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“Bye Bye Lynx, Welcome Wildcat”

By:   Sander Meijering |

After forty years of operation with the Royal Navy the end of the good old Lynx is in sight. After years of frontline operations the Lynx will be replaced by the Wildcat. Naviation got a chance to visit the last operational Royal Navy Lynx squadron and talk with its people. 

Transition
It’s cold on the tarmac of 815 Naval Air Squadron (NAS) at Royal Navy Air Station (RNAS) Yeovilton in Somerset. Both flight crew and engineers are working together to get their helicopters airborne. On the left side of the tarmac are two Wildcats running while a third is starting up its engines. On the right side of the platform are two Lynx helicopters being prepared for their flight. Operating two helicopters types at the same time is quite a challenge for the 250 men and women from 815 NAS. As CO Cdr Philip Richardson explains: “We’ve got seven Lynx aircraft and seven Wildcat aircraft at the moment. With the end of Lynx in sight we are replacing Lynx aircraft with Wildcat aircraft and we transition at the same time. We are changing the qualifications of our Lynx maintainers into Wildcat engineers and that’s a long process with all the procedures they need to learn. But the challenge at the moment is to run those two aircraft types simultaneously next to each other. As you can see in the hanger, the Lynx goes to this side and the Wildcat to the other and never do the two engineering procedures meet because there are different greases, oils and procedures for both types of aircraft. We kept them completely separated but run them concurrently”.

It is possible to do a transition on different ways but the Royal Navy has chosen a slower transition without stopping flying. As Richardson continues: “We looked really carefully on how we wanted to do the transition. Did we want it to be a steep loss of capability were we just stop everything for a year and retrain? No, we kept all our commitments to operations going in at the moment and also retrain on the Wildcat. That whole transition process is taking three years”. Even though the Lynx retires officially on the 23th of March it doesn’t mean the end of the transition period. “It takes another year after we finish flying Lynx together before we all walk out trained”. As the commander of the Lynx-Wildcat Maritime Force Gus Carnie explains: “The Lynx is a very impressive piece of machinery. The Lynx has been our proven weapon carrier in the last forty year”. But the story of the Lynx started even more than forty years ago.

The Lynx is a very impressive piece of machinery. The Lynx has been our proven weapon carrier in the last forty year. - Cdr Carnie

History
The history of the Lynx helicopter goes back to the mid-sixties. The British manufacturer Westland Helicopters began with the development of the WG13, a helicopter intended for civil and maritime use. Early in the development project both the Army and Navy showed interest for replacing the Westland Scout and Westland Wasp. In 1967 France and Britain agreed on a package deal. Westland would team up with the French company Aerospatiale to design three new helicopters. Aerospatiale would design the Gazelle and Puma and Westland worked on the WG13, now called Lynx. The prototype of the Lynx made its maiden flight in March 1971. The test flight revealed a fast and highly manoeuvrable aircraft. Powered by two Rolls-Royce Gem engines which drive a four blade rotor the Lynx was a compact and modern aircraft. Especially the design of the rotor head and gearbox made the Lynx design revolutionary. Due to the powerful engines and lean design the Lynx could fly extremely fast. The Lynx set its first world helicopter speed record in 1972 followed by a second one in 1986. During the second world record the Lynx flew 400,87 km/h which is the absolute speed record for helicopters and that still holds today.

In the development stage both an army and navy version were developed. The navy version differs from the army version with its folding tail, foldable rotor, and hook for flight deck landings. Another difference is that the army version was equipped with skids while the naval helicopters have wheels. Only the latest AH9 model in service since 1990 has also a wheeled undercarriage. After development production of the Lynx started with an order of 60 aircraft for the Royal Navy and 113 aircraft for the Royal Army. The first aircraft went into service by the Royal Navy in 1976 followed by the Royal Army in 1979. Soon many other countries followed the British example and acquired the Lynx for themselves. Especially the naval version of the Lynx became very popular worldwide. With over 400 helicopters build, the Lynx is sold to no less than sixteen countries. Some of the bigger operators are countries like France, Germany, the Netherlands, Oman, Brazil, and South Korea.

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The old Lynx helicopter flying over an British village.

Lynx and the Royal Navy
The first squadron to operate the Lynx is 700L Naval Air Squadron (NAS) at RNAS Yeovilton. This Anglo-Dutch squadron is an Intensive Flying Training Unit (IFTU) which learns how to fly and operate the Lynx HAS Mk. 2. After an intensive period of training and testing the Dutch Navy went back to the Netherlands and 700L NAS was decommissioned at the end of 1977. The remains of 700L squadron were recommissioned at RNAS Yeovilton as 702 NAS in January 1978. The second squadron to operate the Lynx became 815 NAS, which was commissioned on RNAS Yeovilton in 1981. Both squadrons moved to RNAS Portland during the summer of 1982 with their upgraded version of the Lynx HAS Mk. 3. It didn’t take long before the Lynx could prove itself in combat. The first Lynx helicopters went into action in the South Atlantic during the Falklands war in 1982. After that the eighties gave the Lynx many other chances of action like the evacuation of British citizens from Beirut, and protecting British interests during the Iran/Iraq war. This made 815 NAS so busy that some of the flights got transferred to 829 NAS in 1986.

