A veteran Wessex helicopter has been restored to its glory days appearance and been given pride of place by the Fleet Air Arm at its Somerset home.
The 48-year-old aircraft spent a decade flying from RNAS Yeovilton in the 1970s and early ’80s with the forerunner of today’s Commando Helicopter Force and now serves as a ‘gate guardian’ in front of the air station’s headquarters following restoration.
Pictures: LA(Phot) Abbie Herron, RNAS Yeovilton, and Fleet Air Arm Museum
THERE’S an “old girl looking good” and enjoying pride of place at the heart of Yeovilton air station.
Restored to her Junglie glory outside the headquarters of HMS Heron in Somerset is Wessex XT458, veteran of commando training and operations for nearly 20 years.
To mark that long association with the Royal Marines’ aerial arm, the decommissioned helicopter has been returned to her distinctive mid-70s livery – Junglie green – to act as a ‘gate guardian’ or ‘sentinel’ and, more importantly, a reminder of Fleet Air Arm heritage.
The last Wessexes flew with the Royal Navy in Fleet Air Arm, bringing the curtain down on a 28-year flying career. Two dozen years after those final flights in 1988, there remain a few Wessex veterans still in the Fleet Air Arm, including Cdr Rick Fox, a pilot with 848 Naval Air Squadron, and aircrewman CPO John Fagan, who serves on the CHF staff at Yeovilton.
A Wessex Mk5 drops off Royal Marines on exercise in Norway in the 1970s
“It was great working in the Wessex 5,” said John, who flew on search and rescue missions in XT458 with 772 NAS from Portland in the mid-80s.
“We’d work a crew of three: one Pilot, two aircrewman. As an aircrewman you had a major role, whether as the winchman or search and rescue diver on the end of the wire. It’s great to see the old girl looking so good and given pride of place front and centre at Yeovilton.”
Cdr Fox, who flew Wessex helicopters with 845 NAS in the Falklands in 1982, added: “For a pilot the Wessex 5 was an absolute pleasure to fly – reliable in all environments and built to last. You most definitely felt like you were in control of a powerful stallion that required respect and returned the favour.
“It was built to withstand landing on rough and hostile terrain and immensely powerful, you started your flight by climbing up the outside of the aircraft to strap in to the pilot’s seat.
"It was an agile, capable and robust multi-role helicopter that could be heavily armed both in a defensive or aggressive pose, a fact that was reassuring for the crew, whether flying in the troop carrying or weapons platform role, SAR, utility or communication flight.”
XT458 was a Wessex HU5 (Helicopter Utility Mk5) and rolled off the production line at the Westland works in nearby Yeovil in 1965.
It served with 707 Naval Air Squadron, an advanced training unit for pilots and commando fliers, first at Culdrose, then at Yeovilton from 1972. Once in Somerset, the Wessex was assigned to front-line commando squadrons 845 and 846, before Sea Kings replaced Wessexes and the venerable helicopter was transferred to search and rescue duties for the final six years of her life.
After clocking up 6,212 flying hours (that’s more than eight whole months airborne), XT458 saw out her days first at HMS Daedalus in Lee-on-the-Solent and finally at HMS Sultan in Gosport where she was “poked and prodded” by budding air engineers.
When Sultan decided the Wessex was no longer needed, Yeovilton stepped in and offered to restore her… which its team has now done.