Updated: Jun 12
The loss of the Type 42 destroyer HMS Sheffield on 4 May 1982 set in motion a chain of events – some might say an engineering miracle - that led to the embarkation of two AEW Sea King helicopters in HMS Illustrious just three months later. AnyFace Association members may be familiar with the work undertaken in the Directorate of Naval Air Warfare (DNAW) to conceive of the Low Altitude Surveillance Task (LAST) requirement, and the contribution of the ‘Gannet mafia’ in 824 D Flight to re-introduce AEW to the fleet. However, the story of how the Ministry of Defence (Procurement Executive) – MoD(PE) – worked with industry to deliver Project LAST in such a compressed timeframe is less well known. Richard Scott has recently spoken to two key figures in this endeavour.
Commander (later Captain) Brian Whittingham RN was in late 1981 appointed to MoD(PE) as Development Project Officer (DPO) for the Sea King within the Directorate of Helicopter Projects (DHP). An air engineer by training, having begun his naval career as an artificer apprentice, he was responsible for all development activity for every mark of Sea King, Wessex and Wasp as well as other helicopters operated by the UK military services
Sheffield’s loss – the ship being hit by an AM39 Exocet missile launched from a Super Étendard strike aircraft – had cruelly exposed the lack the lack of organic AEW in the Task Force. DNAW had immediately begun to investigate the options to rapidly regenerate an AEW capability for Operation CORPORATE, and concepts - mostly unsolicited - began to arrive on Brian’s desk at MoD(PE) headquarters in St Giles Court within a matter of days.
“There were a number of ideas about what could be done to provide some sort of airborne early warning,” he recalls. “But very quickly it was recognised that Westland and Thorn EMI had already done some earlier study work on fitting the Searchwater radar into a Sea King. “This had been the subject of ad hoc discussions with MoD (Navy), and so we now
began a dialogue with the two companies as to the possibility of actually doing this.”
Thorn EMI had in fact raised the idea of a Searchwater-configured Sea King to Commander Brian Skinner in DNAW in late April, and made an outline presentation in MoD Main Building 6 May, just two days after the attack on Sheffield. This proposed a palletised radar installation, with the radar scanner itself housed within an externally mounted ‘kettle drum’ radome that could be deployed from a stowed position by means of a swivel arm.
With DNAW keen to advance this idea, the decision was taken to convene a meeting of all relevant navy, MoD and industry stakeholders at St Giles Court on the following Monday (10th May).
Searchwater (ARI 5980) was a then state-of-the-art I-band surveillance radar being introduced to service on the RAF’s Nimrod MR Mk 2 maritime patrol aircraft. Designed to replace the earlier ASV 21 set, Searchwater was a high-power pulse compression radar optimised for scanning large swathes of ocean, and providing the ability to detect very small targets – such as submarine masts – against a ‘noisy’ background of wave clutter.
Of course, repurposing Searchwater for the AEW role would demand that Thorn EMI undertook some degree of modification. While the radar’s collision warning mode provided the basis for an air-to-air capability, it was recognised that both the reflector antenna and feedhorn would need to be modified. Some clever repackaging would also be required to squeeze the radar’s multiple LRUs into the Sea King’s rear cabin.
However, a more pressing issue was the willingness – or otherwise – of the RAF to release Searchwater sets to the navy. The availability of radar hardware, rather than any role-specific adaptation, would ultimately emerge as one of the two major concerns for Project LAST.
Brian Whittingham took the chair on 10 May for a meeting that would develop a plan to fast-track the introduction of an AEW Sea King variant. This would be achieved by modifying existing Sea King HAS Mk 2 helicopters to receive the Searchwater radar and associated control/display facilities. “Everyone around the table understood the urgency of developing an AEW capability in the shortest possible timeframe.”
Within a few hours, the various parties in the room had agreed a plan to take Project LAST forward. Thorn EMI and Westland Helicopters, with suitable support from relevant MoD research establishments, were instructed to embark on a week-long feasibility phase so as to validate the fundamentals of the AEW Sea King concept.
