Farewell to the Sea King

© Sean Kelly

From 1st April the UK's search and rescue helicopter service passes in a phased handover from the RAF and Royal Navy to Bristow Helicopters Ltd. After many years of hard use the ageing fleet of Sea Kings will be replaced with modern helicopters, but the old work horse will still be missed by many. Mountain rescue expert Dave 'Heavy' Whalley looks back fondly at the key part played by Sea King crews and their machines in decades of search and rescue operations. We've compiled this article from Heavy's latest blog post on the subject.

On the First of April 2015 we say farewell in the Highlands to the Sea Kings from RAF Lossiemouth in Morayshire. Bristow’s will be taking over the SAR Contract for the UK, and I wish them well for the future. The new aircraft is long overdue and it will be a tremendous addition to SAR in the UK. But in over 40 years involved with Mountain Rescue, the RAF and Royal Navy Sea Kings have been a huge part of my life - even though flying terrified me!

Another rescue under way on Snowdon
© Sean Kelly, Feb 2006

I was with the RAF Sea King in its early days in the 1970s, when it was in the process of taking over from the Wessex. At first we were very wary of them. It was a massive change from “the sports car type helicopter” of the Wessex to this, to us, huge aircraft. We had lots to get used to, like the increased downdraft of the rotors, but it could take so many more passengers and you could even get a cup of tea at times after a long job. What a bonus!

My first impression of it on a call–out was at Lurchers Crag above the Larig Ghru in the Cairngorms, when we had found two walkers who had fallen over this huge cliff. It was an amazing sight, as in wild weather and in the dark this huge aircraft hovered, lights full on like a spaceship, and took the casualties off. Even better it came back for most of us, saving a huge walk-out.

"The familiar thud of the Sea King's rotors was a noise you could hear miles away. It meant help was on hand, and spirits rose"

I was at RAF Kinloss and trained a lot with the RAF Lossiemouth Sea Kings. We became efficient and learned to work together as a team. We did lots of training on Night Vision Goggles (NVG). Training in a huge aircraft in the dark took incredible flying skill even with NVGs. These hard-learned skills were to become so accepted by Mountain Rescue Teams that rescues became commonplace even in dark winter nights on big mountain cliffs.

As the equipment improved so did the skills of the crews, and the medical skills of the winch-man are now recognised throughout the world.

On the massive searches the Sea Kings moved so many searchers into areas, that they became a huge asset. The flying skills on the big cliffs was something to see, and the bravery and professionalism of the crews was outstanding.

Rescue on the Ben  © Sean Kelly
Rescue on the Ben
© Sean Kelly, Mar 2011

I will never forget flying into military aircraft crashes. This was our primary task in the RAF MRT, and one that the military helicopters were built for. One that sticks out was in Skye in 1982 on a wild winter’s night; we had to land twice on the main road due to the weather conditions. It was the same at Lockerbie, the Chinook Crash on the Mull of Kintyre, the Shackelton on Harris and may others. On these occasions the crew were incredible, pulling out all the stops to get us there despite the conditions. I was with the crews on the odd time where we were diverted to a ship in trouble, and to see them operate on a tossing ship’s deck was amazing. Glad I was not aircrew!

The crews are all real characters, too many to mention, and we made friends with so many over the years. Great bonds were made between the Teams, the Police and the other Agencies. Many a time after a climb or big walk the call would come over the radio - anyone needing a lift? - a magic sound. The big yellow helicopter would arrive and in a few minutes we would be back off the mountain.

These were the golden years of SAR, days of night stops on Ben Nevis, Glencoe, Skye, Kintail and Breamar. Seeing a Sea King parked outside a Highland hotel for lunch was special!

Iced chopper anyone?
© timmytwoshits, Mar 2006

I was there when a Sea King crashed on Creag Meagaidh, and the crew and Lochaber MRT walked away from a near tragedy. I feel someone has been watching from above on that and many occasions, and the safety record of the Sea King was incredible. They got parked overnight in a few places, but what an incredible story they have.

