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A Brief History of 849 NAS - Part 2 The Birth of Rotary AEW

Updated: Jan 28, 2021

This part of 849’s history depicts a period when the Squadron wasn’t even in existence, having been decommissioned in 1978. However, such was the magnitude of the development of the Sea King AEW MK 2 in 1982, I thought it deserved a dedicated chapter in the history of 849 NAS. I’ve particularly drawn from the memories of 2 people during the period – Jim Schofield and Peter Flutter.

Jim Schofield was involved in helicopter development for over 45 years. Having completed his national service as Assistant AEO on 845 NAS in the 50’s he went on to work for the big industry leaders - deHavilland, Bell, Fairey… and luckily for the AEW community was working for Westland Helicopters in 1982 where he became Company Designer in Chief (for a very short time) and in charge of the Sea King AEW2 Project. I have used Jim’s memoirs ‘Developing British Military Helicopters’ as the basis of the development journey. I have also drawn upon an invaluable article by Richard Scott titled ‘Born of Necessity’ which was published in Aeroplane magazine and concentrates on the experiences of 824 D Flt, under the command of Lt Cdr Peter Flutter.

When the Fairey Gannet AEW3 was decommissioned in 1978, the UKs AEW capability was to be transferred to the RAF with the Nimrod aircraft. This was a big blow to the RN and also to Fairey who were eventually taken over by Westland under the government rationalisation of the aviation industry. Jim Schofield, who had been working for Fairey was transferred to the Project Office in Yeovil when Westland took over the company. Despite the transfer of AEW capability one of Jim’s first jobs at Westland was to produce a study for an AEW platform utilising the Wessex helicopter – perhaps an indication of how uneasy the RN felt without its organic AEW capability. As new radars were produced Jim updated the study to the Sea King and submitted it again to the MOD. On receipt of the studies, Jim would normally receive a call from the RN desk officer wishing that the RN could acquire the capability. On one occasion a study landed on the desk of an RAF officer resulting in Jim receiving a very strongly worded reply informing him that the RAF were capable of doing the complete AEW role and it was not up to a private MOD contractor to try and alter government policy.

In April 1982 the UK sailed their Task Group to the Falklands without organic AEW capability. On the 4 May this gap in RN defence was highlighted with disastrous consequences when HMS Sheffield was sunk by an Exocet missile launched from an Argentine Super Etendard. 20 sailors died and over 20 were seriously injured. Two days later on 6 May Jim was summoned to a meeting at MOD with the Sea King Project Manager and reps from the Radar Branch and Thorn EMI. A sketch was produced of a retractable Thorn EMI Searchwater radar on the side of a Sea King, which was very similar to the study produced by Jim the year previous. When asked if this could be achieved, Jim replied ‘affirmative’. When asked if it could be achieved in 3 months so the aircraft could join the replacement fleet Jim replied ‘affirmative’ and so began the reincarnation of the RN’s AEW capability!