Review – RNAS Yeovilton Air Day 2014

RNAS Yeovilton Air Day is one of two flagship airshows for the Royal Navy and Fleet Air Arm, with the other taking place at RNAS Culdrose in Cornwall. The Somerset based show took place much later than usual this year and followed hot on the heels of the Royal International Air Tattoo and Farnborough Airshow. Over the last couple of years the show has won numerous awards and has arguably become the best event in the South-West.

RNAS Yeovilton Air Day is always well attended and due to it’s location, people seem to travel from all over. Home to the Royal Navy Lynx, Wildcat and ‘Junglie’ Seaking Squadrons, the show is engineered towards displaying the latest and greatest of the Fleet Air Arm but that doesn’t stop the organisers from attracting participants from overseas too.

International Visitors

In recent years the Belgian Air Component have been extremely generous with their display allocations; in 2013 we had the AW109 and F-16 and this year we were fortunate to have the F-16 once more. Having previously seen the 2014 F-16 display at RIAT, I was quite cruel and critical of the display but the routine flown at Yeovilton was simply stunning. A smaller airfield really showed just how dynamic this year’s display is – it was fast, tight and flown with a lot of confidence. Add ‘smokewinders’ and flares to an already entertaining routine and you’ve given most photographers a dream display. Pyrotechnics really do add another dimension to airshows and it’s something that I believe the RAF seriously need to consider if they wish to stay at the forefront of display flying.

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The F-16 wasn’t the only fast jet on the scene at Yeovilton either, the Belgians were joined by the Swiss Air Force F-18 Demo Team. The team were due to attend the show in 2013 but due to the failure of PDA, the slot was cancelled and postponed until this year. The Swiss F-18 display was everything that a Hornet display should be – noisy, agile, fast and technical. One thing that never ceases to amaze me is just how manoeuvrable this fighter aircraft is and unique to the Swiss display was the pilot’s own take on Boeing’s ‘Square Loop’; a vertical climb before pulling 90 degrees to go inverted and down into a spiralled descent.

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The RNLAF Historic Flight sent over their beautiful B-25 Mitchell which performed a very graceful routine above the Somerset countryside. Their display should really serve as an eye opener to the RAF on how these historic WWII aircraft can be displayed to their full potential.

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There were also three international display teams; The Royal Jordanian Falcons (now a regular sight on the UK airshow circuit), the Belgian Air Force Red Devils and also the Royal Danish Air Force Baby Blues. I’d personally never heard of the Danish display team so was naturally quite intrigued when I heard they were visiting. The team flies four Saab T17’s and the routine mainly conisists of a series of tight formations. As much as I enjoy watching display teams and admire the skill that it takes to fly these formations, I found the routine to be rather dull and extremely slow. I don’t think it helped that all three of these trainer aircraft displays were in very quick succession of each other.

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Classic Aircraft

The air display was padded out with some fantastic additions, in most cases very last minute after several items had to cancel.

The Vulcan is always a big crowd puller at Yeovilton but it was a rather forgettable display once again. I don’t really have a lot to say other than just how unbelievably rude many of it’s supporters appeared to be when the aircraft began to taxi in after it’s display. I don’t think I’ve ever had so many elbows in my sides or people standing on and kicking my camera gear in all the time I’ve been going to airshows. If you don’t get on site early then you don’t get to be at the front, it’s as simple as that and because you were late in, it doesn’t mean you can just push your way through to the front. I can understand when it’s small children but these were mostly adult men. Rant over.

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The more positive displays came from a T-6 Texan, the Catalina and two very different Hawker Hunters. First into the skies was the Midair Squadron Hunter – this was supposed to be accompanied by the EE Canberra PR.9 but due to a technical fault that developed on Friday, the Hunter was left to fly a solo routine. There were many hints of the infamous ‘blue-note’ during the exceptionally graceful routine but the Midair Squadron were simply outclassed by Miss Demeanour.

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Jonathon Whaley attempted to retire from the airshow scene in 2013 but it would appear that he just can’t stay away. His performance at Yeovilton was the best I’ve ever seen from him but even better than his actual display were the two high speed passes that he carried out later in the day. Jonathon had departed for another display before returning just twenty minutes later when ATC failed to route him through to his destination. This meant that he had plenty of fuel to burn and a brief gap in the programme to fill when he arrived back at Yeovilton. Having called up on the radio, ‘Flapjack’ was cleared in to circuit for five minutes or so. A Hunter streaming past at close-to top speed is a sight and sound to be cherished – thank you to both parties!

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What Royal Air Force?

Apart from a display by the BBMF Dakota and two Spitfires, RAF participation at Air Day was pretty much non-existent. Most display assets were engaged up North so this meant that the Chinook Display Team were left to represent the modern day RAF.

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Unfortunately due to an oil pressure issue on start-up, the Odiham based team were forced to cancel their appearance for the first time this year – with only two Chinook Mk2 aircraft remaining (the only model currently cleared for display), a spare aircraft is not available.

The reserve Typhoon also made a ‘blink and you miss it’ appearance in the form of a flypast. This was a massive disappointment as the aircraft had pulled up into the cloud before it was even halfway along the display line.

A truly poor contribution from the RAF considering how well the Royal Navy support the RAF flagship show(s).