I have lost several great friends on the hills, and when Mark and Neil were killed on Lochnagar many years ago they were recovered by Rescue 137. Afterwards the crew were very kind in a time of great sadness for me and the families. 

All who fly and maintain the Sea King in this wild country are incredible people, and I hope that what they have done over the years is appreciated. 

Sea King crews have been busy even in their final few days. They are going out with a blast, saving lives up to the last moment. It is great news that many of the crews will still be flying in SAR with Bristow, and I wish them a safe and successful future.

What days, what people; the best of the best. Thanks for the memories. 


31 Mar, 2015
What a great article celebrating the skill and bravery of some proper heroes. I've always been glad I've never required the services of MRT but now I'm almost saddened never to have had the experience of hitching a ride in the big yellow taxi!
31 Mar, 2015
Two weeks ago I slipped while descending the back of my local crag. I knew immediately that my right leg was broken and we called 999. The air ambulance flew around for a while and eventually first responders arrived who administered excellent, reassuring care. After a lot of faffing about by a specialist paramedic team, who decided after carrying out a 'risk assessment' that the footpath that many elderly people manage to walk their dogs along was too dangerous for members of their team. At this point I was beginning to become very cold and increasingly worried. The local rescue team was there by this point but for whatever reason wasn't allowed or were unable to carry out a stretcher evacuation. About four hours had elapsed since the accident by this time and my climbing partner told me that a Sea King was on its way from RAF Chivenor. In no time at all a winch man had been dropped in the river below the main crag at the Dewerstone and was talking to me. I hadn't even imagined that a winch rescue might be possible in such dense woodland. The winch man organised me being moved to the very edge of the river. We then swung out over the river and straight up through a tiny hole in the tree canopy. Within minutes I was being transferred to an ambulance and then on to casualty. The service that the Sea Kings and their crews perform is amazing and I really do feel grateful for the professional and skilful way that they carry out their vital job. I hope that the service provided under the new system is just as good. Does anyone have experience of sending a slab of beer to a Sea King crew and what is the easiest way of doing this? James (Recovering from surgery at home)
31 Mar, 2015
It may be a bit late now if they stopped operating, but what i did was to find out where the crew hang out and i put a tab for them at the bar with a thank you note.
31 Mar, 2015
Working as a coastguard in Pembroke, I've seen a variety of helicopters responding to emergencies - Sea Kings, air ambulance and police helicopter. I have to say, it's noticeable that when a Sea King responds there is a strong smell of aviation fuel in the air that's not there for the other two helicopters so maybe it is time for them to be retired. However, I well remember an accident that two friends of mine were involved in 25 years ago or so. The leader fell off on the second pitch of Deep Throat on Triple Overhang Buttress in Pembroke, taking a hundred foot factor 2 fall onto the belay. He didn't hit anything, but when he hit the bottom of the rope the rope wrapped round his thigh, and he couldn't walk for a week. His second soloed out along the VS line to summon help, and a Sea King turned up. By this time it was dark, and when the winch man was lowered the cliff was so overhanging that he was a good 20 feet away from the climber. The pilot rocked the helicopter from side to side to swing the winch man in, so that he could rescue the climber.
31 Mar, 2015
My dad was a Sea King SAR pilot out of Lossie in the late 80s - I'll always remember being crouched under the pressure of the backwash after he was rescued (again) on (another) family walk along the Scottish coast (the crews did a lot of practsing on one another as well as flying out to help us). Or flying with Mum on a squadron open day (she never got to fly with Dad - the RAF were too nervous of creating orphans). To me, his best story was when they trimmed the radio antenna on a North Sea oil rig whilst taking off a member of the crew who had acute appendicitis in a storm. Magic stuff. Long live the memory of everyone who has flown, worked with or been helped by a big yellow taxi.
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