The British Army Air Corps’ ‘Whistling Chicken Leg’

Affectionately known by Army Air Corps pilots as the ‘Whistling Chicken Leg’ and the ‘Tinny-Winny’, the Westland-built Gazelle AH.1 has been in continuous in service for more than forty-five years.

Three AH.1s were officially accepted to the Gazelle Intensive Flying Trials Unit (IFTU) at Middle Wallop on 3 May 1973. Nine pilots from the three UK services and ten REME technicians spent the next six and a half months clocking up around 2,400 hours of flying.

The IFTU’s aircraft included what were among the longest- and shortest-serving Army Air Corps (AAC) Gazelles in terms of time and flying hours. XW850, which was delivered on 2 May 1973, was written off on the 31st of the same month. The cause of the accident, which killed the pilot and injured an aircrewman, was attributed to a jack-stall that happened at low level and at maximum weight. The aircraft crashed at Fordingbridge, Hampshire, and was damaged beyond repair.

XW847 carried out two and a half years of simulated service flying in six months of trials in an effort to find out what was likely to go wrong both from a flying and a maintenance point of view. Each of the three initial AAC helicopters averaged over 100 hours flying per month – a rate of more than three times the average for the army. The main objective of establishing the reliability of the aircraft under typical operating conditions was achieved in a short space of time.

With the job of the IFTU completed, further trials were scheduled with role equipment of various types but at a more normal flying rate, using four aircraft. Personnel and equipment would become part of Demonstration & Trials Squadron (D&T) from December 1973. Preparation for the Gazelle conversion courses was their next main priority. It was envisaged that a one-month conversion course would be necessary for new Gazelle pilots. This would involve around 25 hours in the air plus some extra ground school for those with only piston-engine experience, such as the Westland-built Sioux, which the Gazelle was intended to replace.

The Westland SA.341B first entered operational service on 6 July 1974 with the AAC designated Gazelle AH.1, with No. 660 Squadron based at Salamanca Barracks in West Germany. The five-seat Gazelle AH.1 that replaced the Sioux AH.1 was assigned the roles of reconnaissance, troop deployment, direction of artillery fire, casualty evacuation and anti-tank operations. The AH.1 featured the Astazou IIIN2 engine, a nightsun searchlight and the Decca Doppler 80 Radar, and it could be armed with Raytheon TOW wire-guided anti-tank missiles plus a roof sight. By the mid-1980s the British Army of the Rhine (BAOR) had three armoured regiments on its strength and each division had its own AAC Regiment. 1 Regiment AAC, based at Hildesheim, with Nos 651 and 652 Squadrons, each with eight Lynx AH.1s and four Gazelle AH.1s, operated in the attack/anti-tank roles, while No. 661 Squadron, with twelve Gazelle AH.1s, was a reconnaissance unit. 3 Regiment AAC at Soest had Nos 653 and 662 Squadrons with a mix of Lynx and Gazelle AH.1s and 663 Squadron operating solely Gazelle AH.1s. Finally, 4 Regiment AAC at Detmold had Nos 654 and 659 Squadrons with a mix of Lynx and Gazelles and No. 669 Squadron with only Gazelle AH.1s. A small number of Gazelles were operated by 664 Squadron at Minden as the BAOR Communications Flight while No. 12 Flight was based at RAF Wildenrath for communications duties.

No. 7 Flight AAC was based at RAF Gatow in West Berlin in the 1980s. Directly under the control of the Berlin Brigade the main task of this small unit comprising three Gazelle AH.1s was that of the Berlin Wall surveillance and daily observation of the 55,000 Soviet troops based within sight of Gatow. Its secondary duties included VIP and military personnel transport, as well as support of the West German police, which was not permitted to operate its own helicopters over the city.

