When the Royal Canadian Air Force retires its last remaining Sea King helicopters this month, there will be tears in the eyes of more than a few airmen and airwomen.
“These next couple of weeks, I’ll be a little emotional,” said 13-year helicopter pilot Capt. Carly Booker, of 443 Maritime Helicopter Squadron in Patricia Bay.
The five Sea Kings still flying with 443 Squadron are the last of the original 41 Sikorsky CH-124 Sea King helicopters that once flew for Canada. Their days will end this month. One will remain on display at 443 Squadron, one is being donated to the National Air Force Museum in Trenton, Ont., and the others will be declared surplus and offered for sale.
Sea Kings are being replaced by the modern CH-148 Cyclone, two of which have already arrived at 443 Squadron. Ultimately, nine Cyclones are expected by the end of 2021 for Patricia Bay and 28 in total for Canada.
During their operational career, Sea Kings have been flown by pilots with the Royal Canadian Navy, the Canadian Armed Forces and now the Royal Canadian Air Force, depending on how Ottawa was rejigging the Department of National Defence.
So Saturday’s flypast ceremony was a special event delivered by the Royal Canadian Air Force, paying honour to an aircraft that has served Canada for 55 years — 43 beyond their originally envisioned retirement date.
There have been jokes about their age. Adrian Raeside, the Times Colonist’s former cartoonist, never drew a Sea King without depicting nuts and bolts falling away.
And replacing them has been a political football game going back to 1986, when Conservatives under then-prime minister Brian Mulroney selected another aircraft to replace them. But in 1993, Jean Chrétien’s Liberals declared the Tory choice too expensive and cancelled the contract for the new machines. The cancellation also earned Canada $500 million in penalties. So Canada just kept flying the Sea Kings.
But those who have flown them, looked after them and kept them flying say no other aircraft is as worthy of respect, even love.
“Everybody has their own opinion of the [Sea King] mostly because of her age and we hear all sorts of comments when we do air shows,” said Capt. Don Leblanc, who first flew the Sea King in April 1986.
“But there are moments, like doing a medical evacuation off a ship during a storm that I always knew I was flying an aircraft designed to be a naval helicopter,” Leblanc said. “Whatever I asked of her — stability over rough seas, extra power whenever I needed it — I got it every single time from Sea King.”
Sentiment aside, the Sea King’s retirement can also be acknowledged as more than just the replacement of a reliable aircraft.
Using the Sea King, the Canadian Navy established ship-helicopter protocols later copied around the world. The aircraft’s technology was of a kind that always allowed technicians to innovate, install new gear and keep it flying decades past its originally foreseen retirement date of 1975.
Yhe Sea King’s passing can also be seen as the end of a particular technological age, an era where machines such as aircraft were controlled with mechanical levers, cables or hydraulic pressure. That time is now giving way to the digital era, where computers and electronics do the control work.
“The Sea King is very old-school and mechanical, where the new Cyclone is all computers,” said 443 Squadron Master-Cpl. Asnk Assefa. “She’s very old school, very dirty, lots of oil.”
Assefa agrees the aircraft’s day is coming to a rightful end. Spare parts are becoming difficult to find and delays in repairs are becoming more frequent. So, he is looking forward to beginning his coursework to learn about the Cyclone.
But he also confesses to some emotional pangs at the thought of saying farewell to a helicopter that has occupied his life for the past 11 years.
“We don’t ever give them names, but they are always female, so it’s always ‘her’ or ‘she,’ ” Assefa said. “So yes, I’m going to miss her.”
Venerable chopper dates back to 1950s
The Sea King’s career can be traced back to the late 1950s, when the Royal Canadian Navy started to press the government for a helicopter to conduct anti-submarine warfare. It was the Cold War, and Russian submarines were seen as the most likely threat to Canada’s sovereignty.
The first of the single-engine Sikorsky Sea King helicopters arrived in Shearwater, N.S., on Aug. 27, 1964, and the last in May 3, 1969. The first four machines were manufactured in the U.S. After they had proven themselves, the remaining 37 were assembled in Montreal.
But in 1970, shortly after the final Sea King was delivered, the Canadian Navy’s last aircraft carrier, HMCS Bonaventure, was decommissioned. A new seagoing platform was needed. With cost always an issue, that new ship would have to be smaller.
Initially, many senior sailors and aircraft pilots, not just in Canada but also the U.S. and Royal navies, were skeptical a helicopter could be operated consistently and safely at sea without the wide expanse of an aircraft carrier to serve as a pad.
