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XV721 above the Hampshire countryside"They think it's all over...

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.

Crest courtesy of RAF website


72 Squadron was formed on 10 July 1917 from a training flight of the Central Flying School at Netheravon, and moved out to Mesopotamia the following year. The squadron divided into three flights and saw action against the Turks until disbandment at Baghdad in September 1919.

The squadron reformed at Tangmere with Gladiators as part of the general expansion of the Royal Air Force, these being replaced by Spitfires in 1938. 72 Squadron played a significant part at Dunkirk and in the Battle of Britain, and was based at Biggin Hill for a time. It moved to the Middle East in 1942 with later versions of the Spitfire, and subsequently saw action in the Desert, Maltese, Sicilian and Italian campaigns, and the invasion of Southern France. A brief spell as part of the occupying forces in Austria was followed by a second disbandment at Tissano, Italy, on 30 December 1946.

The following year 72 Squadron once again reformed as a fighter squadron with Vampire, Meteor and finally Javelin in the day, night and all-weather fighter roles serving at Odiham, North Weald, Church Fenton and Leconfield.

A change in role occurred in 1961, together with a return to Odiham, when it became a support helicopter squadron with Bristol Belvedere medium-lift helicopters. Its first Wessex arrived in August 1964 since when they have been used in support of the army throughout the UK with detachments to Europe, Cyprus for United Nations duties, Libya, the Caribbean, New York and the Far East.

With the increase in tension in Northern Ireland 72 Squadron's helicopters were deployed to the province in 1969, initially as a detachment and subsequently, in November 1981, as the resident squadron. In January 1997 the squadron took delivery of five Puma helicopters which it operated alongside its Wessexes.

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 OC 72 Squadron, Wg Cmdr McAuleyexpect 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!



72 Wessex HC2s were built by Westlands at Yeovil between February 1963 and July 1968. An anglicised version of the American Sikorsky S-58 helicopter, the Wessex is powered by coupled Bristol Siddeley Gnome turboshaft engines capable of producing 2,700 horsepower. It can carry 14 passengers.

The RAF wanted a powerful helicopter to fulfil its troop deployment, cargo transportation, casualty evacuation, search and rescue and even ground attack requirements. As a result, the Wessex began to replace the Whirlwind in Royal Air Force service from the summer of 1963 when the first machines joined the Wessex Trials Unit (WTU) at RAF Odiham.

The first squadron, 18 Squadron, formed at Odiham in January 1964, transferring a year later to RAF Gutersloh, Germany, to support the British Army of the Rhine. 72 Squadron was the second squadron to convert to the Wessex HC2, exchanging its twin-rotor Bristol Belvederes from August 1964. The squadron transferred some of its Wessexes to RAF Aldergrove, Northern Ireland, in 1969, and became the resident squadron there in 1981, where responsibility for Search and Rescue was part of its tasking.

Further RAF squadrons to convert to the Wessex included 78 in Aden, 28 in Hong Kong, 103 in Malaya, 84 in Cyprus and 60 at RAF Benson.

From May 1976 yellow-painted Wessexes replaced the Whirlwinds of 22 Squadron in the Search and Rescue role with two aircraft at each of several sites around the UK, a role they maintained until replaced by Sea Kings from June 1996. Wessexes also fulfilled training roles with 240 Operational Conversion Unit and No 2 Flying Training School.

"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.

On the Odiham runwayAge 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's sturdy undercarriage can be clearly seenAll 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:

Click XR497/F, XR525/G, XV721/H, XT676/I, XV726/J, XR511/L, XV723/Q, XT668/S, XR506/V, XR498/X.

...it is now!"

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.


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