24 (Airmobile) Brigade was formed on 1 April 1987 at Catterick, North Yorkshire, as one of the BAOR reinforcing brigades to provide the NATO Northern Army Group (NORTHAG) with an effective counter to massed enemy armoured movements. Gazelle AH.1s of all front line units assigned to the brigade were equipped with the Ferranti AF532 observation aid. During its predominantly Cold War service period in West Germany, AAC Gazelles flew over 660,000 hours and had over 1,000 modifications made to the aircraft.

UK-based AH.1 units included No. 6 Flight, part of No. 658 Squadron at Netheravon, No. 657 Squadron at Oakington and No. 655 Squadron at Belfast-Aldergrove, along with a detachment at Ballykelly with No. 656 Squadron. The type was also frequently used to perform airborne patrols in Northern Ireland as part of Operation Banner, the British Armed Forces’ operation in Northern Ireland from August 1969 to July 2007.

On 17 February 1978, Gazelle AH.1 XX404 of No. 657 Squadron crashed near Jonesborough, County Armagh, after coming under fire from the Provisional IRA during a ground skirmish, killing one of the crew. An active service unit of the Provisional IRA shot down Gazelle AH.1 ZB687 on 11 February 1990 along the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. The helicopter was hit several times by heavy machine-gun fire and crash-landed on an open field, injuring three members of its four-man crew.

Another Gazelle AH.1 was written-off in Northern Ireland on 27 November 1992 when ZB681 of No. 661 Squadron was involved in a mid-air collision with an RAF Puma on approach to RAF Aldergrove. Both the helicopters crashed, killing all four on board the Puma and the two on board the Gazelle seriously injured.

The first overseas deployment outside of the British Isles and Europe began in 1974 when AAC Gazelle AH.1s replaced Sioux helicopters operated by No. 660 Squadron at RAF Sek Kong. However, they were found to be unsuitable for Hong Kong operations and by the end of 1975 had been replaced by the Westland Scout AH.1.

Operation Agila took place in Rhodesia, later Zimbabwe, in the lead up to the country’s first free elections in 1980, leading to independence from British rule. To assist with this process, six Gazelle AH.1s of No. 656 Squadron supported the 1,500-strong Commonwealth Monitoring Group (CMG) tasked with setting up of rendezvous and assembly points prior to the ceasefire and in preparation for the subsequent elections. The ceasefire between the various guerrilla groups officially began at 00:01 on 29 December 1979, although reports of intimidation tactics and threats of violence would continue to mar the election process. Operation Agila coincided with the wet season in Rhodesia, the results being that regular heavy tropical thunderstorms led to the sporadic grounding of No. 656 Squadron throughout the months they served. Tasks undertaken by the Gazelles involved the movement of men, materiel and supplies, as well as liaison sorties for senior members of CMG staff and the Rhodesian Patriotic Front Headquarters. When necessary, the helicopters were employed in CASEVAC duties for the wounded of both the CMG and Rhodesian forces.

Other overseas AAC Gazelle AH.1 units in the mid-1980s included No. 25 Flight based at Belize International Airport for support and communication duties and No. 29 Flight at Suffield, Canada, with five AH.1s in support of British Army Training Unit Suffield (BATUS) delivering CASEVAC, range safety control and C2, plus ISTAR support to the formations in training. From 1988 to September 1994, the AAC United Nations Peacekeeping Force in Cyprus (UNFICYP) Flight was equipped with Gazelle AH.1s.

