Forty years old the Westland Sea King Mk 48 flown by the Belgian Air Component of its armed forces is still very much ruling the waves when it comes down to search and rescue operations.
The already delivered four new NH90 helicopters are not managing well, meaning that the dinosaur Sea Kings are somewhat strange still the most reliable rotary wing for whoever gets lost at sea in front of the Belgian coast – where one of the busiest shipping lanes of the world passes through the English Channel and North Sea.
The Ministry of Defence in Brussels confirmed it has a tremendous amount of difficulties in providing the nation with an adequate air rescue at sea. The Grey Cayman, as the Belgians have nicknamed their new navy NH90s, has too many issues during its operations – including a radar that sometimes doesn’t work.
Neighbours help out
The Sea Kings – suffering from their age – already have to soldier on till 2019, four years later than planned. NHIndustries/Airbus needs at least one and a half years more to update and repair all four NH90s delivered for navy tasks – taking about 6 months per aircraft at a time. According to a ministry spokesperson Belgium will ask its European neighbours – the Netherlands, France and the United Kingdom – to help out and back up the Sea King. It may still rule the waves, but increased maintenance and lack of spare parts will likely put the Sea King on the ground at times as well, meaning there will be no single dedicated SAR helicopter on Belgian soil available for helping out stranded sea man, unfortunate swimmers and downed pilots.
Envisaging the coming new kid on the block, Belgium already retired its first Sea King (RS-01) on almost a decade ago, in the 33rd year of its service life. It left the 40 Squadron at homebase Koksijde on 17 December 2008 and has been a crown jewel of the Royal Museum of Army and War History of the nation ever since. Some black pages in its operational history: the crew had to ditch it into the North Sea in April 1981 due to engine problems and in 2005 it was suffering from severe hydraulic problems.
RS-01 was one of five Sea Kings delivered to the Belgian Air Component, sporting a for European waters rather rare ochre yellow and green camo scheme as the machines were originally built by British Westland for the Egyptian armed forces, but that delivery was cancelled in 1975. The Belgian Armed Forces started operations with the Sea King on 1 April 1976. During the years modernisations were implemented to keep the aircraft aloft. They included a protection plate for the engine intake, a FLIR camera and a new all-weather radar.
Sixth Sea King
The second Sea King (RS-03) was taken out of service in August 2013, leaving only three machines available. However, even with a sixth Sea King bought in the UK to provide the remaining machines with spare parts, Brussels has said it will be very very complicated to keep the SAR going without the support if its NATO partner nations.
Problems with the NH90 are also bad news for the effectiveness of the Belgian Navy’s frigates. The Navy NH90s were supposed to increase their fighting capabilities, a task never done by the Sea Kings, but the MoD now says the first NH90s are now likely to operate from the combat vessels in 2025 at the earliest.
For those who love the Sea King in its Belgian special colour scheme, there is at least another year or two left to enjoy them above North Sea waves and in European skies.
© 2018 Airheadsfly.com editor Marcel Burger