Ian Harding covers retirement of the Lynx helicopter from the Fleet Air Arm after 41 years of service
Everyone associated with the Westland Lynx helicopter describe it as agile, dynamic, fast and highly manoeuvrable. It is considered the sports car of its generation, but sadly, in Royal Navy service, the Lynx will race no more following the decision to withdraw the final seven aircraft from service on March 31, just three weeks after the final embarked Lynx Flight returned to its home base at Royal Naval Air Station Yeovilton in Somerset. The Lynx has served the Fleet Air Arm for 41 years at sea in some of the toughest environments on earth. It was no challenge to find Royal Navy personnel willing to talk about its service history and operations.
All at Sea
Commanding Offficer 815 Naval Air Squadron (NAS), Commander Philip Richardson, first fiew the Lynx in 2003 and continued to do so until its withdrawal. He is now in the process of transitioning the squadron to the Wildcat HMA2, which started in April 2016 when 815 received its first four aircraft.
When asked why the Lynx was so capable, Cdr Richardson replied: “One of its most impressive qualities is its performance and excellent handling ability in the roughest sea conditions. Westland’s ground-breaking and innovative designs made it ideally suited to the maritime environment. The features which allowed it to operate safely and successfully at sea in a dynamic environment, during the day and night, whilst being immersed in salt water conditions are testament to the work of the design engineers in the 1970s, and the development of the aircraft ever since.
“Reasons why the Lynx successfully operated in this harsh environment include the aircraft’s harpoon system, which is a hydraulic deck lock system in which a ram is inserted into a grid which quickly secures the aircraft on to a moving deck. Secondly, the Lynx was designed with a very low centre of gravity, thus ensuring it has greater stability when the flight deck moves. It also has a fixed titanium main rotor head which allows a highly responsive and agile movement around the deck for the pilot. Also, the ability to use negative pitch on the main rotors to blow the aircraft down once on deck makes landings at sea safer.”
The first maritime Westland Lynx (WG-13) fiew from Westland Helicopter’s Yeovil site on the March 21, 1971. The Lynx was intended to replace the diminutive Westland Wasp in a similar embarked role. Royal Naval Air Station Yeovilton was the first base to operate the Lynx and 700L NAS, known as the Intensive Flying Training Unit for Lynx commissioned on September 1, 1976, was the first squadron to receive the Lynx HAS2. In 1978, 700L became 702 NAS, the Fleet Air Arm’s Lynx training unit, which continued in that role for 36 years until its disbandment on August 1, 2014.
In 1981, 815 NAS received its first Lynx as a front-line squadron and headquarters for all Lynx Flights, a role still retained today but with the Wildcat HMA2.
Royal Naval Air Station Portland in Dorset became the home of 702 and 815 NAS from July 1982 until both squadrons returned to Yeovilton in 1999. In 1986, 829 NAS was activated as a second frontline squadron and shared responsibility for embarked Lynx Flights (with 815 NAS) until it disbanded in March 1993; today 829 operates the Merlin HM2.
Between 1976 and 1982 the Fleet Air Arm received 60 Lynx HAS2s from Westland, followed by 30 Lynx HAS3s (delivered from 1982 through to 1988) which supported 40 Ship Flights, the last of which was 208 Flight. Lynx HMA8SRU ZF557/PD426 wearing commemorative markings and the legend
‘Lynx Flights 1981-2017’ returned to Yeovilton on March 10, 2017, following a nine-month deployment to the Arabian Gulf and South Atlantic aboard Type 23 frigate HMS Portland.
During their service lives, Royal Navy Lynx helicopters underwent upgrade and modification, the most important of which being the conversion of Lynx HAS2 aircraft to HAS3 standard with uprated Gem 42 engines, a new floatation system and an upgraded electronic support measures.
In 1993, the Fleet Air Arm introduced the Lynx HMA8 variant featuring new British Experimental Rotor Programme rotor blades, a new tail rotor, a forward looking infrared radar and the ability to carry torpedoes and Sea Skua missiles. All-up weight of the Lynx HMA8 was 11,750lb (5,330kg). The final modification to the HMA8, dubbed the Saturn Radio Upgrade (designated HMA8SRU), added an improved communication systems and a defensive aids suite.
Royal Navy Lynx have taken part in numerous conflicts since Operation Corporate during the Falkland Islands war in 1982 when HMS Ardent (F184), HMS Coventry (D118) and the MV Atlantic Conveyor were lost to enemy action resulting in the loss of three embarked ship flights.
