50 Years of The Puma

As we are now well and truly into the 50th anniversary year, this article breaks down the the 5 decades into events and musings of current and past crews.

1971-1981 As we reflect upon the first decade of the Puma’s history one would expect a nostalgic experience, but the stories shared by those of the time or captured in the photograph albums offer a stirring similarity to the operating routine, sense of occasion and esprit de corps of the Force today.

It could be training with the British Army on Salisbury Plain, operations in the Caribbean, deployed as 1563 Flight, NATO Tiger Meets or the underslung rescue of a heifer! Stories such as these are not confined to the early history, they also feature in the recent memory of 33 Squadron and 230 Squadron of today.

Equally familiar were the humorous moments at the expense of the wet behind-the-ears junior pilot’s misfortune, or the youthful mischievous activity out of the Master Aircrew’s sight, beautifully recorded in Squadron Line Books.

Puma as a machine was first conceived in 1967. France and the United Kingdom reached a bi-lateral agreement over a joint helicopter development programme in which their two industries would create three rotary types.

Sud-Aviation in France had developed its SA300 design as a medium transport helicopter in 1965 and this formed the basis of the SA330 Puma, to be built on production lines in France (by Sud-Aviation and Aerospatiale) from 1970 and the UK (by Westland).

An SA330 was delivered to the UK in 1968 and Westland subsequently built 48 to Puma HC Mk 1 standard, flying its initial example for the first time on November 25, 1970. The type entered service with 33 Squadron in June 1971, commanded by Wing Commander Fred Hoskins, who was an aircraft apprentice prior to commissioning as a pilot in 1951. Wing Commander Hoskins flew Hornets in the Far East with 33 Squadron, eventually returning as the commanding officer.

The following year in January 1972, 230 Squadron were equipped with the latest helicopters, both squadrons operating from Royal Air Force Odiham. Soon the milestones arrived and on 8th February 1974 Flt Lt Dick Langworthy was the first to log 1000hrs Puma, in just over two and a half years after the aircraft entered service.

In 1975 Pumas were deployed on operations in Belize, stood up as 1563 Flight at Belize International Airport in Ladyville. They supported the British Army by deterring aggression from neighbouring countries (notably Guatemala during its Civil War), provided a Search and Rescue capability and supported jungle training. At the time, Search and Rescue was a new capability of the Pumas, though in 1976 the Force was abundantly praised following the successful rescue of a Harrier pilot after they ejected following a bird strike.

Chief Tech Phil Smith recalls the Belize days:

‘I was too young to go to Northern Ireland, so my Chief at the time got me out to Belize. We used to take the Pumas out in a Hercules; to fit them in the tail boom, gearbox and rotor used to come off, as well as the main head, gearbox and sponsons – it was a very tight fit!

Though we soon got it down to a fine art so that we were able to have two weeks relaxing on the Cayman Islands, it was brilliant. We would get dropped off by Puma for BBQs on the beach. A small detachment of Pumas were stationed at RAF Aldergrove, one of which was galvanized into action by the Royal Green Jackets to rescue a cow belonging to a Mr Cooney. The cow was successfully lifted to safely from the sticky mud which provided a welcome change to the usual Northern Ireland routine. Long Course 8 were still practicing a CSAR (cow) capability even in 2020!

NATO Tiger Meets were still a key feature of the battle rhythm in the first decade as they are now, as were training exercises in support of the British Army. The following extract seems quintessentially insightful of a normal day on the Puma Force five decades ago, and it’s refreshing how it is reminiscent of today.

‘Meanwhile, the rest of us were playing war for two weeks in the Pennings on Salisbury Plain. Flt Lt Smith happened to remark, “living in the field is all very well, but at my time of life, I am missing the porcelain pleasures of life.” Never ones to miss a hint, the crewman who were living in luxury at Upavon dutifully delivered a porcelain toilet to our LP, complete with soft loo roll and instructions how to use it!’

Reflecting on the history of the Puma is inspiring; courageous stories on operations, personal stories of memorable experiences, or records of crewroom dialogue where you can still hear the laughter. All at Benson are part of that shared history, which is nothing short of a privilege, to share it with the people who were there 50 years ago – now for the next 10 years.

1982-1991 – FLT LT HUTTON (230 SQN A FLT)

As a testament to its global reach the Puma Force spent the 1980s spread across three primary locations; RAF Odiham where 33 Sqn and No 240 OCU were based, RAF Gütersloh where 230 Sqn had been established since 1980, and at Belize international airport where 1563 (Tactical Support) Flt formed part of British Forces Belize.

