Text: Serge Van Heertum - Pictures: Serge Van Heertum & Other as mentionned - Translation: Stéphane Ghijsen  © sbap 2016

On 2 March 2016, the specialized press was invited to Koksijde AB for a unique event marking once again the glorious pages of the Belgian Air Force. 
Indeed, the venerable Seaking reached the milestone of 58,000 hours of flight (58,012 hours to be exact) in 40 years of loyal service.
The event began with a briefing by the CO, Lt Col E. Cuppens and Maj Vandenbroucke, recalling the history of the "King of the Seas" in the colors of the 40th squadron.
This briefing highlighted the arrival of the 5 machines on 8 November 1976, the types of tasks performed by the guardian angels of the Belgian coast, the incredible reliability offered by this helicopter, the most notable scrambles and finally the current situation of the 3 remaining active Seakings in the Belgian Air Force. Then, the media was invited to witness the takeoff for a training mission, to visit the maintenance and to enjoy a short demonstration under a gray leaden sky and a hailstorm.

Lt Col E. Cuppens  (© Serge Van Heertum) Maj Vandenbroucke  (© Serge Van Heertum)

Historical review
In 1973, the Air Force expressed the desire to acquire new helicopters for search and rescue tasks in order to replace the ageing Sikorsky S-58s, which were reaching their potential limits and were clearly affected by the obsolescence of their equipment.
In short, the good old "Siko" was no longer adapted to the tasks and requirements of research at sea. The specification of the time stipulated that the new helicopter would have to be twin-engine, unlike its single-engine predecessor, and that it would have to be equipped with the best navigation and communication equipment. Additional requirements were a cabin that could accommodate up to six survivors on stretchers and a flotation system in case of ditching, which, we will see, proved to be useful.
In short, an airframe already stood out and it was the Westland Seaking, a British licence-built version of the Sikorsky S-61. The official order for 5 Westland Seaking Mk 48s was signed on 22 April 1974 and also included the training of the first crews. On 8 November 1976, despite the grey skies, 5 brand-new Seakings left RNAS Culdrose for their delivery flight to Koksijde AB, where they were officially accepted by the Belgian authorities. As of that day, the Seakings would provide SAR cover over Belgium but also Luxembourg.

 The early years (Coll Serge Van Heertum / SBAP)

Throughout its long career, the aircraft would obviously have to undergo improvements and technological developments. One of the first was the replacement of the original metal blades by lighter and more flexible composite ones. In 1981, the airframes were fitted with a fairing in front of the turbine intakes to prevent engine failure due to icing, and this after a spectacular mishap in which RS03 sustained no serious damage. After nearly 20 years of service, the Seaking underwent once again a major retrofit in 1995 to increase its operational capacity and above all its ability to operate safely day and night. This major update included a new navigation Bendix RDR-1500B radar (with a significantly larger radome) instead of the original MEL ARI 5995 and the fitting of a Forward Looking Infra-Red (FLIR) camera system (in a turret).
The missions of the Belgian Seaking are not limited to SAR duties. The crews of the 40th squadron can indeed fulfill other important tasks such as medical evacuation (MEDEVAC), urgent organ delivery, maritime research (SAMAR), Territorial operations (SATER), passenger transport but also assistance to the nation in all its forms.
The phasing out of Seaking operations started in 2015 in view of their replacement by the new NH-90 NFH. Yet the Seaking will stay operational until 2018 and will therefore remain on standby at a rate of 1/3 - 2/3 for the NH-90.

Souvenir of RNAS Culdrose 1976, thanks to Dany Payeur

From left to right:  
H. De Rechter (navigator),
R. Raes (pilot), M. Gijssels (pilot), E. Delandtsheer (pilot), D. Payeur (pilot), W Vereecke (mec) and P. Van Den Meerssche (mec)

A formidable rotorcraft
As highlighted by Maj Vandenbroucke in his briefing, the Seaking provided 40 years of reliability and unmatched security. No serious accidents have been reported during its service with the 40th squadron. While it is needless to mention that such a long career has brought its share of incidents, it is worth noticing that these have had no major consequences. The two most impressive misfortunes were unquestionably the blackout of both engines on RS03 on 3 December 1980 resulting in a forced landing in Mont Saint Guibert. Thanks to the pilots' skills and cold blood, the damage was limited to just a few crumpled sheets of metal and the aircraft would ultimately return to Koksijde as a sling load under a Boeing CH-47 Chinook. RS01 suffered the next mishap when on 28 April 1981 it proved the usefulness of the inflatable buoyancy bags required in the specifications. RS01 was subsequently towed by the Belgian Navy minesweeper M907 Artevelde to Zeebrugge. Although it was delicate, the operation was smoothly conducted and the helicopter was later removed from the water by a crane in the harbour.