Fleet Air Arm Lynx deployed to the Persian Gulf as part of the Armilla Patrol following the Iran-Iraq war and regularly before, during and after both Gulf Wars in 1991 and 2003.
More recently, 815 NAS undertook maritime counterterrorism operations in support of the international Combined Task Force 150 in an area spanning two million square miles (5.18 million km2), covering the Red Sea, the Gulf of Aden, the Gulf of Oman and the Indian Ocean. Back home in the UK, 815 NAS Lynx conducted 24/7 security operations during the 2012 Olympic Games held in London operating from HMS Ocean (R11) moored in the Thames.
Few people understand the Lynx better than Lieutenant Commander Alun ‘Lucky Al’ Read, a qualified helicopter instructor and one of five Lynx pilots assigned to 815 NAS at the squadron’s retirement. Alun’s 38-year naval flying career started in 1979 and ended when the Lynx retired from service.
Reflecting on 4,000 flying hours in the Lynx while standing beside helicopter XZ689/314, one of the oldest still flying, Lt Cdr Read said: “This aircraft first flew in 1978, one year before I joined the Royal Navy. I started flying Lynx in 1989 having flown the Sea King as a pinger [a colloquial term used for anti-submarine warfare] from 1982. I’ve always loved this aircraft. Stepping from the Sea King to the Lynx was like moving from a Transit van into a supercharged Ford Focus. When the aircraft first arrived, everyone was expecting a replacement Wasp with two engines. The radar was a real bonus and made the aircraft a lot more useful than we all originally thought. In the air, our aim was to get the Lynx into the right places, so it could be used when needed. We certainly did that. However, when it got very hot and humid the camera just didn’t work, so we had to get closer! What we used to do in the old days was to sneak up on our targets at very low level. It’s very different now with Wildcat and the new systems available.”
Control of airframe vibration has hugely improved thanks to the introduction of Health and Usage Management Systems on the Wildcat, on which Lt Cdr Read reflected: “With the Lynx you can feel if the aircraft isn’t quite right on start-up. I used to lean my hand on the instrument console and could tell which direction the vibration was going in; if it was four times the speed of the rotational head or 12 times it would either be the gauge or the pressure, the temperature transducer on the gear box or the engine. I’d then debate with the engineers what the problem was. If it was vibrating fast, it was probably electric!”
So why ‘Lucky Al’? Lt Cdr Read explained why: “Landing the Lynx at sea was relatively easy due to the aircraft’s fixed titanium head, which gave the aircraft a lot of quick dynamic movement around the deck. The tough part was taking off with a full fuel load. At full weight, this aircraft uses a lot of its available power to take off. At night we always take off in the direction the ship is facing, but we can turn into the wind during the day. We slid off the side of a Type 23 backwards in a Mark 3 in the dark at maximum weight in very rough sea conditions. There is a fourinch metal edge on the flight deck which we thought would stop us but sadly not. The aircraft went below the flight deck and down between the troughs of two waves, ending up approximately a quarter of a mile behind the ship before we were able to climb above the level of the waves and recovered. The good news: we were able to fly it home.”
With 36 years’ experience of maintaining the grey Lynx, nobody understands the aircraft better than Chief Petty Officer Andy Wardle who first set sight on a Lynx two years after joining the Royal Navy in 1979. CPO Wardle started on the HAS2 before progressing on to HAS3, HAS3S (fitted with a more secure radio system) through to the HMA8 and finally HMA8SRU. He said: “Maintenance was very hands on and generally straight forward with few issues we hadn’t come across and couldn’t fix. Having prepared the aircraft, start-up was always an issue due to the battery, which was never really up to the job. Generally, we tried to avoid doing these. There was always a power issue with the avionics, but other than that nothing else, really. With the introduction of modern gyros, start-up became instantaneous.”
Having performed many roles during his Lynx career, including flight test, vibration control and as Programme Manager for the Saturn radio communication upgrade (SRU), CPO Wardle is well aware of the aircraft’s durability, especially it seems when the aircraft was deployed: “The aircraft’s build life was 7,000 flight hours, but this was increased to 8,000 hours following a life extension programme which added 1,000 hours. We had a couple [of helicopters] at this level, but most have around 5,000–6,000 hours. Generally, we operated the latest aircraft at around 5,300kg [11,680lb], but interestingly, the aircraft lost 80kg [175lb] with the SRU avionics. The later DAS upgrade added weight back though. From a maintenance perspective, I rate the Lynx highly. They are still very serviceable. Scheduled maintenance on the Lynx was always the biggest area, but fault rectification was all avionics. The whole maintenance approach has changed completely compared with Wildcat.
