Going Strong at 4

Despite four decades in service, Belgium’s Sea King Mk48s will be operational for a while yet. Ian Harding reports

The Sea King celebrates 40 years in Belgian service this year; RS05 retains the ‘25 Years’ anniversary markings applied 15 years ago, although there are plans for some changes to be made. All photos Ian Harding unless stated

Rather than planning for retirement after 40 years of life-saving search and rescue (SAR), Belgium’s remaining Westland Sea Kings have been reenergised and will soldier on for an extended period, due to delays in the implementation of its NH90 NATO Frigate Helicopter (NFH) programme. Koksijde Air Base, located one mile from Veurne, is home to 40 Smaldeel (Squadron) which resides within 1 Wing of the Luchtcomponent (Belgian Air Component), an umbrella arrangement that merges the various component parts of the Belgian Air Force, Belgian Navy and Belgian Army Air Corps. From an operational perspective, 40 Smaldeel contains both old and new elements of the navy and air force in the shape of the remaining Aerospatiale SA316B Alouette IIIs, Westland Sea King Mk48s and NH90 NFHs.

Belgian Search and Rescue

It was during the early 1970s when 40 Smaldeel commenced its SAR duties at Koksijde Air Base, first with the Sikorsky S-58 (H-34 Choctaw) before transitioning to the Westland Sea King Mk48 during 1976. Back in 1973, the Egyptian Navy cancelled its order for five Sea King aircraft from Westland at Yeovil in Somerset. Based on the Royal Air Force HAS3 variant, these five aircraft were offered to and eventually accepted into service by the Belgian Air Force, which decided to retain the original and distinctive sand and green camouflage, adding a red nose and tail to distinguish them for SAR duties over land and at sea.

The Belgium Government ordered ten NHIndustries NH90s in 2007: four NATO Frigate Helicopters (NFH) variant for the navy (RN01-RN04) plus four Tactical Transport Helicopters (TTH) for the army (RN05-RN08), with an option for two more. In common with many other customer orders, Belgium’s NH90 delivery and implementation programme encountered significant hold-ups, creating in-service delays of approximately two years. The first aircraft (RN01) was eventually delivered to Belgium from Eurocopter’s facility at Donauworth in Germany on August 2, 2013, with the second and third aircraft delivered on May 9, 2014 (RN02) and December 5, 2014 (RN03) respectively. The fourth aircraft was scheduled for delivery during November 2016.

As a consequence, the Sea King’s out of service date (OSD) was initially revised to 2015-2016, but has since been extended to the end of 2018 at least. While initial operational capability (IOC) for SAR was declared for the NFH on August 21, 2015, with three aircraft, it was sensible to extend the Sea King’s OSD until such time that all four NFHs have been delivered and are declared fully operational – which seems unlikely before 2018, based on current expectations.

Captain Jurgen Verleyen, a Sea King pilot and SAR Commander, explained to AIR International during a visit by 40 Smaldeel to Royal Naval Air Station Culdrose in Cornwall: “The primary role for the NH90 NFH was initially envisaged as SAR with maritime responsibilities secondary. During transition, the intention was the NH90 NFH would fulfil approximately two-thirds of the SAR role, with one-third undertaken by the Sea King. This has been re-evaluated following studies considering how Belgian SAR will be undertaken going forward and assessment of the NH90 NFH’s primary role, which will now be maritime responsibilities. When this reassessment has been completed in January 2017, the likelihood is the Sea King will be required to complete an increased proportion of the interim SAR role [perhaps 50:50] and for longer, given these delays plus major radar system and software upgrades scheduled for one NFH already delivered.”

Under a long-established joint naval cooperation agreement between the Belgian Navy and Royal Netherlands Navy called BeNeSam, the Belgian Air Component and Dutch Helicopter Command (DHC) are working together to support their NH90 programmes. Belgian NH90 aircrew receive theoretical systems training at Den Helder (home to the DHC NFH) in particular. They also perform their fight simulation sessions on the DHC simulator located in Italy. Belgium clearly benefits from this arrangement, given DHC has received all its NFH aircraft and its training and implementation programme is well established. Capt Verleyen confirmed that one Belgian NH90 NFH deployed aboard the Belgian Frigate FS930 Leopold I (Karel Doorman class) for approximately six weeks for the first time during August 2016.