With his air engineering background, Brian understood that installing the Searchwater radar into the hostile mechanical environment of a helicopter presented a significant risk. “Vibration was a real concern,” he says, “particularly given that we were going to end up with this huge heavy weight, stuck on the end of a pendulum, sticking out the starboard side of a vibrating machine.
“Writing the requirement, I ended up putting in a near 50% [cost] contingency into the project estimate because of the risk of a problem with vibration.
“I did have a bit of a job convincing my boss (Grade 6 civil servant John Clark) and our relatively new DHP Finance and Secretariat principal (Norman Abbot) that such an outrageous contingency was needed in the feasibility paper. Normally anything above 10% meant you’d be hauled over the coals.
“But it was an indication of the speed of activity at the time that I wrote the paper and got full DHP acceptance in one morning - I then personally took the paper to DNAW in MoD Main Building.”
After feverish work running right through the weekend, feasibility study reports arrived with the MoD on Monday 17 May. Notwithstanding the
fact that there would be a significant level of concurrency in development and production, the work undertaken by Thorn EMI and Westland over the previous week convinced Brian and colleagues that installing the Searchwater radar into the Sea King HAS Mk 2 was operationally and technically feasible.
The LAST requirement was formally endorsed four days later. At that stage the intention was to modify an initial two Sea Kings in order that they would be ready to deploy eight weeks from receipt of authority to proceed. The remaining pair – to be taken from the strength of 826 Naval Air Squadron – would be modified by a contractors’ working party at Ascension Island in the same timescale. A decision remained to be taken on which platform would embark this stopgap AEW capability. The new aircraft carrier HMS Illustrious, which was being rushed out of build on the Tyne, was one option: alternatives included the helicopter support ship RFA Engadine, an Arapaho merchant vessel conversion, or a Fort class auxiliary stores vessel.
But Project LAST was barely underway before a problem emerged that came close to derailing the programme at its outset. New-build radar sets were not an option given the lead times on manufacture, so the RN had made the assumption that existing Searchwater radars would be made available to the project by the RAF at no cost. A DNAW note dated 21 May requested that the Air Staff approve the lending of four Searchwater sets plus appropriate spares support for the duration of Operation CORPORATE. The note stressed the urgency of the requirement, and the priority attached to the programme by Commander-in-Chief Fleet.
However, the navy’s assumption came up against a brick wall. The RAF was not obliging, insisting that the release any of its Searchwater production assets would have an unacceptable impact on the Nimrod programme.
Somewhat ironically, as Brian explains, it was the personal intervention of a light blue colleague in MoD(PE) that saved the day. “Wing Commander Des Greenwood was the MoD(PE) desk officer for Searchwater in the Department of Aircraft Equipment Supplies. He was
an RAF officer but, as a secondee to the Procurement Executive like me, his line of accountability was to Controller Aircraft rather than the air force.
“MoD(PE) retained two developmental ‘B’ model radars [one a post-design set, the other being used as a reliability and environmental rig]. I put in a request to Des and within a few hours – and despite his knowledge of the formal RAF response - he had approved these equipments for use by the AEW Sea King project.
“That was a huge problem solved, and an outstanding and, I think, courageous decision on behalf of Des. Had he not felt able do so, the project would have been delayed by many months, putting the whole [LAST] concept in jeopardy.”
The spring of 1982 found Yeovil-based Westland Helicopters confronted with an increasingly difficult business outlook. Ron Jones, the company’s Head of HMG Business Group at that time and already well-known to Brian Whittingham, recalls that the MoD budgeted workload for the period 1980-85 was only about half of what the company wanted. “Money was tight,” he says, “and so the company decided to reorganise. Instead of having principal departments – such as engineering and manufacture – management adopted a ‘business group’ type approach to our relationship with the MoD customer.
