A sting in the air again!
Duncan Chase reports on the Wasp Helicopter Reunion 08, held at Yeovilton on 12 April
Believe it or not, it is twenty years since the Westland Wasp was withdrawn from Royal Navy service. Old and bold ex-Waspies John Beattie and John Adams decided over a few beers that it would be a great idea to mark the occasion, so coerced young Nick Foster to help organise a 'Grand day out'. 'Wasp Reunion 08' was held at RNAS Yeovilton on Saturday 12 April, supported by Agusta Westland and Rolls-Royce. Around three hundred or so attended the event, which provided an opportunity to fly in one of three dual-control Wasps during the afternoon, followed by a cocktail party on the Fleet Air Arm Museum 'Flight Deck' and a silver service dinner-dance under Concorde.
The Scout and Wasp helicopter 'twins' originated in November 1957, when Saunders-Roe ('Saro') began a private venture to design a Skeeter replacement. Originally known as the Saro P.531, two prototypes of the aircraft, powered by a de-rated Turbomeca Turmo 603 engine license-built by Blackburn, were begun in early 1958. G-APNU was the first, flying on 20 July with the second, G-APNV, on 30 September. Westland acquired Saunders-Roe in 1959 and took development an important stage further, with two more prototypes boasting double the power and various other changes, including a skid undercarriage. One of these, G-APVL, flew on 9 August 1959 powered by a de-rated Rolls-Royce Nimbus engine, formerly the Blackburn A129. The other, G-APVM, flew on 3 May 1960, powered by a de-rated Gnome H1000.
The first firm order for a pre-series batch of P.531-2 Mk 1s came from the Army Air Corps in 1959, the first aircraft, similar to G-APVL, first flying on 4 August 1960. In the following month, a substantial Army order was placed for the type, now known as the Scout AH1. Parallel development of the P.531 anti-submarine version took a little longer, due to exhaustive Navy trials carried out from November 1959, utilising a modified G-APNV and two specially-built P.531-0/Ns fitted with a long-stroke quadricycle wheel undercarriage as well as landing skids. The first flight of the prototype Naval P.531 model took place on 28 October 1962 - the prototype differed from the production version in having a fixed, wheel-less 'pogo-stick' undercarriage. The Wasp, originally to have been called the 'Sea Scout', was powered by one Rolls-Royce Nimbus 103 or 104 turboshaft engine.
Following a period of trials between June 1963 and March 1964 by 700(W) Intensive Flying Trials Unit (IFTU), the Wasp HAS1 was introduced into service to operate from the seven 'Tribal' and 'Leander' class frigates. Its primarily role was to provide an extension of the ship's ability to attack submarines, although no search gear was carried. The Wasp served in this primary role with 829 Naval Air Squadron (NAS), the small ships' flight parent, but also in training units, supplying crews to the front line - this included 706 NAS between 1965 and 1967 and 703 NAS (the Wasp training squadron) between 1972 and 1981. Single airframes also served for light liaison duties in the Commando Assault squadrons, 845 and 848 NAS, until 1973. At least twenty-five Wasps were damaged, some badly during its service career, mainly whilst operating from small flight decks.
The Wasp had a half-tailplane at the top of the tail rotor pylon on the starboard side. Its unique four-wheeled castering undercarriage allowed manoeuvering on small, pitching flightdecks and the 'negative pitch' ability of the rotor-blades enabled the aircraft to 'adhere' to the deck until the lashings were attached. Both main rotor blades and its entire tail section could be folded for stowage on ship.
Each Wasp was fitted with a winch above the starboard rear door, and had the capacity to carry under-slung loads from the semi-automatic cargo release unit mounted under the fuselage. Wasps had the capacity to seat three passengers, making them useful for short-range transport missions and casualty evacuation, with room for one stretcher fitted across the rear cabin area. A weapon load comprising two Mk 44 homing torpedoes or equivalent weight of depth charges or bombs could be attached to the underside between the undercarriage legs. Later modifications included installing large inflatable emergency floats in sponsons on either side of the cabin to prevent capsizing in the event of ditching. The Wasp also gained the ability to carry Sud SS11 wire-guided missiles, with the fitting of an observer's sight in the cabin roof, although this was later replaced by the AS12.
Following the type's drawdown following the introduction of the Lynx, it was brought back into full operational service when war broke out in 1982 with Argentina and its invasion and occupation of the Falkland Islands, seven reserve frigates and their helicopters being recommissioned for active service in the South Atlantic. The last Wasp was finally withdrawn from RN service on 1 April 1988 when the last of the frigates for which the Wasp had been designed was decommissioned. Of the 125 aircraft built in total, 98 Wasps were procured for the RN with the Wasp successfully exported to Brazil, the Netherlands, Indonesia, Malaysia, New Zealand and South Africa. The aircraft type finally left service in 2000, the last operator of the type being the Royal Malaysian Navy.
Three examples of the Wasp HAS1 in flying condition gathered at Yeovilton, spread out on the Lynx ramp outside the Fleet Air Arm Museum. A privately-owned Scout AH1, G-CBUH, was on static display at Yeovilton, highlighting the differences between the two variants.
My thanks to John Beattie and Lee Howard.