Sterling Service

Capt Verleyen spent six years on the Agusta A109 based at Liege with the Belgian Army Air Corps, with one tour to Kosovo. He then trained ab-initio students on the Alouette II before transferring to the Belgian Air Force and then SAR duties at Koksijde in 2006. He has completed the theoretical NH90 course but this transition is now on hold following recent defence budget cuts.

Capt Verleyen said the Sea King Mk48s continue to perform strongly: “I am very happy to be one of the remaining Sea King Commanders at Koksijde especially given the aircraft`s operational extension to 2018 and potentially longer. We received all five aircraft (RS01 to RS05) in 1976. Three of these remain in operational service (RS02, RS04 and RS05) with a fourth (RS03) cocooned in storage at Koksijde. This aircraft could be returned to service within one month so theoretically we have four aircraft available for SAR tasking and other duties. RS01 was withdrawn from use in 2008 and now resides at the National Aviation Museum in Brussels. RS05 retains its special ‘25 Years’ anniversary markings applied in 2001.”

Capt Verleyen said: “Although the Sea King celebrated 40 years in service last year, there are no plans to replace these markings, albeit some changes were made ahead of the International SAR Meet hosted by 40 Squadron at Koksijde on October 10–16, 2016.”

A visit by 40 Smaldeel to RNAS Culdrose last year led to some flying along the north Cornwall coast, as seen here with RS05 in front of Godrevy Lighthouse.

SAR Tasking

The SAR tasking is currently undertaken by both Sea Kings and the NFH, which generally rotate between aircraft types depending on individual aircraft maintenance profiles. All Sea King maintenance, including depth maintenance, takes place at Koksijde. One aircraft will be tasked as the duty aircraft with a second as a reserve. This could comprise two Sea Kings, two NH90s or one of each. These aircraft primarily undertake SAR missions over Belgium and its territorial waters and also over Luxembourg. Coastal operations extend out to approximately 60km (32 nautical miles) east to west which can be reached within 15 minutes.

Capt Verleyen confirmed: “The squadron’s operations are 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. Our daily reaction times are 15-minute readiness between 08:00 and 20:00hrs and 45-minute readiness from 20:00 to 08:00hrs the following day. Our standard duty shift is either 24 hours long or a shorter period. Our four-day long period SAR shift comprises all day Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday and our three-day short period, Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. Base maintenance personnel support the SAR function between 08:00 and 20:00hrs, and thereafter SAR aircrew are on their own.”

The SAR SUB centre located at Koksijde supports rescues in coordination with the Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre at Ostend and the Rescue Coordination Centre (RCC) for land searches located in Brussels.

Capt Verleyen explained: “In terms of mission preparedness, our duty aircraft have 3,000lb of fuel aboard, which provides approximately 2 hours 30 minutes’ operational mission time at sea with a margin of 30 minutes. This gives two hours on station. Within 15 minutes we can get from the extreme western side of the Belgian coastline where Koksijde is located to the extreme eastern point.

“For SAR, our Sea King complement comprises six aircrew: two pilots (one SAR Captain plus a P2 qualified pilot), a flight engineer (who operates the winch), a SARSO (SAR system operator), SAR medic and SAR diver. The SARSO operates the radar. Within the squadron we have three Sea King Commanders and three P2 qualified pilots including the Base Commander.” There is no shortage of SAR crews across the wider Sea King and NFH fleet, but within the Sea King cadre, ab initio training has effectively ceased as Capt Verleyen explained: “We have no new ab initio aircrew.

Those with us should become a Captain SAR, but they must now wait due to the NFH programme delays. We currently have one QHI [Qualified Helicopter Instructor] and I will become another. Our P2 pilots have all completed the Captain course and it is our intention they will be trained to become SAR Captains. This teaches them to manage the aircraft, crew and SAR mission safely, whilst covering specific procedures such as winching, fishing vessels and larger vessels.”