The nineties were very busy for the Lynx. During the Gulf War the Lynx saw a lot of action in the Persian Gulf. Lynx crew even sank two vessels under Iraqi command with Sea Skua missiles. In March 1993, 829 NAS disbanded and handed over its duties to 815 NAS. In the same year the final Lynx upgrade programme started which saw most of the helicopters upgraded to HMA Mk. 8 version. This programme was a major update which fitted the Lynx with a new tail rotor, repositioned the Seaspray radar and replaced the nose structure which allowed fitting of the Sea Owl Passive Identification Device. During the upgrade both 702 NAS and 815 NAS moved back to RNAS Yeovilton in 1999. The new century gave the Lynx even more action in countries like Sierra Leone, Northern Ireland and Somalia. It also showed the age of the Lynx and the need for a replacement.

Development of the Wildcat
Already in 1995 the MoD announced it wanted to replace the Lynx helicopter. It took until 2002 before the MoD gave AgustaWestland the opportunity to do a study for the possible remanufacturing of the Lynx, known as the Future Lynx. Then it took until 2006 before the MoD awarded AgustaWestland a contract to build 70 Future Lynx helicopters. It took years of designing and testing before AgustaWestland came up with a prototype, known as the AW159 Wildcat. This prototype made its maiden flight on November 12, 2009. After so many years of designing there was a completely new helicopter with has not much in common anymore with the Lynx. To prepare the Royal Navy for Wildcat operations 700W NAS was formed. This squadron was the operational evaluation and testing squadron for the Wildcat. However it took until 2013 before 700W NAS received the first five Wildcat HMA 2 helicopters. After another year of training the Wildcat was ready to enter operational service. So the decision was made to merge both 700W NAS and 702 NAS into 825 NAS making it the first operational Wildcat squadron. It took until April 2016 before 815 NAS received its first Wildcats, at the moment operating those besides the Lynx until March 23, 2017. 

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The brand new Wildcat helicopter seen on the tarmac during a hot pit refuelling and crew change. 

From one workhorse to another
The main purpose of the Lynx is that of ships helicopter. The Lynx operates independently from a Royal Navy vessel and so it is deeply integrated in both frigates and destroyers. Cdr Richardson explains: “We have got sixteen flights on 815 NAS now that are going to all different corners of the world and operate completely independently”. To make this way of operating possible a Lynx flight contains more than only the aircrew. As Lt Max Cosby explains: “A Lynx flight will always have two aircrew. One will be the pilot and the other one will be the observer. The senior of the two will be known as the flight commander while the other will be respectively the flight observer or the flight pilot. The aircraft is looked after and maintained by the SMR (Senior Maintenance Rating). The SMR is supported by six persons equally split into two different trades, the mechanical trade and the avionics trade. And finally the aircraft controller, or the AC, is the person who keeps the helicopter integrated with the ship while it’s in the air”. The current way of operating a Wildcat will not differ much from the Lynx. The only difference is a fourth avionics engineer because the Wildcat has much more electronic components.

The role of the Lynx versus the Wildcat is very different - Cdr Richardson

Although the way of operating a Wildcat will not differ much from the Lynx the transition course will still take six months. Cdr Richardson explains: “The actual flying syllabus of the sticks and poles will take six months. If you drive a car you can drive another car but you need to know how to start it [the Wildcat, ed.], you need to know how to operate it and crucially you need to know how to fight it”. Especially fighting with the Wildcat is a bit different from the Lynx. “The role of the Lynx versus the Wildcat is very different” according to Richardson. “In a Lynx you are on low level, you got a weapon system on the side of the aircraft, a Sea Skua for example, and you would be used as a probe asset to go around to collect a recognized maritime picture. Yet on the Wildcat you are collating that picture and then you are sending that to another unit, which can prosecute it. For example the observer's role within a Lynx is exactly the same in a Wildcat but he has got a whole new sweet of next generation sensors. The observer becomes a system manager”. 


Future
The future will bring even more changes to the Wildcat. Richardson explains: “When the FASGW (Future Air-to-Surface Guided Weapon) comes into service, the Wildcat will have the weapon system, so it can find, fix, strike all in itself.” The Wildcat will also get a role on the new Queen Elizabeth-class carriers, as Richardson continues: “With the reconnaissance and ISTAR (Information, Surveillance, Target Acquisition and Reconnaissance) capabilities that it has, we are working to integrate that into the carrier strike group. The Wildcat is a giant leap forward compared to the Lynx. Capability-wise, with all the sensors that the Wildcat has, it can do the same job as four or five Lynx at the same time. So it’s a hugely capable aircraft. It’s just, how do we best employ it, that’s our challenge. And that will go on and on for the next forty years that it’s in service.” 

We would like to thank the Royal Navy for making this visit possible.