The Home Team

The face of the Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm is changing and modernising with every week that goes past. The Lynx HMA.8 will eventually be replaced by the Wildcat and the veteran Seaking Mk4’s will be replaced with the current RAF Merlin force when they leave RAF Benson in the next 18 months. These will be upgraded to Mk4 ‘Junglie’ standard and will be made carrier-capable.

The Royal Navy Helicopter Display Team, The Black Cats made two appearances at Air Day this year. The first was the much anticipated return of the pairs routine – having spoken to the team last year at Yeovilton and discussed the plans for 2014 at length, it was fantastic to see it finally all come together. Both a Lynx HMA.8 and Wildcat took to the sky to put on a spectacle of a show which can only be described as aerial ballet. The timing and synchronicity of the routine was spotless. Later in the day, the Lynx went up on it’s own to run through the Black Cats solo routine but the display was unfortunately cut short when the aircraft developed a technical fault and was forced to land.

Role demos play a big part at Air Day and it gives the Royal Navy a chance to show what the force is capable of operationally but more importantly, it gives the public a chance to see what their taxes are funding.

The first role demo was from the Maritime Patrol Force – a combination of Lynx HMA.8 and Wildcat helicopters working together in an anti-piracy role. Piracy is a very real threat and one that most people have read about in the news, so to see how the Royal Navy tackle such a threat is thrilling. A series of ‘show of force’ manoeuvres entail before the aircraft open up on the Pirates with heavy calibre gunfire and heavier weaponry such as the Stingray torpedo. Pyrotechnics aplenty, the Maritime Patrol demo was very entertaining and a great sneak peek at what was coming later in the afternoon.

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The finale to Air Day is always spectacular and usually worth the entrance fee alone.

For 2014 the airfield was transformed into a troubled land somewhere over the horizon from a nearby Royal Navy carrier strike group. Two fast jets (played by two BAE Hawks) are on a routine patrol when one of the aircraft is hit by a surface-to-air missile (SAM), the pilot manages to eject safely but lands behind enemy lines. The remaining Hawk tries to locate the downed pilot while the carrier group prepares for a rescue mission. Within minutes a plan is outlined and the ‘Junglies’ are en route with Royal Marine Commandos on board and Lynx/Wildcat aircraft providing cover. While the rescue party is in the air, the situation on the ground has changed dramatically with enemy forces now also looking for the pilot and as the first wave of Seakings arrive, the enemy forces immediately begin to attack. With the battle on the ground getting fiercer, additional Marines are scrambled and once in the area, the Seakings are almost instantly targeted by further SAMs – evasive action is taken and flares are deployed to attract the heat-seeking missiles. Once safely on the ground, the Royal Marines begin to take control of the situation with air support provided by ‘fast air’ and Lynx helicopters – the combined air and ground operation quickly deals with the enemy forces and eradicates the hostile contingency.

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The narrative for this year was new and exciting but at times felt a little disjointed. Earlier on Friday the finale team had some difficulties communicating over the display frequency, whether this problem occurred again on Saturday is unknown but there were fairly lengthy gaps at times that made it feel a little unorganised. I’ve been attending Air Day for six years now and at the end of every previous finale, the aircraft have all lined up in formation before a massive burst of fire was ignited behind them. There I was, all prepared for the mass pyrotechnic explosion, pointed at a Seaking and Wildcat to capture the present and future of naval aviation when…well nothing, no explosion at all. I’m unsure whether this was by design or whether it just didn’t ignite properly but either way it was a huge disappointment and a missed opportunity. If this was by design then it absolutely has to return for 2015, Air Day should go out with a bang and the lack of heat from the explosion was dearly missed.

EDIT: The organisers of Air Day have responded to this review and explained that the ‘wall of fire’ was not cut from the display. The pyrotechnics were primed but still failed to ignite after two attempts.

Still One Of The Best

With it’s variety of international display acts and lengthy operational role demonstrations, RNAS Yeovilton Air Day is still one of the most entertaining airshows in the UK and it’s no surprise that the show continues to win ‘Best Event’ prizes year on year.

The static display was fairly impressive this year with the French and Polish both supporting the show again – it would be great to see some flying displays from both of these nations next year. Maybe look into getting the French Navy role demo again or even Ramex Delta? The star of the static though was the painstakingly restored Royal Navy Phantom – what a beauty!

Toilets and food outlets were conveniently placed for most on the main crowdline and it was fantastic to see the home team handing out water again due to the great British weather. When bottles of water are charged at somewhere between £1.50-£2.50, free water is a luxury – top marks to Yeovilton for providing this commodity.

As usual the parking and traffic control were fairly decent but it would be nice to see additional marshals at the end of the day so that cars are guided in the correct direction out of a car park. Exiting the car parks is a bit of a free-for-all and at the end of a long day, some people appear to get quite heated with the lack of cooperation from other drivers.

Once again, the team behind Air Day can pat themselves on the back knowing that on the most part, they’ve done an exceptional job and organising a top airshow. Filling in cancellations at the last minute (as late as Thursday evening) is certainly impressive and just goes to show how highly regarded the show is on the UK circuit.

Congratulations to the team on continuing to deliver a top show and all at a very competitive price. Value for money at it’s absolute best.

Royal Navy 1 – RAF 0.

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