The Sea King helicopter was vital to the Falklands war effort. The Sea King had a variety of roles and fulfilled each one to a high degree. In the course of the war only four Sea Kings were lost – three to malfunctions and one was burned out by its crew in Chile.
The Sea King helicopter first flew in May 1969 and it entered service in the Royal Navy in the same year. Over the years numerous variants have been produced and the helicopter has adopted a range of functions. During the Falklands War, the Sea King was used as a troop carrier, an equipment mover, it has had an anti-submarine role and it was used to insert Special Forces troops onto the Falklands Islands – and to extract them.
During the Falklands War, two Sea Kings ditched into the sea as a result of malfunctions. On both occasions the crew were rescued. However, on May 19th, 1982, a Sea King attempting to land on the ‘Fearless’ crashed into the sea with disastrous consequences. The helicopter was carrying men from the elite Special Air Service. In the accident 22 men were killed, 18 of whom were SAS men. At the time it was believed that a large sea bird, possibly an albatross, had hit the rotor blades casing a major malfunction. However, some have disputed this theory and claimed that it was a major malfunction within the Sea King itself as opposed to any external factor. Regardless of the cause, the speed with which the accident happened meant that few had the time to escape and the SAS had the largest loss of life on a single day since World War Two.
Sea King helicopters also carried the SAS teams that successfully attacked the Argentine air base at Pebble Island on May 14th/15th.
The Sea King was the general workhorse for the military during the Falklands War. With Chinooks being lost when an Exocet hit the ‘Atlantic Conveyor’, the Sea Kings had an even greater importance. Each Sea King was capable of carrying 27 troops a maximum distance of 400 miles. However, on the raid on Pebble Island the SAS men carried so much equipment that each of the three Sea Kings involved carried 19 men.
“Now the textbook says that the Sea King has a voluminous fuselage and so it does if the team is wearing just t-shirts and shorts. But here we were tooled up for the raid with bergens, webbing and weapons, which meant there was f*** all room for any of us. I wedged myself in the corner and waited for what seemed like an eternity before we lifted off.”
In general use the Sea King has a crew of two but when used for a specific purpose, it can have a crew of four. Its maximum speed is 145 mph and its maximum range is 764 miles. Its ceiling flying height is 10,000 feet.
In 1985, too late for the Falklands War, an Early Airborne Warning version of the Sea King was produced. If this had been available for the Falklands War, then the loss of ships to long range Exocet strikes, such as ‘HMS Sheffield’ may not have occurred. The Sea King’s role is gradually being taken over by the Merlin but the HC Mk 4 is still used by the Royal Marines.