At the end of June 2013 when the Marina Militare Italiana (MMI - Italian Navy) held an official ceremony at the Grottaglie naval base to commemorate the centenary of Italian Naval Aviation 1913-2013, it was also time to retire the SH-3D Sea King that served the Navy since 1968. The Reparto Eliassalto of 4° GRUPELICOT presented the Navy's first SH-3D repainted with special markings for the helicopter's distinguished service with the unit. Claudio Toselli contributed his photos of the special Sea King.
During the celebration of 100 years of Italian Naval Aviation at the naval base of Grottaglie at the end of June 2013, the 4° GRUPELICOT (4th Helicopter Squadron) unveiled the specially marked SH-3D Sea King M.M.5003N "6-01" to commemorate the type's operational history with the Fleet Air Arm. While the withdrawal of the Italian Navy Sea Kings has been underway since the first EH101s entered service, 4° GRUPELICOT continued operating six of the original SH-3Ds converted to amphibious assault helicopter and fire support platform to support the Navy's Marines and Special Forces. The final Sea Kings are now retiring after almost 45 years of serving the Italian Navy.
The SH-3D Sea King M.M.5003N "6-01" was the first SH-3D delivered by Agusta (ASH-3D) back in December 1968. The Italian Navy required a replacement for the SH-34J Seabat in the medium-heavy class for the anti-submarine warfare (ASW) mission and rescue at sea. While deliveries of AB-212 ASW helicopters was underway to replace the AB-204AS on the Navy's new frigates, the cruisers could also embark heavier helicopters, but the Seabat was deemed unsuitable. In 1964 a whirlwind with the devastating effect of a tornado had destroyed and damaged most of the helicopter fleet at the Marina Militare Stazione Elicotteri (MARISTAELI) of Catania, by 1967 most of the SH-34J Seabat fleet consisted of second-hand replacements provided by the USA. The Sikorsky SH-3 Sea King was at the time the most advanced ASW (anti-submarine warfare) helicopter and had already proven itself in the Search and Rescue (SAR) role. It was also a much safer platform for operations at sea than the previous helicopters, thanks to the Sea King design's amphibious hull and floats. Having built its first two AS-61 Sea Kings under license from Sikorsky for the Italian Air Force's VIP role, Agusta then built 24 SH-3D (AS-61B) ASW helicopters in two batches for the Italian Navy and 37 HH-3F (AS-61R) SAR helicopters for the Italian Air Force. Export orders for the Agusta-built Sea Kings followed as Sikorsky itself seized production in 1970. In addition to the ASW role, the Sea King could be armed with the Marte anti-ship missile for ASuW (anti-surface warfare) missions. Meanwhile the US Navy had converted many of its Sea Kings to the SH-3H standard with upgraded ASW capabilities. Agusta started production of the upgraded SH-3H (AS-61D) for both export and the Italian Navy. Twelve SH-3H ASW helicopters were delivered in two batches to the Italian Navy, thus total deliveries to the Italian Navy counted 36 Sea Kings, generally all are referred to by the original SH-3D designation.
The first SH-3D Sea Kings were assigned to the 3° GRUPELICOT that had formed on April 30, 1968, at the MARISTAELI of Catania.
Also at Catania, 2° GRUPELICOT was responsible for training new pilots. The 1° GRUPELICOT relocated to Luni (Sarzana). Located near the naval base of La Spezia,
the airfield at Luni was reconstructed to become the navy's second helicopter base and was completed in November 1968.
With deliveries of the second batch of SH-3D Sea Kings underway, the Sea King also arrived at MARISTAELI Luni enabling 1° GRUPELICOT to retire the final SH-34J Seabats. Subsequently the Navy's fourth helicopter unit was established at Luni to also operate the SH-3D. However from 1972 onwards, the 4° GRUPELICOT redeployed to the Italian Air Force's base at Grottaglie to support the fleet at the naval base of Taranto. In March 1976, the Sea Kings of 4° GRUPELICOT were joined by AB-212 ASW light helicopters. Grottaglie officially became the third MARISTAELI in 1979 when the Navy officially inherited the base from the Air Force. It was redesignated MARISTAER (naval air base) in 1991 when the Harrier fixed-wing aircraft entered the Italian Navy, but also remained home to the helicopters of 4° GRUPELICOT.
During the 1970s the SH-3D Sea Kings embarked on the Andrea Doria class cruisers and the fleet's flagship Vittorio Veneto.
The Vittorio Veneto missile cruiser
main duties were ASW and anti-aircraft, it featured a raised flightdeck of 890 square meters with three landing spots and a lift to the hangar deck below.
Providing ample space for the medium-heavy Sea King ASW helicopters four SH-3D/H could embark. The Vittorio Veneto remained the Navy's flagship until 1986 when
the Giuseppe Garibaldi (551) took over. Until the introduction of the S/VTOL Harrier in 1991, the Garibaldi was a helicopter carrier foremost and classified as a anti-submarine warfare aircraft-carrying cruiser.