  RNAS Culdrose, the Belgian crews on training 
(Coll Serge Van Heertum / SBAP)
Mont Saint Guibert December 3rd, 1980
(Coll Serge Van Heertum / SBAP)
(Coll Serge Van Heertum / SBAP)
 (Coll Serge Van Heertum / SBAP)
 RS01 in the North Sea on April 28th, 1981  (©Belgian Navy)

Mission in the North Sea  (©Belgian Air Force)

Career highlights
For 40 years, the Seaking has provided invaluable services and has been involved in some 3185 scrambles, saving 1712 lives. Is there much to comment about these results in a small country like Belgium but to thank those guardian angels who work in the shadows? I refer here to the pilots, navigators, SARSOs, medics and all technicians. We owe these men and women a debt of gratitude for their achievements and yet all of them have in common a sense of commitment and discretion. They were and are involved in the most distressing emergency situations and certainly are forever marked by events such as the capsizing of the Herald of Free Enterprise just outside the port of Zeebrugge (06/03/1987), the Switel Hotel fire in Antwerp (31/12/1994), the fire of Volendam in Holland (01/01/2001), the Ghislenghien disaster following a massive gas explosion (30/07/2004) or the sinking of the Baltic Ace following a collision on the high seas (05/12/2005). These are just a few examples. Yet the squadron sometimes receives letters from either a survivor or a family member in recognition of their deep gratitude, which is probably the best way to thank our brave guardian angels for whom this is a heartwarming blessing.

Today's fleet
Of the 5 helicopters initially delivered to Belgium, 3 are still operational. RS01 was the first one to be withdrawn from service and flew to the Royal Museum of the Armed Forces on 17 December 2008. That day a small crowd was gathered to watch its impressive final landing on the rainy Esplanade du Cinquantenaire. Then RS03 was withdrawn from active service on 29 August 2013. Having still some potential, the airframe was cocooned and is now preserved in the maintenance hangar at Koksijde AB. In 2015, due to a lack of spare parts for its remaining operational Seakings (RS02 , RS04 and RS05), the Belgian Air Force decided to acquire a retired Royal Air Force Seaking HAR3A (ZH542) in order to strip it for spares to keep the "King of the Seas" in the air until 2018.

The five Seaking toegether during Koksijde airshow on 6 July 1991 (© Serge van Oosterzee)
G-BDNH / G-17-1
(c/n WA.831)
10585 Hours
523 Scrambles
Status: Preserved Brussels Air Museum
(© Serge Van Heertum)
G-BDNI / G-17-2
(c/n WA.832)
12002 Hours
694 Scrambles
(© Serge Van Heertum)
G-BDNJ / G-17-3
(c/n WA.833)
11851 Hours
618 Scrambles
Stored at Koksijde airbase
(© Serge Van Heertum)
G-BDNK / G-17-4
(c/n WA.834)
11950 Hours
680 Scrambles
(© Serge Van Heertum)
G-BDNL / G-17-5
(c/n WA.835)
11624 Hours
670 Scrambles
(© Serge Van Heertum)
Westland Seaking HAR3A RAF
ZH542  22 Squadron
(c/n WA.1008) 
RAF Delivery March 1996
Arrived Koksijde on November 24th, 2015
Status: Dismantling for spare parts

Seen in action @ Eastbourne 2014

(© Serge Van Heertum)

RS01 landing in the Jubilee park  (© Serge Van Heertum) RS03 cocooned at Koksijde  (© Serge Van Heertum)
On board the Seaking...

Pilots, Loadmaster, Navigator, Winshing and the diver   (© Serge Van Heertum)
The past and the future...
Florennes 1979  (© Serge Van Heertum) Koksijde 2014  (© Serge Van Heertum)
RS01  15 years in 1991  (Coll Serge Van Heertum / SBAP) RS05  25 years in 2001  (© Serge Van Heertum)
RS03  30 years in 2006  (© Serge Van Heertum)
02 March 2016 Missions and maintenance
Morning mission for the RS02  (© Serge Van Heertum) (© Serge Van Heertum)
(© Serge Van Heertum) Always a beautifull helicopter !  (© Serge Van Heertum)
(© Serge Van Heertum) Preparing for an afternoon mission  (© Serge Van Heertum)
(© Serge Van Heertum) (© Serge Van Heertum)
"Blacky" on taxi  (© Serge Van Heertum) (© Serge Van Heertum)
Lift off  (© Serge Van Heertum) (© Serge Van Heertum)
A look into the maintenance  (© Serge Van Heertum) The  Bendix RDR-1500B radar antenna  (© Serge Van Heertum)
Tail screw shaft and gear box  (© Serge Van Heertum) Main rotor  (© Serge Van Heertum)
Facelift for the RS04  (© Serge Van Heertum) Seaking, a hard worker ;-)  (© Serge Van Heertum)
Press demonstration  (© Serge Van Heertum)

(© Serge Van Heertum) (© Serge Van Heertum)
(© Serge Van Heertum) (© Serge Van Heertum)
(© Serge Van Heertum) (© Serge Van Heertum)
(© Serge Van Heertum) (© Serge Van Heertum)
(© Serge Van Heertum) (© Serge Van Heertum)
The future is on the way, but we will have the opportunity to see the Seaking until 2018  (© Serge Van Heertum)

As a conclusion
58,000 flight hours in 40 years of service is a milestone that has to be celebrated and this will happen in October 2016. The 40th squadron will then host the next SAR Meet, which will bring together helicopters from different NATO member forces. Fortunately, we will also have the pleasure of seeing this big machine with elegant forms flying and hopping around the Belgian countryside and more particularly that of the North Sea until 2018. This aircraft proudly bears the name of "King of the Seas "and it is well deserved.

Aude Audenda !
(Risk what has to be risked)

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