The King is dead, long live the Queen!

At the end of 2023, the Royal Norwegian Air Force (Luftforsvaret – RNoAF) said farewell to its Sea King Mk 43 helicopters. The Westland-made rotorcraft have been retired after more than fifty years of active service and are being succeeded by Leonardo AW 101.

The Sea King helicopters began their search-and-rescue (SAR) duties with the RNoAF in May of 1973. The first purchase batch included ten examples of the rotorcraft that got assigned to No. 330 Squadron at Sola Air Station and its detachments across the country (Banak, Bodø, Ørland, Florø and Rygge).

In April of 1977, one of the helicopters was lost in an accident and then replaced by a new Sea King that was delivered in September of 1978. In addition, three more examples of that type of rotorcraft were delivered at the beginning of the 1990s.

According to statistics shared by the Royal Norwegian Ministry of Defence, during the fifty years of service the Sea King fleet completed more than 45,000 SAR missions, cumulatively clocking more than 200,000 flight hours and saving nearly 50,000 lives.

The search for a new SAR helicopter for the RNoAF was launched at the beginning of the 2010s. In October of 2011, the Norwegian authorities opened the Norwegian all-weather search and rescue helicopters (NAWSARH) programme, aimed for replacing the ageing fleet of the Sea Kings within a decade.

In December of 2013, the Norwegian government signed a contract with AgustaWestland aviation manufacturer, worth approximately 1.15 billion EUR and covering delivery of sixteen examples of AW 101-612 SAR helicopters, crew training, flight simulator, post-sale service support and spare parts.

The first Norwegian AW 101 was delivered in November of 2017. The helicopter was intended for Operational Test and Evaluation (OT&E) unit and its delivery was linked with opening of the Norwegian AW 101 training centre at Sola. Although the initial schedule assumed introduction of the first AW 101 for operational use in 2018 and then completing the transfer of the SAR duties within three following years, the NAWSARH programme was running a little late.

Last four operational Sea King helicopters of the RNoAF during the farewell flight (photo: Fabian Helmersen / Forsvaret)

The first AW 101 was officially transferred from OT&E to the 330th Squadron only on 1st September 2020, thus beginning its SAR duties at Sola air base. During the official handover ceremony that was attended by Norwegian authorities, the AW 101 type of rotorcraft in country´s service was named ´SAR Queen´.

In the following years, the AW 101 helicopters progressively succeeded the Sea Kings in Banak, Bodø and Ørland. Changing of the guard in Rygge – scheduled for 11th December 2023 – was the last step leading to the end of the Sea King active service with the RNoAF. Tthe SAR duty at Florø will be taken over by the SAR Queen only in late 2024, until then, the service will be secured by civilian contractor.

On this occasion, the RNoAF arranged a special farewell flight of the last four operational Sea King Mk 43 helicopters. Between 22nd and 27th November, the helicopters toured Norwegian air bases across the country with the final solemn retirement ceremony held at Rygge on 27th November.

That retirement event officially closed more than fifty-year history of the Sea King SAR helicopter duty with the RNoAF. At the same time, it underlined the opening of the new chapter with the SAR Queen taking over the service in the full scope.

´The King is dead, long live the Queen!´  – that paraphrase of an old, traditional monarchist proclamation is perhaps the best description of the current generational change in the RNoAF. 

The good news is that three of the last four Norwegian Sea Kings are intended to be preserved as museum exhibits in Bodø, Gardermoen and Sola, while the fourth one will be used for training purposes.

Leonardo AW101 – the new SAR Queen of the RNoAF (photo: Nathalie Tjelflåt Andersen / Forsvaret)

Cover photo: RNoAF Westland Sea King Mk 43/43B helicopters in Rygge, during the farewell event (photo: Kim Atle Kleven / Forsvaret, cropped). Royal Norwegian Ministry of Defence press materials were used.