Naval Air: Sans Regrets


May 3, 2010:  France has retired the last of its SA321 Super Frelon helicopters. The French Navy had wanted to retire the SA321s since the 1990s, as these choppers date from the 1960s. This finally became possible when, two years ago, it was revealed that a third of the SA321s were unavailable for service because of age related maintenance issues. Then it was revealed that the SA321s also tended to fail at inopportune times in the combat zone.

Only 99 SA321s were built (plus some Chinese copies), and most were used by nine different nations they were exported to. Designed as a naval helicopter, most ended up serving as troop and cargo transports. The SA321 is a three engine, 13 ton aircraft with a crew of five and a capacity of 27 passengers. Naval versions were often armed with four torpedoes or two anti-ship missiles, plus a 20mm autocannon. Endurance was four hours.

The SA321 will keep flying, especially in China, where Chinese copies of the helicopter are quite popular. China bought some SA-321s in the early 1970s, and by 1976 were working on reverse engineering them and producing their own, illegal, version. The first flight of the SA-321 clone (called the Z-8) took place in 1985. But only about twenty of the Z-8 have been built since then. Too many technical problems, plus the French were none too happy about this bit of theft, and made their displeasure known to the Chinese. But China has persisted, as the Z-8B is now in production. But only about half a dozen have entered service. A more powerful engine, and hundreds of technical improvements, have still not produced a chopper the Chinese army is willing to pay for. The navy was happy with the original SA-321s, and the Z-8 clones, but these operated at sea level.





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