Gary Parsons reports on the retirement of a RAF stalwart.
On the day that former pilot Kenneth Wolstenholme passed away, the BBC commentator famous for his 1966 World Cup final quote that became a national catchphrase, the RAF officially said farewell to the Wessex's service in the UK and also to 72 Squadron. It just leaves 84 Squadron's handful of machines in Cyprus to continue the type's military career, although that too will be over within a year.
On a sunny but breezy day at RAF Odiham, where 72 Squadron took possession of the Wessex some thirty-eight years earlier, a small facility was held to say 'goodbye'. This was just part of a three-day circuit of flypasts around some of 72's old airfields before the aircraft was finally put to bed at RAF Shawbury on 27 March. It wasn't just the finale for the Wessex in the UK but also the end of the road for 72 Squadron.
After thirty-three years operating from Aldergrove in Northern Ireland, 72 Squadron is being disbanded, rather than co-located 230 Squadron, as the latter has a greater length of continuous service - it was a dispassionate decision, but today's modern air force cannot expect to sustain so many famous units despite 72's proud wartime record, especially during the Battle of Britain. Its last Officer Commanding, Wing Commander Andy McAuley, appropriately an Ulsterman himself, said "We have a lot of friends in the province of Ulster, not just because of our role in support of the army, but also because since the early 70s we have been carrying out a search and rescue role - we've reacted to about 600 call-outs and saved countless lives, including three cows!
"The Wessex is built out of granite - it's a very simple, seat-of-the-pants helicopter. It's a pilot's aircraft, a very robust airframe with a good size cabin. In its day, when it took over from the Whirlwind and the Belvedere it was a big leap forward in technology and capability. Even today, in the environment of Northern Ireland where you're lifting troops and supplies over short distances, in fairly tight confined areas, it's an ideal aircraft. As a design of a support helicopter, it's ideal - it's big, sturdy with a good undercarriage as it was designed for carrier operations. There's nothing that's particularly fragile on it."
Most of the pilots and crew will be dispersed to other SHF units in the forces - the few Puma crews with 72 will transfer across to 230 Squadron at Aldergrove.
Age is the Wessex's biggest enemy. All are approaching forty years of age and will soon require major line-one servicing, plus it is relatively uneconomic to fly compared to more modern helicopters - these are the main reasons for retirement. XR497 'Foxtrot' was the first off the production line in April 1963, although it is one of the youngest in terms of hours with about 13,420 hours (it was a development airframe with the Wessex Trials Flight for its first few years) but XR506 'Victor' is the highest-houred at about 17,335 hours.
It is evident that the pilots and groundcrew have great fondness for the beast, and its passing will be mourned by many in the service. As Wing Commander McAuley put it, "It takes the beatings and comes out smiling! There isn't a pilot that hasn't great affection for the Wessex. It will be a poignant moment at Shawbury when we close the old girl down for the very last time."
the Wessex will be placed in storage for a year while 84 Squadron is still
active: after that they will be released for disposal to museums and any
other interested parties. They are expected to fetch between £5
- £10,000 each. Damn, my garden's just too small!
72 Squadron's final Wessex roll-call:
Flight Lieutenant Kenneth Wolstenholme DFC was a pilot first with 107 Squadron flying Blenheims before joining 8 Group Pathfinders flying Mosquitos. He completed 100 ops.