Military helicpoter
Special feature

A Tale of Two Westlands

On a beautiful farm in the Warwickshire countryside, two iconic ex-military helicopters are out to pasture teaching pilots a thing or two about British Army and Royal Navy flying. Rachel Ramsay went along to learn more and try her hand at flying Westland’s Wasp and Scout

If you’re the proud owner of a PPL(H) and looking for a new way to get your thrills, Dragonfly Aviation is a name you’ll want to know about. This unique training organisation is the work of Mark Cowley, a helicopter instructor and examiner who, not long ago, swapped his R44 for a Westland Scout and Wasp.

For these legendary helicopters, the days of airlifting casualties out of conflict zones and attacking submarines in the high seas are a thing of the past. They’re now being put to work in a new ‘civvy’ role, teaching helicopter pilots what rotary flying was like in the military in days gone by.


Unmistakable shadow of the Wasp helicopter – the Scout has skids instead of wheels

Military to civilian

The Scout and Wasp are a single type rating, with differences training – a reflection of their similarities, the Scout being the army version and the Wasp the Royal Navy version of what’s essentially the same machine, pioneered on the same British development programme by Westland Helicopters.

It’s worth starting by saying that getting rated on these iconic helicopters is no mean feat. The 10-hour course is twice the normal length for a helicopter type rating, as PPL(H) holders will know.

It’s conducted on the Scout, with an additional hour of differences training to convert to the Wasp, and needless to say there’s also a decent chunk of groundschool on top of that.

This rigorous training is warranted: with just five Wasps and eight or nine Scouts still flying in the UK, it’s vital that those entrusted to fly them know what they’re doing.

At Dragonfly Aviation, Mark has painstakingly put together a brand new CAA-approved Scout/Wasp type rating training manual, adapted from an original military one to be more suitable for civilian instructors.

Writing this formidable tome, he’s had to ensure that the syllabus covers aspects civilian pilots won’t be familiar with – such as the dangers of misinterpreting old military instrumentation.

Mark had previously told me that neither helicopter is particularly difficult to fly, but that they do ‘have quirks that will cause an inexperienced pilot a problem unless you have some reasonable helicopter experience’.

I learn later that the Scout’s descent rate in vortex ring is 6,000ft per minute, so I can see what he meant. The fact that hydraulic failure necessitates the assistance of a second pilot to get the collective down only adds to this impression.

It’s unsurprising, then, that neither the Scout nor Wasp are suitable for ab initio training, and flying them is a privilege reserved for existing PPL(H) holders.

For those whose budget doesn’t stretch to the full £9,800 type rating course, Mark also offers day-long type rating experience courses and taster flights for keen PPL(H) holders who just want to have a go (and make probably the coolest possible logbook entry of their flying careers).

It’s these taster flights that bring me to Mark’s farm one sunny spring morning, along with my good friend, and fellow helicopter pilot, Alex Bishop. We’re both buzzing with excitement (no Wasp-related pun intended) as Mark briefs us ahead of the day’s flying and we get into our flying suits.

Military helicopter
Westland Scout as used by the British Army

A tale of two helicopters

The day begins with a cup of tea and a chat about the background to the Scout and Wasp and the similarities and differences between them.

They were developed more or less alongside each other in the 1960s, entering service in the Army Air Corps in 1963 (Scout) and the Royal Navy in 1964 (Wasp).

Perched improbably on what look like shopping trolley wheels affixed to scaffolding, the Wasp is one of the most instantly recognisable helicopters in existence. Designed for the tight margins of frigate deck landings in the precarious conditions of ocean swell, the castering wheels can be locked in place or released to swing the aircraft around into wind for take-off.

Like the Sea King, its blades and tail fold back for easier storage on board ship.

 “Perched on what look like shopping trolley wheels affixed to scaffolding, the Wasp is one of the most recognisable helicopters”

Used by Navies around the world – notably in the Falklands and First Gulf War by the Royal Navy – the Wasp was equipped with torpedoes to sink submarines.

It also carried WE177 nuclear depth charges (each one, terrifyingly, able to destroy submerged subs within a 20-mile radius), and the Nord AS12 air-to-surface nuclear missile.

With these weapons on board, there wasn’t much room in the weight and balance for fuel, and that meant it typically flew short missions back and forth from its mothership.

No wonder the fuel gauge is so prominent on the instrument panel!

Military helicopter
Royal Navy preferred wheels undercarriage for its Wasp, so it could be easily pushed around on board a ship

The Scout sits lower to the ground than the Wasp, with skids in place of the wheels. It fulfilled a variety of tactical roles wherever the British Army was based, notably in the Falklands, the Far East and Northern Ireland.

