Around eight years ago and when I was much closer to the Royal Air Force than I perhaps am today, I was asked informally whether I could attempt a ‘straw poll’ of the public in order to find out how they saw the modern-day Royal Air Force.
I would emphasise that this was to be a straw poll of sorts and that if I recall correctly, in order to achieve this I then held conversations with around 200 individuals, none of whom I had previously met or known. The conclusions drawn from this were nothing less than spectacular on one hand but alarming on the other as it appeared that back in 2012 the public view of the RAF centred predominantly on just two things that they did so well – the Royal Air Force Red Arrows Aerobatic Team and the Yellow Search and Rescue ‘Sea King’ Helicopters. That the main business of the Royal Air Force, that of defending the skies and playing the vital role that they do in defence and that of our Nato allies received precious little mention came as something of a shock and in the years that followed this has, I hope, been addressed through improved PR.
However, with various issues surrounding the poor state of RAF pilot training, over-zealous attempts by the RAF hierarchy to prioritise diversity and inclusion over that of merit on which I have previously written on, how the Raf is perceived has taken another dent. Neither have other internal but now very public issues that have surfaced in recent weeks surrounding the lack of personal discipline within the RAF Red Arrow Aerobatic done anything other than further tarnish the reputation of the Royal Air Force both internally and externally. So, it was with great regret that I learned that a third member of the Red Arrows team, in this case the Commanding Officer, has now been suspended pending investigation of claims in regard of alleged inappropriate behaviour. Suffice to say that the damage done by these separate events to the RAF Red Arrows team is incalculable and while I would love to suggest that it will all blow over, I am bound to fear that the impact of these unfortunate events and the bad PR attached could well signal the beginning of the end for the display team as we know it.
In these increasingly cost-conscious times and with these unfortunate self-inflicted wounds hanging over it, perhaps it is time to ask the more pertinent question of whether the time has come to call it a day? Given also that at some point the aircraft flown by the Red Arrows will need to be replaced and that the RAF is struggling with capacity and lack of air asset capabilities, in suggesting this I am merely opening a debate.
In the meantime, I sincerely hope that both the Secretary of State for Defence and the Chief of Defence Staff will now look more deeply into how the Royal Air Force is currently run. From my perspective, diversity and inclusion issues that have rocked recent sentiment are probably not the only issues that have led to morale being low. Retention has and is another serious issue.
We need a strong and vibrant Royal Air Force and one that, as it had been for so many years past, is looked up to by the public, the international community and our allies alike, one that is again seen as the one to beat and the leader in its field.
No amount of damage limitation exercise from the MOD can alter the prevailing view that something is wrong internally within the Royal Air Force and that change is needed. Whether it is lack of strong leadership is not for me to say but what I can say is that respect and trust of its people is essential and that rather too many RAF Officers that I have had the pleasure and honour of knowing have felt let down by the current leadership.
Sea King Helicopters Going to Ukraine
Confirmation in Oslo yesterday that three former UK military Sea King helicopters are to be sent – one has already arrived – to Ukraine (along with an additional 10,000 artillery rounds) came as little surprise and makes good sense. Members of the Ukraine military have been training with the Royal Navy on the retired Sea King helicopters owned by Portland based HeliOperations for some while.
Known as ‘Junglies’ within the Royal Navy and in service with the RN Commando force from 1969 to 2016 and also with both the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force on SAR’s (Search and Rescue) helicopters until 2015 when the former military operation of SARS was handed over to Maritime and Coastguard Agency/HM Coastguard irresponsibility and operated on their behalf by Bristow with a modern fleet of 11 AW189 and 10 S-92 SAF equipped helicopters based at 10 strategic UK locations (aerial reconnaissance operation has been conducted on behalf of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency by 2Excel Aviation since 2019), the Sikorski Sea King (the aircraft were built by Westland Helicopters in Yeovil under licence) provided brilliant service for many decades in a variety of crucial military roles including SARS, moving personnel, reconnaissance and, in Royal navy service, providing airborne early warning around UK shores.
I have never believed in re-inventing the wheel and due to the quality of the article what follows is an excellent, detailed and well written piece that was written by Greg Caygill, and that provides interesting perspective and detail of the former Royal Navy and Royal Air Force Sea King Helicopters that had, until they were acquired from the MOD by Portland based HeliOperations in 2017 (now an important and fast growing defence based company and one that I had personally visited earlier this year in Portland). The article was published in the Magazine ‘Vertical’ in August 2020.