“My best Lynx memory was during a West Indies deployment aboard HMS Brave [F94] on counter-piracy and drug operations lasting from dawn to dusk. In a little over six months we flew just under 360 hours, which was huge for a Mark 3. The aircraft remained serviceable the whole time bar a few minor issues. If you completed 30 hours per month now, that would be pushing the airframe quite hard. I shall miss her when she finishes.”
Aircraft Engineering Officer with 815 NAS, Lieutenant Commander Kirsty Marlor spoke of the enjoyment gained from being handson with a Lynx during maintenance: “What’s so nice with Lynx is the level of engineering experience we have. There haven’t been many issues we’ve not come across before, so fault fixing is straightforward.”
Lieutenant Max Cosby was the last person to collect his wings, as an observer, on the Lynx in February 2015. Lt Cosby transitioned to Wildcat in June 2016, but has fond memories of his brief experience on the Lynx: “My Lynx career started with 702 NAS in January 2014 and lasted one year. Having gained experience, I was fortunate to be deployed to the Caribbean for six months aboard the auxiliary landing ship RFA Lyme Bay. Our work was extremely varied involving disaster relief operations, counternarcotics and defence engagement. Flying the Lynx under the conditions of the Caribbean was a fantastic opportunity to make a difference in this helicopter. Converting to Wildcat is easier in some respects, although the differences are huge, especially for the observer. Operating in a Lynx was like having your mobile phone strapped to your computer strapped to your digital camera. In a Wildcat, everything is integrated into one system and based around how we want to operate it.”
Lynx and Wildcat
Commanding Officer of the Lynx Wildcat Maritime Force, Commander Gus Carnie has the honour of being the final Lynx Commander. Reflecting on a 15-year period spent flying the Lynx and transitioning to Wildcat, Cdr Carnie said: “Wildcat’s capability is so far ahead of the Lynx, but the Lynx remains a very impressive machine and will not be forgotten in the Fleet given its extensive operational service and the [world] speed records set: it’s a genuine piece of UK rotary-wing history.
“I undertook evacuations of personnel in Lebanon as the flight pilot aboard HMS Gloucester [D96]. This involved collecting personnel and replacing them with specialist operators. Other operations of note included a hostage rescue in Eritrea and a merchantman retake off the coast of Somalia in 2006 with American forces, which to my knowledge was the first, and maybe the last, Royal Navy action allowed inside Somalian territorial waters.”
The Fleet Air Arm flies the Lynx and Wildcat with two aircrew, a pilot and an observer, plus crewman, depending on the mission, which Cdr Carnie explained: “In the Lynx we sit close together, and the reality is we could go through a whole sortie not talking, yet we know exactly what each other is thinking. From a pilot’s perspective, the Lynx is [like] a sports car; you can really throw it around. On occasion, I’ve lost an engine in the Lynx and the helicopter has always brought me home safely, and I always felt safe in it. For a rotarywing aviator, it’s quite a sensation dropping a heavy-weight missile like a Sea Skua from a Lynx.”
Lynx armed with Sea Skua missiles are credited with helping to destroy the core strike capability of the Iraqi Navy during both Gulf Wars. During the first Gulf War, the United States had no type of helicopter capable of destroying Iraqi surface ships, so Fleet Air Arm Lynx were given the task.
During one mission, a Lynx HAS3 deployed aboard HMS Manchester (D95) was tasked to take out an Iraqi patrol boat that had fired at a US helicopter. At a position ten miles (16km) from the Iraqi boat’s last reported position, the observer flashed up the radar and found the enemy craft; a Kuwaiti vessel commandeered by Iraqis. The observer set the missile to skim the waters of the Gulf and hit the craft close to the waterline, punching through its thin skin, before the warhead detonated destroying the target.
During the 1982 Falklands War, Fleet Air Arm Lynx armed with Sea Skua missiles proved effective in disabling Argentine vessels. The final launch of a Sea Skua missile from a Fleet Air Arm Lynx took place in the midAtlantic during the final deployment by 208 Flight embarked on HMS Portland (F79), which returned home on March 10, 2017, after a nine-month deployment.
Cdr Carnie said valuable experience with the Lynx has been passed on to the Wildcat operators: “The Lynx served us all so well in theatres as diverse as Antarctica, the Middle East and the Caribbean and will not be forgotten.”
From April 1, 815 NAS will be equipped with the Wildcat HMA2 as the frontline squadron responsible for ship flights while 825 NAS will continue as the Wildcat training unit.