Reprinted from a Cockpit article

Well, it’s gorn, finally and irretrievably, gorn. A lovely old helicopter that was already an old design when Westlands (those well known makers of garage doors) got their hands on it and turned it into the Wessex 5. The stories surrounding the aircraft are legion,……. its reputation for rugged, safe, if not always reliable, flying making it a firm favourite with those of us who were lucky enough to fly it. I suspect never again will we have a helicopter that has such a superb single engine performance and such enormous reserves of power when both were running. Some of the torque figures pulled are firmly burned into the minds of those who just kept pulling on the collective lever to avoid impending doom!

The well known Commander (Air) of a Naval Air Station who managed the ultimate in Australia by pulling so much torque that the complete head came off must surely hold the record for over-torqueing, though I am sure that as a Helicopter Warfare Instructor (HWI) he wouldn’t admit to ever looking at the torque meter even if he’d known where it was. Luckily the head came off on take-off, so the dozens of Australians occupying the fourteen available seats all came tumbling out of the back whingeing but unscathed. Engine-off landings were a fertile area for experiment, and it surely was one of the few helicopters that could be safely ‘engined off’ without having to use the collective lever. All it took was bags of nerve, even more speed than normal and a certainty that no one important was watching you! The resultant flare and interesting rearward tilt to the rotor disc made it a spectator sport of some note, with many cries of “Chicken” over the radio from the not so brave, as it was very obvious when someone cheated and used the lever! Did I say cheat by using lever? Strength at all ends of the machine was always a great bonus. No one who saw the brilliant arrival in dispersal, after an air display rehearsal at Yeovilton, will forget the Squadron Commanding Officer’s dashing arrival as he bounced the tailwheel off the top of a ground power unit with a good twenty degrees nose up, recovered, and landed for the second time in front of his surprised and by now very nervous marshaller. There was the chap in Singapore who returned to dispersal after an Instrument Training trip (supposedly being conducted at several thousand feet) that had a goodly portion of the main telephone cables between Singapore and Kuala Lumpur wrapped neatly round its nose and undercarriage!! It was bad luck, that one,…. because he only hit them while avoiding a train!

A WESSEX in Borneo returned from a trip to a very hot and high mountain, complaining of a vibration which was easily explained by the large lump of tree that was still embedded across the tail; in front, yes in front, of the tail rotor! A particularly good demonstration of the ruggedness of the old girl was amply demonstrated on an Instrument Flying (IF) trip in Cornwall. The pilot was the Sqn CO, who had the added disability of being a Royal Marine and to whom IF and quite a lot of other things, like holding a knife and fork, did not come naturally. Well at the end of the trip, to the IRI’s surprise, (yes, I was an IRI) the aforesaid RM was on centreline and glidepath (though glidepath has always struck me as a singularly inappropriate name for what a helicopter is doing at the time, certainly not ‘gliding’) and so the IRI decided to let the Jolly Green Giant continue below break-off height and see what happened! Well, it did, didn’t it, the aircraft struck the ground a shrewd blow at a steady 90 knots and stuck there as the combined team of IRI and RMJGG could not work out what to do next or even who had control at this stage! Wings knew what to do, he picked up his phone with one hand and watched the aircraft with his other, because if you see the disaster you legally cannot be on the Board of Inquiry! Well, the aircraft passed the tower slowing only slightly with faint wisps of brake dust beginning to show and a fairly impressive amount of rearward cyclic, finally coming to a halt at the runway intersection. The subsequent debrief was not entirely dominated by the IRI, as is usual, Wings seemed to have an awful lot to say.

To my certain knowledge it is also the only helicopter ever to have successfully taken on a SEA HARRIER in air to air combat and won, forcing the damaged stovie to return to base unable to continue, whilst the victorious and gallant Wessex crew, of which I was the Captain, landed at a nearby inn and celebrated their historic victory. This followed a mid air collision in cloud and did result in a little cosmetic surgery required around the tail wheel area of the Wessex and a new tailfin for the Harrier. Spookily, the Air Traffic Team on watch at the time happened to be a husband and wife, one of whom was controlling me and the other Willie Macatee, a USMC exchange Pilot in the Sea Harrier. More importantly than these very important details was the fact that husband and wife had fallen out at the time of the incident!

If the Wessex 5 had a weakness it was its tendency not to start when it was really necessary. It damned well knew when you were on a VIP trip and would flatly refuse to start, but then after the chap had departed, fuming and late by ca, would start as though nothing had happened! The attitude of “Command” was always to have a spare for a spare for a spare, especially at long weekends to ensure the job could be done. The dodgy starting was made worse in later years by the Engineers changing the batteries to smaller ones without telling the Operators. This certainly made going home for lunch or stopping off at a pub whilst in transit, a much more exciting business! No one to my knowledge ever got caught out by “Them”, but several Wessex have been known to fly quite long distances on one engine to a place where it could be admitted that the other would not start! It knew when things were really serious though and rarely failed on a SAR mission, or on one glorious occasion in the days of short exhaust pipes, when an aircraft in the middle of a line of 18 others on Salisbury Plain did a wet start and set fire to the grass! They all started wonderfully that day!!