“We were in the midst of that change. So while engineers were kept in engineering, the project teams were now put into business groups. My job, sat on top of the HMG business group, was to be responsible for supplying the resources to those teams.”
Westland was already busy supporting other rotary-wing programmes for Operation CORPORATE (all but one of the nearly 200 helicopters used in the South Atlantic was built by the company). “But it was quickly made clear that this ‘crash’ programme for an AEW Sea King was the number one priority,” Ron recalls. “Our rules of engagement [with the MoD customer] were the same, but there were no restrictions on overtime working, and everyone got what they needed in terms of supply
and resource. We were given a lot of freedom – the important thing was delivering the project.”
Jim Schofield, Westland’s chief designer (defensive systems), was appointed as designer-in-charge for Project LAST. “He did a great job,” says Ron, “and was very ably supported by Nat Mills and Roly Fish on the project side. They had both also come from engineering.”
Project LAST proceeded at pace. Thorn EMI set about modifying radar hardware at its factory in Hayes, Middlesex. Meanwhile, Westland’s Yeovil plant got to work on developing the modification package that would transform two Sea Kings – XV650 and XV704 - into the world’s first rotary-wing AEW aircraft.
“It was amazing in those very early days how the plan came together as to what would go where in the aircraft, and whether it was strong enough” says Ron. “And in the back of the mind we had the vibration issue.”
He continues “Everyone was working all the hours necessary. People were highly motivated – some employees actually had relations going south in the Task Force.”
“Our supply chain showed the same commitment to the cause. The quality of our engineering, and the help we received from the MoD, gave me confidence that we could deliver the project.”
Adds Brian: “Within a matter of days, using information provided by Thorn EMI, Westland had knocked up a full-scale wooden mock-up of the Searchwater installation – all the boxes and the display - and installed it in the back of a Sea King to demonstrate it would fit.” A bicycle chain was used to build a mechanism whereby the swivel arm and radome – described by Ron as the ‘Donkey’s D*ck’ – could be lowered and raised.
Of course, the safety of the aircraft and aircrew also had to be taken into account. “Representatives from RAE Farnborough and the Aeroplane and Armament Experimental Establishment [A&AEE] at Boscombe Down attended that first meeting on 10 May,” Brian says. “It was
important we kept them involved all the way through the development in order that their staff could approve [the design modifications] at the earliest possible time. We had to do things safely but quickly.”
Thorn EMI delivered the first of the palletised Searchwater radars to Westland on 26 June, with the second equipment set arriving in Yeovil on 15 July. XV704 was the first Sea King to receive the LAST embodiment, followed thereafter by an intensive period of setting-to-work and testing.
By now, it had been decided that the newly completed Illustrious would take the AEW Sea Kings south. However, the ship’s sailing schedule – the carrier would depart UK waters at the beginning of August – had set the stopwatch ticking for Project LAST.
XV704 flew for the first time in AEW configuration on 23 July. As Brian relates, these initial flight trials were vital as they would indicate the severity of the vibration environment. “In the time available there was no real way of finding out whether a problem existed other than to fly the actual hardware,” he says, adding “Jim Schofield’s team had helped a great deal by designing in means by which the natural frequency of the radome could be adjusted. But we were lucky, and in the end not much adjustment was needed.”
Neither Brian or Ron saw XV650 and XV704 depart on 2 August, but both took huge pride in what had been achieved in such a short space of time. “I think it was an amazing example of what can be done when you have everyone pulling together towards a tightly focused objective,” says Brian. “The UOR process for the Falklands streamlined everything, and meant that procurement formalities which often slowed everything down were massively reduced. We cut out the bureaucracy, and allowed industry to get to work on producing a solution.”
Ron went on to become a director of AgustaWestland following the merger of Westland with Augusta of Italy, also taking responsibility for sales and support of all military helicopter business worldwide. For him, Project LAST remains the highlight of his career. “In all my years, it is the one project that still stands out,” he says. “Everyone came to the party. The sense of satisfaction we felt in delivering the AEW Sea King trumps anything else."