Feature – The 2013 RAF Chinook Display Team

The Boeing Chinook entered service with the RAF in 1980 and has since grown to become the largest Chinook fleet outside the United States of America. It’s fair to say that the Chinook is one of the heroes of the British armed forces, having seen action in the Falklands, Balkans, Iraq and most recently Afghanistan. As the 2013 display season gets underway, final preparations are taking place at RAF Odiham for what will be another spectacular year. On a typically grey day in May, I went along to have a chat with the team and to see how this year’s routine is shaping up.

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The majority of people will only see the final routine at a public show, so what goes on behind the scenes to get to that point? Display Captain, Flt Lt Paul Farmer explains –

“Metaphorically speaking, we start by walking; we then jog, run and finally we get up to full display speed. We begin at height doing individual manoeuvres and practice each one until we’re fully satisfied with how they look and feel. Once we’re happy with the individual elements, we then piece them together into smaller chunks of the display. This year’s routine is about eight and a half minutes long – that gets broken down into quarters of about two minutes each. We’ll practice the first quarter a few times until we’re happy with it, the same with the second and then we will press onto flying the first half a couple of times until we’re fairly well practiced. As before, we move on to practice the third quarter a few times and then the fourth. We then do the last half a few times and then only once our supervisor is happy do we practise the full display at 200ft. Today we were authorised down to 100ft which is our clearance for a full display at optimum speed. During training we can limit how positive we are with all the manoeuvers – how gentle we are with the aircraft basically. This means that if there are any problems then we have more time and space to sort it out. Today was the first time that we were granted permission to run through the display at full speed. The whole process is very regimented; we have a Wing Commander (my senior supervisor), who oversees everything we do and a display supervisor (Squadron Leader). They work together for the Station Commander, to make sure that we’re safe in everything we do. There is an awful lot of groundwork that has gone into getting us to this stage.”

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Like any other display team, the selection process is a complex one –

“Display flying is just about as tough as it gets – it is really, really, really difficult. We have to be at the top of our game, you have to be able to fly the aircraft with extreme confidence and competence. The selection process is  difficult and ultimately it’s the Station Commander who signs off on who he thinks is the right man for each of the jobs. All four of us have been selected with that criteria in mind. I was lucky enough to do the display last year, so I feel very privileged to be able to do this two years in a row.”

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With it being Paul’s second consecutive year as Display Captain, you would imagine that this gives some sort of upper hand –

“Absolutely – the final display last year was at RAF Leuchars so I only had about a seven month break before we started doing the work up for this year. Whilst it was still very difficult, most of it did come back to me fairly quickly.”

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As the team explains, time is certainly of the essence this year –

This year we were allocated a very limited number of hours for practice as there are lots of pressures on the fleet at the moment – we’ve been involved in many exercises including Joint Warrior and Pashtun Vortex. Lots of high profile exercises means that time for us to train on the Mk2 have been limited to aircraft availability. It works out to about ten hours and in that time we probably try to run through the display about thirty times before approval. Once the supervisor is happy for us to drop to 100 ft the Wing Commander then has to sign off that he’s happy with it and after that, the Station Commander. Once those three people are happy, they will put us forward to commander of JHC (Joint Helicopter Command) to sign off our public display. During the season, my aspiration is to run through it at least once a week so that we can keep on top of our skills – it’s really difficult to maintain display capability without practice. If you don’t practice for just three weeks for example, then the skill slip is enormous.”

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The team have decided to bring back the rolling landing for the 2013 season but that’s not the only change –

“This year we start with a nose over to crowd centre on the B axis, which we didn’t do last year and I can’t remember it being done in the past. We are also working towards a 720 degree corkscrew rather than the 360 degree last year, which we’re hoping will look even more impressive to the crowd.”

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You can think of an air display as a complete jigsaw and the pieces to that puzzle are the individual manoeuvers. So how exactly do you put an eight minute routine together?

“It’s a combination of looking at previous displays that we have done and trying to work out how we can make it as tight as possible. We are really lucky with the Chinook – we can display in front of the crowd pretty much all of the time because we do not need the same amount of space as a fast jet display. At all stages of the routine we’re looking to keep it at minimum distance from the crowd so that it’s as impressive as possible. It’s important to work out which way manoeuvers are performed, for example we needed to make sure that the rolling landing was performed into wind. The sideways flight where we wave to the crowd needed to be done so that we have the wind to our right when we’re moving left so that we don’t have a really slow progression over the flightline. The Chinook has a sideways flight limit of 40 knots, so if I was to fly into a 40 knot wind I wouldn’t be going anywhere. Ideally we need the wind to be strong enough to help us but not too strong because we need to stay within the 40 knot operating limit.”