RAF Pumas had supported the British Army to deter Guatemalan aggression in Belize since 1975 by helping to enable the the Army’s jungle training and providing much needed SAR cover for the military and civilian population. They were eventually organized into 1563 Flt and are known to have supported several SF operations along the Guatemalan border. They were relatively unique for Puma operators in being permanently equipped with rescue hoists and Nightsun lamps and sometimes flown by a single pilot and crewman. The Pumas of 1563 Flt even provided support to Belize Defence Force anti-drug operations after it was discovered that Belizean marijuana was of better quality than that grown in Colombia and the local farmers decided to take advantage of a more lucrative crop!

Turning attention 5,000 miles south and at the start on the 1980s the British government had no contingency plan for an invasion of the Falkland Islands but following the Argentine landings on 2 Apr 82 a task force was rapidly put together.

33 Sqn began their unofficial preparations as work commenced (in the absence of authorisation) to provide a blade fold capability and suitable tie down points for deck operations. The crews were also deeply involved in preparations, even going as far as painting a flight deck on a parade square at Sennybridge for practice approaches when on exercise after which they returned with their tails up and ready to deploy. Unfortunately, following the bombing raid on Stanley airfield on 1 May 82, there was a volte-face and it was decided that the Pumas wouldn’t travel to the South Atlantic and the Wessexes would go instead. Ironically in 2001 the Force would be supplemented by an Argentine Army SA 330J captured during the conflict.

Back in West Germany however things were a bit quieter, that is until Aug 82 when 230 Sqn hosted their first NATO Tactics (Tiger) Meet, having only joined the NATO Tiger Association in 1977. It was the 22nd Meet with 40 aircraft, 140 pers and 15 sqns from 10 nations taking part. It is believed that the base spent the rest of the decade recovering after hosting the best pilots in NATO for just one week! In Oct 87 a 230 Sqn detachment returned to Northern Ireland as the ‘Troubles’ increased but were all back in Germany by Oct 90.

The Puma’s UK endeavours didn’t go unrewarded however; On one memorable occasion in Jan 87 a crew from 33 Sqn (c/s MEDEVAC10) flew in blizzard conditions to deliver a sick child to St George’s Hospital and an expectant mother to Guy’s and St Thomas’ Hospital only to be slapped with a parking ticket in the Guy’s car park!

To conclude a typically busy decade the Puma Force deployed to Saudi Arabia in Nov 90, following the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. They formed part of SHF Middle East during Op GRANBY, the British contribution to Ops DESERT SHIELD and DESERT STORM. During the early stages of the air campaign up to 15 Pumas deployed and had helped move approximately 3,000 troops almost 200 miles into Iraq before the ceasefire was announced, even flying in full NBC protection equipment if the threat required it, and evacuating over 160 casualties. Of note, on 21 Feb 91 the Puma detachment found itself directly underneath a successful Patriot missile engagement of a Scud missile and were showered with debris; miraculously no one (and no aircraft) was damaged. In the aftermath of the conflict they continued to show their versatility by ferrying PoWs and delivering food and aid to displaced refugees.

1992-2001 Op Banner

May 1992 saw the Puma HC1, under the watchful eye of 230 Squadron, saw a permanent move Aldergrove where they would remain until the late 2000s. Their mission involved surveillance, tactical movement of troops across the area alongside helping establish security and prosperity to Northern Ireland. A Squadron Leader, known as “Yavvy” served three tours of Op BANNER, the first of which began in 1992. He recalls; “Most of the time our duties were to re-supply the troops.

We also assisted the local population with the fixing of aerials to the top of cathedrals and assisting farmers with the rescuing of animals and attending car crashes”. Their involvement proved invaluable, one such example in the early years, where whilst supporting D Coy or the Royal Irish Rangers, they allowed a presence over a 700km square area to be secured. A task simply impossible with the same number of soldiers without the benefit of air power delivered by the Puma Force. “Yavvy” remembers with a smile; “I remember being on standby, it was six o’clock Christmas day morning when we were called out to go to Liverpool hospital to pick up snake bite anti-venom for a local snake breeder who had been bitten by his own snake and knew he had only five hours to live. He survived and we were back in time for Christmas day lunch”.

Whilst the RAF Puma Force partook in countless Operations over the years, few came close to the intensity seen on the afternoon of September 23 1993. The afternoon would’ve initially appeared somewhat routine to the crews, a simple pickup of troops from Crossmaglen Barracks, a site close to the south-eastern border. The formation consisted a single Puma to conduct the troop movement, alongside two Lynx, operating in an escort role. At approximately 1400hrs, the formation lifted from the barracks to be greeted by a hail of gunfire from the nearby St. Patrick’s church and community centre.