The article well explains far better than I possibly could the excellence of the HeliOps business operation in particular regard to the former UK military Sea King helicopters it acquired, how they have been extensively maintained and operated, have also supported the German Navy in regard of training and support and while due to when it was written, does not cover the announcement in respect of the UK Government providing up to three Heli-Ops Sea King Helicopters to Ukraine, one of which I understand has already been delivered in-country.
HeliOperations — better known as HeliOps — is a leading U.K.-based helicopter operating company specializing in search-and-rescue (SAR) training, the provision of aircrew, and other specialist aviation services. It operates Westland (now Leonardo) Sea King Helicopter Utility (HU) Mk5 helicopters, immediately recognizable by their distinctive orange-and-grey liveries.
These former Royal Navy SAR aircraft were operated by 771 and 819 Naval Air Squadrons (NAS) based in Cornwall and Prestwick until their retirement from Ministry of Defence service in April 2016. Now flown from HeliOps’ base at the former Royal Naval Air Station (RNAS) Portland in Dorset, the helicopters are used to provide SAR training principally to the German Navy, which operates the Mk41 variant of the Sea King.
HeliOps CEO Steve Gladston is a former Royal Navy anti-submarine and SAR pilot. After leaving the service, he flew Sikorsky S-61 and S-92 helicopters in support of oil-and-gas operations and civilian SAR in both the U.K. and Ireland. In 2007, Gladston founded Developing Assets (U.K.) Ltd, HeliOps’ parent company, from which the current operations have grown.
John Bentley, HeliOps’ flight operations manager and chief pilot, has been a commercial helicopter pilot for 28 years. He has served as a front-line SAR pilot for over 21 years, including 10 years as the chief pilot of Bristow’s Stornoway SAR base. He has additional experience in oil-and-gas, military support, and United Nations support operations.
Steve Gladston and John Bentley transitioned Irish SAR operations from the S-61 to the S-92, a very significant change. As Gladston explained, “When the Irish SAR needed to transition to the S-92, we built a team together of all ex-Navy Sea King, SAR-experienced personnel including pilots, rear crew, and others. We then supplied the four Irish bases with aircrew, including the chief pilot role, allowing a seamless handover that maintained provision over a three-year period covering about [7,500] shifts.”
HeliOps has also supplied both pilots and rear crew to a number of existing SAR bases in the U.K., including its current home in Portland. After the U.K. government decided in 2015 to end Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) SAR operations from Portland, HeliOps provided contractor aircrew to ensure continuity before the planned closure in June 2017.
In parallel, HeliOps sought to purchase the Portland site from the U.K. government with the intention of retaining a helicopter operating base capable of providing support to the MCA if required. The capital to do so came from a well-timed German Navy contract.
“We were looking for contracts and found the German Navy needing some Sea King training. I was Sea King experienced and I knew I could get people,” Gladston recalled.
“We juggled it and spun the plates and it all came right in the end,” he continued. “In September 2017, when we flew our first sortie in a Sea King Mk5 in HeliOps livery to train the German Navy, it was a hugely important step in our development and a very exciting time.”
The base is at Osprey Quay on Portland in Dorset, on the land formerly operated by the Royal Navy as the anti-submarine training establishment HMS Osprey. The area has been in continuous use supporting helicopter operations for over 60 years.
HeliOps initially leased its Sea King aircraft but has now purchased them together with a significant package of spares and support equipment, along with a simulator still located at Royal Naval Air Station Culdrose in Cornwall. As well as supporting the German Navy contract, the simulator has been used to train pilots from other Sea King operators including Norway, Pakistan, and the U.K.
The two Sea King aircraft flying today are HU Mk5 models, including XV666, an aircraft that first flew in 1970 as a Mk1 and has been upgraded several times since.
“We have bought all the remaining six Mk5s, five ex-RAF [Royal Air Force] Mk3s and seven AEW [airborne early warning] Mk7s with a view to eventually flying or cannibalizing them for spares,” Gladston said. “Most are currently stored at HMS Sultan, shortly to move to their own newly acquired base maintenance and storage facility at Somerton in Somerset.” Boasting over 3,000 square meters (32,200 square feet) of maintenance, storage, and office space, the facility is just five miles from RNAS Yeovilton and only 35 miles (55 kilometres) from Portland.
