Sea Skua is fired for the last time from HMS Portland's Lynx

Topic: Fighting armsSurface Fleet

The most successful weapon in the Royal Navy since World War 2 has been fired for the last time.

The Sea Skua missile all but wiped out Saddam Hussein's Navy single-handedly in the first Gulf War in 1991, wrecking 14 enemy ships.

But with the Lynx helicopter which carries it, just weeks away from being retired, the missiles were launched for the final time in the middle of the Atlantic as HMS Portland let rip - only the third time this century live Sea Skuas have been fired.

It took a day's preparation to ready the helicopter and three missiles (a Lynx can actually carry four) for the final firing as the frigate which has been the Lynx's home for the past eight months headed north from the Azores.

Only one of the sailors responsible for maintaining the helicopter or looking after its weaponry had ever fully tooled a Lynx up before.

When they were finished, Portland launched her giant inflatable 'killer tomato' target - typically used for gunnery practice.

Lifting off at near maximum weight, with enough fuel for a sortie of just 70 minutes, most of which was spent scouring the Atlantic to make sure there wasn't slightest chance of hitting a merchant vessel, while the team in HMS Portland's operations checked their radars and sensors to make sure the skies over the range were free of other aircraft.

After a 35-minute search, the area was declared clear and the aircraft cleared to fire. After ensuring all checks were complete and a final check of the firing bearing the crew selected a missile and Flight Commander Lieutenant Laura Cambrook pressed the red fire button.

There followed an initial silence as the system conducted its initial checks after the button was pressed, before the missile was felt to drop.

There was another seemingly interminable silence before the missile rocket motors fired up and the first Sea Skua was away.

"A very loud whoosh was heard inside the Lynx before we saw the missile appearing in front of the helicopter flying very fast into the distance," said Lieutenant Cambrook who fired two of the three missiles, with her pilot, Lieutenant 'Jack' Leonard launching a third.

And not one hit home - deliberately. The missiles were set to skim over the top of their target - allowing Portland's gunners the chance to hone their skills and finish off the huge red inflatable.

Sea Skua has been in service since the Falklands in 1982, when it was rushed into action and was used to knock out several Argentine vessels.

It really made its mark in 1991 - not least because the US Navy had nothing similar, so Sea Skua-armed Lynx were sent in to catch Iraqi ships as they tried to break out off Babiyan Island. Most were shot up in what the Americans dubbed a 'turkey shoot'.

With Lynx retiring from service at the end of March - there's a final fly-past by the remaining helicopters over southern England on Friday 17 March, weather permitting - Sea Skua is also ending its service as its not compatible with the Lynx's successor, Wildcat.

The latter will receive two new replacements for Sea Skua: the heavy anti-ship missile Sea Venom, and the smaller Martlett to be used against RIBs and small boats.

A very loud whoosh was heard inside the Lynx before we saw the missile appearing in front of the helicopter flying very fast into the distance

Lieutenant Laura Cambrook, Lynx Flight Commander