Assessed to have been two DShK heavy machine guns and three light machine guns, the Puma was hit almost immediately, at which point they and the Lynx escorts safely manoeuvred away from the gunfire to relative safety. Amidst the commotion, support was rallied and a further two Lynx joined the fray. Two IRA trucks were seen heading east along Newry road, a 12 mile intense gunfight ensued, which ultimately claimed battle damage against a Lynx who was able to recover without further incident. Assessed to have lasted between 10-30 minutes, the helicopters collectively fired 200 rounds. Fortunately, no casualties were taken on either side.

Balkans Conflict

Work involving civil unrest was not limited to just Northern Ireland during the 90s, the Puma Force found itself in the Balkans too. Initially deploying as part of the Rapid Reaction Force (RRF), August 1995 saw 33 Squadron deploy six Puma HC1s into the region to help stabilise the conflict. Based in Ploce, Croatia they were tasked to provide trooping alongside airborne command and control, or C2 as we know it today. Thankfully three months later the Dayton Accord was signed, and 33 Squadron returned to the UK in Oct 95 having operated across Croatia, Bosnia and Serbia.

The peace was not to last and four years later 33 Squadron once more found themselves supporting NATO under Op AGRICOLA. Similar to the previous detachment, they were once again equipped with six Pumas, this time based in Kosovo. Flt Lt English remembers an occasion where Casualty Evacuation (CASEVAC) was required: “I had a lot of time in Kosovo with the main activity being CASEVAC for British and other Forces, at the time there was no ambulance service”.

A significant incident he remembers was when a British Army engineer got hit by a car when he was out for a run smashing his leg badly; “We got out to him urgently and flew him to the American military hospital. Everything went well, he was looked after by his friends who he had been running with, our medics got out to him quickly and decided that he needed to be transported by helicopter, I flew the helicopter to pick him up by stretcher and he was at the hospital within 20 minutes of the accident happening”. Operating under the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1244, British Forces were not the only nation in theatre.

Kosovo was primarily about moving British alongside other allied troops and a significant danger to them were the presence of minefields. Whilst the use of helicopter assets did help mitigate this risk, unfortunately it did lead to some unpleasant taskings for the Force, Flt Lt English remembers such an incident involving a Norwegian Official, whereby he was tasked to recover a body after an encounter with a mine. It did serve as a timely reminder that “It was very much a multi-nation Operation out there”. Some 6 years after having first operated in the region, the Puma involvement in Kosovo ended in Nov 2001.

Invasion Earth

Whilst the Puma Force was heavily involved in Operations across the 90s, 33 Squadron was able to seize the opportunity to star in a BBC sci-fi show called Invasion: Earth. Joined by colleagues from Chinook, Sea King, Tornado F3 and the Queen’s Colour Squadron (QCS) a team led by Flt Lt Dave Webber travelled to the former RAF Wroughton to begin filming. The show involved a UFO being shot down by an F3, and alongside the Chinook, the Puma would provide transport for the recovery teams. Flt Lt Powell, leader of the QCS involvement, commented “It’s been an interesting experience to say the least … The strangest thing is one minute you’re just sat around waiting whilst the crew set everything up, the next you’re on camera doing the your best to look as realistic as possible.” The mini-series aired in 1998 and comprised just 6 episodes.

PUMA 2002-2011

The first decade of the 21st century saw the Puma 1 worked extremely hard in the years leading up to its eventual upgrade to HC2. Extensive operations as well as exercises in places like Kenya and Norway proved fertile ground for tales of derring-do, hilarity, close shaves and in some instances, tragedy.

During the early 2000’s, Puma was deployed in Kosovo and Bosnia, as well as Northern Ireland under the long running Op BANNER, with 230 Sqn permanently based at RAF Aldergrove. In August 2004, the first Pumas arrived in Baghdad under Op CRICHTON, originally on a temporary basis to allow the Chinook force, who had been the mainstays of the Baghdad Heli Det, a period of rest in which to reset. They ended up staying until 2009, conducting tasks ranging from simple passenger and equipment shuttles to sorties in support of a UK Task Force.

