Entering service on 6th July 1974, the Westland Gazelle seems to have been around forever. The 'Whistling Chicken-leg' as it's fondly nicknamed, has seen service with all three military air arms in the UK as well as the Test Pilot School and even the Royal Flight. With the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force Gazelles confined to training, Army Air Corps Gazelles were the only ones deployed overseas in combat operations. The latest military review 'Defence in a Competitive Age' released in March this year however, slated Gazelle to be replaced by the New Medium Helicopter (NMH).
The Gazelle's story began as the Sud SA340, being developed for the French Army, which very quickly caught the eye of the Ministry of Defence. This resulted in Yeovil based Westland Helicopters signing an agreement in February 1967 to work with Sud Aviation in joint development and production work. This deal resulted in an order for 292 Gazelles and 48 Sud SA 330 Pumas for the British armed forces and in return Sud Aviation was given a work share in the manufacturing programme for 40 Westland Lynx helicopters for the French Navy.
The first prototype SA340 flew for the first time on 7 April 1967, initially flying with a conventional tail rotor taken from the Alouette II however this was replaced in early 1968 with the signature fenestron tail on the second prototype and designated the SA341. Four SA341 prototypes were flown, with one for Westland Helicopters.
On 6 August 1971, the first production Gazelle conducted its first flight and the first SA341B otherwise known as the Gazelle AH1 for the British Army flew on 31st January 1972. On 3rd May 1973, three Gazelle AH1's formed the Gazelle Intensive Flying Trials Unit (IFTU) at Middle Wallop to evaluate the helicopter, flying up to 100 hours per month, more than three times the average of a standard squadron. One of those three airframes was XW847 which still flies to this day.
Early days of service
The Gazelle AH1 entered operational service on 6th July 1974 with 660 Squadron AAC based at Salamanca Barracks in Germany, replacing the Westland Sioux AH1 and it's roles including; reconnaissance, troop deployment, casualty evacuation and anti-tank operations. The Gazelle brought new capabilities including 5 seats, Decca Doppler 80 Radar, NightSun searchlight and Raytheon TOW anti-tank missiles. The Gazelle saw extensive service across Germany with 651, 652, 653, 654, 659, 664 and 669 Squadrons and several 'Flight' detachments accumulating over 660,000 hours and lead to over 1000 modifications to the helicopter, most notably the Ferranti AF 532 stabilised magnifying observation sight.
In the UK, Gazelles joined 658 Squadron at Netheravon, 657 Squadron at Oakington, 655 Squadron at Aldergrove/Belfast and 656 Squadron at Ballykelly, Northern Ireland. The first overseas deployment was in 1974 with 660 Squadron to Hong Kong, though the Gazelle was quickly found unsuitable and was replaced by the Scout AH1 a year later. In 1979 six 656 Squadron Gazelle AH1s were deployed to Rhodesia (which at that time became Zimbabwe) under Operation Agila, to support the country's elections as part of the Commonwealth Monitoring Group (CMG)
25 Flight (BATSUB)
25 Flight in Belize replaced their Aerospatiale Alouette IIs with four Gazelle AH1s in 1987. The RAF withdrew their Puma detachment in 1994 leaving 25 Flight's Gazelle AH1 to provide 24 hour casualty evacuation for the whole of Belize. Unlike the Puma's ability to winch casualties out of the jungle, the Gazelle had to land and shut down. For a stretchered casualty to be loaded, the left-hand front seat and flying controls are removed, and a Splint stretcher must be used in order to fit the casualty's feet into the small rear baggage space. This left only enough room for one attendant in the rear, with very restricted access to the patient in flight. Due to the single pilot operations, at night the casualty would have to be transported to a larger area for the pilot to land under Night Vision Goggles. If there was no area big enough then a clearing would have to be cut down big enough for this to happen. The Gazelle went on to be replaced in Belize by the Lynx AH7 and then the Bell 212.
29 (BATUS) Flight
The British Army Training Unit Suffield (BATUS) is a massive training area, twice the size of the Isle of Wight and is situated in Alberta, Canada at the Canadian Forces Base Suffield. Since 1971 it's given the British Army a vast area to train on a battle-group size level with more than 1000 vehicles.
BATUS consists of pooled vehicles and equipment, used by army units rotating through the base on exercises, as well as a training "opposition force" (OPFOR).