Army-owned AH.1s also entered service with 3 Commando Brigade Air Squadron (3 CBAS), where they operated as utility and reconnaissance helicopters in support of the Royal Marines based at RNAS Yeovilton. The twelve Gazelles for 3 CBAS had entered service in 1975. The unit was a self-sufficient light helicopter squadron tasked with supporting 3 Commando Brigade worldwide. It consisted of four flights – two equipped with four AH.1s for observation, forward air control (FAC), liaison and CASEVAC, one of six TOW-equipped Lynx AH.1s and a HQ flight responsible for administration and tasking. All the aircraft were maintained by REME personnel attached to the squadron. Three 3 CBAS AH.1s were stationed at St George’s Barracks in Malta during 1977. During the Falklands War, the 3 CBAS Gazelles played a valuable role operating from the flight decks of Royal Navy ships. Under a rapidly performed programme specifically for the Falklands operation, the Gazelles were fitted with 68-mm SNEB rocket pods and various other optional equipment such as IFF, armour, flotation gear and folding blade mechanisms. A total of fifteen Gazelles were sent to the South Atlantic in 1982 flown by Royal Marines and two were lost on the first day of the landings at San Carlos Water. On 21 May two CBAS AH.1s, XX402 and XX411, were escorting RN Sea King HC4s when they were shot down near Port San Carlos by small arms fire from retreating Argentine troops, and a third, XX412, was badly damaged. From then on most shore-based Gazelles were confined to CASEVAC and support roles to minimise contact with the enemy.

However, in a high-profile incident of friendly fire on 6 June 1982, a Gazelle AH.1 was mistaken for a low-flying Argentine C-130 Hercules and was shot down by a British Type 42 destroyer. Gazelle AH.1 XX377 was originally on the strength of 3 CBAS but was allocated to No. 656 Squadron on sailing for the Falklands aboard Nordic Ferry on 9 May. It arrived at San Carlos on 3 June and three days later it was tasked to take spares and fuel from Darwin to Mount Pleasant. While some 2 miles from the peak, flying at between 70 and 200 feet AGL in bad weather and poor visibility, the Gazelle was hit by a Sea Dart missile fired from the destroyer HMS Cardiff.

The Gazelle crashed immediately and was destroyed. All four occupants were killed on impact. HMS Cardiff was reported to have fired two Sea Darts early on 6 June at unidentified and slow-moving aircraft heading east towards Fitzroy settlement, but no hits were confirmed. The destroyer’s commander had been told that the target was in an area where no ‘friendly’ aircraft were operating. On 13 June another casualty of the raid on 3 Commando Brigade’s HQ by Argentine Skyhawks was Gazelle ZA728, which had its Perspex bubble canopy shattered. The aircraft was recovered to the rear echelon at San Carlos for repairs, but as the Gazelle had also suffered serious damage to the instrument panel it was decomissioned.

With over thirty years of air experience, Lt-Com. Bill O’Brien RM was awarded the Distinguished Flying Medal (DFM) while flying a Gazelle at the battles of Darwin and Goose Green. His work in Operation Corporate involved rescuing casualties and delivering supplies.

‘We flew a number of sorties mostly at night in an armed Gazelle, not that we ever used the SNEB 68 mm rockets in anger,’ he said. ‘I am not sure how effective they would have been if we had – they had a fairly basic aiming system just a chinagraph cross on the aircraft windscreen. It was the early days of night vision devices. They were fairly rudimentary and we taught ourselves how to use them on the way down to the South Atlantic.’

However, AAC Gazelles would not leave the Falkland Islands until five years after the Falklands conflict came to an end. The AAC Falkland Island Squadron operated a flight of Gazelle AH.1s based at Port Stanley Airport until Mount Pleasant Airbase was opened in 1987.

Tasked with communications and VIP flights plus some coastal reconnaissance, which included deck-landing practice on Royal Navy ships on patrol, a technique not taught at Middle Wallop, the Gazelles were expected to operate year round in the challenging weather conditions of the Falklands at their wind, weight and endurance limits. This service was commonly referred to by army personnel as ‘TITS’, being the acronym for ‘The Inter-island Taxi Service’.

The first full AAC regiment was shipped out to the Gulf in January 1991 as part of Operation Grapple, comprising twenty-four Gazelle AH.1 and twenty-four Lynx AH.7 helicopters of 4 Regiment and drawn from Nos 654, 659 and 661 Squadrons. The Gazelles were already fitted with sand filters and painted in desert ‘pink’ camouflage. Normally unarmed, the AAC Gazelles were also fitted with unguided rocket pods when deployed to Operation Desert Sabre, the ground campaign of the Gulf War in February 1991.

