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FEATURE – Historic Helicopters

Photo: Wessex image by DARREN HARBAR

 

Somerset Whirlybirds

Darren Harbar meets Andrew Whitehouse, who is driving an amazing rotary revival courtesy of his Historic Helicopters collection

Nestled close to the Blackdown Hills and flanked by stunning coastline, the Historic Helicopters (HH) base at Cricket St Thomas is perfectly placed. After all, it is around this area that its fleet of ex-service machines would have commonly flown when operated by both the RAF and Royal Navy. It’s also an area steeped in rotary-wing history, with the Westland production facility at Yeovil just 15 miles away, although the famous company is now called Leonardo.

Established in 2013, HH is the brainchild of Andrew Whitehouse who, as an ex-serviceman, director of Lift West (Helicopters) and active helicopter pilot, has an unbridled passion for restoring and operating vintage military ‘choppers’. Listed on the organisation’s website is an interesting set of objectives; these include a visitor centre he hopes will encourage and engage enthusiasts, schools and youth organisations to learn more about the role of helicopters in British military history, as well as an engineering academy to promote and impart skills for a new generation.

Wessex return

Many FlyPast readers will be aware of the first airworthy HH project in the form of Westland Whirlwind XJ729 (more on that later), but the future is about growth and the desire to operate a larger fleet. A significant step forward took place earlier this year, when Westland Wessex XT761 (G-WSEX), was returned to the air. The type had been retired from RAF service in 2003, having been involved in more than 40 years of action with British forces. It was a much-missed rotary stalwart in UK skies, so the sight of this example back where it belongs is exciting indeed – and a sign of what Andrew and his small but dedicated team of engineers are aiming to achieve.

Airframe XT761 is a Wessex HU.5 and was a product of the Westland factory at Yeovil, just a stone’s throw from where it now operates. The machine was flown for the first time in October 1966, before heading to the Royal Navy at Culdrose, Cornwall with 707 Naval Air Squadron (NAS) in February the following year. During its service career it passed through various Royal Marines and RN squadrons and, while with 847 NAS (coded J-S), in November 1970, the Wessex took part in cyclone relief operations (Operation Burlap), in what is now Bangladesh.

The rotary workhorse sported a gloss Olive Drab scheme during the early/mid-1970s, but it was wearing its current Day-Glo Red and RAF Blue-Grey livery come the turn of the decade. By May 1982 XT761 was assigned to 845 NAS when the Falklands War was under way in the South Atlantic. As a result, the Wessex was airfreighted from RNAS Yeovilton in a HeavyLift Short Belfast transport aircraft to Ascension Island, where it arrived on May 12, 1982. It is thought that instead of heading further south for operations, the Wessex was utilised in a search and rescue (SAR) role at Ascension. The helicopter was returned to the UK following the end of hostilities.

Come June 1986, the Wessex needed a healthy dose of tender loving care – and was flown to Marshall of Cambridge for full refurbishment. This work appears to have been an unnecessary expense, as upon completion in November 1986, XT761 flew to the Royal Navy Air Yard at Wroughton, Wiltshire for what was to be its final flight in military hands…

The rest of this feature can be read in the current FlyPast, in UK shops now, or available at www.flypast.com

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