Saluting the King

Canada’s Venerable CH-124 Sea King Celebrates 50 Years
Paul Dixon
May 15, 2013
By Paul Dixon
It was late November 1962 when Douglas Harkness, Minister of National Defence, announced that “approval has been given for the commencement of a program to equip the Royal Canadian Navy with helicopters of the most modern type,” as reported in the Royal Canadian Navy’s Crowsnest magazine.  Thus was born the era of the Sea King, though the announcement was overshadowed by the lifting of the U.S. naval blockade of Cuba that day, a move that ended the Cuban Missile Crisis.

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A CH-124 Sea King helicopter from 443 Maritime Helicopter Squadron based out of Patricia Bay, B.C., lands at the Whistler Municipal Heliport during Operation PODIUM. (Photo by Sgt. Frank Hudec, Royal Canadian Air Force)

 
In the years following the Second World War, the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) was committed to being a global leader in anti-submarine warfare (ASW). While the U-boats had been vanquished, the threat shifted to the Russians and their Warsaw Pact allies. The balance of power between surface ships and submarines took a huge tilt in favour of the submarine with the launch of the USS Nautilus in 1995, the world’s first nuclear-powered submarine. Nuclear power removed the Achilles heel of the diesel-electric sub; the need to surface on a regular basis was now replaced by the ability to go deep and stay deep.

The RCN had been investigating helicopters for shipboard operations from the early 1950s, as had the British and Americans. In 1956, small helicopters were successfully landed on temporary platforms that were erected on several RCN escorts. While the exercise was deemed a success, there was widespread doubt about the feasibility of operating a helicopter the size of the larger HS-04 (a.k.a. “Horse”) that was being flown from the aircraft carrier from a small escort vessel. While the RCN had proven it was possible, the question of practicality remained. There was more involved than just the helicopter.

The emergence of the nuclear submarine took the battlefield over the horizon from the destroyers and destroyer escorts that were charged with the responsibility of protecting the navy’s capital ships and merchant convoys. Nuclear subs could lurk far outside the range of ship’s sonar and the weapon systems the escorts could employ, and in many cases, the new generation of submarines were faster under water than the ships tasked with locating and neutralizing them. The helicopter offered the ability to extend the protective cordon to the horizon, as well as extend the ability to prosecute its targets well beyond the range of anything a surface ship could bring to bear on a submarine.

This is where the RCN took a fork in the road that led to it becoming the pre-eminent operator of naval helicopters in the ASW role for almost 30 years. The Americans and the British looked at the helicopter simply as a delivery system for a weapon, taking command and control direction from the ship. The British chose to employ the Westland Wasp on their frigates, while the Americans initially tried using a drone, the Gyrodyne QH-50, from their small escorts. In both cases, the aircraft would simply go where it was directed by the ship’s combat control centre and launch its torpedo against the submarine. The RCN decided to go with a larger helicopter that was capable of operating in a stand-alone mode away from its ship, but realized that the HS-O4 lacked the payload, performance and range needed to make this possible.

In 1959, two helicopters were short-listed, the Kaman SH-2 Seasprite and the Sikorsky SH-3 Sea King, but as neither aircraft actually had flown yet, it was decided to await further U.S. navy trials before deciding. In December 1960, the RCN and Treasury Board announced Canada had made a decision on the question of a shipboard helicopter and that aircraft would be the smaller Kaman SH-2 Seasprite – but at this point the manufacturer abruptly raised the price of the aircraft by more than 60 per cent. When further data from the U.S. navy revealed the Seasprite to be underpowered and overweight for Canadian operations, the decision was made to go with the Sea King.

A Young King Emerges
The genius moment at the dawn of the Sea King era was the development of the Helicopter Hauldown and Rapid Securing Device (HHRSD), affectionately referred to as the “beartrap” by RCN Experimental Squadron 10 (VX-10) and Dartmouth’s Fairey Aviation. The beartrap allows helicopter operations to be undertaken from a moving warship in sea conditions as extreme as nine degrees of pitch and 31 degrees of roll.

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Corporal Gabriel Tessier directs a CH-124 Sea King helicopter out of the hangar of Her Majesty’s Canadian Ship (HMCS) Regina during Operation ARTEMIS in the Arabian Sea on Sept. 10, 2012. (Photo by Cpl. Rick Ayer, Formation Imaging Services, Halifax, N.S.)

 
Here’s how it works: as the helicopter hovers over the ship’s deck, a cable is lowered from the aircraft and attached to a heavier cable that passes through the centre of the beartrap, which is attached to a winch below. The heavier cable is pulled back up and secured to the helicopter, and the pilot then increases power to balance against the pull of the winch, flying the aircraft down to the deck with the wire as a guide. Once safely on deck, the jaws of the beartrap clamp on the probe extending from the helicopter’s belly, ensuring the helicopter stays put. The RCN has set operational limits of a maximum of four degrees pitch and 24 degrees roll. While many of the world’s navies have embraced the beartrap, none comes close to operating at the same limits as the RCN.