Operation Haven was the UK’s contribution to Operation Provide Comfort, a multi-national effort to provide protection and humanitarian aid to Kurdish refugees fleeing oppression by Saddam Hussein’s forces after the Gulf War. Royal Marines from 40 and 45 Commando and other 3 Commando Brigade elements were involved in the operation in April 1991, supported by four 3 CBAS AH.1s deployed to Task Force Bravo.

Following the end of the Cold War at the end of 1991, the structure of BAOR changed and with the end of the Warsaw Pact British Forces began plan a withdrawal from Germany but AAC Gazelles were soon fully deployed to operations far from Europe.

In 2000 AAC Gazelle AH.1s flew overhead spotting for mortar teams as they pounded rebel forces in support of the SAS rescue mission in Sierra Leone during Operation Barras, while 3 CBAS Gazelles supported Operation Telic, the UK military operations in Iraq from 2003. In 2007, it was reported that, while many British helicopters had struggled with the conditions of the Afghani and Iraqi theatres, the Gazelle was the best performing aircraft, with roughly 80 per cent being available for planned operations.

During pre-Operation Herrick exercises, a crucial asset that battle groups called on when in Helmand was Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition and Reconnaissance (ISTAR), and an important part of that was the use of unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) surveillance. However, as UAVs are not licenced to fly in UK airspace; instead, that role was taken by a Gazelle AH.1 equipped with an MX-15 EO/IR sensor turret.

The Gazelle has also been used by Middle Wallop-based Army Air Corps helicopter aerobatic teams, including the Blue Eagles originally formed in 1973 with five Sioux AH.1s and briefly reformed in 1982 as the Silver Eagles for the AAC’s 25th anniversary with Gazelles. The team was re-configured in 1992 with four Gazelles and a single Lynx. The Sparrowhawks was another four-Gazelle aerobatic team that displayed in 1977.

AAC AH.1s were upgraded in 2007 with a Direct Voice Input (DVI) system developed by QinetiQ that allows the aircrew to control aircraft systems using voice commands and access information without removing their hands from the flight controls or their eyes from the outside world.

In 2016 the Service Modifications team at No. 1710 Naval Air Squadron (NAS) developed a system for the AAC Gazelle AH.1 to be adapted to airlift casualties from the battlefield. Each year the army deploys to the British Army Training Unit Suffield (BATUS) in Alberta, Canada, for live firing exercises, but needed to provide a helicopter medical evacuation facility to cover the large prairie of 1,042 square miles. The design team introduced life-monitoring and life-support equipment normally found in a UK air ambulance as part of the modifications and trialled their designs with No. 667 Squadron.

At the beginning of 2018, ten Gazelle AH.1s remained in service with No. 665 Squadron, 5 Regiment in Northern Ireland, plus six with No. 7 Regiment Conversion Flight at the School of Army Aviation at Middle Wallop, where the Gazelle has been used to train AAC pilots for the past forty-five years, and No. 667 Squadron. Four more continued to serve with No. 29 Flight BATUS in Canada, while another ten AH.1 remained at Middle Wallop, undergoing servicing or in storage.

Although the original Gazelle out of service date (OSD) was set in 2018, Gama Engineering Ltd, at Fairoaks Airport, was awarded a contract in April 2017 to supply the design solution and major parts for a Traffic Alerting System, GPS and 8.33 kHz VHF communications upgrade and a Primary Flight Display from Aspen Avionics to a number of AAC Gazelle AH.1s. In March 2018 Vector Aerospace was awarded a contract to provide maintenance support for the AAC Gazelle AH.1 helicopter fleet at its Fleetlands facility in Gosport. Work under the contract commenced in April 2018, and with Contract Extension Options will continue until 30 June 2022.

Although the British Army plans to replace the Gazelle with a new type by 2025, none was selected by the end of 2018 and it is likely that the venerable Army Air Corps’ ‘Whistling Chicken Leg’ will remain beyond its 50th anniversary in UK military service.