Sikorsky’s Sea Kings No Longer Rule the Waves
The prototype Sikorsky HSS-2 Sea King made its’ first flight on March 11, 1959. There are still some later-built versions in use today, some sixty years ago, attesting to the design’s usefulness and reliability.
Sikorsky Aircraft began manufacturing the HSS-2 helicopter after winning a 1957 competition for an anti-submarine warfare helicopter for the U.S. Navy. First operational in 1961, the large, amphibious craft was the first Navy helicopter powered by turbine engines, and its’ waterborne handling capabilities lent itself for naval search and rescue as well. By 1962, under the Tri-Service aircraft designation system, the type became known as the SH-3.
Named the Sea King, the type broke several speed records, also in 1962. Besides the anti-submarine and search and rescue roles, the SH-3 was modified as the Marine Corp’s primary presidential transport helicopter, known as the VH-3D. That specialized aircraft is still in service today, some forty years after the first of its type was accepted. The Navy’s search and rescue capabilities were also useful for some inter-governmental agency cooperation with NASA, for use as the waterborne recovery aircraft for the Mercury through Apollo space missions’ splashdowns. Other airframes were modified for use as personnel transports and in a cargo/utility role.
Although the U.S. Navy retired the type in 2006 after a production run of at least 329 airframes (most replaced in the 1990s by Sikorski SH-60B/F Seahawks), the Marine Corps still operates the VH-3D variant, and will do so until the new Sikorsky VH-92 VIP transports come on line.
More than a dozen other countries have operated the Sea King in various forms and versions. Built under license by Mitsubishi in Japan (185 airframes), United Aircraft of Canada (41 aircraft as the CH-124) and Westland in the United Kingdom (along with Agusta of Italy – some 344 aircraft), the type has seen recent retirement on a broad scale. Some of these retirements have made headlines in aviation news circles:
Belgium retired the last of their Sea Kings in December, 2018, which were used as search and rescue aircraft. They’re being replaced with NH-90 helicopters.
Canada retired their last CH-124 Sea Kings, on the last day of December, 2018. The anti-submarine and search and rescue duties are now performed by Sikorsky CH-148 Cyclone helicopters.
The United Kingdom’s Royal Navy retired their last version, the Sea King ASaC.7 AEW helicopter, in September, 2018. The Royal Navy operated multiple types of the Sea King, as did the Royal Air Force. The Royal Marines had operated specialized Westland Commando helicopters as tactical transports, which served with distinction during the Falklands conflict.
These last RN helicopters were modified with search radar after the Falklands conflict, acting in a way similar to an AWACS (like a U.S. Navy E-2 Hawkeye on a smaller scale). A specialized Merlin (EH-101 model) helicopter will be fielded in a year or two to replace the capability. With the AEW version gone, the Sea King has been retired from all of the U.K.’s military ranks.
With fewer than a dozen countries’ military arms still using the type, a few civilian operators still use both the SH-3 and its civilian S-61 counterpart as aerial firefighters and civilian/police rescue and utility aircraft. With an operational life that extends almost six decades long, and production over seven hundred airframes worldwide, the type’s use is dwindling because of age and advancement of helicopter design and capabilities. For a long time though, the Sea King helicopter ruled the waves (and sub-surface and over water domains too) in military use.