The exercise period runs between April and September, with the winter months giving the Royal Engineers the chance to rebuild infrastructure and targets used during live firing.
29 (BATUS) Flight, is an independent flight based at BATUS and does not fall under a squadron though administratively falls under 5 Regiment AAC.
The flight provides aviation support for the exercises at BATUS. It's roles include training supervision and range safety control, CASEVAC (casualty evacuation), reconnaissance and ISTAR support to the formations in training, liaison and the moving of passengers and equipment.
During CASEVAC missions, 29 Flight are on 30 minute 'Notice To Move' by day and 60 minutes by night.
The flight is made up of 5 Gazelle AH1 helicopters, 15 permanent staff, consisting of aircrew, engineers and logisticians, which are supplemented by 15 more temporary staff that rotate from the UK on a quarterly rotation.
On 11th June 1982 a 29 Flight Gazelle AH1 crashed into terrain at BATUS in poor visibility and fading dusk light en route for a CASEVAC to a soldier with a neck injury after being hit with a falling hatch whilst exiting a tank on the training area. Sadly the pilot was killed, the crewman was very seriously injured and the doctor on-board only sustained minor injuries. There is conflicting information whether this was ZA770 or XW896.
In 2016 the Service Modifications team of 1710 Naval Air Squadron at RNAS Yeovilton developed a stretcher system for the Army Air Corps Gazelle to be better adapted to airlift casualties. A plate was installed at the front of the cabin to enable a stretcher to be positioned the full length of the cockpit. within two days of the modification being fitted it was used to transport a critically-ill casualty to hospital in Canada.
Despite being based in Canada, 29 Flight Gazelles used go through depth maintenance at the Gazelle Depth Support Hub (GDSH) which then amalgamated with the Multi-aircraft Platform Support Unit (MPSU). In April 2018 Depth Maintenance for the Gazelle AH Mk1 fleet was taken over by Vector Aerospace at Fleetlands, Gosport after the Multi-aircraft Platform Support Unit (MPSU) at Middle Wallop closed in March. In order to come to the UK for maintenance, they're required to fly to Calgary to meet a team known as JARTS who dismantle the aircraft and load the outgoing pair of airframes onto a C-17 Globemaster flown in especially. When arrived at RAF Brize Norton they were then housed in a Rubb hangar to wait for their lorry ride to the maintenance facility.
Update: Since writing this 29 Flight section, 29 Flight has just disbanded and a civilian contractor is rumoured to be taking over the duties. ZB677 went into storage at Shawbury at the beginning of 2021 and XW865, XZ340, ZA731 and ZA736 are all at Fleetlands back in the UK. ZB671 is now with 671 Squadron conversion flight whilst it covers for ZB691 in depth maintenance...it's future remaining to be seen. Very sad news to see the best military paint scheme bowing out!
Westland Gazelle HT2 - XX436 at Dawlish Airshow on August 2015. Painted as a 3 CBAS Gazelle AH1 but spent it's military life at RNAS Culdrose with 705NAS as a Gazelle HT2. Has since been painted back to original scheme.
In 1975 twelve Gazelle AH1's belonging to the Army Air Corps entered service with 3 Commando Brigade Air Squadron (3 CBAS) to support Royal Marines in the reconnaissance role.
During the Falklands conflict, these Gazelles embarked on Royal Navy ships and were quickly modified with folding blades, flotation gear, armour and fitted with 68mm SNEB Rockets. On 21st May 1982, two Gazelles were shot down (XX402 and XX411) by small arms fire and a third heavily damaged (XX412). As a consequence, Gazelle operations for the remainder of the conflict were confined to CASEVAC and support roles to avoid enemy contact.
Another was lost on 6th June 1982 when XX377 was shot down in a friendly fire incident by a Sea Dart missile from HMS Cardiff, sadly killing all four on board. By the end of the conflict, the Army Air Corps had set up an AAC Falkland Island Squadron with a flight of Gazelle AH1s at Port Stanley Airport and then later RAF Mount Pleasant when it opened in 1987.
The Gulf War
January 1991 saw the Army Air Corps deploy 24 Gazelle AH1s to the Gulf, painted in desert pink camouflage and fitted with rockets to support Operation Desert Sabre. After the Gulf war finished in Febuary 1991, Kurdish refugees began to flee the oppressive treatment by Saddam Hussein’s forces.