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At first glance you may think that the majority of the display is made up using standard combat manoeuvers. This is not the case however –

“You wouldn’t do a lot of what we do in the display in an operational theatre. One thing that is similar is the nose-down quick stop – its not exactly the same as what we would do in Afghanistan but it’s similar to an operational quick stop which is where you input some pedal to slow the aircraft down a little quicker. We have all used that many, many times in Afghanistan – it allows you to come in at speed until the very last minute and if you have the wind in the right place, you can literally fly right over a casualty. If we don’t know an exact location, it allows us to run in at 150 knots and pinpoint them in a couple of seconds – the speed makes us less of a target to the taliban. All the manoeuvers in the display are within the release-to-service of the aircraft. Another one we tend to use on a regular basis, but not in Afghanistan is the wingover. The wingover is really useful and is sometimes called a positioning turn. It allows you to turn 180 degrees very quickly. If I was to do 180 degrees at 120 knots then the turn radius is quite big. Performing a wingover allows me to come up on the vertical and come down in pretty much the same place – this isn’t so much a tactical manoeuver though. Over the shoulder is Afghan related too, we use this at the end of the display and it is very much a combat manoeuver.”

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Once the individual manoeuvers have been decided, the team has to work out how to fit it all together in a way that makes it most attractive to the crowd –

“As I was lucky enough to do it last year, I kind of had an idea of what I wanted to include, so Kyle and myself discussed that right at the beginning. As sad as it sounds, it was mainly all I thought about before falling asleep at night. We talked about it as a group and look at different ways of doing everything. It normally involves lots of lines being drawn on a whiteboard but it’s a forever evolving process. The final display that you watched today was the first one where we changed the order of some things so that it worked better for the next manoeuver – an example would be where we start and do the nose over to crowd centre, go off to the right for a pedal turn and then off to the opposite end for another. As we were coming out of that, we were going to go into a nose-down quick stop. We found that in order to enter a nose down quick stop, we needed to be going fairly slow, so I had to come out of the bottom of the last pedal turn with the nose up, which didn’t look particularly agile. The last but one display, we put in a 360 turn for me to bleed out the speed for the nose down so that I can go into it at about 80 knots – this also means that we do not damage the aircraft. For today, we also reordered the nose over to crowd centre and the rollercoaster – this way it gives me a little more space downwind before the running landing.”

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At present the Chinook display team are performing at eight different locations this summer but how are these venues selected? Display Manager, Flt Lt Kyle Thomas explains –

“The venues themselves aren’t actually chosen by the team, we have a little input with what we’d like to do but ultimately it’s up to Joint Helicopter Command. They get requests in from outside agencies which are then shortlisted – the Station Commander then chooses which venues he’d like us to do and that then gets approved by JHC. One display we wanted to do this year was Dunsfold and luckily they requested us as well. Dunsfold is one of  few great airfields that allow us to regularly conduct general handling training day or night – we’re really happy to be able to support them this year at Wings & Wheels.”

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On June 9th, the team will be attending Cosford Airshow and this year they will be involved in something rather special.

“Cosford had a Corporal who lost his legs due to an IED in Afghanistan and was saved by the Chinook. He’s spoken out about it publicly and feels that the Chinook crew saved his life. The display directors found out about this, phoned JHC and put forward the idea of having a medical emergency role demonstration. It’s now quite a big deal and the guy who was injured is doing the commentary for it. There’s going to be lots going on, on the airfield and it has now attracted attention from 2 group and 22 training group so it’s got Air Marshal backing. What was a small idea is now a very big deal for us. It’s great to be able to help with it and give the public an idea of the Chinook’s role in Afghanistan.”

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The team are also displaying at two seaside venues this year and this always presents an additional challenge to the pilots –

“It’s a lot more difficult to display over water than at an airfield as we’re so used to seeing runways and windsocks. A flat calm sea is really difficult to display over, the display directors put a few buoys to show where the 100 and 230 metre lines are – that gives us some reference when we’re displaying. If there is a bit of choppiness to the sea then you can gain references from that too. We may increase our safety margin by displaying at 200 ft rather than 100 ft, that way if we get an element wrong by a tiny fraction then we have more space and time to correct it.There were some 800 boats at Bournemouth last year so we were able to use them as a kind of reference point. At Eastbourne it was like we had a box – the cliffs on one side, the two piers on the other and then all the boats which gave us a three dimensional plot to use.”

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The Royal International Air Tattoo will be the biggest stage for the team this year and they cannot wait to return to the place where they won two major awards in 2012 –

“RIAT will no doubt be amazing. Before last year, the previous time I went to RIAT was just after I had been unsuccessful in my first application to join the RAF. That was mid-week and I had already bought tickets for the weekend show. I was  feeling a little bit down as you can imagine, watching the Reds display knowing that I wouldn’t be in the air as soon as I had hoped for. To go back twelve years later and win two awards was amazing.”

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From what I’ve seen of the 2013 display, this year should be another spectacular season for the RAF Odiham based team. I’ve got absolutely no doubt that the Chinook display will leave you speechless.

I would like to say a big thank you to Flt Lt Kyle Thomas, Flt Lt Megan Henderson and the rest of the team for making themselves available and for making this article possible.

The 2013 Chinook Display Team

Display Pilot – Flt Lt Paul Farmer

Display Co-Pilot – Flt Lt Gareth Allen

Display Manager – Flt Lt Kyle Thomas

Display Crewman – Sergeant Andy Caldwell

Display Crewman – Sergeant Steve Jones

To find out more about the team and keep up-to-date visit http://www.raf.mod.uk/chinookdisplayteam/ and follow @ChinookDisplay on twitter.

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