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Fleet Air Arm: Bristol Sycamore

The Bristol was created by the Bristol Aeroplane Company, and was used for search and rescue and anti-submarine warfare. The name refers to the seeds of the Sycamore tree, Acer pseudoplatanus, which fall with a rotating motion.

Image: Bristol 171 Sycamore in around 1960 taking off from the flight deck of HMAS Melbourne.

Bristol set up its Helicopter Division after the Allied invasion of Europe, when engineers from the Airborne Forces Experimental Establishment at Beaulieu became available. The design of the Sycamore commenced in June 1944, and extended over more than two years, with special emphasis being given to the endurance of the mechanical components.

The maiden flight took place on 27 July 1947, with the prototype VL958 powered by a 450 horsepower Pratt & Whitney Wasp Junior as there was no suitable engine in the Bristol range.

The prototype Sycamore Mk.2 was completed in the summer of 1948, fitted with a 550 horsepower Alvis Leonides engine, which became the standard for all subsequent Sycamore production.

Versions of the Sycamore up to and including the Mk.3A kept to the standard two-seat aircraft layout of having the pilot in the left-hand seat and co-pilot in the right, however the main production unit, the Mk.4, switched to the American standard practice of having the pilot's seat on the right.

The aircraft were 46 feet 2 inches long and they were 12 feet 2 inches high. Their top speed was 127 mph (max sea level), 91 mph (cruising), and their range was 238 miles

There were also a number of other developments from the earlier versions, such as a four-door design, that were standardised for the Mk.4.

Image: Bristol 171 Sycamore in Ansett-ANA

The United Kingdom, Australia and Austria were the only civil operators, while the United Kingdom, Australia, Belgium and Germany used them as military aircraft. One hundred and eighty were built in all.

The Type 171 Sycamore was the first British-designed helicopter to serve with the Royal Air Force. Civil versions did not use the name Sycamore, and were known simply as Bristol Type 171.

The Sycamore became the second helicopter type to be used by the Australian Defence Force, when the first seven were delivered to the Royal Australian Navy.

A total of thirteen Sycamore Mk 50's and Sycamore HC51's were built for the Royal Australian Navy, for search and rescue, plane guard, and training duties. They were delivered between 1953 and 1961

The Royal Australian Navy flew Sycamore Helicopters in 723 and 724 Fleet Air Arm Squadrons.

723 Squadron was first raised in 1952 and throughout its history has served operationally during the Vietnam War, the Gulf War and in East Timor. It currently operates as a helicopter training squadron and is based at HMAS Albatross at Nowra, New South Wales.

it was initially equipped with one Dakota, one Wirraway, one Sea Otter and two Sea Fury aircraft.

During the Vietnam War, personnel from the squadron operated as part of the Experimental Military Unit, a joint Australian-American helicopter assault and transport unit.

It has earned the battle honours "Vietnam 1967–71", "Kuwait 1991", and "East Timor 1999".

724 Squadron was formed for the first time in 1945 and was last disbanded in 1984.

724 Squadron was first formed on 10 April 1945 as a Royal Navy naval air communications unit. The squadron made daily flights between Sydney and Melbourne until 31 May 1946 when it was disbanded.

The Squadron was re-commissioned on 1 June 1955 at HMAS Albatross. The squadron's role was to carry out fixed-wing conversion training and it was initially equipped with Wirraway, Sea Fury and Firefly propeller-driven aircraft and Vampire jets.

The squadron's role changed in October 1956 when it absorbed most of the decommissioned 723 Squadron's Sea Venom and Gannet aircraft and Sycamore helicopters. As part of this change 724 Squadron's Wirraways, Sea Furies and Fireflys were transferred to other units. In its new role the squadron provided Sea Venom and Gannet operational training on board the RAN's only aircraft carrier, HMAS Melbourne.

Three 724 Squadron pilots were killed during separate flying accidents during 1956.

724 Squadron's make-up continued to change in 1957 and 1958. The Sycamores were transferred back to the recommissioned 723 Squadron in early 1957 and the Gannets moved to 725 Squadron during 1958. This left 724 Squadron equipped with Sea Vampires and Sea Venoms. In 1959 the squadron formed an aerobatic team called the Ramjets which was equipped with Sea Venoms and performed at air shows across Australia.

The squadron's role and aircraft inventory expanded during the early 1960's as the RAN wound-down its fixed-wing aircraft operations. 724 Squadron absorbed 725 Squadron in June 1961 and 805 Squadron and 723 Squadron in June and November 1963 respectively. As a result of these changes the squadron's aircraft complement eventually included Sea Venoms, Gannets, Vampires, Fireflies, Dakotas and Autocars.

Between 1963 and 1968 724 Squadron and 816 Squadron were the only FAA squadrons operating fixed-wing aircraft. During this time the squadron's roles included all-weather fighter, anti-submarine warfare and operational flying training along with fleet support, trials and communications tasks.

724 Squadron became an all-jet conversion training squadron again in December 1968 and was equipped with two-seat trainer variants of the new A-4G Skyhawks, Vampires and Venoms. The Vampires and Venoms were replaced by new MB-326 Macchi trainers between 1970 and 1972.

Despite its rating as a second-line training unit, 724 Squadron participated in some fleet exercises and used its Skyhawks to provide close air support to Army units during ground manoeuvres. The squadron's Skyhawks were also used in a new aerobatic team called the Checkmates.

In June 1982 HMAS Melbourne was decommissioned without being replaced. As a result, the RAN's fixed-wing aircraft squadrons were rapidly decommissioned. 724 Squadron absorbed 805 Squadron's Skyhawks in July 1982 and transferred its Macchis to the Royal Australian Air Force in 1983.

The squadron was decommissioned at HMAS Albatross on 30 June 1984 and its Skyhawks were later sold to the Royal New Zealand Air Force.

One Sycamore is on display at the Australian Fleet Air Arm Museum in Nowra.

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