Happy Birthday Puma – UK’s Versatile Helicopter

Puma Helicopter

Story by Pat Carty.

A formation of Royal Air Force Puma helicopters has made a nostalgic national flypast, to mark 50 years of service for the type.

The ten Pumas; acknowledged and respected as the workhorse of many tactical and Special Force operations, departed RAF Benson near Oxford on 7 July at 10.00 local. The route, flown as a training sortie but highlighting the fact that the type has been in constant use since its introduction into the RAF in 1971, overflew notable locations across England that had a historical significance to the Puma, by either hosting the type or by supporting the Puma Force over the past 50 years.

After departure, the formation routed over RAF High Wycombe, home to HQ Air Command, the European Air Group and the Joint Force Air Component Commander. They then flew over Buckinghamshire, Berkshire, Hertfordshire, Cambridgeshire and Lincolnshire, where the formation split into two sections. “Ambush Flight”, which landed at RAF Scampton – home of the Red Arrows, and “Monster Flight”, which landed at the RAF College, Cranwell.

Photo: Ambush and Monster Flight approaching RAF Scrampton. (photo by Pat Carty).

Following lunch and a refuel, the two flights rejoined and then continued North-West towards Stafford. When overhead Herefordshire, they overflew Credenhill; home of the Special Air Service, and then along the Welsh borders back into Wiltshire. After overflying the Salisbury Plain Training Area, they landed at the Army Aviation Centre, Middle Wallop.

On departure from Middle Wallop, they overflew the Joint Helicopter Command Headquarters at Andover, and then RAF Odiham; the original home for the Puma, The formation then routed back to their home base at RAF Benson, where on arrival they were greeted by a welcoming party, which included the crews from two very special 658 Squadron Army air Corps Dauphine helicopters (call sign Hammer). These Dauphines, in a very commercial looking blue and white livery, provide covert air transportation for the SAS and are based alongside them at Credenhill, Herefordshire.

The Puma formation was led by XW224; a Puma HC Mk2, which has been given a unique new paint scheme to commemorate 50 years of service, with the colours replicating those used on the Puma HC Mk 1 and all the Squadron badges of squadrons who have flown the Puma HC Mk 1 and Mk 2, emblazoned on the engine housing.

Since 1971, the Puma has successfully contributed to UK humanitarian missions around the globe. It has also supported combat missions in Northern Ireland, Bosnia, Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan.  Since post-2014, three Puma helicopters have been used extensively during “Operation Toral”; the name given to the UK element of “Resolute Support Mission”, transporting personnel based with Joint Helicopter Command in Kabul International Airport. Whilst there, the Pumas were able to provide vital airborne transport to UK and NATO forces, thereby mitigating the ground threat. Tasks also included transporting personnel and equipment around the different urban, mountainous and desert terrains in the Kabul area, as well as supporting the deployment of the NATO SF and Security Quick Reaction Forces. During that deployment, the Pumas flew 12,800 hours; the equivalent of over 533 days in the air, transported 126,000 troops, security personnel and embassy staff, and moved some 660,000kgs of freight.

The RAF Puma has also recently supported UK civilian disasters, by providing a helicopter lift capability for flood relief efforts. They have also assisted the COVID-19 response, by deploying at short notice in the early stages of the pandemic, to Kinloss Barracks in Scotland. Whilst there, they provided vital transport for medical personnel and equipment in both Scotland and Northern England, as well as being on standby 24/7 to support any other task required in the UK.

My own experience of the Puma, in addition to both day and night NVG training sorties, has included being transported as media during exercises, and being in the back, whilst certain troops were transported to Ireland during the “troubles”. Who they were, or why they were being transported, are best left unanswered, as I was told during the pre-takeoff briefs, not to discuss the subject with them!

For the more technical minded, the Aérospatiale SA-330 Puma is a four-bladed, twin-engined medium transport utility helicopter, originally built by Sud Aviation of France, and continued to be made by Aérospatiale. However, the RAF Puma HC Mk.1 was a significant joint manufacturing agreement between Aerospatiale and Westland Helicopters in the UK. It had a crew of three and could carry up to 16 passengers, at up to 159 mph (138 knots) for up to 360 miles (580 km). It has a ceiling of up to 15,750 feet (4,800m). For self-protection, in addition to a self-defence suit, it can carry a 0.30 inches (7.62 mm) coaxial machine gun or side-firing 0.787 inches (20 mm) cannon.

A total of 48 HC Mk.1 Pumas were delivered to the RAF, of which 24 were upgraded to the HC Mk.2 variant. These had the more powerful Turbomeca Makila 1A1 engines, a glass cockpit, new avionics, and secure communications, together with improved self-protection equipment.

The Puma has served with 33 Squadron and 240 Operation Conversion Unit at RAF Odiham, 230 Squadron at RAF Gutersloh in Germany, No. 1563 Flight at RAF Belize, and RAF Aldergrove in Northern Ireland.

In 2009, both 33 and 230 Squadron relocated to RAF Benson from RAF Odiham, and in all that time, has a safety record that many would envy.


Top photo: Credit to Ian Marshall.

Author: Pat Carty is a NATO accredited journalist who covers military news, events, operations, and exercises; including special operations forces. He is a contributor to SOF News as well as several other military defense publications.