Wessex goes West
Geoff Stockle/ Aeromedia reports on the final RAF flight of the venerable Wessex
Thursday 20 February 2003 marked a significant day for the RAF, although it went largely unnoticed by most. After 40 years of stalwart service, the last four RAF Westland Wessex made their final flight. The aircraft were officially withdrawn from 84 Squadron at RAF Akrotiri, Cyprus on 31 January but their final movement under official RAF ownership was the transit from Brize Norton to Shawbury for storage pending their future.
Following the retirement activities, the four machines were prepared for the journey home via a Volga AN124, and by 5 February were all at Brize Norton. So, on 20 February and following an hour's technical delay, the aptly titled 'Scorpion Formation' left RAF Brize Norton, arriving at RAF Shawbury at 14:00 in very un-Cyprus like conditions. A small welcoming party and several enthusiasts on the approach witnessed the last RAF Wessex formation break smartly into the circuit and land on the Visiting Aircraft Section ramp. Interestingly, only three were airborne during the retirement event as XR588 refused to join in the fun and remained grounded with technical problems.
The future of the Wessex has not yet been decided, although several air arms still use the type and so it is possible they may be sold overseas. It seems unlikely that one will find its way to Shawbury's gate where the type became a daily sight during its training career with 2 Flying Training School (FTS).
The prototype Wessex HC2 (XM299 - a HAS1 conversion) first flew on 18 January 1962 and a further 60 were ordered for RAF use entering service in 1964. During its RAF career, the Wessex was stationed at home as well as RAF Germany, Singapore, Hong Kong and, of course, Cyprus. 84 Squadron was divided into 'A' (Search and Rescue) and 'B' (UN forces in Cyprus ground support) flights with the familiar yellow SAR machines operating from Akrotiri and B Flight's camouflaged aircraft from Nicosia. In more recent years the two flights merged at Akrotiri and even the humble Wessex succumbed to 'grey paint fever', though retaining the light blue band and union flag on the engine cowling. These identifiers being introduced during the Whirlwind era, as did the playing card emblems on the rotor masts. When five aircraft were in use, a Joker was also used, but for the record the final four were: XT680 'Diamond', XS675 'Spade', XV730 'Club' and XR588 'Heart' (this aircraft is the oldest flying Wessex, being a pre-production airframe).
The continuing requirement for an RAF presence on Cyprus will be maintained by 84 Squadron, its new equipment being four Bell 412 Griffin HAR2s, specially configured for the SAR role. The first aircraft, ZJ703, is already at Valley for crew training. The remaining three, ZJ704-706, are being prepared at Redhill and will fly out in late April. Colours and markings are still to be decided, but hopefully the scorpion emblem will still be carried..Providing a stop-gap in the meantime will be 203 Squadron and its Sea Kings - as the Sea King training unit, one has to feel sorry for the poor current students who have had to relinquish a Cornish winter for the sun of Cyprus during their conversion!!
The Griffins will be operated under the Civilian Owned Military Registration System (COMAR), though will still be commanded by 84's current OC, Squadron Leader Nicky Smith and operated as a military unit. It would therefore seem safe to assume then that 84's Scorpions will remain abroad for some time to come providing a 'protective sting' for the civilians and military people of Cyprus.
With thanks to Sqn Ldr Martin Locke (CRO RAF Shawbury), RAF News and MOD (RAF) website.