According to accounts from former pilot John Orr, author of Perseverance: The Canadian Sea King Story, it was a Canadian naval commander who came up with the idea of a rapid-securing device to quickly tether helicopters to a ship’s deck, even a relatively small one.
According to Orr, that commander came up with the idea while playing with his young son’s Meccano set. The device was developed at the Royal Canadian Navy Air Experimental Squadron and it became known as the Beartrap.
To assist a pilot in landing the helicopter, the Beartrap deploys a cable and winch system. When the cable is attached to the helicopter, the aircraft is winched into position on deck, with the Beartrap providing guidance for the pilot. Once it touches deck, the Beartrap clamps the helicopter in place.
It’s trickier than it might seem, and pilots Booker and Leblanc said it’s a procedure they practise over and over.
The destroyer HMCS Annapolis, 1964 to 1998, was the first Canadian vessel to be outfitted with a Beartrap and helicopter. As tests and practice continued, helicopters were deployed from other Canadian vessels and they started taking off and coming in during daylight and after dark.
Canadian pilots and ships would even show off in front of Russian vessels encountered at sea, demonstrating their ability to land the big helicopter on its comparatively small sea-going platform.
The ships themselves would be modified, fitted with a closed hangar, large enough to store the Sea King once the rotors were folded backward. Gradually, other navies and coast guards around the world followed suit. The concept of a small escort vessel with a helicopter even got its own military acronym, DDH.
“Canada literally wrote the book on ship-helicopter operating procedures and provided the expertise that standardized these operations,” wrote Orr in an article that appeared in July 2013 in the Canadian Naval Review.
55 years, from wars to rescues
In the 1970s, the Canadian Navy started a major refitting, eventually bringing on its 12 Halifax-class frigates. Now regarded as the work-horses of its fleet, every one of the frigates was equipped from the start with a helicopter hangar and has accommodated Sea Kings at some point.
The Cold War and the threat of Russian submarines has diminished. But the practical use of a helicopter flying from a naval vessel only increased.
Again and again, the Sea King helicopter has proven to be a fine platform capable of carrying all manner of gear. The aircraft is still flown with old-school hydraulic pedals and cables, but nothing has prevented the Sea King from carrying high-tech, digital equipment.
During the First Gulf War, in 1990, when Iraq invaded neighbouring Kuwait, Canadian Armed Forces technicians fitted five Sea Kings with infrared camera systems, guided-missile countermeasures, radar-warning receivers, GPS and new machine-guns.
Orr said those technicians completed the installations in just two weeks. During their deployment in the Persian Gulf, the refitted Sea Kings flew 2,500 hours, with a mission completion rate of 98 per cent.
Sea Kings have gone on to be employed to assist in other missions, demonstrating again and again the versatility of the aircraft.
On Jan. 10, 2010, an earthquake struck Haiti and within 36 hours destroyer HMCS Athabaskan, with a Sea King, was deployed from Halifax to provide disaster relief.
According to Orr, by the time Athabaskan returned to Halifax on March 17, the Sea King had ferried 597 people back and forth during the relief operation. The helicopter had also ferried 10 tons of equipment, food and supplies and delivered ashore 50,000 litres of potable water.
Three Sea Kings operating with 443 Squadron even participated in the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics. They were used to conduct round-the-clock security surveillance and to fly people and equipment from place to place to help ensure the Games were a Canadian success.
More recently, in 2016, a Sea King deployed from frigate HMCS Vancouver proved again the quick versatility of the helicopter-equipped naval vessel.
On Nov. 14, 2016, a massive earthquake struck New Zealand. Ottawa received a call for help from New Zealand, and HMCS Vancouver — already en route to that country to take part in the 75th anniversary of its navy — was ordered to change course and assist with disaster relief.
HMCS Vancouver’s Sea King ferried equipment and work parties, including the vessel’s own sailors, to assist with relief efforts.
When HMCS Vancouver returned to her home port of CFB Esquimalt on Dec. 13, 2016, the ship, sailors and aircrew received a commendation from the commander of Canadian Joint Operation Command.
With such a pedigree for the Sea King, it is easy to understand why Leblanc has already told his superiors he is not interested in learning to fly any new helicopter. His last remaining flying ambition is get eight more flying hours on the Sea King to top out at 6,000 hours total.
“I have no qualms about expressing my feeling for Sea King,” Leblanc said. “She’s a beautiful machine.”
“Whenever I deployed six months at sea, my wife and family never doubted I would come back,” he said. “And flying Sea King I never had any doubts, qualms or worries for myself.
“She always brought me home,” Leblanc said.
“So out of respect for the old girl, I’ve already told my boss I don’t want to be converted to Cyclones.””