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Westland Wessex In Profile

Westland Wessex In Profile

This month sees the release of a great new Haynes title - the Westland Wessex Owners’ Workshop Manual. In this profile, we take a brief look at the career of Westland’s rotary-winged workhorse.  

From out of the west country

Westland’s origins date back to the First World War when the engine manufacturer Petters Limited set up a new aircraft production facility at Yeovil, Somerset. Initially building other companies’ aircraft under licence, by the end of the conflict the Westland Aircraft Works (as it was then known) was designing and building its own aircraft. 

In 1935, Westland Aircraft Limited was formed when Petters decoupled its engine and aircraft manufacturing businesses. As a producer of fixed wing aircraft, Westland enjoyed mixed fortunes. But its Lysander, designed as an an army co-operation and liaison aircraft, served with distinction during the Second World War ferrying secret agents into and out of occupied Europe.

After the war, Westland decided to focus on producing helicopters. And it was here that it achieved far greater success. It entered into a licensing agreement with American helicopter manufacturer Sikorsky, producing first the Dragonfly (based on the Sikorsky S-51) and then the Whirlwind (based on the Sikorsky S-55), both of which served with the Royal Air Force and Royal Navy.  

Next up was the Wessex, based on the Sikorsky H-34 but using gas turbine propulsion rather than a piston engine. It first flew in June 1958. Although similar in layout to the Whirlwind with the flight deck situated above and forward of the main cabin area, the Wessex was larger and more muscular in appearance and its nose was also longer and droopier in appearance.

The Wessex HAS1

Into service

The Wessex HAS1 entered service with the Fleet Air Arm in the early 1960s. It was the first FAA helicopter to be designed specifically as a submarine hunter, although weight restrictions meant that it could not simultaneously carry both the dipping sonar detection equipment and the anti-submarine weaponry required.

Thus in order to detect and attack a submarine using only this helicopter, two aircraft would be needed for the mission.

Despite this limitation, at the time of its introduction the Wessex was the most advanced Anti Submarine Warfare (ASW) helicopter in the world and it proved to be a very useful aircraft, capable of operating successfully in a wide range of weather conditions and also at night.  

The Wessex was also deployed on the Navy’s powerful County Class destroyers in a specifically-designed sideways-entry hangar. It was however generally too big to operate from frigates, so the navy used another Westland type - the Wasp - on those vessels instead.

The Navy operated a later, more powerful, version of the Wessex on its carriers and amphibious assault ships as a means of transporting Royal Marine Commandos into action. 

The Wessex also served successfully with the RAF, being used in a variety of transport and surveillance roles around the world.  Up to 16 troops or 8 stretchers could be carried.

The type saw extensive service during the Troubles in Northern Ireland, patrolling border country areas and providing transportation that was less vulnerable to ambush than road vehicles. 

The Wessex saw service during the Falklands War in 1982, moving ordnance from ship to shore and around the islands. The type was was also used to insert and extract special forces personnel in remote locations. 

Unfortunately two Wessex helicopters crashed at South Georgia whilst attempting to extract members the SAS in a snowstorm.  A further seven aircraft were lost when the ships that had been carrying them - the Atlantic Conveyor and HMS Glamorgan - were hit by enemy fire with tragic consequences. 

The Wessex HAS1


The Wessex was used extensively for search and rescue operations. The aircraft’s ability to operate in poor weather and at night made it particularly suitable for this task.  

The RAF kept several Wessex helicopters on permanent standby, capable of rapid response anywhere within 40 miles of the UK coastline.  

Painted bright yellow, the aircraft were a familiar and welcome sight over the beaches and mountains of Britain and helped to save many lives whilst in service.

North Sea ops

Although principally a military helicopter, a civilian version (the Wessex 60) was also produced. In the UK they were used for a time by Bristow Helicopters to ferry oil workers and supplies in support of the North sea oil and gas industry.

Sadly one such aircraft, G- ASWI, on a flight from the Leman Gas Field to Bacton in Norfolk crashed into the North Sea in 1981 with no survivors.            

Royal connections

From 1969 until 1998 two Wessex HCC4s were used by the Queen’s Flight to transport members of the Royal family to locations that were not easily accessible by fixed-wing aircraft.

These helicopters  were painted in a smart bright red and blue livery, and were equipped with additional navigation aids. 

The main cabin had VIP furnishings, additional soundproofing and a folding external step beneath the cabin door.  By Royal standards, the aircraft were not particularly luxurious but certainly a step up from the cabin environment of a standard military Wessex! 

One of these Royal helicopters - XV732 - is now on permanent display at the Royal Air Force Museum at Hendon, North West London. The Museum sometimes holds special viewing sessions where it is possible for visitors to take a peak inside the cabin of this very special Wessex.    

Wessex key facts

  • The Wessex was the first large mass-produced helicopter to use gas turbine power. Early versions had a single engine, later oneshad two. 
  • The Wessex first entered RAF service with No.18 Squadron, RAF Odiham, Hampshire, in January 1964. It was the first RAF helicopter capable of night operations.
  • Their Royal Highnesses Prince Philip and Prince Charles were both trained Wessex pilots and on occasion they would act as flying crew on Royal helicopter flights.
  • The first Royal passengers carried by a Queen’s Flight Wessex (XV732) were the Duke and Duchess of Kent, on 27 June 1969. 
  • The flight royal flight was not without incident - a passenger cabin window blew into the Duke’s lap.
  • The ASW HAS3 version had a distinctive randome on top of the fuselage, earning it the nickname ‘The Camel’.     

For more information, check out our new Westland Wessex Owners Workshop ManualAlso, Haynes have manuals on two other Westland helicoptersthe Sea King and the Lynxand also one on the Lysander aeroplane.