RNAS Yeovilton Air Day

RNAS Yeovilton was commissioned as HMS Heron on June 18th 1940 and by the middle of the Second World War, young pilots were being taught essential fighter tactics on the Supermarine Seafire and Hawker Sea Hurricane. Since then the Station has been home, in one form or another, to some of the greatest sea-borne aircraft that this country has ever seen; the Venom, Sea Vixen, Buccaneer, Phantom and Sea Harrier. Today though, the Somerset base is the hub of the rotary Maritime Force and Commando Helicopter Force. On July 11th the gates were opened to the public for the annual award-winning Airshow and Air Day celebrated the Station’s 75th anniversary in style.

In the last couple of years Air Day has suffered from multiple headliner cancellations through no fault of its own, most notably in 2014 when numerous participants pulled out in the fortnight leading up to the show and the organisers were left pulling in lots of favours to bulk out the programme. Even with those cancellations though, Air Day has always been held in high regard by the enthusiast community.

An International Triumph

The programme for Air Day this year featured a number of international visitors both in the air and on the ground.

The French Navy were invited to return to the Somerset skies with their Maritime Role Demo; a ten minute display of air superiority from two Rafale and two Super Etendard aircraft. The Super Etendard doesn’t have long left in service so it was a real success to get these aircraft back over for a proper send off. As you can probably gather from the display, the Super-E (as it is affectionately known) is gradually being replaced by the fierce Dassault Rafale-M which has been in service with the French Navy since 2000.

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The first segment of the display consists of formation passes before the two types break crowd centre and bring the noise. Both the Super Etendard and Rafale-M demonstrated how dynamic they can be when required and delivered the perfect balance of noise and speed. The participating Squadrons had only recently returned from operational duty so for them to have worked up a presentable role demonstration in such a short amount of time, really was quite impressive. The fast jets of the French Navy proved that they’re a force to be reckoned with at sea – something that the Royal Navy is in dire need of.

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Patrulla Aguila also returned to Yeovilton with their seven-ship aerobatic display. The team were last at Air Day in 2005 and on that visit, won the award for ‘Best Overall Display’.

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Formed in 1985, the team flies the Spanish-built, patriotically decorated, CASA C-101EB Aviojet and unlike the Red Arrows, being part of the team is a secondary job for its pilots. As is quite common on the continent now, the routine was flown to a backing track of European dance music and I must admit, I rather like it. The enthusiastic commentary and fast-paced music really make the display enjoyable and while it is a little on the long side (in the region of 30 minutes), the formation landing to finish really is something that has to be seen to be believed!

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The Royal Jordanian Falcons may need to think of a new name soon, as year on year they return to the European circuit for most of the summer. The team have become a familiar sight at Yeovilton and returned as a four-ship display again for 2015.

The Extra EA300Ls may not be the most thrilling aircraft in the world but there is no denying the level of skill and competence that the pilots have; when you start to analyse the display, the routine really is quite technical and superbly flown. If nothing else, the Royal Jordanian Falcons simply have to be applauded for their dedication to the UK Airshow scene.

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The Czech Gripen was originally supposed to be displaying at Air Day but withdrew some time ago when the whole fleet was grounded. This was subsequently replaced by the L-159 ALCA (Advanced Light Combat Aircraft) and while it was good to see the aircraft back over here, the display itself felt incredibly distant and as a result, left the crowd wanting more.

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Unfortunately the Norwegian Air Force Historic Squadron MiG-15, which was supposed to be a star item, remained grounded and never made it to the UK in time for Air Day.

The international participation continued throughout the show ground with aircraft from the German Navy, Czech Air Force, Polish Navy and Royal Norwegian Air Force but the stars of the static display were the US Air Force A-10Cs, C-17 and NATO E-3A Sentry.

The US have been noticeably absent from the UK circuit for a number of years due to Sequestration so it was absolutely fantastic to see them back on the ground. As has always been the case with the US military, the teams on the ground were incredibly welcoming and more than happy to talk about their role. Much to the delight of those visiting, both the C-17 (which was awarded ‘Best Static Display) and A-10Cs were opened up later in the day for tours. The USAF really should be given an award for the way in which they present themselves and interact with the public; the RAF could learn a trick or two from them.

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Family Support

Support from the RAF and Army Air Corps has been somewhat lacking in recent years at the Royal Navy’s flagship event but 2015 saw a return to form with display items from both forces.