In 1961, the RCN ordered the first of what would ultimately be 41 Sea Kings. The first four aircraft were built at the Sikorsky plant in Connecticut and the subsequent 37 aircraft were assembled at United Aircraft of Canada, in Longueil, Que. The Canadian Sea King differed from the American model with the addition of Canadian mission avionics, the helicopter rapid haul-down device system, a strengthened main undercarriage and an automatic tail-pylon folding system. Operating off a small warship, the Sea King was a self-contained ASW unit, able to go over the horizon, locate and track submarines with its own dipping sonar and on-board mission avionics and attack targets with torpedoes far out of sight of the home ship.

Col. John Orr (ret.) first took the controls of a Sea King in 1969 after graduation from flight school and still vividly remembers his introduction more than 40 years later. “Oh my God, what a machine, it was huge.” Orr went on to have five operational tours with the Sea King, commanding 423 Squadron in the mid-80s. When he arrived in 1969, the Sea King had been fully integrated into operations.

“It was pretty phenomenal, the operation that was going on in the Canadian navy with the carrier and the destroyers, the helicopters, the (CP-121) Tracker and the (CP-107) Argus providing long range cover,” Orr said. “It was an extremely capable anti-submarine operation and then they took away the carrier.”

An Important New Role
In June 1970 following a mid-life refit in 1966-67, HMCS Bonaventure was decommissioned after barely 13 years of active service and quickly consigned to the breaker’s yard. The rationale behind the elimination of the carrier was the development of the four 280-class (Tribal) destroyers, which were designed and built with the Sea King as the primary weapon in prosecuting the ship’s role as a long-range submarine hunter/killer. The ships, which entered service in 1972, were a radical departure from the front-line destroyers of the Royal Navy and U.S. navy at the time in that the 280s were designed with a large hangar and flight deck area in order to accommodate two Sea King helicopters.

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 A CH-124 Sea King in action during the Royal Canadian Air Forces’ Land Advance Warfare Centre (CFLAWC) surface/subsurface training at CFB Albert Head, Esquimalt, B.C. (Photo by Cpl. Brandon O’Connell, Royal Canadian Air Force)
 
The Sea Kings, with their full array of sensors, superior endurance and range, were able to operate independently of their ship. Tactics were developed to enable two Sea Kings to operate in tandem to hunt submarines, with one helicopter employing its dipping sonar to locate and track potential targets, allowing the second helicopter to engage the target with its torpedoes. This allowed a single 280-class destroyer to control a much larger area of ocean by utilizing its own sensors as well as those of the helicopters, while the British and Americans were reliant on the warship alone.

When the armed forces were integrated in 1968, the CHSS-2 Sea King was re-christened as the CH-124. By the mid-1970s, the Sea King was deployed on nine escorts that had been converted to helicopter operations, the four larger 280-class destroyers with their two helicopters and the two new replenishment ships with three helicopters in the ship’s air detachment. The number of personnel and the logistical requirements needed to manage and maintain the number of aircraft were beyond the scope of a single squadron. In September 1974, HS 50, the original RCN ASW helicopter squadron, was deactivated and two former Second World War Royal Canadian Air Force squadrons were reactivated as HS 423 and HS 443 under 12 Wing at Shearwater, N.S. In 1989, 443 Squadron moved to the Victoria International Airport (YYJ) to better support the RCN Pacific Fleet based at Esquimalt, B.C.

As the Cold War played out, submarines evolved into something far more sinister. While the introduction of nuclear-powered submarines had broadened the playing field immensely, it was the introduction of guided-missile submarines that turned the ASW game upside down. A single missile-equipped submarine parked quietly on the ocean bottom could destroy half of the population of North America from just about anywhere in the world.

The ASW game grew from creating a submarine-free zone around merchant convoys or naval battle groups to actively seeking out and prosecuting submarines wherever they might seek to hide, hunting for the proverbial needle in the haystack under extreme conditions. In the 1970s, more was known about the geography of the surface of the moon than about the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean and the multitude of deep ocean currents that created conditions that could at best be called “challenging.” The RCN once again proved its mettle by excelling in its chosen field, ASW in the North Atlantic. Then the game changed yet again with the fall of the Berlin Wall.

In the game of nuclear brinksmanship we knew as the Cold War, the Russians blinked first and the Berlin Wall, the one thing above all others that symbolized the divide between East and West, crumbled literally and figuratively almost overnight. Then in August 1990, Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi forces invaded Kuwait. Following the United Nations authorization of military intervention against Iraq, Canada was one of the first countries to join the U.S.-led coalition. A Naval Task Group comprising HMCS Terra Nova, HMCS Athabaskan and HMCS Protecteur was dispatched to the Gulf with five Sea Kings, two on Athabaskan and three on Protecteur. It was a 180-degree U-turn for the Sea Kings and their crews in terms of mission responsibilities and operating environment. After two-and-a half-decades of chasing shadows under the surface of the ocean in the cold and damp of the North Atlantic, they would be expected to take on a wide range of new tasks in an equally harsh and demanding climate.

