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Gazelle

RAF Shawbury among the sites privileged with a flypast as the Gazelle says a final farewell

THE news that the British Army will retire its last Gazelles at the end of October is another sad withdrawal from operation of a stalwart of the military, bringing to an end half a century of service at home and abroad.

The five-seater helicopter was the only aircraft of its kind to serve all branches of the British Armed Forces, first entering service in 1974 and involved in operations that included training, reconnaissance, casualty evacuation, and anti-tank. The Gazelle saw action across the globe including in Afghanistan, Iraq, the Falklands and, closer to home, during the Troubles in Northern Ireland.
A flypast beginning at RAF Aldergrove in Northern Ireland was undertaken to mark the end of the Gazelle’s service in the British military, 5 Regiment Army Air Corps, AAC, flying three in formation across the Irish Sea to the mainland where they overflew locations that were pivotal in its service, including RAF Shawbury in Shropshire.

Many of those in the military would recognise a Gazelle merely from its sound, the aircraft’s Fenestron tail revolutionary in the 1970s – a rotor enclosed within the tail boom which counteracts the torque generated by the main rotor, also known as a fan tail as it resembles an enclosed fan.

Gazelle fenestron

(Gazelle fenestron - FOX 52)

Despite the design and noise seeing it dubbed, rather cruelly, as the ‘Whistling Chicken Leg’, the advantages of the Fenestron over the more conventional helicopter tail was that it was less vulnerable to damage, improved safety for those working around the aircraft, and was deemed far more suitable for high-speed flight. When it first went into production its maximum speed was 265 km/h (165mph), better than the Wessex (214 km/h) but short of the tandem-rotor Chinook (302 km/h).

While the British played a large part in its development, the Aérospatiale Gazelle was designed by Sud Aviation in France, a joint production agreement reached in February 1967 with Westland Aircraft. Along with the Gazelle, there were two other helicopters involved in the deal between the two governments: the Sud Aviation-designed Puma and Westland’s Lynx.

The groundbreaking project allowed the production in Britain of 292 Gazelles and 48 Pumas, with Aérospatiale given a work share in the manufacturing programme for 40 Lynx helicopters for the French Navy.

The origins of the Gazelle emerged from a request by the French Army to develop a lightweight observation helicopter, the first prototype flying in April 1967 with a conventional rotor tail, the Fenestron design arriving on the second prototype which first flew a year later.

In 1973, the UK ordered 142 Gazelles out of a then-intended fleet of 250, 660 Squadron based in Germany the first Army unit to receive them. It was August 1974 when 30 arrived at RAF Ternhill in Shropshire for training purposes, with December 1974 seeing the Gazelle enter Royal Navy service with 705 Naval Air Squadron, Culdrose.

XW910 Of Central Flying School, RAF Ternhill on a visit to RAF Little Rissington on May 17, 1975
(XW910 Of Central Flying School, RAF Ternhill on a visit to RAF Little Rissington on May 17, 1975 - Mike Freer)

There were four versions used by UK forces: the SA341D pilot trainer, known as Gazelle HT3, and the SA341E (Gazelle HCC4), used for communications duties and VIP transport, the two that came under the RAF banner. While the former was mainly based for training purposes at RAF stations in Shopshire, the HCC4 saw service with 32 ‘Royal’ Squadron at RAF Northolt, used to transport members of the Royal Family and government ministers, as and when required, from 1976 to 1996.

Most of the RAF Gazelles used for training were placed into storage at RAF Shawbury in the mid-1990s, with some sold into the private sector. A Gazelle Squadron Display Team was established in 2014, with a number of volunteers involved in the flying and maintenance of the helicopters which are flown at public events as well as offering static display aircraft to private events, schools and other establishments.

The Gazelle was perhaps best known militarily for its work in Northern Ireland, with the helicopter very much a target for the Provisional IRA: two Gazelles shot down by IRA weaponry during the Troubles, the first in 1978 and the second in 1990.

While the RAF were very much a willing operator of the helicopter, they were only deployed overseas in combat missions by the AAC and the Royal Marines, and in the Falklands War in 1982 they were fitted with machine guns and rocket launchers.

Operating from the flight decks of Royal Navy ships, their arrival in the Falklands was beset by tragedy, two shot down on the first day of the landings at San Carlos Water on May 21, 1982: one ditching in the water under small arms enemy fire and the second that went in search of the first also going down after being hit by ground fire from a heavy machine gun, the aircraft crashing into a hillside. In total, three servicemen were killed.

Two-and-a-half weeks later, on June 6, 1982, a third Gazelle was downed, this time by friendly fire, when it was mistaken for a low-flying Argentinean Hercules C-130, with a further four fatalities.

A Royal Marines Gazelle kicks up a storm whilst coming in to land in Oman during ex. Saif Sereea in 2001
(A Royal Marines Gazelle kicks up a storm whilst coming in to land in Oman during ex. Saif Sereea in 2001-MOD)

On service in Afghanistan, the Gazelles operated in a reconnaissance and liaison role, and were deemed the “best performing” of the British helicopters during the conflict. However, they did operate under a self-imposed flight ban at the height of the summer: only allowed to fly between 11am and 11pm because the intense heat was believed to cause damage to the engine.

By the late 2000s, the AAC was the sole remaining armed forces operator of the Gazelle, with the end service date extended on more than once occasion, in July 2016 the MoD saying it would remain operational until 2025, taking it past its golden anniversary. That date was brought forward to March 2024, and most recently brought forward again to October 2023, the final flypast finishing at Vector Aerospace International Ltd in Gosport, Hampshire.

The reported replacement for the Gazelle is the Airbus Helicopter H135, a twin-engine utility aircraft formerly known as the Eurocopter, with a date for their arrival still to be finalised.

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