The Apache Helicopter Display Team from AAC Wattisham were representing the Army side with their new two-ship, pyro-heavy role demonstration.

The scenario is simple; a two-ship Apache formation is out on patrol when their aircraft are threatened by an RPG attack. The first simulated rocket is fired from the ground so Gunship 1 and Gunship 2 separate to assess the battlefield. Enemies are quickly identified by the advanced Longbow radar and both aircraft come in for a low strafing run. Enemy destroyed? Not a chance!

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The next five minutes are filled with simulated demonstrations of the Apache’s highly valued arsenal. Further strafing runs from the 30mm cannon, rockets from the helicopters’ pylon-attached pod and the finale; the mighty Hellfire. Each piece of weaponry has its own bespoke pyrotechnic explosion and each is well executed, timed perfectly with the aircraft’s positioning and in-cockpit audio. As the battlefield falls silent, the crowd are given an overview of the Apache and both aircraft drift up and down the crowd line, crossing over at several points. The Apache role demonstration really is fantastic and I can’t fault it in any way, I hope that the two-ship routine sticks around for a few more years.

Flying the flag for the RAF were the Red Arrows, BBMF Spitfire pair, Typhoon and Chinook. To be fair to the RAF, both the Chinook and Typhoon were on the programme last year but the Chinook failed to make it and the Typhoon was a single flypast.

The Reds arrived in style, as always, and the team quickly started filling the sky with smoke. Due to the low cloud base, only a rolling display was possible but this was more than enough to get the crowd excited and on their feet. I’ve seen the Red Arrows more times than I count and as much as I enjoy watching them, the display can only change so much year on year. What I absolutely love seeing though, are the facial expressions on the younger generation – 20 years ago my love for aviation was kick-started by those same little red jets.

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The Typhoon was back with a vengeance this year, presenting one of the most comprehensive routines that I have ever seen from the Royal Air Force. The Typhoon Display Team appear to be flying a number of aircraft this year; the red centenary scheme, the D-Day invasion stripes or, as was the case at Yeovilton, the full-fuselage commemorative Battle of Britain camouflage scheme. There’s no denying that the Typhoon looks fantastic in old-school camouflage and makes you realise just how boring our aircraft look in the all-over grey.

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The 2015 display is full of noise and high-g manoeuvres, meaning that for a large percentage of the routine, the aircraft is on full reheat. The combination of vapour trails, afterburner, fast manoeuvres and special scheme make this year’s Typhoon display something special.

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The Odiham based Chinook Display Team came in low and fast from behind the hangars before pulling up into the opening nose-down spiral. As you’ll probably know, I’ve been very fortunate to follow the team over the last couple of years and have seen the display develop quite a lot under the guise of each display pilot. The team have taken elements from last year’s routine and have completely made it their own; plenty of blade slap and gravity defying manoeuvres continue to make the RAF Chinook an award-winning display, walking away from Yeovilton again with the ‘Best Rotary Wing Display’ award.

Nobody Does It Better

Air Day has become synonymous with loud, explosive action and this year was no different. Although the Black Cats had displayed in two Wildcat aircraft earlier in the day, that clearly wasn’t enough for the Royal Navy’s attack helicopter.

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Two Lynx and two Wildcat took to the sky to start their Maritime Force role demonstration. This display hasn’t changed a lot over the years but the anti-piracy scenario is still incredibly relevant and gives the public a chance to see the crews demonstrate the skills that they use on a daily basis when deployed all over the world. The role demo does a very good job of displaying the differences between the two aircraft and makes it easy to work out just how much more advanced the Wildcat is when compared to the Lynx. It also works really well as an introduction for the finale of the show.

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Commando Assault – two words which fill people of all ages with excitement and adrenalin. Each year Air Day is closed with a phenomenal display by the Commando Helicopter Force and this year it was bigger and better than ever.

The face of the CHF is changing and for the first time in many years, the Mk4 ‘Junglie’ Sea Kings took a back seat. The Sea Kings are gradually being withdrawn from service and 2015 was the last time that the aircraft will appear in the sky at Air Day as the type is being phased out by the recently acquired, ex-RAF Merlins and these took centre stage in the show’s finale.

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The story for the Commando Assault remains similar but with a different line-up of aircraft; four Sea Kings, four Merlins, two Lynx, two Wildcat, two Apaches and a Hawk T1 which plays the future role of the F-35.

