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Westland Puma clocks up 50 years in RAF service

Westland Puma clocks up 50 years in RAF service

RAF Benson and Joint Helicopter Command have celebrated half a century of RAF Westland Puma operations with a ten-ship formation flypast of military installations and facilities across the south of England and the East and West Midlands on July 7.

Departing Benson, the type’s base, the formation initially flew east towards Halton, Northolt, Hendon and Imperial War Museum Duxford before heading north to Wittering, Barkston Heath, Cranwell, Waddington and Scampton. From the Red Arrows’ home, the ten-strong balbo flew over the National Memorial Arboretum at Alrewas, Staffordshire, then on to MOD Stafford, Shawbury, Shobdon Airfield and Credenhill, Warminster on Salisbury Plain, MOD Boscombe Down and AAC Middle Wallop . Returning to Benson, the flight took in JHC Command in Andover, Odiham, RMA Sandhurst and Farnborough.

The tour of airfields came less than a week after Puma HC.2, XW224, was unveiled in a new commemorative livery celebrating the 50th anniversary. The scheme is like that worn by the first Puma HC.1s from 1971. It also incorporates the union jack – painted on the fin – and the insignia of past and present RAF Puma squadrons. The RAF logo on the cabin doors has had the Puma 50 titles added to it.

XW224 is no stranger to wearing special schemes, it wore a tiger scheme for the 1990 NATO Tiger Meet, then in 2018 it again wore a tiger scheme for the 2018 NATO Tiger Meet and now this new one for the 50th Anniversary.

The first contract placed with Westland Aircraft Ltd for the SNIAS/Westland Puma HC.1 accounted for 40 aircraft XW198-237, all were built at Hayes with deliveries commencing with XW198 and 199 on 29/1/71. A single pre-production SA330 registration F-ZJUX c/n08 built by SUD Aviation in Marignane was delivered to Westland Helicopters Ltd on 19 October 1968 as XW241 for use as a pattern aircraft.

In total the RAF have operated 55 Pumas over the past fifty years, these include the original order of 40 HC.1s (XW198-237), a further order of 8 HC.1s (ZA934-941) delivered in 1980, one Ex. Argentine Coast Guard SA330E upgraded to HC.1 standard (ZE449) delivered in 2001 and in 2002 6 Ex. South African Air Force SA330H airframes upgraded to HC.1 standard (ZJ954-959) were delivered.

The Puma, a medium-lift support helicopter, has flown on combat and humanitarian operations all over the globe over the last five decades, these include Northern Ireland, Bosnia, Kosovo, Iraq, Afghanistan, Mozambique and the Caribbean.  The Puma has also supported Defence in the UK such as providing helicopter lift capability to flood relief efforts and the coronavirus pandemic. The Puma force remains on standby 24/7 to support any task required in the UK. 

The Puma lacked power in the hot-and-high conditions of the Afghan summer, and in its mountains, leaving it short of lift and largely unsuitable for sustained deployment. It was therefore decided that the Mk.1 needed a dramatic upgrade which was to be applied to 24 airframes, replacing the 2 x Turbomeca Turmo 111-C4 engines with the Turbomeca Makila 1A1 turboshaft engines off the Super Puma, advanced digital avionics and more fuel capacity, among other significant changes.

The work was undertaken by Eurocopter (now Airbus Helicopters) which had assumed design responsibility from Aerospatiale. The first of 24 upgraded HC.2s was delivered to RAF Benson for operational trials in 2013. The entire upgrade package cost circa £300M and it’s predicted that the Puma HC.2 will remain in service until 2025. Despite five decades of service, the Puma remains a key support helicopter asset with 33 and 230 Sqns, as well as 28 Sqn, which flies the Puma and Chinook as the support helicopter Operational Conversion Unit (OCU).

The table below outlines Ambush Formation which flew the formation of 10 on 7th July 2021:

Formation CallsignSerialC/nNotes
Ambush 1XW2441166Puma50 Anniversary paint scheme.
Ambush 2ZJ956/Y1374
Ambush 3XW216/G1129
Ambush 4XW231/N1195
Ambush 5XW237/R1218Dropped out of the formation at Gloucester, but met back up with the flight for arrival
at Benson as Airwolf 01.
Monster 1XW209/C1096
Monster 2XW214/F1120Didn’t depart with the formation, but did 30min later and caught up at Waddington.
Monster 3XW204/B1074
Monster 4ZJ954/W1310
Monster 5XW232/P1199

Header Photo © Steve Kilvington

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