It’s a bit faster than the Wasp, and according to pilots who’ve flown both, smoother, thanks to the relative lack of drag in its less cumbersome undercarriage.

The Scout could comfortably hold six people and was also armoured to deal with ground snipers, as well as being equipped to carry SS11 missiles, rockets and flares.

Mark’s Scout was part of the so-called ‘Eagle Flight’, the Northern Ireland detachment tasked with chasing down suspicious vehicles, flying low over them and landing on the road in front of them to deposit a helicopter full of troops on the unsuspecting target.

Evocatively, it still has an original placard in the right rear door headed ‘Eagle Flight – self brief for troops’, which includes such instructions as ‘Muzzle away from windows, roof, rotor blades & controls’ and ‘NEVER, NEVER go behind the helicopter’.

Military helicopter
Scout belonging to Mark was part of the Eagle Flight detachment in the Northern Ireland, tasked with chasing down suspicious vehicles – and still has the placard inside detailing specific instructions

Above all, both the Wasp and Scout are incredibly solid machines, built to withstand the harsh conditions of the open ocean and the hazards of the battlefield respectively.

Both of Mark’s aircraft have stretchers for back seats, the rear doors extended out to accommodate them – a reminder that one of the many other uses of these versatile machines was casualty evacuation.

Indeed, as I later learned in an informative online lecture given by the Army Flying Museum and Navy Wings, in the Falklands, the Scout was often flown with one of the rear doors off to facilitate fast casualty loading in the battlefield (the Wasp, meanwhile, often being flown with the doors off to facilitate an easy exit in the event of a sea ditching).

Mark adds that the Scout could also carry stretchers on the outside, in coffin-like pods resting on the skids – an ordeal, for the casualty, of such proportions that they required sedation to cope with it.

However, it must have worked, as in the Falklands every casualty airlifted out by an Army or Royal Marine Scout (and Gazelle) apparently survived.

Military helicopter
Both aircraft have stretchers for back seats, with the rear doors extended out to accommodate them

First up, the Wasp

It’s the Wasp we’re flying first, and as we walk out to the aircraft it’s already a lot bigger than I expected, having only seen them in airshow displays.

Mark takes us through the check A, pointing out some of the idiosyncrasies one might expect from a vintage machine, such as the amount of oil everywhere.

What’s striking about both aircraft is how exposed the engines are, neither the Scout nor the Wasp ever having had engine cowlings fitted throughout their long service history.

Easier to keep cool and quicker to fix! The Rolls-Royce Bristol Nimbus engines, Mark tells me, are interchangeable, although the original Royal Navy ones had an anti-corrosion paint on them for obvious reasons.

With the engine out in the open, there are no inspection hatches involved, something that comes as a surprise to a Robinson pilot like me.

Even with the Wasp’s drooping rotor blades, there’s a lot of craning our necks involved to inspect the main rotor head and tail rotor, which tower over us.

Check A complete, it was time to clamber aboard. By the time I’m strapped in, I’m already grinning from ear to ear, and we haven’t even started the machine yet.

The distinctive smell of oil and old leather is intoxicating, and quite unlike the Robinsons I’m used to flying. And there are interesting things to notice on the instrument panel that give clues to its nautical past: ‘Flotation Manual Auto’, ‘Morse Downward Ident Light’, and so on.


Military helicopter
Pre-flight inspection is thorough
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Rachel strapped in and taking control

Mark talks us through the start – an exciting process for those of us who haven’t yet added a turbine to our licence. The aircraft shakes as it gets up to speed, before Mark effortlessly lifts us up into the hover and we depart his beautiful farm.

Once we’re on our way, he gives me the controls. He had warned us that the pitch axis is particularly sensitive in the Wasp, managed with a trim button on the cyclic.

I soon see what he means, but it’s nevertheless a pleasure to fly, and surprisingly easy – easier than the Robbo, and certainly more stable.

The amount of power available is evident in how quickly and easily it climbs, our sunny excursion surely a walk in the park for a machine built for the extreme conditions of the open ocean.

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An impressive piece of machinery!

After some general straight and level flying to get used to how the aircraft handles, we fly to a nearby grass airfield at Preston Capes – the sun casting the most magnificent Wasp shadow over the ground as we cross the airfield boundary – where I’m able to try my hand at take-offs and landings and some 360° spot turns to the left and right.