The lift of a 1937 law which only permitted the air force to have fixed-wing aircraft allowed the acquisition of the AV-8B Harrier II+ for the Marina Militare. This resulted
in the SH-3D/H gaining another role, namely that of plane guard.
With the end of the Cold War and the diminishing submarine threat, the SH-3D fleet was progressively used only for logistic support and transport duties,
while only the SH-3H Sea Kings retained ASW/ASuW as their primary mission. Nevertheless the SH-3D could also still be fitted with
ASW/ASuW equipment and weapons if necessary.
Meanwhile the Italian Navy commissioned its two San Giorgio class amphibious assault ships, followed by the improved San Giusto Landing Helicopter Dock (LPD) in 1994. Each of these could embark up to three SH-3D helicopters to support the amphibious landing force logistically or for humanitarian relief missions. The San Marco Regiment of the Navy (Italian Marines) also relied on the SH-3D for helicopter assault and fire support. For this role, the Nucleo Lotta Amfibia (NLA - Amphibious Combat Flight) was established. The flight is part of 4° GRUPELICOT at Grottaglie and consists of AB-212 and SH-3D helicopters modified for the helicopter assault role. Six SH-3D were converted to NLA-Eliassalto (NLA Helicopter Assault) version and had their ASW/ASuW equipment and radar removed. To make it suitable for insertion of Marines by day or night these six SH-3D received dust/sand filters for the engine intakes, FLIR system, Night Vision Goggles, GPS navigation, personnel locator system and new communications suite. Furthermore the possibly hostile environment required the helicopter to receive a new self-defense suite of sensors and countermeasures as well as armor protection for the crew. For fire support the SH-3D NLA-Eliassalto can be fitted with 7.62mm machine-guns on its side doors.
In 2001 the first EH101 Maritime Patrol Helicopter (MPH) was delivered and the gradual withdrawal of the remaining Sea King fleet had begun. The first eight EH101 MPH replaced the
SH-3D/H in the ASW/ASuW roles. The 1° GRUPELICOT at Luni was the first helicopter squadron to receive the EH-101 and retired its last Sea King in December 2003.
Later four EH101 Helicopter Early Warning (HEW) variants followed to support the Harrier force. Catania's 3° GRUPELICOT continued to operate the SH-3H in the ASW and sea rescue role until the EH101 force was on strength
in 2008. Meanwhile, the NLA flight of 4° GRUPELICOT was restructured as Reparto Eliassalto and also supported the Italian Navy's special forces (COMSUBIN) and deployed
Italian land forces with its SH-3D and AB-212 assault versions.
The EH101 had started a new era for Italian naval aviation and received much attention, especially when with the arrival of the first batch of EH101 Amphibious Support Helicopter (ASH) versions the type was deployed to Afghanistan because it is better suited to the hot and high conditions than the AB-212 and SH-3D of 4° GRUPELICOT that had first been deployed. However the Sea King's service was far from over. 4° GRUPELICOT SH-3D-NLA took part in Operation Leonte, supporting the UNIFIL mission after the Israel-Lebanon conflict in 2006. Operation 'White Crane', the humanitarian relief mission in response to the 2010 earthquake in Haïti, saw the first deployment of the new Cavour aircraft carrier, another element of the Italian Navy modernization. Of the eight helicopters embarked for the mission, six of them were still SH-3D Sea Kings. The last major military operation for the SH-3Ds of the NLA came in 2011, with Operation Unified Protector Libya.
The 4° GRUPELICOT at Grottaglie continued with just the six SH-3D NLA until this year, while the rest of the fleet was scrapped and either preserved or put into storage as parts source and now for sale. Now the final batch of EH101 Assault Support Helicopters variants have also been taken on, the four airworthy SH-3D remaining can finally retire, the hours left on the airframes must be quite low. The SH-3D Sea King "6-01" had flown its last mission in June 2013. The Sea King was officially withdrawn from operational service coinciding with the Italian naval aviation centenary ceremony at Grottaglie. However as evidenced by the Navy's news posts, at least one SH-3D of Grottaglie was still available in July 2013 to provide SAR and other civil defense tasks in case of emergencies within its area of responsible. Although the EH101 has taken over the duties of the Sea King, Grottaglie and the 4° GRUPELICOT are currently not basing the EH101, although 4° GRUPELICOT personnel have been training at Luni and just like 1° and 2° GRUPELICOT had been to Afghanistan when the three EH101 ASH coming from Luni were deployed there.
Hopefully the immaculate looking "6-01" can be properly preserved with its unit and decoration markings, and possibly the longest operational service of all the Italian Navy's aircraft thus far. At Grottaglie SH-3D "6-06" is already on gateguard display to remember the type's history at the base, however "6-06" only has the sand/dust filter and not the full NLA-Eliassalto suite and original NLA color scheme. Exposed to the elements its paintjob is slowly fading away. So hopefully "6-01" will go to a museum and get a spot indoors.