an extremely risky plan, with the potential to go disastrously wrong, the SAS team discovered that the airbase was well defended and the inability to secure vital intelligence information resulted in the raid being cancelled. Sea King ZA290, which was the first ‘new build’ HC.4 to be delivered to the navy, made a heavy landing on a Chilean beach and was destroyed by its crew, who were later turned over to British officials.