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[103 Squadron RAF]
[103 Sqn Post War]
[The Support Helicopter]


The Support Helicopter.

This is a good little article written by an unknown serving RAF Officer, probably a 103 man, which appeared in the 103 Sqn Open Day Programme August 1970.

103 Whirlwind Malaya

"Just what is a support helicopter?" is a question most servicemen, both air crew and ground crew must have asked on first being posted to a Support Helicopter unit.

This may have been a typical reaction in the past but nowadays the aura of separateness and mystique regarding helicopters which did exist in the Royal Air Force fortunately seems to be fast disappearing, consistent with the steady expansion and growing importance of the Support Helicopter flight.

With the changing role of the British services through the 60s and 70s away from the nuclear strike capability of the RAF V force, towards both a limited war capability of predominantly ground forces and the maintaining (through NATO) of a

balance of conventional forces, the wheel has turned the full circle and military aircraft are now designated for the front line of the so-called conventional war, not as in 1914-15 as spotters for the army commanders but today to serve the army as airborne transport vehicles.

The classic use of the Support Helicopter is the movement of men and supplies from the airhead, which is the most forward airstrip being used by tactical fixed-wing transport aircraft,  to the forward battle area. However, the great flexibility of the helicopter as a flying machine and its ability to operate away from permanent bases for long periods, ensures a great variety of roles, examples of which are re-location of troops, re-supply of material, para-dropping of men or materials, air ambulance, gun-ships reconnaissance and search and rescue, if required. From this can be seen that the prime requirement from the Support Helicopter is a transport service to the army in support of the land battle.

Helicopters were used in the support role in reasonable numbers around 1952 and the early types,  Dragonfly, Sycamore and earlier Marks of Whirlwind, all equipped with heavy piston engines of low power output, were severely limited in the number of troops or weight of material they could lift. Nevertheless, this limitation did not obscure the inherent advantages of the helicopter, those of speed, surprise and ease of movement above difficult terrain.

The helicopter as a weapon of war had arrived.

103 Whirlwind Malaya 2

It is these advantages, particularly the ability to move over difficult terrain and yet require only a tiny landing site, or even no landing site at all by using either a de-planing rope or a winch-operated cable to lower troops and supplies, which made even the earlier helicopters so successful over the jungle and mountain terrain of the Far East. In this difficult environment the Helicopter Support Squadrons proved their worth time and time again operating in the most difficult conditions and weather against relatively small numbers of highly motivated and well equipped guerrilla type forces.

Many of our soldiers must have been very grateful to have been airlifted to a new position in minutes, when they would otherwise have had a wearying slog, possibly of several days. Similarly the army commander would no doubt be delighted by the speed and consequent advantage of the re-location of his forces. Only the enemy would be displeased at being taken by surprise.

The truth of this is surely evident in the fast that Support Helicopter units have been based in the Far East continuously from 1952 to the present day.

The land forces in Europe became more interested as the number of helicopters entering service increased as aircraft fitted with light and powerful turbine engines were developed.   Commanders in this theatre were not so concerned about movement over difficult country as about speed and surprise, and more particularly, the ability to combine these with the offer of a large total payload. For example one Support Helicopter squadron could deplane 150 fully equipped infantry soldiers in a position within a few seconds, or re-locate a battery of fifteen heavy guns within the hour.

Night-flying methods and techniques were constantly being developed and almost equally constantly being amended. The great problem of night operation was landing in a restricted area such as a small field, without the aid of the sophisticated lighting patterns available at airfields and airports. It soon became obvious that landing without any guiding lights was not to be recommended, but several very simple lighting patterns were evolved and proved reliable.   The simplest of these is a system of fine lights, such as torches on petrol soaked, sand filled cans, laid out in the form of a

horizontal “ T “  on the ground. This layout is still the basis of the present day, more sophisticated, landing indicators that provide an approach aid for several aircraft at the same location.

Finally, what of the personnel of a Support Helicopter unit.

Whilst perhaps not honed to quite the finest degree in social graces on occasion, they do have a certain basic toughness and resourcefulness which are not always apparent in every other unit.

Try suggesting to the crew of a Comet or VC10 that they spend their stand down time erecting a tent and camp-beds in a snake and insect infested jungle during a tropical thunderstorm.   Or suggest their ground crew change an engine in a waterlogged field at night in pouring rain in near freezing temperatures without showing a light or putting down their weapons, and then imagine their reaction.

But this is what Support Helicopter operating is all about.

The photos are courtesy of Tim Nicoll.



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