The period saw several aircraft loses, a DFC awarded and generated numerous legendary tales like the time a former Crewman leader suffered an ‘error of drill’ and tried to shoot a former Commander JHC in the back, or When the then Sgt Lyes (the editor of this very publication) almost put three rounds from his GPMG into the lead aircraft as he ‘made ready’ (the response from the aircraft Captain when asked: “Does this man know what he’s doing?” by a senior passenger is sadly unsuitable for print). There was the night Flt Lt ‘Baz’ Stokes watched a specialist unit go into action with one of their comrades being trundled around in a wheelbarrow after he bungled his fast rope exit from the aircraft, or the now infamous utterance of, “sliiightly high”, as Flt Lt Graeme Smallbone heavy landed ZE449 into Washington HLS, writing off an aircraft that was originally pressed into RAF service after being captured from the Argentinians during the Falklands war. Other losses include two Pumas sat innocently on the pan, blown over by a freak 90 mph ‘Shamal’. To balance the attrition, the RAF purchased 6 ex-SAAF aircraft in 2006 and converted them to HC1 standard.

Exercises in Norway and Kenya, as well as routine training in the UK proved equally eventful. Various trips to Kenya for Ex Askari Thunder yielded a plethora of MEDEVACS for reasons including lion and baboon attacks, snakebites, an over-zealous CO beasting his men up around Archers Post in 40 deg heat and a Fijian who made his own way to the HLS for pickup….after being run over by a 4 ton truck. A bunch of Royal Irish and Scots, not content with throwing each other out of a second floor window during a minor altercation decided to continue the ruckus upon realising they were sharing a Puma cabin on the way to hospital. OC 33 ‘Ster’ Howard decided to take 3 aircraft packed with tables, chairs and food to a local mountain top for a sunrise breakfast. Then Fg Off Johnny Longland described the location as, “covered in vulture ****”, unsurprising as it turned out to be Kenya’s largest vulture reserve. On a separate occasion disaster was narrowly averted when Crewman Si Craig said “I’m out” over the intercom, understatedly alerting the horrified pilots to the fact that he’d fallen out of the door and was clinging to the sponson – the infantry passengers, understandably keen to get him back in, initially tried to grab him by his quick release strap!

In the UK, Flt Lt ‘Skippy’ Harvey was asked to intercept a light aircraft that had stopped talking to people and wandered through controlled airspace. With an astonishing 3kts of overtake available to affect the intercept, Skippy pioneered the techniques that would later be called upon to defend the realm from rogue Cessnas during the 2012 Olympics, but that’s a different decade and a different story. In short, 2002-2011 saw the Puma force operating extremely hard, all over the world.

2011-2021

With the end of Op TELIC, came the Puma Force’s first respite from live operations for over 30 years. The withdrawal from Iraq in 2010 left Ex ASKARI THUNDER as our enduring overseas commitment supporting the British Army’s vital workup for Afghanistan, operating from Laikipia Air Base in the shadow of Mount Kenya.

With a perfect blend of tactical flying, stunning scenery, marabou stalks and long drop toilets, it provided young pilots and crewmen with the opportunity to cut their teeth having missed the chance around Basra and Baghdad.

Over a period of 6-8 weeks the Puma detachments practised dust landings, often on small dirt tracks surrounded by acacia trees, before providing CASEVAC and supporting the Battle Group’s developing tactical scenario, culminating in 5-ship predawn raids on the final enemy stronghold. The environment was challenging; 6,000 feet above sea level with high temperatures and unpredictable weather meant captaincy and airmanship were as crucial to success as careful planning.

To illustrate, a particular memory stands out. One evening, a task came in for an early morning insert of a 6-man team onto a mountain top who would establish and maintain radio communication between the HQ element and the deployed field companies, to enable a dawn assault of an enemy compound. The plan was to then return to the pickup location where a friendly fuel bowser was in waiting, around 30 minutes round trip. Simple enough.

Consistently sensible and straightshooting, Flt Lt Jimmy Hill was selected as aircraft commander and my job as an LCR co-pilot was navigation and fuel management. The altitude and temperature meant we had to trade endurance for performance and to lift the men and equipment we took enough fuel for the mission plus 6 minutes spare flying time. Conditions were perfect – full moon, clear skies, light winds… Departure and pickup went without issue and we located the mountain site. A technical single wheel landing on the rocky pinnacle allowed the team to disembark and we were released to our refuel point.

As we transitioned to forward flight, the crewman spotted movement on the side of the mountain, coupled with a radio call from the infiltrated ground callsign, excitedly informing us they were under harassment by a particularly annoyed troop of baboons, having had their domicile disturbed, presumably by the powerful aroma of the ground team rather than the noise of the Puma. We reduced to endurance speed, eeking out additional seconds flying time and turned towards the mountain ready for a hasty extraction under contact. Fortunately, a show of force convinced the baboons that the fight wasn’t worth it and with the troop in full retreat, we were released by the nervous team to head back. 2 minutes flying in hand. With both FUEL LOW lights illuminated, we crossed the final ridge into our valley to find a complete blanket of fog seemingly centred around our fuel bowser. A low pass over the refuel grid tickling the top of the fog confirmed there was no way we’d make it in. One-minute left!

