The Black Cats are the Royal Navy’s helicopter display team and were first introduced to the UK circuit as the ‘Lynx Pair’ back in 2001. Until 2013, the team had flown two Lynx helicopters but now, after a successful split routine in 2014, the 825 NAS team have re-equipped with two of the Navy’s latest maritime attack aircraft; the Agusta Westland Wildcat. After weeks of planning, I headed down to RNAS Yeovilton in June to meet the team and find out about the 2015 display.
The Wildcat may look remarkably similar to the Lynx Mk8 in places but it’s decades ahead in terms of its technological capabilities; the engines are more powerful (50% greater on each engine), the aircraft has a completely new tail design and the cockpit is fitted with a state-of-the-art digital cockpit.
For the 2015 display season, the team is being led by Lt Dave Lilly (Black 1) and Lt James Woods (Black 2). Lt Lilly is no stranger to the Black Cats having displayed with the team back in 2009 but for Lt Woods, 2015 is a year full of new experiences.
Having displayed the Wildcat for the first time last year, albeit with a Lynx Mk8, how easy was it to put the 2015 routine together?
“We didn’t actually use last year’s routine as a basis because of the compromises that were made due to the difference in aircraft types. We can now concentrate solely on Wildcat; the operating window for the aircraft has improved drastically since last year. We can hover more, use a little bit more speed and a little bit more angle of bank where required.” – Lt Dave Lilly
“I think it was back in January when we started the very beginning of the workup. Most of the maneuvers were practised in isolation before they were eventually strung together into a full routine.” – Lt James Woods
“It took about a week or so to put it all together. I sat down with a blank bit of paper and came up with what I thought would be a reasonable routine. I talked it through with James and the Standards team to make sure that what we’re trying to do is achievable. There’s a bit of compromise, a bit of advice but in about a week or so we had a decent outlook for about 90% of the display.” – Lt Dave Lilly
The Black Cats are relatively unique in the sense that they can offer both a pairs and solo routine. This offers a lot of flexibility to show organisers with varying amounts of funding but also to the team itself should an aircraft go unserviceable just minutes before their display slot.
“At the end of last year/beginning of this year, all airshows put their requests into the Royal Navy for which assets they would like. At the end of January, all bids are collated and a discussion takes place to decide where assets are allocated for the season. The decision depends on how much a particular show can afford, the type of site the show is at (whether it can accommodate the larger pairs display) , but also on the day itself it could be down to the weather or serviceability as to which routine is flown. If a pairs routine is booked and one of the aircraft goes U/S, it’s nearly always possible to refocus, gather your thoughts and take off for a solo display. The fact that we can alternate between the two means that it’s very rare for us to miss a show. The solo display also gives us the benefit of being able to show off a little more. It’s a completely different routine and because we’re not trying to keep up with another aircraft we can be a little more dynamic.” – Lt Dave Lilly
“Both routines are good fun to fly for different reasons. The pairs display is satisfying to get right because there are just so many different components; it’s a very demanding routine. The solo is enjoyable because you’re entertaining the entire crowd all on your own; it’s a big responsibility and a huge pleasure. I think I’m probably looking forward to the pairs displays most though!” – Lt James Woods
Unlike the Red Arrows, being a member of the Black Cats is not a full time job and the team is mostly made up of willing volunteers from the Squadron.
“Part of the process for this year was to properly transition from Lynx to Wildcat. Last summer the Squadron were looking to see how to man the team for this year. There is a limited number of people in the Squadron and initially we look for volunteers. I was more than happy to return having displayed 6 years ago and I believe my experience helped to develop the team. James was selected based on his skill and role within the Squadron but also on where he’s going to be in the future.” – Lt Dave Lilly
As has been said already, 2015 is James’ first time with the team and it’s already been quite a rollercoaster of a journey!
“It’s been incredibly exciting. The flying is dynamic and completely different to usual daily taskings. You’re using the aircraft in a different way which instantly makes the work more demanding; it’s a little more difficult to master than basic flying. It’s a massive step up.” – Lt James Woods
“I have a slight advantage of doing this before, all the maneuvers are taken from previous displays in my past two years. It’s James’ first time so he’s trying to learn how to fly as a display pilot rather than a frontline pilot. It’s all about having an appreciation of where you need to be in a number of steps time. If I make a mistake, James has to accept that and not go with what he thinks he should do but stick with the plan.” – Lt Dave Lilly
“There’s a lot of trust between us. Essentially Dave flies the maneuver and is primarily concerned with the formation’s tracking in relation to the ground. I’m concerned with being in the right place relative to him. I’m always trying to make sure that I’m in the correct position relative to Dave and he has to trust that I’m going to be there. We need to be able to respond quickly if anything was to go wrong be it birds, a gust of wind or just poor positioning.” – Lt James Woods
Although Dave is experienced with the individual aspects of the routine, there’s one thing that’s been a real challenge during the workup for James and it’s known as the Carousel…
“It’s a tricky one because we’re in very close proximity to each other, nose to nose and getting the rate of turn for us both, matched nicely with the differing wind speeds and directions, is exceptionally challenging. As each tail passes through the wind, it affects the aircraft’s heading quite drastically but hopefully you never actually see that from the ground. We try to keep the formation as tight as possible. Chat between the aircraft is kept to a minimum during these moments so that we can completely focus on the task at hand.” – Lt James Woods
Practise, of course, overcomes most of these initial difficulties but displaying at different sites all over the country poses an entirely new challenge.
“Once we’ve finished the workup on base at Yeovilton, you become very familiar with the local landmarks so moving to a new airfield for any given show is always a slight unknown. We will always fly at least one practise at every airfield we display at to familiarise ourselves with the local area and to learn where our reference points are. Displaying over water always adds an additional complexity to the routine too but it doesn’t affect us as much as, maybe, the RAF because we’re so used to operating over water anyway. Reference points are obviously not as still as they would be on land but you can still use geographical features on the coastline to help.” – Lt James Wood
With the display season now in full swing and the biggest show of the year for the team just on the horizon, where else are they looking forward to displaying?
“I always think of Bournemouth, I was lucky enough to do the first and second show there and it’s an exceptionally busy weekend. We usually display in the afternoon as The Black Cats but also take part in the beach landing role demonstration in the morning. The crowds are always huge and unusually we get to take off from the back of a ship, over the sea in our natural environment. Bournemouth is an absolute must for the Royal Navy and is a spectacle not to be missed.” – Lt Dave Lilly
You will be able to see the Royal Navy Black Cats at a number of shows up and down the country this summer but you might not see them coming. For the first time in a number of years the team have been authorised to run in from behind the crowd. So, when everyone else is trying to spot them on the horizon, turn around and look up!
I’d like to take this opportunity to thank both Dave and James for their time and also for allowing me to capture their rehearsals in great detail.
Best of luck for the rest of 2015!