A Sea King Mk48 being prepared for a mission at Koksijde. The Belgians retained the sand and green camouflage that was applied for the Sea Kings’ original customer, Egypt, but a red nose was added to distinguish them for SAR duties. Belgian Air Component

Sea King Mk48

Capt Verleyen confirmed the current external and internal look of the Sea King remains broadly unchanged from when it entered service. The aircraft retains an analogue cockpit with the SARSO mission console located on the left hand side of the aircraft with all medical equipment (defibrillator, oxygen bottles, stretchers) on the right side.

Notable external features include the forward-looking infrared radar on the left side, instrument landing system antennae and VHF/UHF/HF antennas on the nose, plus the large HF antenna positioned on the left side of the aircraft. The aircraft’s tail and main rotor can still be folded, but this is barely used. The main internal difference compared to the standard Sea King model is the addition of the SAR console and two VHF omnidirectional operational radio ranges, which help the aircraft stay on course receiving radio signals transmitted by a network of radio beacons from fixed radio ground beacons. The last major upgrade involved installation of a flight path computer, a Smiths Newmark SN500 series automatic flight control system which is integrated with the navigation systems. This upgrade was completed during the corrosion preventions control programme, during which the Sea King fleet was checked and treated for corrosion and future prevention. RS02 received its upgrade in Weston-super-Mare in Somerset in 1999; the remainder of the fleet was upgraded at SABCA’s (EBCI) facility at Charleroi through to 2004.

Capt Verleyen confirmed the Belgian Ministry of Defence is testing a new secure communication system (ASTRID) currently in use with the Belgian Federal Police and ambulance emergency services. He said: “This has been tested aboard the Agusta A109 and is operational on some aircraft. It provides a secure line, it’s push to talk with [a] direct link for special groups. It also has a text function and if the aircraft has a mission screen, a location ‘blip’ is displayed every second that can be monitored by the rescue centre at Koksijde. It cannot process images. This system may be used aboard the Sea King. Tests were performed on RS04 and then the system was reinstalled on the A109s.”

The Belgian SAR force has attended more than 3,300 shouts, saving over 1,750 people, since operations began.

Incidents

During 2016, 40 Smaldeel was scrambled to attend over 70 SAR shouts with many people being helped. The year with the greatest number of SAR shouts was 2011 with 164. Since Sea King SAR operations commenced (including the arrival of the NH90), the squadron has attended over 3,300 shouts with over 1,750 lives saved.

Capt Verleyen said: “I have attended approximately 150 SAR sorties helping around 50–60 people. The most recent major incident involved the sinking of the Baltic Ace ship offthe Rotterdam coast in December 2012. Weather conditions were extremely poor with high waves, strong winds, snow and ice. Two Sea Kings were scrambled and seven crew members were rescued.

“Alongside the SAR role, the Sea kings are also used for medevac missions [especially burns victims, due to the size of the Sea King’s internal space], troop transport, parachute exercises with the Belgian Brigade Parachute Commando, underslung training and other missions requested and approved by COMOPSAIR [Air Component Command]. We also perform in international cooperation with other RCC’s which include those at Kinloss [UK], Den Helder [Netherlands] and Grinez [France]. If they need help and we are the closest resource, we fly and vice versa. No questions asked.”

The Sea King is considered a very reliable and safe aircraft by those who fly and maintain it. Its service life could be extended even further, the only issue being spare parts availability, which is not a problem currently. SAR support is always available from the NFH fleet and from the UK.

Capt Verleyen said: “In my ten years of SAR service, we have only had one day one month ago when the UK SAR guys from Lydd in Kent took over from us [using an AW139]. We aim to have at least two aircraft available at all times.”

Looking out beyond 2018-2020, the Sea King will be eventually be replaced in the SAR role by a combination of the NFH and most likely a new helicopter under a lease arrangement flown by experienced military SAR aircrew.

The NH90 has an initial operational capability for SAR in Belgium, but delays to the programme have extended the Sea King Mk48’s OSD to the end of 2018 at least. Belgian Air Component