Hovering is no harder than it is in the R44, and again, probably easier; but it does feel high compared with what I’m used to, thanks to that dangling undercarriage.

“The Wasp is a pleasure to fly, and surprisingly easy – easier than the Robbo, and certainly more stable. It’s a machine built for the extreme conditions of the open ocean”

Similarly, when landing, you have to anticipate making contact with the ground sooner than you would in a Robinson, letting the aircraft settle into its oleos as you lower the collective.

We return to the farm low-level over the fields, a thrilling experience that makes me contemplate what it must have been like for my late dad, when he had a go in a Wasp from on board ship in the Royal Navy in the 1980s.

Next, the Scout

The Wasp’s delicate undercarriage renders it unsuitable for conducting autorotations to the ground, so Mark promises us that we can do some emergency procedures when we come back to fly the Scout.

It’s a rainier day when we return to the farm, and our sortie is cut short before I get to have a ‘proper’ go – though not before we get to see the Scout’s comically frantic windscreen wipers in action.

We arrange another day to meet at Turweston for my final sortie, the Scout sitting invitingly on the helipad as I taxi past it in the PA28 in which I’ve flown.

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Rachel with the Scout

The Check A reveals oil splattered just about everywhere, but Mark assures me that this is normal.

An essential piece of equipment for carrying out the Scout’s Check A is, he explains, an empty sack of sheep feed, which he puts on the ground to lie down on while he slides underneath the aircraft to check the fuel. There’s a lot of dirt to get used to when you fly a vintage helicopter.

“With the Scout, the usual buttons and dials being joined by options few of us private pilots will have come across before: flares, slow falling flares, guns, rockets, missile jettison”

The blades are oiled at the end of every flying day, and Mark also dons a pair of gloves and manually brings each rotor blade back onto its stop, which reduces the padding on start-up.

Strapped into the pilot’s seat, the Scout’s instrument panel certainly captures the imagination, the usual buttons and dials being joined by options few of us private pilots will have come across before: flares, slow falling flares, guns, rockets, missile jettison. One would not have wanted to get on the wrong side of this machine in a war situation, that’s for sure.

The start procedure is very similar to the Wasp, and before long we’re departing Turweston and I’m handed control.

Somehow, the Scout feels to me a little more challenging to fly than the Wasp had done, and maintaining straight and level flight was tricky at first.

As with the Wasp, the cyclic trim helps manage the Scout’s sensitive pitch axis, but takes a bit of getting used to.

It gets easier once we’re back at Preston Capes and I have a couple of take-offs, landings and spot turns under my belt.

As promised, we get to experience some autorotations, which aren’t too dramatic. The Scout is built for running landings, and it’s capable of skidding along the ground at a rate of 35kt during an autorotation to the ground.

On contact, I’m amazed at how far the aircraft keeps going before finally coming to a stop, leaving telltale tracks behind us in the grass.

Of course, this ability also made it good for running take-offs, scraping through translational lift with limited power – necessary when laden with more troops than it was really designed for in an evacuation scenario.

We do another autorotation back into Turweston, landing back near my rented PA28 and shutting down with a final pumping of the collective to return the hydraulic fluid back into the reservoir.

It’s not without some reluctance that I hand the flying suit back to Mark for the final time – for now, at least. Those logbook entries are going to take some beating.

John Beattie

I flew Wasps and Scouts in the military: a conversation with John Beattie

Distinguished display pilot John Beattie, who still flies and instructs on the Wasp, chats to Rachel about the two helicopters

As Ex-Commanding Officer of the Royal Navy Historic Flight, John Beattie needs no introduction. Among his vast aviation experience, he has around 3,000 hours on the Scout and Wasp, with slightly more on the Wasp.

A distinguished display pilot in both the rotary and fixed-wing worlds (he holds the Honourable Company of Air Pilots’ Hanna Trophy in recognition of more than 40 years of display flying), his first air displays, in 1973, were on the Scout while on detachment.

John tells me that he’s never had any trouble from these reliable machines – the only problem tended to be the conditions.

“Flying at sea can be lovely, but the North Atlantic in the middle of winter is not necessarily the nicest place,” he remembers. “You’ve got to wait for the seventh wave for the ship to calm down a bit before you can land on it.”

“The Scout is nicer to fly, but they did different things,” he replies, when I ask which aircraft he prefers. “The Scout was anti-tank or utility – we carried four relatively short-range wire-guided missiles, SS11s, and we were down among the trees, climbing to get over power lines. On exercise we probably wouldn’t come above 200ft.”

