In recent years the Ministry of Defence has had to alter how it procured kit. From boots to heavy hardware, new products had to go through months (sometimes years) of demanding tests before being ordered centrally by the MoD. Due to operational demands in recent years this procurement process has had to change drastically, and has been vastly speeded up. On top of that, given the pace that technology is advancing kit that has been in service for only a short time, has found itself obsolete almost as quickly as it came into service. So some items of military hardware that have seen long and distinguished service have also seen their military life come to an abrupt end, or their operational life severely shortened.
One of these well-known and much loved military machines is the Gazelle helicopter.
Back in the mid-60s the French Army issued a requirement for a new lightweight utility helicopter. Sud Aviation (which later became Aerospatiale) came up with an initial design for a five-seat helicopter, powered by a single turbine engine similar in general layout to its already existing Alouette series. This design featured several new and important innovations, most importantly the fenestron, aka the fantail, which gave considerable noise reduction. The rotor blades were also made of composite materials, a feature now widely used in modern helicopters.
This design quickly attracted British interest, which led to a development and production share agreement with British company Westland Helicopters. The deal, signed in February 1967, allowed Westland to build under licence, in Britain, a total of 292 Gazelles and 48 Aerospatiale Pumas that had also been ordered by British armed forces. In return Aerospatiale was given a work share in the manufacturing programme for 40 Westland Lynx Naval helicopters for the French Navy.
The prototype of this Anglo-French collaboration first flew on 7 April 1967. Production started within a couple of years and, apart from military uses, it also proved a big hit on the commercial civilian market. The Gazelle has also been produced, again under licence, by SOKO in Yugoslavia (since 1971) and ABHCO in Egypt. Although the design has been around for many years now, it remains one of the fastest helicopters ever built with a maximum speed of 198mph.
In 1983, two Gazelles were modified to star as a high-tech attack/surveillance helicopter for the action-thriller film Blue Thunder as well as in the TV spinoff series (although that was very short-lived!) More recently, Richard Hammond flew a Gazelle in an episode of Top Gear.
The French Aerospatiale Gazelle and variants
In service with the French Army Light Aviation (ALAT), the basic French army version is the SA 341F. Powered by an Astazou IIIC engine and armed with a 20mm cannon, it operates mostly in a light support role, though the Gazelle’s primary role within ALAT is as anti-tank gunships. The latest variant, the SA 342M, is armed with Euromissile HOT missiles. These latest anti-tank and reconnaissance versions also carry the Viviane thermal imagery system and are named, funnily enough, the Gazelle Viviane. The French also operate some anti-air variants too: the gazelle Celtic is based on the SA 341F and the more modern version, armed with the Mistral air-to-air missile system, again uses the SA 342M variant.
The French have used the Gazelle in many theatres of operations over the years, especially during interventions in Africa and peacekeeping operations. It saw deployment in Chad during the 1980s, the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s (as well as to Djibouti, Somalia in 1993, and the Cote d’Ivoire from 2002 to the present day). During Operation Desert Storm, HOT missile carrying Gazelles were used against Iraqi armour. More recently they were used in Libya, under NATO, to support the Libyan rebel uprising against Colonel Gadhafi’s forces. However, the Gazelle is being replaced in frontline duties by the Eurocopter Tiger, but will still see use in a light transport and liaison role.
The British Westland Gazelle and variants
The Westland Gazelle has seen service with all the branches of the British armed forces and been used in a variety of roles.
Four variants were purchased. The SA 341B variant was equipped to a specification for the Army Air Corps. It was designated the Gazelle AH (Army Helicopter) Mk1 and the first aircraft entered service in 1973. It is this version that has had the most varied roles. They have been used as an air observation post (AOP) for directing artillery fire, Airborne Forward Air Controller (ABFAC) for directing ground-attack aircraft, casualty evacuation, liaison, command and control and for communications relay.
The SA 341C was purchased by the Royal Navy as a pilot trainer and designated the HT 2. Meanwhile the RAF bought the SA 341D as the HT3 training version. These were fitted with the Astazou IIIN and also featured a stability augmentation system and shermuly flare installation. There is also the SA 341E which was used in a communications role and for VIP transport. These were designated Gazelle HCC4.
The Gazelle has been used in combat. During the Falklands war in 1982 they were fitted with machine guns and rocket pods, but these were never used. This is the only time that British Gazelles were armed! Three were lost during the campaign: two due to ground fire while the third was shot down by a Sea Dart missile fired by HMS Cardiff!
They have seen action in Kuwait, Iraq and Kosovo. In the Gulf War of 1991 they operated as scouts for other attack platforms. Throughout the troubles in Northern Ireland they were a familiar sight in skies, used for air patrols. They were also used in a support role by 8 Flight, Army Air Corps for 22 Special Air Service Regiment.
