Last ride of the Sea Skua
Back in 1972, the British Aircraft Corporation (BAC) began development of a lightweight short-range air-to-surface missile (ASM) designed for use from helicopters against ships. While helicopters had carried unguided rockets and the French had developed the AS.12(M) back in the 1960s (which the British used on both Wasp and Commando helicopters in the Falkland Island War in 1982), the French missile was very light with the power of about a 5-inch shell.
Sea Skua, on the other hand, weighed twice what the AS.12 did and carried a 62-pound warhead out to a range of 25,000m, which was triple the French design. Best yet, a Lynx could carry four of the pint-sized antiship missiles.
The design proved popular in combat, being used first against the 800-ton ocean-going tug ARA Alférez Sobral which, in the early hours of 3 May 1982, was hit by at least two Sea Skua anti-ship missiles fired by British Westland Lynx HAS.Mk.2/3 helicopters from destroyers HMS Coventry and HMS Glasgow. The attack killed eight of the crew—including the ship’s captain, Lieutenant Commander Sergio Gómez Roca—and injured eight. The Sobral lost all her electrical power, radio, radar and compass; she had no working navigational aids. Although saved, she was out of the war.
The Brits used another four Sea Skuas to destroy two Argentine derelicts.
In the Persian Gulf War against Saddam, a half-dozen Lynx operating from four RN tin cans over the Northern Gulf accounted for 14 Iraqi minesweepers, fast attack craft, and landing craft over a five-day period in January 1991.
Now, what is being dubbed “The most successful weapon in the Royal Navy since World War 2” has been fired for the last time.
Sea Skua is also ending its service as it’s not compatible with the Lynx’s successor, Wildcat. The latter will receive two new replacements for Sea Skua: the heavy anti-ship missile Sea Venom, and the smaller Martlett to be used against RIBs and small boats.
The last firing was conducted by Lynx #426 from the Type 23 frigate HMS Portland (F79) last week.
The missiles were launched for the final time in the middle of the Atlantic as HMS Portland let rip – only the third time this century live Sea Skuas have been fired.
It took a day’s preparation to ready the helicopter and three missiles (a Lynx can actually carry four) for the final firing as the frigate which has been the Lynx’s home for the past eight months headed north from the Azores.
Only one of the sailors responsible for maintaining the helicopter or looking after its weaponry had ever fully tooled a Lynx up before.
When they were finished, Portland launched her giant inflatable ‘killer tomato’ target – typically used for gunnery practice.
Lifting off at near maximum weight, with enough fuel for a sortie of just 70 minutes, most of which was spent scouring the Atlantic to make sure there wasn’t slightest chance of hitting a merchant vessel, while the team in HMS Portland’s operations checked their radars and sensors to make sure the skies over the range were free of other aircraft.
After a 35-minute search, the area was declared clear and the aircraft cleared to fire. After ensuring all checks were complete and a final check of the firing bearing the crew selected a missile and Flight Commander Lieutenant Laura Cambrook pressed the red fire button.
There followed an initial silence as the system conducted its initial checks after the button was pressed, before the missile was felt to drop.
There was another seemingly interminable silence before the missile rocket motors fired up and the first Sea Skua was away.
“A very loud whoosh was heard inside the Lynx before we saw the missile appearing in front of the helicopter flying very fast into the distance,” said Lieutenant Cambrook who fired two of the three missiles, with her pilot, Lieutenant ‘Jack’ Leonard launching a third.