Orr talks with great pride about the job that was done in preparing the aircraft and their crews in the time available. “The story of the conversion of the helicopter in 1990 is amazing. They took the whole helicopter and changed it in two weeks, it was bloody amazing,” he says. After Operation Desert Storm began in January 1991, the Canadian Task Group undertook escort duties for hospital ships and other vulnerable naval vessels of the coalition. In February 1991, the cruiser USS Princeton was disabled by two Iraqi mines at the north end of the Persian Gulf. While the Athabaskan was not assigned to the area, the commanding officer of Princeton specifically requested assistance from the Canadian ship as she was the only warship in the region that could simultaneously operate two helicopters. The Athabaskan and her helicopters helped both ships avoid mines until a minesweeper and naval tug arrived to tow the Princeton to safety in an operation that stretched over two days.

Captain Edward Hontz of Princeton was effuse in his praise of the HMCS Athabaskan. “We owe a debt of gratitude for the superb professionalism of those who extracted us from the minefield and delivered us to safe haven . . . to the HMCS Athabaskan for leading the way from the North Arabian Gulf to Bahrain and even more so for the 17 cases of beer sent over by helo today.”

Living Life on the Frigate
In the 1990s, the aging destroyer escorts of the 1950s were replaced by the Halifax-class patrol frigates, which were specifically designed around the helicopter. While the ships may have changed, the game remained the same – operating a large helicopter from a small warship bobbing about in the deep blue sea. Forty years after Orr made his debut in the Sea King, freshly minted Sea King pilot Capt. Kris Provan described his first experience flying off a ship in May 2009 to Helicopters onboard HMCS Calgary.

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Deck Director, Leading Seaman Tim Parker, holds a wand below the flight deck to signal the Helicopter In Flight Refuel (HIFR) crew to proceed with the refuelling of a CH-124 Sea King aboard HMCS Montreal during Operation LAMA. (Photo by Master Cpl. Angela Abbey, Royal Canadian Air Force)
 
“I knew the theory behind what we are supposed to do; however, knowing it and doing it is a different story,” Provan said. “As you prepare to take off, the only thing that you can look at is the hangar which is about 12 feet in front of the rotor arc. It is very, very close. After getting clearance, instead of gently pulling the collective to get to the hover, you pull the collective in a very positive manner in order to get to the hover as quickly and in as much control as possible. It feels like you are going up in a very quick elevator. In the hover, every single tiny error is easily seen and felt because of the proximity of the hangar. At that point I really got the sense of how tricky this whole ship idea was going to be.”

Getting off the ship was only the beginning, as eventually it was time to land. Provan was initially surprised by how small the ship appeared to be, surrounded by nothing but water and seemingly moving in all directions at once as the helicopter flew in formation with the ship at 25 knots.

“You move over to hover above the flight deck,” he said. “All you can see from this position is a mass of equipment on top of the ship. To see the hangar door come up into my face was a little disconcerting. I tried to remain calm but above all, smooth on the controls. I found a nice little dot on the hangar door and tried my best to maintain a good hover. With my peripheral vision, I could tell that the ship was moving side to side. I could hear back, steady, forward steady, right steady.  Then, when it seems that time has stood still for hours (in reality only five to 10 seconds) the LSO person says, ‘land now, DOWN, DOWN, DOWN!!!’ The collective gets dropped and you slam into the deck. I didn’t realize until I took off my flying suit that I had been working really hard. I was drenched in sweat and my right arm was sore.”

An Impressive Legacy
Since the end of the Cold War, the RCN has taken the Sea King to places never envisioned 50 years ago and tasked it with a myriad missions. It has supported two Gulf Wars, NATO actions in the Balkans, the blockade of Libya and anti-piracy patrols off the Horn of Africa, to name but a few of the international deployments. Forward Looking Infra-Red (FLIR) makes it particularly effective in locating and monitoring small boats far at sea on anti-piracy missions. Back in this hemisphere, there have been the humanitarian missions to support Haiti, post-Katrina relief, Manitoba’s Red River floods, Hurricane Juan in Nova Scotia and Hurricane Igor in Newfoundland. For the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, Sea Kings were the helicopter of choice for the RCMP Emergency Response Teams (ERT) over the CH-146 Griffon as one Sea King could carry the entire team versus a pair of Griffons.

The Sea King has met the challenges over the years, a testament to both the people who designed and built this robust machine as well as the aircrews and maintainers who put it in the air and kept it there, no matter what the mission. As the delivery dates for the CH-148 Cyclone continue to stretch, the challenge continues to maintain the current Sea Kings and their crews while at the same time preparing for the replacement aircraft. The Cyclone promises to be as much of a leap forward as the Sea King was 50 years ago, but aircrews and maintainers will have to be trained on both Sea King and Cyclone until the last Sea King is retired.

Helicopters of the most modern type, indeed. From hunting Red October to hunting medieval pirates, the Sea King has fulfilled a range of missions that few could have imagined 50 years ago. Yes, the Sea King is long overdue for replacement, but as it comes to the end of a very long and distinguished career in service to Canada, we must recognize that this aircraft and those who have flown – and maintained – it, have provided a level of service matched by few others.

Ready, Aye Ready.

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