Gazelles flown by the Army Air Corps were recently upgraded with a Direct Voice Input (DVI) system developed by QinetiQ. This allows the aircrew to control aircraft systems using voice commands, and access information without removing their hands from the flight controls or their eyes from the outside world.
Photo: Graeme Main
The Sharks were the Royal Navy’s helicopter display team, flying Westland Gazelle HT 2 helicopters.
The team was formed in 1975 from 705 Naval Air Squadron, based at RNAS Culdrose, Cornwall. This was the training squadron for Royal Navy helicopter pilots. Made up of six helicopters, all six pilots were instructors and trained formation aerobatics in their spare time. Painted red, white and grey with a shark emblem on the tail fin, they were equipped with orange and green smoke canisters fitted to the skis. In 1977 there was a mid-air collision during a practice flight, crashing two helicopters and killing three pilots.
Now down to four Gazelles, 705 Squadron fielded pairs for displays when the formal team was not available. In later years they were sponsored by Pussers Rum.
The Sharks performed not just in the UK but also in some European countries. Each air demonstration lasted around 12 minutes and included opposition manoeuvres, bringing the rotor blades to within 15ft of each other at closing speeds of over 200mph.
In 1992, the Sharks team was disbanded due to budgetary cuts but 705 NAS continued to provide a pair of Gazelles, simply known as the Gazelle Pair, right up to 1996 (when Gazelles were formally retired from the Royal Navy).
Perhaps the most readily available version is the SA 341G. This is the commercial civil version and powered by an Astazou IIIA engine. They were certified for passenger service on 7 June 1972 and subsequently became the first helicopter to obtain US approval for operations under IFR cat 1 conditions with a single pilot. There was also a Stretched Gazelle developed, which had a modified rear cabin to allow 20cm legroom for the rear passengers.
The SA 341H, military export version, was produced under licence by SOKO in Yugoslavia and powered by the Astazou IIIB engine.
Who else uses them?
Going through this list, you can see just how popular and versatile the Gazelle is:
National Air Force of Angola operates seven aircraft;
Air Force & Anti-Aircraft of Bosnia and Herzegovina operate four (Republica Srpska Police also has four);
Burundi Army Aviation operates two aircraft;
Cameroon Air Force operates eight Gazelles (they ordered nine but one crashed);
Cypriot National Guard’s Air Component has four;
Ecuadorian Army operates about 20 Gazelles;
Egyptian Air Force has over 84 aircraft;
Gabon Air Force has five;
Guinea Air Force has one Gazelle;
Iraqi Air Force has about six aircraft. (They bought a number of Gazelles equipped with HOT missiles in the 1970s and 1980s which were used heavily during the Iran-Iraq war but saw little use during the Gulf war due to Allied air supremacy);
Kenyan Air Force has one in service;
Kuwait Air Force has 13 aircraft (they say their Gazelles were used during the Iraqi invasion, destroying some Iraqi trucks and APCs. Several were captured and used by Iraqi forces);
Lebanese Air Force has eight aircraft equipped with HOT missiles, 68mm rocket pods and heavy machine guns (these have been used fighting against the Al-Qaeda inspired militants of Fatah al-Islam);
Montenegro Air Defence has 11 Gazelles and the police have three;
Royal Moroccan Air Force operates 24 aircraft;
Serbian Air Force operates 61 Gazelles while the police have 13 aircraft;
Syrian Air Force operates 38 aircraft (these were used during the 1982 Lebanon War – the Syrian Army claimed they had large success against Israeli armour with 77 kills, while suffering just two losses. One was captured by Israeli forces, which was tested and is now on display in the IAF museum);
And the United Arab Emirates Air Force has one.
There are more, but these are the main users of the Gazelle.
Where can I buy one?
Obviously, purchasing, owning and running a helicopter is a costly hobby! If you want to fly it yourself, first thing to do is to get your helicopter pilot’s licence. Once that box has been ticked and you have some funds available, here are the options.
There are plenty of civilian versions available. Even some of the stretched versions are for sale. Expect to pay somewhere between £320,000-£340,000 (+VAT) for one of these. I also found some earlier standard-length versions for sale; they started at just £165,000… Bargain!
Check out www.gazellehelicopters.co.uk and www.ldhelicopters.co.uk
But we airsofters don’t want civvy version with all the niceties, we want the hardcore military-spec versions! Well as luck would have it Withams, the well-known military kit disposal people, has (or had) 30 for sale! You can buy individually for between £75,000-£175,000 or buy the job lot for a cool £2,000,000!
Look them up on www.mod-sales.com.
I really enjoyed researching and writing this article. During my time in the tanks, we quite often had Gazelles acting as forward observers and, occasionally, casualty evacuation. On tours in Northern Ireland it was always heart-warming to hear their distinctive sound overhead.
All in all, the Gazelle is a fabulous piece of military hardware with 30 years’ dedicated service. They shouldn’t be kept as dusty museum pieces – they deserve to be in the air.
*Main image Credit: SAC Phil Cooke