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The battle commences and Royal Marine Commandos are deployed from the nearby Queen Elizabeth Class carriers. Apaches are called in to provide top-cover and make sure that the Merlins and Sea Kings are able to hover safely while the troops fast-rope into the danger zone. Helicopters continue to arrive in waves and before too long, the airfield is covered in Marines that are trying to force the enemy to retreat. With the enemy identified, the Apaches and Hawk release their weaponry and multiple pyrotechnic explosions follow.

With the battlefield secured and the enemy defeated, every participating helicopter formed up on the airfield to face the audience and come into the hover. Last year things didn’t go to plan for this part of the finale but thankfully, this year it did. Once each helicopter had confirmed that it was in place, the trigger was pulled and the ‘wall of fire’ ignited, creating a truly awesome background for the Commando Assault finale.

Best of the Rest

The display was bulked out by a number of other display items including the Vulcan, Rich Goodwin’s Pitts Special, Sea Vixen, Norwegian Vampire pair, one half of the Czech Mates, Agusta Westland’s AW609, Avro Anson, Seafire and Huey.

Over the last few years Air Day has managed to come up with a number of unique formations and this year was no different. After much organisation behind the scenes, the Vulcan and Sea Vixen were united in the air again but were this time joined by the Vampire pair too. The formation was quite special and with the Vulcan due to retire at the end of the season, it’s something that really will never happen again. It comes as no surprise that this formation won the award for ‘Best Fixed Wing Display’.

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The highlight of the civilian displays for me though was the Huey. G-HUEY is based up at North Weald airfield and although I have seen the aircraft on static a number of times before, this was the first time that I had seen her in the air. There is nothing quite like the noise generated by the Huey and this echoed around the airfield as the crew put the legendary helicopter through its paces. A fantastically flown display indeed.

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Time for a Re-think

The showground had a good feel to it this year and was laid out pretty well. It was great to see that Yeovilton is now offering a wider range of food and drink; people seem to be willing to spend a little more for better quality food and that was evident in the size of the queues at some of the outlets.

Taking the Saturday on its own, Air Day was a complete success and a superb Airshow but I can’t complete this review without a mention of the Friday Photocall.

In previous years the Photocall has consisted of arrivals, rehearsals, display validations and a walk around the virtually empty static park at the end of the day. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case for 2015.

At a pre-season symposium, Air Day organisers were pulled up on the format of their Photocall event and were informed that due to new MAA regulations that were introduced a couple of years ago, the event in its current format no longer complied with said regulations. In simple terms, the regulations meant that Air Day were unable to conduct aircraft rehearsals or validations while members of the public were on base (for those already asking questions in their head, RIAT complies with special circumstantial rules and is therefore able to run P&V days).

This posed somewhat of an issue for Air Day; they could either cancel the Photocall completely or alter it slightly, reduce the admission fee  and hope that people would still enjoy the event.

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Anyone who has been to the Friday Photocall before will know that there are gaps where nothing happens but this year was worse than normal. We were on the airfield by 1030 this year and there were no movements until at least midday, with only a handful of arrivals before the event closed extra early at 1530. The static park was also closed to the public this year because everyone had to be off of the airfield ASAP so that foreign participants could validate; due to a printing mistake on the arrivals sheet, several believed that the static would in fact be open.

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People were frustrated by the complete lack of communication from staff up until the first announcement early afternoon and by all accounts, most felt that the day was almost a complete waste of time. With so few arrivals in so many hours, it’s almost inexcusable that none of the aircraft were asked to backtrack for photographic opportunities.

The Photocall was peculiar this year and at times it felt like the event had been completely forgotten about. If the Photocall is to survive then I think the whole day needs a drastic rethink. The event is supposed to be for the photographically-minded enthusiast, so why not tailor an event around that? Let’s say for a moment that the event in its current format is completely canned; what would you like to see in an ideal world?

For me, it’d be a case of getting all arrivals in before midday on the Friday and getting them into position in the static park without the metal fencing. With all aircraft in place, open the base for a few hours so that a limited number of people can wander and get the unobstructed shots that they desire. The static park is fine for the majority on Saturday but for those that are after that ‘perfect’ shot (whatever that may be), an event tailored specifically for photographers could be a real money spinner and would be true to the ‘photocall’ name. It’s unclear at this point whether the Photocall will return in any format next year.

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Putting the Friday aside, Air Day 2015 was a spectacular event and I’m sure that it’ll win awards from the tourism board once again. To everyone that helped organise the Royal Navy’s flagship event, thank you for a top show!

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