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Wessex helicopter

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Wessex helicopter

This article is about the helicopter. For 1930s aircraft, see Westland Wessex (fixed wing).
A Royal Navy Wessex HU.5 at Ascension Island in 1982
Role Helicopter
National origin United Kingdom
Manufacturer Westland Aircraft
Westland Helicopters
First flight 20 June 1958
Introduction 1961
Retired 2003 (Royal Air Force)
Primary users Royal Navy
Royal Air Force
Royal Australian Navy
Uruguayan Air Force
Produced 1958-1970
Number built 356
Developed from Sikorsky H-34

The Westland Wessex is a British turbine-powered version of the Sikorsky S-58 "Choctaw", developed under license by Westland Aircraft (later Westland Helicopters), initially for the Royal Navy, and later for the Royal Air Force (RAF). The Wessex operated as an anti-submarine warfare and utility helicopter in multiple nations, it is perhaps most well known in Britain for its service as a search and rescue (SAR) helicopter. The type first entered service in 1961.

Design and development

An American-built Sikorsky HSS-1 was shipped to Westland in 1956 to act as a pattern aircraft. It was re-engined with a Napier Gazelle turboshaft engine, and first flew in that configuration on 17 May 1957.[1] The first Westland-built Wessex XL727, designated a Wessex HAS.1, first flew on 20 June 1958.[1] The type first began performing anti-submarine duties in 1961, operated by the Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm.

As an anti-submarine helicopter, the Wessex could track targets but not engage them with either depth charges or torpedos as this was beyond its carrying capacity; this limitation led to Westand and the Royal Navy quickly seeking a helicopter that could provide that capability, resulting in the acquisition and adaption of another Sikorsky-designed aircraft to produce the Westland Sea King.[2]

The Wessex helicopter was successfully adapted in the early 1960s as a general-purpose helicopter for the RAF, capable of performing troop-carrying, air ambulance and ground support roles. In contrast with the HAS.1, it used twin Rolls-Royce Gnome engines. These marks (HC.2, HCC.4, HU.5) had a single large exhaust on each side of the nose, the Gazelle-powered examples having a pair of smaller exhausts on either side.

Operational history



The Wessex was first used by the Royal Navy, introducing the HAS.1 to meet the service's growing need to counter the expanding capabilities and numbers of submarines. The Navy would quickly press the development of the HAS.1 into the improved HAS.3, which came into service in 1967. It saw embarked service on the County class destroyers. The HAS.3 could be identified by a dorsal radome and strake extending behind the "hump".

The RAF became an operator of the Wessex in 1962; those helicopters used for air-sea or mountain rescue duties helped make the Wessex a particularly well known aircraft of the service and contributed to the saving of many lives during its time in service. As one of the RAF's standing duties, multiple Wessex helicopters were permanently kept on standby to respond to an emergency located anywhere within 40 miles of the British coastline within 15 minutes during daytime, at night hours this response time was decreased to 60 minutes.[3] SAR-tasked Wessex helicopters were also stationed abroad, such as at Cyprus.[4]

Wessex helicopters were also used by the Queen's Flight of the RAF to transport VIPs including members of the British Royal Family;[4] in this role, the helicopters were designated HCC.4 and were essentially similar to the HC.2, differences included an upgraded interior, additional navigation equipment and enhanced maintenance programmes.[5] Both Prince Philip and Prince Charles were trained Wessex pilots, occasionally they would perform as flying crew members in addition to being passengers on board the VIP services.[6] The Wessex was replaced in this role by a privately leased Sikorsky S-76 in 1998.[7]

Wartime operations

In 1962, an international crisis arose as Indonesia threatened confrontation over the issue of Brunei, which was not in the newly formed Federation of Malaya. By February 1964, a large number of RAF and RN helicopters, including Westland Wessex, were operating from bases in Sarawak and Sabah to assist Army and Marine detachments fighting guerilla forces infiltrated by Indonesia over its one thousand mile frontier with Malaysia. Having removed much of the anti-submarine equipment to lighten the aircraft, during the Borneo Campaign the Wessex was operated as a large transport helicopter, capable of ferrying up to 16 troops or a 4,000 pound payload of supplies directly to the front lines.[8] Alongside the Westland Scout, the Wessex emerged as one of the main workhorses of the campaign, roughly half were operated directly from land bases and would regularly rotate with those stationed on RN vessels stationed off shore.[9]

Around 55 Westland Wessex HU.5s participated in the Falklands War, fighting in the South Atlantic in 1982. Their prime role was the landing, and moving forward, of Rapier missile systems, fuel, artillery and ammunition. On 21 May 1982, 845 Squadron's Wessex HU.5s supported British landings on East Falkland. The type was heavily used throughout the conflict for the transportation and insertion of British special forces, including members of the Special Air Service (SAS) and the Special Boat Service (SBS).[4] A total of nine Wessex (eight HU.5s and one HAS.3) were lost during the Falklands campaign.[10] Two HU.5s of 845 Squadron crashed on the Fortuna Glacier in South Georgia during an attempt to extricate members of the SAS, six of 848 Squadron's Wessex HU.5s were lost when the container ship Atlantic Conveyor was sunk[11] and the HAS.3 aboard HMS Glamorgan (D19) was destroyed when the ship was struck by an Exocet missile.[12]

Civilian operations

Twenty Wessex 60 helicopters powered by the Bristol Siddeley Gnome H1200 engine were supplied to civilian operators including Bristow Helicopters of Redhill in Surrey. Bristows flew them from various UK airfields and helicopter pads to support the growing North Sea Oil industry until they were withdrawn in 1982.


