Today sees the end of an iconic sight off the Belgian coast for the last forty years and more. The five Sea King helicopters of the Belgian air force first made their appearance from their base at Koksijde on the Belgian coast in 1976. The helicopter had a search and rescue (S&R) mission: rescuing swimmers in difficulties, attending ships in difficulty, transporting burns victims, tracing missing persons and performing security duties along the coast.
Visitors to the coast will certainly have seen a Sea King at least once, heading out over the water on a mission or at least an exercise. The Koksijde crews carried out a total of 3,309 S&R missions over the years, the most important of which was the mission that rescued more than 30 people on board the passenger ferry Herald of Free Enterprise, which capsized off the coast of Zeebrugge in March 1987, with the deaths of 193 passengers and crew.
“In total, our crews rescued 1,757 people, often in difficult circumstances,” the defence ministry said in a press release.
“The helicopter is intimately connected to our Belgian coast,” the ministry said. “During this last flight a crew member will, together with the mayor, plant a commemorative flag on the beach of every coastal municipality.” That will be followed by a fly-past by a formation of German and Norwegian Sea Kings, followed by an NFH-90 and an Alouette III, the other type of helicopter stationed at Koksijde.
The Sea Kings will be replaced by the NFH-90 Caiman helicopter, faster and more powerful, and more suited to a wider range of duties, but carrying fewer passengers than the Sea King’s maximum of 26. The letters NFH stand for Nato Frigate Helicopter, and the aircraft is also in service with Dutch and German forces.
The fate of the five retiring Sea Kings is not yet clear. One will probably remain at the base at Koksijde as a memorial. Two will be sold for parts, and one will go to the technical school in West Flanders for study purposes. A final home has not yet been found for the remaining helicopter.