RAN Westland Wessex on the Move Down Under

Westland Wessex HAS31A N7-226 at the Australian War Memorial's Treloar Resource Center near the Australian capital, Canberra. The aircraft, in pristine condition, had until recently been on display at the Australian National Maritime Museum near Sydney, but was recently replaced by a former Royal Australian Navy S-70B-2 Seahawk following that type's retirement from the RAN. (image via John Parker)

Following the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) retiring their beloved Sikorsky S-70B-2 Seahawk helicopters in December, 2017, it was inevitable that some of them would go on static display in museums and other locations around Australia. And in some cases, these ‘new recruits’ would be replacing other historic types of an older vintage. Such was the case this summer when the Australian National Maritime Museum (ANMM) at Darling Harbour in Sydney, New South Wales installed an S-70B Seahawk in place of a venerable, former Royal Australian Navy Westland Wessex HAS31 that had been at the museum for the previous decade or so. The Wessex was a British-built variant of the hugely successful Sikorsky S-58, and served in a number of military services around the world. Australia received 27 of them, and they served off a number of their navy ships, particularly from the aircraft carrier HMAS Melbourne, herself a WWII-era former Royal Navy vessel, HMS Majestic. The RAN used the Wessex in combat too, most notably during Australian troop deployments in the Vietnam War, much like their American counterparts. The Wessex formerly on display at the ANMM served as N7-216 in the RAN. Westland built her as WA216, and she made her first flight on March 14th, 1963. The RAN took delivery of the helicopter, the sixteenth of her type in their service, on April 29th, 1963. She served primarily in the RAN Fleet Air Arm’s 816 Squadron, performing sterling service until her official retirement on new year’s eve, 1989. With her place at the ANMM about to be taken by the newly-arrived Seahawk, the Wessex was suddenly without a home, but fear not, the immaculately preserved historic helicopter is heading for grander pastures at the Australian War Memorial which is currently undergoing a massive, AU$500 million overhaul itself, as we reported HERE last year. John Parker reports further details regarding the Wessex move below via his excellent website Warbirds Online

Wessex  N7-216 WA216 was carefully dismantled and taken down from her elevated position at the Maritime Museum between July 1st and 5th this year. S-70B Seahawk N24-006/875 will be going up in her place once the museum completes the new-arrival’s conservation process.

Once down, the Wessex was transferred directly to the Australian War Memorial’s new storage facility constructed adjacent to the Treloar Resource Centre  in Mitchell, Australian Capital Territory. It was originally mooted that the Wessex would go back to Nowra for display at the Fleet Air Arm Museum (FAAM) however that Museum currently has Wessex N7-226 WA226 836 on display.

As previously detailed in our news article this is the best preserved and most pristine example of the Wessex one can imagine. The work put into its restoration is phenomenal and worthy of an award.

Royal Australian Navy Wessex helicopters participated in numerous maritime rescue and natural disaster relief operations and many a sailor owes their life to these amazing old birds. The Westland Wessex was a significant type for the RAN and the Australian Military as a whole. N7-216 also represents the type’s Vietnam War role with Australia as a Wessex on HMAS Sydney operating the famous Vung Tau Express/Ferry. Indeed this particular aircraft served in that role on several occasions. The Wessex also operated as an anti-submarine and transport aircraft.

A lot of interest has been shown in the preservation of this iconic helicopter given its diverse roles in the RAN and its longevity as a type; originally the Wessex was viewed as a short-to-medium term aircraft pending the arrival of “more modern” equipment. But the Wessex soldiered on with the RAN from 1962 until 1989 – a long time for any helicopter. It is therefore absolutely fitting that such a historic airframe should come into the Australian War Memorial collection.

The Wessex will remain in the Australian War Memorial’s storage collection at Treloar Resource Centre for now, but will go on display once the museum completes its redevelopment plan in the coming years.

Warbirds Online acknowledges and is grateful for the use of some photos in this story from the Memorial’s website and Australian National Maritime Museum.

Many thanks indeed to John Parker and his website Warbirds Online for giving us permission to use this article. We hope you will visit sometime soon!

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