Westland Sea King Mk.48 (c/n WA832, RS-02 of the Belgian Air Component), flying display at Sanicole International Airshow, September 2015.
In the mid-1970s, Belgian government decided to purchase five Sea King helicopters to replace Sikorsky S-58 rotorcraft in their maritime search and rescue duties. All five aircraft (WA831 to WA835) were initially delivered to RNAS Culdrose station, where their crews participated in an introductory training.
In November of 1976, the Belgian helicopters were flown to Koksijde air base, where they were officially assigned to No. 40 Squadron and received Belgian Air Component identification numbers RS-01 to RS-05. Shortly after the Sea Kings began their SAR duties that were carried out until the end of 2018.
The Belgian Sea Kings were the subject of two significant upgrades. The first was performed in 1987-1988 and included change of the rotor blades. Another modernization took place in 1995 and included new radar, upgraded avionics and a FLIR turret under the nose.
In 2007, the Belgian government decided about the Sea King successor and eight NH90 rotorcraft were ordered, including four in NFH (NATO Frigate Helicopter) naval variant. Nevertheless, delays in the NH90 deliveries caused the date of the Sea King retirement was postponed a few times.
Nevertheless, the Sea King RS-01 was the first to retire, already in December of 2008. That helicopter is now on display in the Royal Museum of the Armed Forces and Military History in Brussels. Next, there was RS-03 that concluded its active duty in August 2013. For a few years, the rotorcraft was preserved at Koksijde air base and used as a source of spare parts. Finally in 2019, the RS-03 was handed over to Koksijde community in order to be used as a monument recalling the Sea King service in Belgium.
The other three Belgian Sea Kings remained operational until the end of 2018. The RS-02 was officially retired in January and the RS-04 in February next year. The RS-05 was honoured with special farewell livery and on 21st March 2019 performed an official last flight along the Belgian coast.
During more than forty years of active service, the Belgian Sea Kings performed more than 3,300 search and rescue missions, clocked approximately 60,000 flying hours and saved 1757 persons. One of their most known rescue actions was saving more than thirty people from MS Herald of Free Enterprise ferry that capsized near Zeebrugge on 6th March 1987. Apart from the SAR missions, the Belgian Sea Kings were used for other life-saving missions, such as organ transportation.
The Sea King Mk.48 RS-02 featured within our Photo of the Week series, performed its maiden flight on 8th April 1976. After being withdrawn from active service with the Belgian Air Component, the helicopter – together with the RS-04 – was bought by Historic Helicopters from the United Kingdom. That enterprise was founded in 2013 and aims for preservation and operation of former military helicopters. Both former Belgian rotorcraft are kept by Historic Helicopters in airworthy condition until today.
For more information about the Sea King operational service with the Royal Navy and the German naval aviation, please check our articles focused on the Sea King HU.5 and the Sea King Mk.41, respectively.