"It's 6,000 parts flying in formation!"

- Jock McBile, Royal Canadian Air Farce

Originally developed in the late 1950s and deployed in the 1960s, the H-3 Sea King is a ship-based, all-weather, multi-purpose helicopter. The Sea King's fold-up rotor and tail assembly allow it to be carried on deck, even by small naval vessels.

The Sea King's original mission was anti-submarine warfare (ASW) - the detection, tracking and destruction of enemy submarines. Superseded in electronic warfare roles by more modern aircraft such as the SH-60F Sea Hawk, the Sea King is now commonly used in domestic operations as a search and rescue craft. The Sea King's subsurface acoustic detection equipment make it a versatile surveillance helicopter. In addition to search and rescue, the Sea King sees duty on counter-narcotic, fishery and pollution patrols.

Produced by US helicopter firm Sikorsky, the Sea King was also produced under license by GKN Westland in the UK.

With a crew of four and provision for up to 19 passengers, the Sea King is powered by twin General Electric (US) or Rolls-Royce (UK) turboshaft engines generating 1500 (US) to 1660 (UK) shaft horsepower. The Sea King has both day and night flight capabilities.

Many Sea Kings are still on active duty today. The Sea King is no longer a front-line military craft in the U.S. Navy, seeing duty only for logistical support and search and rescue missions. The Sea King VH-3D model is flown by Marine Helicopter Squadron One (HMX-1). This is the helicopter that transports the President of the United States of America.

The British Royal Navy and Royal Air Force employ the Sea King. Many other navies, including those of Australia, Egypt, Germany, India, Canada, and Pakistan use the Sea King extensively. Decommissioned US military craft are becoming available to US municipal search and rescue forces, such as the Air Rescue-5 Program of the Los Angeles Sheriff's office.

The Sea King is carried aboard many Canadian Maritime Command destroyers, frigates and replenishment ships. The Canadian Sea Kings, designated CH-124, are still an active part of Canada's military - when they work.

The Sea King is an infamous aircraft in Canada - due less to safety issues than politics. The Sea Kings' great age is a serious concern to the Canadian military. Replacement parts are increasing difficult to obtain, and many maintenance hours are required on the ground for every flying hour. This state of affairs has led to much jesting at the Sea King's expense by Canadian comics (see lead-in quote). As such, attempts have been made by successive Canadian governments to replace the aging Sea King fleet. This is no easy task - finding a new helicopter which can match the size and robustness of the Sea King is difficult.

The Progressive Conservative government of Brian Mulroney arranged for the purchase of 50 EH-101 helicopters for the navy and search-and-rescue in the early 1990s. That deal became an election issue, portrayed as an expensive boondoggle by the opposition Liberals. When the Liberals formed the new Canadian government in 1993, they were forced to cancel the deal by their own election rhetoric, despite the lack of a credible alternate plan. In 1998, the Liberal government agreed to buy 15 Cormorants, a slimmed-down EH-101, to replace the even-older Labrador search-and-rescue helicopter fleet. A cloud of suspicion immediately enveloped this deal, too, when it was alleged that the EH-101 contract included provisos that would see a parts plant opened in the Prime Minister's riding.

Canadian Defence Minister Art Eggleton claims that the Canadian government intends to replace the Sea Kings by 2005 and plans to spend $50 million in the interim on upgrades. (2005 is date for delivery of the first helicopter. All deliveries are to be completed by the end of 2008.) However, a candidate craft is still not chosen, and the government's procurement process is tied up in lawsuits by the competing helicopter vendors.

Meanwhile, the Sea Kings lumber on, bravely continuing their 30 year+ mission. Deployed in October 2001 as part of the Canadian Naval Task Force Group to Operation Enduring Freedom, Canadian Sea Kings will soon be raining miscellaneous helicopter parts down onto unsuspecting Afghans.

Technical sources included:

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