November 8, 2018

The Sun Sets On Canada’s Venerable Sea Kings


There are surely many people who are glad to see the end of service for Canada’s Sea King helicopters. Having served continually in Canada’s military since 1963, the airframes are old, the technology outdated.

But there is at least one man who feels an emotional attachment to the Sea King: Air Force Major Paul O’Reilly (ret’d), who flew the Sea King for much of his 34-year military career. “You can’t help but get a little bit misty eyed. For any pilot who flies an aircraft, you grow attached to it as the years roll by, and you would forever recognize it instantly.”

Based on Sikorski’s S-61, the aircraft first served in the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN), which designated it as the CHSS-2. After the amalgamation of the Canadian Armed Forces, it was re-designated as the CH-124, with that designation surviving its transition to the RCAF, where it is now finishing its career.

O’Reilly, now 71, was a 40-year-old Sea King pilot sailing through the Panama Canal in 1987 on board the HMCS Huron accompanying two Sea Kings destined for CFB Esquimalt, where they were to become the first two helicopters to serve in naval operations on the West Coast. “I’m surprised they [Sea Kings] are still here,” he said in a recent interview with CFB Esquimalt’s Lookout newspaper. “When I came out to the West Coast with the first Sea Kings, the whole idea was these aircraft would last three or four years and a new, more modern helicopter would show up and we would move to that.”

The CHSS-2 was designed primarily for Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW), a vital role in the Cold War given that Soviet submarines were capable of underwater speeds of 30 knots, greater than the 28.5 knot top speed of the new St. Laurent-class destroyer escorts, at the time the RCN’s fastest.

In the 1960s the RCN developed a technique for landing the helicopters on the helidecks of smaller ships while at sea, using a cable and winch system that became known as the ‘Beartrap’. This allowed the Sea King to land in almost any sea state.

“They got the job done because they handled well”, said O’Reilly. “The flight deck on most ships was about 48 by 78 feet wide, so the biggest challenge with the Sea King, as with other helicopters of their size, was landing it as the ship bobbed up and down in the water, especially in stormy seas. Your timing had to be perfect so the ship’s company could hook the helicopter in with its Beartrap system.”