For those of you who have stayed at the Cellars or elsewhere in the Lizard, you will be familiar with Royal Navy Air Station (RNAS) Culdrose as you have to pass it to get to the Lizard. It is a very large site. It is in fact one of the largest helicopter bases in Europe!
The reason I mention it this week is that the last few British Sea King helicopters based at RNAS Culdrose were retired last week. The Sea King helicopter has been in service for nearly 50 years and a total of 140 Sea Kings were built for the Royal Navy over this period. It was used for anti-submarine warfare, search-and-rescue missions, general duties, carrying Royal Marines Commandos into action (in recent wars) and provided airborne early warning and intelligence to the Fleet and ground forces.
Throughout the Royal Navy, these helicopters were known as the ‘Baggers’. They acquired this nickname after the Falklands conflict in 1982 when the airborne early warning system was hurriedly introduced; it was a distinctive inflatable black sack or bag on the side of each helicopter which contained a powerful radar capable which scanned the skies for potential threats. It proved to be very effective as crews found that they could not only detect aerial threats, but they could also track vehicle movements on the ground.
On the 19th September 2018 two of the last Sea King helicopters did a three hour farewell tour of Devon and Cornwall. They flew as far east as Teignmouth, over Dartmoor and Bodmin Moor, the Cornish resorts of Padstow, Newquay and St Ives, before a final sight of Land’s End, Penzance, Mounts Bay and back to Culdrose. Sadly the conditions were not good for the pilots or the people who turned out to watch – rain, fog and low cloud. Commander Chris Hughes said “We were really surprised by the number of people who turned out – and especially the number of schoolchildren who spelled out messages for us. One group lined up as ‘BZ’ – naval terminology for ‘well done’,” That must have been very touching for the crew!
Then on 26th September, these two helicopters plus another, making the last three airworthy Sea Kings, left RNAS Culdrose. After conducting formation flypasts at several locations they landed at Gosport’s HMS Sultan where they will be stored before being disposed of. So an end of an era.
The helicopters now at Culdrose are all Merlins.
Culdrose was originally designed as a wartime airfield to last ten years but the land was not bought until February 1944 and it was not commissioned until 1947. It had three runways, capacity for nine squadrans and 1500 personnel but much of the infrastructure was a hutted camp with extensive hangarage. The name derives from Cornish cul ros meaning “narrow heathland”.
The initial plans were for Culrose to be a Naval Fighting School but it soon developed other roles including the trials of the Navy’s first jets, training of airborne early warning crews and as a home base for carrier-based aircraft. Although over the years the station’s emphasis has changed from fixed wing aircraft to rotary wing but its main role remains largely the same. It now has 3000 personnel which makes it the largest single site employer in Cornwall.
Interestingly from 1968 it was one of the designated locations for plan PYTHON, the plan for continuity of government in the event of nuclear war!
A more recent historic moment for RNAS Culdrose was when a BA flight carrying the Olympic torch from Athens landed at the base. It also carried dignitaries including Seb Coe, Princess Anne and David Beckham. I remember watching the whole thing on TV. The following day the Olympic Flame started its 70 day relay around Britain from Land’s End. Its final destination was the Olympic Stadium where the flame ignited the cauldron in the Olympic Stadium in time for the start of the 2012 summer Olympics.
Source https://www.forces.net and above photo from Daily Mail online