“We used the Scout in Northern Ireland a lot for stop and search, too. In the ‘badlands’ down in South Armagh, we’d drop four blokes and they’d stop a car. And resupply – we’d send various supplies to places you couldn’t really get to by road with any safety. We’d have a big net full of stuff.”

“The Scout is faster, nimbler, has less vibration. The Wasp, however, had a bigger missile – an AS12 – with twice the range. We’d go booming across the waves at 50ft and then within 6,000 yards we’d pull up to a couple of hundred feet, loose off the missile, come back down again.”

I ask his thoughts on civilian pilots flying ex-military helicopters. “You’ve got to do 10 hours, because of three accidents that occurred in the 1970s and early 1980s, all of which were down to lack of training. In the military, we had Rolls-Royce training, we did nothing but.

“We’d fly 30 hours a month and it would all be training. A civilian might not fly 30 hours in a year, so there is a different level of application. We were immersed in it, and did every aspect of it – instrument flying, night flying, formation, winching, all that sort of stuff that the civilian wouldn’t do – day VFR only now.”

“Civilians tend not to read the pilot’s notes, but we’d sit for hours memorising checklists and limitations. It’s a disciplined background that we were brought up with – if you were in a crew room with 20 blokes all doing the same thing, flying the same aircraft, there’s a lot of cross-pollination and you pick up things from each other. For a civilian on his own, he doesn’t have any of that.”

Nevertheless, John believes that Scouts and Wasps are by no means beyond the realms of civilian private pilots.

“There’s absolutely no reason why they shouldn’t do it,” he replies. “If someone’s got a little bit of cash, the Wasp and the Scout are actually very cheap turbine helicopters. You’ll pay less than £100,000. If you want to fly a JetRanger, you’ll get a 1970s JetRanger for about a quarter of a million – two-and-a-half times the cost.”

Military helicopter

I just got a Scout type rating!

Alex Bishop is a PPL(H) holder who’s lucky enough to have completed the Scout type rating course…

With existing type ratings on the R22, R44, B206 and AS350, Alex’s Scout course was a rather different kettle of fish from the training he’d done before.

“The Scout is unlike any of the other types I’ve rated on, and that’s to be expected as it’s a military machine,” Alex says. “The Scout never had a civilian alternative!”

“The cyclic has a ‘top-hat’ trim switch, which allows the pilot to remove the stick forces in flight,” he continues. “The power available is phenomenal. The Nimbus 105 has 1000shp and is derated to around 700shp. If there is a Free Turbine Governor failure the pilot can reduce the rotor rpm out of the governed range.

“The noise change is more noticeable than in other aircraft I’ve flown, so the rpm can be controlled, not just by looking at the gauge, but also by listening to the distinct sound of the turbine spooling up and down.

“The Scout is unlike any of the other types I’ve rated on, which is expected as it’s a military machine”

“I think 10 hours is a good amount of flying time to be ready for the skills test. However, the course requires you to already be a current helicopter pilot. This is important, as the 10 hours focus on flying and operating the Scout safely and relies on the pilot having a sufficient level of knowledge and experience of how to operate a helicopter safely in the first instance.

“Additionally, there were four intensive days of groundschool before the air exercises, focusing heavily on Threat and Error Management, TASE items and accident analysis, which means you’re fairly familiar with the Scout before you climb into the right hand seat. The professionalism of Captain Mark Cowley at Dragonfly Aviation is second to none, and every minute of every ground and air exercise you are learning or consolidating knowledge that builds towards operating the machine safely.

“I found the Scout and Wasp are sensitive in pitch, and at first I found controlling this the most challenging part of flying the machine. However, once used to using the cyclic trim as habit, the challenge goes away. It’s also important to remember, especially when considering Threat and Error Management, the proficient use of the vintage cockpit instruments.

“The altimeter hundreds hand is a circle and not a pointer, and there was no mark for a rate one turn, for example.

“As part of the course, it is mandatory to do half-an-hour of solo flight, something that doesn’t feature as part of other type ratings. The part of the course I enjoyed the most was flying that Scout, on the gin clear afternoon of the final day, looking out across the Northamptonshire countryside, realising with a fair level of certainty that I was probably the only person doing that, anywhere in the world at that moment.”

So what does Alex advise anyone thinking of doing a Scout type rating?

“Don’t hold back. These machines are a key piece of British history, from an engineering, aviation and conflict involvement perspective. The course is intensive, but you will be safe and proficient in operating the machine by the end of it and you’ll be a key part of keeping these precious helicopters flying for the years to come.”


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