- Written by James Landall
- Diplomatic correspondent in southern Ukraine
The BBC has learned that a military helicopter donated to Ukraine by the UK government was used in the Falklands conflict more than 40 years ago. Despite their age, the Ukrainian military says the planes will help in the fight against Russia.
Flying low in the skies over southern Ukraine, the helicopter flips and turns, following the curves of the Earth. From the cockpit and open side door, the crew scans the horizon, alerting potential threats.
We are on board one of two Sea King helicopters Britain has given to Ukraine – the first media to have access to the aircraft since it was delivered in recent months. Inside, the mood is serious and purposeful, the danger of Russian missiles is not far off.
Despite this, the four-man crew enjoys showing off the new helicopter. They tell us how important it is to them on the battlefield, as it is used to rescue casualties, move troops, and perform reconnaissance.
But why would Britain give Ukraine such old helicopters, some of which have been flying for more than four decades?
The government in Kyiv has requested modern fighter jets armed with long-range missiles to aid in a long-awaited new offensive against Russian forces. But the UK hasn’t provided any of its Typhoon fighter jets to Ukraine — it doesn’t have enough to spare, and it would take too long to train Ukrainian pilots to use them. There are also broader concerns that providing warplanes could escalate the conflict.
Instead, the UK has opted to give them two helicopters that either carry no weapons or fly particularly fast, and are no longer used by the Royal Navy, which retired the Sea Kings several years ago. One is so old that it saw service during the Falklands conflict, in 1982, playing a historic role.
In part, the answer to the choice of aircraft can also be found here, in Ukraine. The crew is clearly excited about the new helicopter. The Sea King was exactly what the Ukrainian Navy needed – a practical, reliable aircraft that could do whatever was required of it, says co-pilot Vasyl.
“I love this helicopter because it’s so good to fly,” says Vassell. “It’s one of the best combat operations, whether it’s moving equipment or doing search and rescue. It’s easy to fly even in difficult conditions.”
Sea Kings are used to pick up victims who need urgent medical assistance, move Special Forces to position, and fetch and carry equipment.
One of the main tasks, Fassel says, is searching for downed airmen, which can include flying behind enemy lines. “The pilots have to get out,” he says. “They need to be rescued. For this, we have to get to an area that is probably not under Ukrainian control.”
He also confirmed that the Sea Kings are of the same age as many other helicopters used by the Ukrainian Armed Forces. As such, he and the other pilots are familiar with aircraft of this older style, making their training easier.
“It’s roomy, it has good loading capacity, and it’s economical,” adds Vassell.
Another answer to the question about the age of the aircraft can be found, perhaps, at the base in the south of England, where the third Sea King is being prepared, which will be delivered to Ukraine in the coming weeks. We cannot say where the base is for security reasons, but we have spoken to two Ukrainian engineers who have been there for seven months, training to repair and maintain the helicopter.
One of the engineers, Ihor, tells me that the Sea Kings are in fact mostly new, with very little left of the original helicopter.
“They’re old, but they’ve been through modernization, and we desperately need them. And I think this is just the beginning of our work together,” he says.
These Kings of the Sea have spent most of their lives carrying out search and rescue operations – for civilians as well as service personnel – and were familiar on the British coasts. Ralph Weekes-Snead flew one in Ukraine in the Falkland Islands in 1982 – he commanded a squadron of which he was a part. The retired naval pilot says the helicopter played a historic role, flying through a storm on June 14, 1982 to ferry the commander of British land forces – General Jeremy Moore – to Port Stanley so he could accept the Argentine surrender. He says that no other planes can fly because of the bad weather.
“It was an interesting process,” Wicks-Snead explains. “The cease-fire had not been signed up to this point, and so the plane was flying into Stanley Airport to contend not only with the weather, but also with some rather unfriendly Argentines.”
The pilot also revealed that the Sea King he had flown in – and is now in Ukraine – had also been flown in the Falkland Islands by Prince Andrew, who was working as a young naval aviator.
“He would fly the plane from time to time,” says Wickes-Sneyd. “It was his first tour. So he did what everyone else did, which was sometimes very mundane, sometimes very exciting.”
‘just the beginning’
These sea kings may be old, they may be few in number, and they may not be the fixed-wing aircraft Kiev wants to help tip the military balance. But Ukraine’s navy says it’s glad they’re there — and wants more.
There are other Sea Kings in storage in the UK, and if the government decides to give them to Ukraine, the crew and engineers we spoke to said they would be most welcome.
Getting a Sea King is like exchanging your old car for a classic “foreign car,” says Pilot Vasil.
“It’s very practical. We’d like to have more helicopters like this,” he says.
Back in England, engineer Ihor concedes that perhaps the new planes will be better, but adds: “It’s better than nothing and it’s only the beginning.”
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