Operation Provide Comfort was a multi-national mission started in April to protect the refugees and provide humanitarian aid. Operation Haven was the UK's contribution to Op Provide Comfort, with Royal Marines from 40 and 45 Commando supported by four Gazelle AH1's from 3 CBAS.
In 2000 Gazelle AH1's belonging to the Army Air Corps supported an SAS rescue mission in Sierra Leone named Operation Barras. This was to rescue five British Soldiers captured by a militia group known as the 'West Side Boys', which the Gazelle's primary role was to spot targets for the Mortar teams.
In 2003 3 CBAS Gazelles were deployed to Iraq to support Operation Telic, by 2007 the Gazelle had shown it's worth, found to be the most reliable UK helicopter operating in the hot and high conditions with 81% serviceability where most of the UK's helicopter fleet struggled.
In 2006 the Gazelle deployed to Op Herrick in Afghanistan in the same scouting role as it was still doing in Iraq. The Gazelle proved unsuitable for operations in Afghanistan because of the hot and dry climate where they wouldn't fly between 11am to 11pm during the summer because the heat could damage the engines.
In 2007 the Gazelle AH1 was upgraded with a Direct Voice Input (DVI) system developed by QinetiQ which allowed aircrew to operate mission systems by voice command without having to remove their hands from flying controls and having to bring their eyes into the cockpit.
During the pre-deployment exercises for Herrick however, the Gazelle provided a superb ISTAR ( Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition, and Reconnaissance) asset, simulating UAV's that were deployed to Afghanistan but were not permitted to fly in the UK. The MX-15 camera turret provided an eye in the sky for the soldiers on the ground, collecting information and instantly sending it to those in charge of operations, giving them an overall picture of the battlefield which can help them plan their next step. The ISTAR capability also proved useful training for counter-IED (Improvised Explosive Device) operations, where they could scan ahead of convoys for devices laid ahead.
Gazelle AH1 Today
In July 2016, the Ministry of Defence announced that the Gazelle would remain in service until 2025 taking the Gazelle past its 50th anniversary in UK military service and making it the oldest helicopter in active UK inventory. Today the Gazelle AH1 is still operated by 665 Squadron AAC in Northern Ireland with aerial surveillance tasks and a small number are still with 658 Squadron AAC based at Credenhill in Hereford, supporting the SAS. 671 Squadron of 7 (Training) Regiment AAC based at Middle Wallop provide the aircrew for these two squadrons by conducting the Conversion to Type training.
The original Out of Service Date (OSD) was 2018 for the Gazelle AH1, however it never really seemed likely. In 2017 Gama Engineering at Fairoaks was awarded a contract to fit a Traffic Alerting System, GPS, a 8.33 kHz VHF communications upgrade and an Aspen Primary Flight Display. By 2019 the Army Air Corps still had 32 Gazelle AH1s with 19 operational. As mentioned in the BATUS section, in March 2018 Vector Aerospace was awarded a contract to provide maintenance support for the Gazelle AH1 helicopter fleet at Fleetlands, with a Contract Extension Option to continue until 30 June 2022.
Westland Gazelle AH1 - XZ345 - 671 Squadron - Army Air Corps on Salisbury Plain December 2010
The writing does look to be on the wall for the Gazelle now, with the New Medium Helicopter (NMH) competition in full swing. This competition is to replace the Gazelle, Bell 212, Dauphin and Puma helicopters with 1 type by 2025.
Other UK Gazelles
Other than the SA341B Gazelle AH1, the UK also had the SA341C Gazelle HT2 in service with the Royal Navy, SA341D Gazelle HT3 in the training role with the RAF and the SA341E Gazelle HCC4 used as VIP transport.
There was also a number of airframes in use at MoD Boscombe Down with Empire Test Pilot School (ETPS), Rotary Wing Test and Evaluation Squadron (RWTES) and QinetiQ, though these have now all been replaced with a fleet of new H125.
Some other snaps...
Westland Gazelle AH1 - XX460 - 665 Squadron - Army Air Corps at RAF Shawbury December 2010. Seems to have been painted for 29 (BATUS) Flight but never went as there is an image of XX460 flying a year before in the UK in normal paint scheme...