When it first went out to Borneo this tendency not to start, especially when hot, meant that you did not shut down whilst pausing between tasks. However, to reduce fuel consumption and noise it was common to pull the speed selects back to about 200 rotor RPM or less (they would normally be at 230). The interesting bit came when you took off, especially if you forgot to push them back up again. The aircraft would stagger into the air, if you were lucky down a slope, rotor blades coning like a ballet dancer’s arms whilst you struggled to get the revs back without the passengers knowing anything was amiss and of course before you struck the trees.

Radios were another interesting quirk of the early Wessex 5. It had a marvellous HF set that could receive every known commercial radio station from all round the world and the ability to talk clearly to Malta from the Culdrose local area. What it could not do, however, was to talk to Culdrose from the local area or any other Naval Air Station from any other area. Whether this was due to the Ops Wrens spending more time on their nails or perhaps the Ops Chief, than listening to deafening static for hours on end, we shall never know. To go with this marvel of technology the WESSEX 5 was fitted with a truly remarkable UHF set, the PTR 170. This was a lightweight set designed for the Whirlwind with the fantastic total of 12 crystallized channels and nothing else. The Whirlwind was lucky: the set was not ready in time, but instead of ditching it, some communicator who clearly had a vested interest in the thing, (probably future employment with the manufacturer, though anyone who would support the PTR 170 would make a doubtful employee!), kept the project alive and bolted it into the Wessex 5, presumably thinking that’s where it would do least harm. Even though 12 channels may have been adequate in the ‘60’s and ‘70’s, they were understandably always the wrong 12 channels.

Now you may think that Junglies have enjoyed spending their lives flying as low as possible, but this is not so. We would have loved to join the Pingers flogging around in the clouds, idly glancing at instruments that patently lacked the correct attitudes, but we couldn’t talk to anyone. The only answer was to keep as low as possible and talk to no-one. After all, if you are lower than a delivery van, which does not have to get permission to enter the Heathrow Control Zone, why should you bother? Continental jaunts were made all the more exciting by the fact that the foreigners would not talk to us on our specially arranged frequencies, or would ask you to call approach which we did not have and then switch off on the special frequency! Back down to the delivery van flight level and pause at the airfield boundary in order to gain height to clear the barbed wire.

I had better clear up the low flying business, as the Wessex 5 spent most of its life there. To fly as low as possible is clearly still a prudent course of action, never mind the lack of radios that forced us down in the past. If anything drastic should go wrong you are much closer to that which is going to break your fall, ask anyone who has fallen off a barn roof (as indeed I have) and he will tell you “height hurts”. Teaching students to fly the Wessex 5 was another interesting pastime, as anyone who has followed the saga of modifications to the fuel computers and the plethora of pilots notes to go with them, will testify. Luckily, once again the fantastic single-engine performance made up for any lack of speed in dealing with the things and gave the instructor time to look up the correct actions as the student struggled with the wrong ones! The total lack of drama when on one engine was well demonstrated by an experienced Pongo on an exchange posting. On his final handling check at the end of his conversion course he did autos, approaches, landings and take-offs, all without noticing that the port engine had not been advanced from ‘ground idle’, where it was no good to man nor beast. On his re-scrub he did little better and was returned to the Army where his single engined flying skills would be of more use in their single engined aircraft.

Not always did the aircraft escape unscathed from these training exercises. Witness the two instructors who were practising Engine off landings by pulling the Speed Select levers (throttles) back on each other in increasingly difficult places. One pulled them at around 100 feet on climb out but the other chap wasn’t ready for it and failed to do anything, causing the rotor RPM to decay rather drastically. As the rotor RPM wound down they crashed straight ahead, having to climb out through the back of the cabin as there was a main wheel gently rotating outside one Pilots window and the ground filling the other.

The Wessex 5 has certainly seen life all round the world and its starring role in operations and disasters during its history are well known. Its greatest asset was that it was FUN to fly. You may not have been able to see out of it, you may even now have a bad back from its appalling seats and you may well never have seen your crewman’s face, but it was FUN. Chuck it about all you like and as long as you were smooth with your green gloved mitts, it would do almost anything and only retreating blade stall, tail rotor stall or your seat collapsing as the adjustor sprang out from the vibration, let you know that its limits were being approached!

Will the “Flying 290 Frame Crack” (Sea King Mk4) ever engender the same affection? With more radios than Currys, and bootnecks able to see if you have got the right map, I doubt it. Thirty degrees angle of bank the maximum and vibration that would shake the spots off a prostitute, pah! Fancy not being able to land with over forty degrees nose up for fear of breaking something, the Commando assault at Air Days will never be the same! Not able to fire rockets at your unarmed enemies (naturally we would never dare use them against someone who can fight back). We won’t see the likes of her again, more is the pity, but the venerable Wessex was FUN whilst it lasted.

Lt Cdr David Baston AFC RN Retired