Andy Tillion is HeliOps’ senior pilot, while Nick Chick leads crew training. They are providing pilot training for the Germans at the moment and have trained winch personnel as well.
“The calibre of students who come here is high,” Tillion said between flights. “As would be expected, we have had a few challenges with the students, [but] we have been able to resolve them and deliver a very good product back to the German Navy.”
He elaborated: “It’s certainly the additional training that we provide here that adds to the German training; there is enough flexibility that we can give to focus on a particular individual’s training needs. It’s one of the biggest advantages of this sort of arrangement. Normally in a military training pipeline you are restricted on budgets — they can only allocate a certain amount of flights to a particular element [of] the training course and if they’re not achieving the required standards. We are able to be more flexible and ensure we achieve the very highest standards.”
For example, Tillion said, “On the first course we had a student that was struggling with a number of aspects but by the end of it he achieved a good standard and I’d be surprised if he runs into any problems back in Germany. You get an element of satisfaction, especially when you see where they start and where they end up. There was one pilot who was quite reserved and under-confident when he first came here, but the last few sorties I did with him I said, ‘You’re a different person.’”
Chick said there currently are two students who have returned for advanced training, having attended the earlier courses with HeliOps. “It’s good to see them coming back for further training,” he noted.
The students’ initial training is in an aircraft with a glass cockpit, so there is a certain amount of resetting done at HeliOps. But the training they receive on the analogue Sea King is applicable for all types. Tillion and Chick have both flown the highly advanced S-92, and while “it’s got all the bells and whistles . . . the basic fundamental handling is exactly the same,” Tillion said. “So, everything they learn on the Sea King is applicable to any aircraft.”
Basic SAR training for pilots includes winching techniques, getting to a scene, getting to a survivor, conducting a rescue, leaving the scene, and transporting victims to a hospital.
“We’re giving them around 100 hours, which is a very significant course, but what that brings is it gives us the flexibility to deliver exactly what is required,” Tillion said. “I think we’re meeting the brief of Germans; that’s to give them experience in a medium to large maritime helicopter in a SAR environment.”
Chick added, “The way the Germans run it, is they do the basic qualification and they progress to do certain modules. They later come back for the autorotation module in which we’re giving them time in the simulator for a refresher on the technical differences between the Mark 41 Sea King, and then live flying on the Mark 5.”
n HeliOps’ hangar is a red-and-grey Sea King formerly with 771 NAS, tail number XZ920. Under maintenance now, it will be the next machine to fly when one of the current flying aircraft goes down for its next periodic maintenance inspection. HeliOps generally tries to keep two aircraft serviceable in order to always have one to two flying.
“They can be offline [for maintenance] for three to five months and so we have to have one ready to jump back in,” Gladston said. “XZ920 is going to do so when ZA166, ‘Dara,’ goes into deep maintenance.”
More recently, HeliOps achieved approval from the U.K. Military Aviation Authority as a part 145 approved company, which means it satisfies the regulatory requirements for on-site maintenance of military registered air systems and components.
Importantly, HeliOps has its own continuing airworthiness management organization (CAMO). As Gladston proudly explained, “We provide all our own engineering, so the only thing Leonardo does for us at the moment is the design organization functions. All the data engineering decisions and repairs are all done by HeliOps.”
HeliOps also supports the three U.K. military services — Navy, Army, and Air Force — with refuelling at Portland and has done the same for the U.S. Air Force, which operates a number of Bell Boeing CV-22B Ospreys from the 7th Special Operations Squadron, 352nd Special Operations Wing at RAF Mildenhall. Moreover, Gladston said, “we support the Coast Guard, as we did the other night when there was a search-and-rescue job on, for fuel including at night.”
Looking to the future, HeliOps is sure that its venerable Sea Kings still have plenty of life in them.
“We’re confident we’re basically going to be delivering German training through until probably 2023-24, before the German Sea King is replaced,” Gladston said. “So, they are our pride and joy and we love them, the wonderful old Sea Kings . . . and glorious machines they are, too!”.
CHW (London – 23rd November 2022)
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS
Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd,
M: +44 7710 779785