By Wing Commander (retired) Ian Lightbody
This year will see the retirement of the longest-serving Canadian combat aircraft, the CH-124 Sea King helicopter. Originally delivered in August 1963 to then HMCS Shearwater, just outside Halifax, Nova Scotia, it will finish its service to Canada at the end of this year in Patricia Bay, just outside Victoria, British Columbia.
Over its 55 years of employment in Canada, the Sea King has been used by multiple services, and has changed significantly from its initial 1963 configuration. Originally procured by the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) to operate from aircraft carrier Her Majesty’s Canadian Ship Bonaventure in anti-submarine warfare (ASW) roles, it was on the leading edge of rotary wing technology at the time, with two turbine engines and the then revolutionary capability to automatically transition to a hover with the push of a button. This allowed a great leap in night and all-weather operations, permitting anti-submarine searches with an active dipping sonar. Additionally, the automatic transition equipment permitted search and rescue operations in bad weather.
The Sea King initially flew from the aircraft carrier. At the same time, work had begun on a highly innovative marriage of a medium-sized helicopter with an escort-sized warship. The development of the Helicopter Haul-down and Rapid Securing Device, otherwise known as the Beartrap, allowed the Sea King to continue on the front lines of the Cold War as one of the principal Canadian contributions to alliance ASW efforts at sea after the retirement of Bonaventure.
The end of the Cold War saw the Sea King change with the times. After the invasion of Kuwait by Iraq in 1990, the Sea King was modified from an obsolescent ASW platform to a multi-mission helicopter specializing in surface surveillance and control. The addition of a Forward Looking Infra-Red sensor, a door-mounted machine gun, and infrared anti-missile defences opened the door to expanding its presence in roles that weren’t emphasized during the Cold War.
A decade later, the Sea King reached a new peak of deployed operational activity after the attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001. In 2010-2011, for example, the Sea King was deployed in combat operations off Libya, humanitarian relief operations in Newfoundland and after the Haiti earthquake, and domestic security operations during the Olympics and the Toronto G7/G20, where the Sea King performed air intercept operations.
Through its life of service to Canada, the common thread has been the highly professional people who know and love the Sea King, and who kept it flying in some of the harshest environments in the world – at sea, on small ships, far away from any support. That an aircraft so maligned in the press could elicit such fierce loyalty was puzzling to many. Part of it may be that, in spite of its limitations, the Sea King remained operationally relevant up to and through 2018, the year of its retirement. As we enter the last half of 2018, the Sea King is sprinting to the finish with a final NATO deployment completed in July, and support to the British Columba government’s response to the province’s second year of devastating wildfires.
While there is no doubt that the Sea King’s retirement is long overdue, it will be a bittersweet moment for many. The East Coast ceased Sea King operations early in 2018; in August, the Shearwater Aviation Museum inducted two Sea Kings into its inventory, one in the original RCN configuration and one in the final configuration. On December 1, 2018, at Patricia Bay, British Columbia, a parade, flypast and gala dinner will take place to honour the aircraft and the people that have served Canada for 55 years.
For those who wish to help celebrate the Sea King’s service and retirement, please go to the Sea King Retirement website for details.
Ian Lightbody is the former commander of 12 Wing Shearwater, Nova Scotia.
Sea King: Going out with style