In April 1961, the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) announced that they had selected the Westland Wessex to become the standard service helicopter from their ships and its intention to purchase roughly 30 for anti-submarine patrols, casualty evacuations, and fleet communications duties.[13] The Wessex was a major operational shift for the Fleet Air Arm, enabling the RAN to proceed with the conversion of the aircraft carrier HMAS Melbourne as an anti-submarine platform.[14] The RAN formally accepted the first two of 27 Wessex helicopters in September 1963;[15] 817 Squadron was the first to operate the type.[16]

By 1980, the Wessex was no longer being used for anti-submarine operations, instead performing the personnel transport mission as a utility helicopter instead.[17]


Wessex HAS.1
RN utility, anti-submarine warfare, later air-sea rescue only, 140 built, some later converted to HAS.3.
Wessex HC.2
RAF Troop carrier for up to 16 troops, One prototype converted from HAS1 and 73 built.
Wessex HAR.2
RAF search and rescue conversions.
Wessex HAS.3
RN anti-submarine version with improved avionics with a radome on the rear fuselage, 3 new-build development aircraft and 43 converted from HAS.1
Wessex HCC.4
VVIP transport for the Queens Flight, two built
Wessex HU.5
RN service troop transporter, carried 16 Royal Marines, 101 built
Wessex HAS31
Royal Australian Navy anti-submarine warfare model, 27 built.
Wessex HAS31B
Updated anti-submarine warfare model for the Royal Australian Navy.
Wessex 52
military transport version of the HC.2 for the Iraqi Air Force, 12 built.
Wessex 53
Military transport version of the HC.2 for the Ghana Air Force, two built.
Wessex 54
Military transport version of the HC.2 for the Brunei Air Wing, two built
Wessex 60
Civilian version of the Wessex HC.2, 20 built.

Notable accidents

  • G-ASWI - Bristow Helicopters. Crashed (North Sea) August 1981; no survivors
  • XR524 (RAF) - Crashed August 1993 in North Wales after tail rotor failure, killing 3 out of 7 on board.


Military operators

 United Kingdom

Civil Operators

 United Kingdom

Specifications (Wessex HC.2)

Data from Westland Aircraft since 1915[38]

General characteristics
  • Crew: Two pilots (civilian type 60 Wessex cleared for single pilot operation[39])
  • Capacity: 16 troops or 8 stretchers
  • Length: 65 ft 10 in[40] (20.07 m)
  • Rotor diameter: 56 ft 0 in (17.07 m)
  • Height: 15 ft 10 in (4.83 m)
  • Disc area: 2,463 ft² (229 m²)
  • Empty weight: 8,340 lb (3,767 kg)
  • Loaded weight: 13,500 lb (6,136 kg)
  • Powerplant: 2 × Rolls-Royce Gnome H.1200 Mk.110/111 turboshaft, 1,350 shp (1,007 kW) (limited to 1,550 shp (1,156 kW) total[1]) each


Notable appearances in media

See also

Related development
Aircraft of comparable role, configuration and era


  • Allen, Patrick. Wessex. Airlife, 1988. ISBN 1-85310-050-1.
  • Ashworth, Chris. Encyclopedia of Modern Royal Air Force Squadrons. Wellingborough, UK: Patrick Stephens Limited, 1989. ISBN 1-85260-013-6.
  • Burden, Rodney A. et al. Falklands: The Air War. British Aviation Research Group, 1986. ISBN 0-906339-05-7.
  • Crawford, Stephen. Twenty First Century Military Helicopters: Today's Fighting Gunships. Zenith Imprint, 2003. ISBN 0-76031-504-3.
  • Dunstan, Simon. Vietnam Choppers: Helicopters in Battle 1950-1975. Osprey Publishing, 2003. ISBN 1-84176-796-4.
  • Fowler, Will. Britain's Secret War: The Indonesian Confrontation 1962 - 66. Osprey Publishing, 2006. ISBN 1-84603-048-X.
  • Grey, Jeffrey. A Military History of Australia. Cambridge University Press, 2008. ISBN 0-52169-791-3.
  • Harrison, Neil. Flight International, 1 May 1969, pp. 725–727.
  • Halley, James J. The Squadrons of the Royal Air Force. Tonbridge, Kent, UK: Air Britain (Historians) Ltd, 1980. ISBN 0-85130-083-9.
  • James, Derek N. Westland Aircraft since 1915. London: Putnam, 1991. ISBN 0-85177-847-X.
  • Motum, John. The Putnam Aeronautical Review. Naval Institute Press, 1991. ISBN 1-55750-676-0.
  • Ovcacik, Michal and Susa, Karel. Westland Wessex: Rotary Wings Line, 1st edition 1998, 4+ Publications, Prague Czech Republic, (in English) ISBN 80-902559-0-6.
  • Piggot, Peter. Royal Transport: An Inside Look at The History of British Royal Travel. Dundurn, 2005. ISBN 1-55488-285-0.
  • Plamondon, Aaron. The Politics of Procurement: Military Acquisitions in Canada and the Sea King Helicopter. UBC Press, 2010. ISBN 0-77485-910-5.
  • Taylor, John W. R. (editor). Jane's All The World's Aircraft 1965-66. London:Sampson Low, Marston, 1965.
  • Thetford, Owen. British Naval Aircraft since 1912. London: Putnam, 1978. ISBN 0-370-30021-1.

External links

  • RAF Museum
  • Wessex section
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