An expedited move to higher ground and a hasty descent followed, landing “exactly” on fuel minima. We left an engine running, desperately attempting to hail the refuel team on the radio who had apparently succumbed to their heightened state of low arousal and dozed off, letting the fog creep in unnoticed. As luck would have it, our extremely low pass woke them up and they kindly informed us we’d be unable to land as they were sat in heavy fog. We exchanged pleasantries for a further minute or 2, and they reluctantly agreed to drive up and lend us some fuel. An hour’s wait gave us chance to absorb the scenery, with the clear sky and full moon bouncing off the low lying fog, silhouetting the surrounding mountains.

Finally, the sound of beasts of the night and rustling bushes gave way to the bowser, and despite ripping a pneumatic pipe on an unseen tree stump leaving them stranded, they topped us up and we landed back at Laikipia in time to meet the rising sun.

Another string was added to the Puma bow for the London Olympics in 2012. The UK’s first air-to-air sniping capability was developed, directed against low and slow aircraft that may pose a threat to large gatherings in stadiums. After a gruelling 2-week training exercise on the beach in Corsica, teaming up with the RAF Regt who proved fine shots indeed, 3 pumas were deployed to Ilford Barracks where they fortunately weren’t required allowing the crews to watch the entire Olympic games from the comfort of the Ops room.

With the end of 2012 came the end of Puma HC1, seeing 41 years of outstanding service. The aircraft were sent to factories in Marseille and Romania to have new engines, cockpits and a raft of other new elements installed (as well as removing nearly half a ton of redundant wiring!) returning as the Puma HC2. With engines developed for the 11-ton Super Puma, it gave the 7.4-ton Puma HC2 the punch lacking from the original and with it a superior performance in hot weather at high altitude.

It was therefore unsurprising that the Puma Force was soon tasked to deploy to Kabul in the Spring of 2015 as part of the ongoing NATO mission in Afghanistan. The mission was to facilitate the advisory work being carried out at all levels of the Afghan government by moving people and material around the city, reducing the threat from Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) present when road moving around the city.

The seasonal changes in Kabul brought different challenges. The summer months, with Kabul sitting 5,600ft above sea level and temperatures rising into the late 30s, pushed the aircraft performance to its limit. During the winter months, the minus temperatures and lack of heating in many houses led the local population to burn whatever they could find for warmth. The resultant thick layer of smog that sat over the city brought the visibility down below the limits for coalition helicopters, often leaving the RAF Pumas the only aircraft able to perform the routine city movements and casualty evacuation role.

The threat in Kabul was less than during the fighting in Helmand, but the area came with its dangers and challenges. With so many helicopters flying around such a tight space situational awareness and airmanship were critical to safety. Likewise, the crews were always on the lookout for any incidents developing in the city.

One routine flight stands out. Whilst en-route to an Australian run camp, a bang was heard and felt over the aircraft noise and the crewman observed a large dust cloud around 400m to the left of us. We called the lead to say we’d check it out while they off loaded the troops and freight. As we neared overhead, it was obvious the smoke was the result of a vehicle borne IED, that had targeted a Danish convoy of armoured vehicles, and the chaos was just unfolding. Several civilian vehicles and pedestrians had been close by and crowds were gathering to help the casualties. The rear of the convoy had been disabled, careening to a halt, bleeding hydraulic and brake fluid over the street, necessitating the lead and second vehicle to turn around and offer close protection.

We set up in an orbit with the weapon pointing towards the incident, posturing against any ongoing threat or follow up attack in the close urban environment, and immediately informed our Ops to pass the message on and start the quick reaction/recovery process.

We remained in the overhead until we received the message that all occupants were very fortunately uninjured, and with help close by we were released to continue our routine tasking around the city. The incident was over within 20 minutes, and although our involvement was barely anything at all, we received a strong word of thanks from our Danish comrades. Sadly, as was, and is more often the case, the only casualties were civilian bystanders caught in the blast.

With the Puma withdrawal from Afghanistan complete, the Force remains focussed on maintaining its capability and posture ready deploy globally as and when we are needed. An exciting return to Kenya in August 2021 offers all the excitement of a decade ago, but with a much-improved steed, and will give the chance for a new generation of Puma pilots to bore their Chinook counterparts with yet another ‘this one time in Kenya’ dits!