Farewell to the King
In March 2019, the Belgian Air Force officially said goodbye to the legendary Westland Sea King Mk.48 search and rescue helicopter. Belgium bought five of these helicopters in 1974 (RS01, RS02, RS03, RS04 and RS05) to replace the Sikorsky HSS1 en Sikorsky S-58. Originally intended for the Egyptian army, these five helicopters were given the remarkable camouflage colors. For political reasons, the Egyptian deal was canceled and these five helicopters ended up in Belgium. The first Belgian Sea King Mk.48 started its operations in 1976 and took over the SAR role of the Sikorsky HSS1. All of the Belgian Sea Kings became part of the 40th helicopter squadron which is dedicated to search and rescue (SAR) operations from the Koksijde Air Base, located at the Belgian coastline. The official motto of this squadron is 'Aude Audenda', which means 'Dare to dare'. Between 1976 en 2019 the Sea King’s of the Belgian Air Force carried out more than 3,300 scrambles. During these scrambles they saved more than 1,700 lives. All together the five helicopters had almost 60,000 flying hours. After 43 years of loyal service, these legendary helicopters are replaced by NH90 NFH helicopters. In this article you can find a selection of my best photos of the legendary Belgian Sea Kings.
Most of the scrambles of the Belgian Sea King’s were executed for incidents along the Belgian coastline. One of them was the Herald of Free Enterprise disaster off the coast at Zeebrugge in March 1987 where thirty people were rescued during night from a capsized ship. Thanks to the quick intervention of the Belgian Sea King rescue helicopter, the number of casualties was limited. Also many fishermen and sailors owe their lives to the well trained crews of the Belgian Sea King helicopters during interventions for capsized fishing boats and yachts. When the weather on the North Sea became too rough and people got into trouble, the pilots, navigators, divers and medics of the 40th Squadron often made the difference between life and death. Even when two ships collided in Dutch waters in December 2012, a crew of a Belgian the Sea King managed to save seven crew members of the cargo ship Baltic Ace in difficult circumstances.
Besides interventions above the sea, the Belgian Sea King helicopters were also used countless times for the transport of victims of disasters. For example, these helicopters of the 40th Squadron were called up in 1994 for the transport of heavily burned victims during a fire at the Switel Hotel in Antwerp. Also in 2001 and 2004 the Belgian Sea King SAR helicopter was used to transport burned victims to several hospitals after a fire at a bar in Volendam (The Netherlands) and the gas disaster in Gellingen (Belgium). The helicopters were also used several times for urgent organ transport. The usefulness of the old SAR helicopters was once again proved in 2015 when they were used to transport people who were seriously injured during the terror attacks in Brussels on March 22th.
The Sea King SAR helicopters will always have a special place in the hearts of the Belgian public. The most important reason for this is undoubtedly the popular Belgian television series and movie 'Windkracht 10'. While the television series were broadcast in 1997 and 1998, the movie premiered in 2006. During these television series and movie, the general public was introduced to the world of the Sea King SAR helicopter and their crews at the Koksijde airbase. Thanks to this, many young people in Belgium and abroad were inspired by the wonderful work of the crews of the 40th Squadron and the Belgian Air Force. After 523 rescue operations, the RS01 became the first Belgian Sea King to be permanently grounded. This helicopter was given a final resting place in 2009 at the Royal Army Museum in Brussels. The Belgian Sea King's were also regular participants at numerous air shows in Belgium and abroad.
In 2018 the Belgian Air Force organized a farewell tour of the legendary Westland Sea King Mk.48 SAR helicopter. During this farewell tour the general public could enjoy one last time the impressive demonstration of the Westland Sea King Mk.48 SAR helicopter. After the 2018 airshow season, a final formation flight was carried out on December 12th, 2018 above Flanders with the last three operational Sea Kings. Then the helicopters were taken out of service one by one until the last Belgian Sea King flew its final mission on March 10th, 2019. A big farewell event was organized by the Belgian Air Force on March 21, 2019 at the Koksijde airbase. During this event, the last flying Belgian Sea King (RS05) visited all major cities along the Belgian coastline and conducted a special formation flight with a Norwegian and German Sea King search and rescue helicopter. After the formation flight the RS05 received a water salute by the fire brigade after which the engines were finally stopped.
Text & photos: Kris Christiaens