2015 Aviation Highlights

The past twelve months have been a rather testing time for those in the UK aviation industry as after two separate incidents, the AAIB and CAA are conducting a full review into airshow safety standards. Although no permanent regulation changes have been made to date, the immediate ‘temporary’ restrictions that were enforced, preliminary findings from the AAIB investigation and several 2016 show cancellations have left absolutely no doubt in my mind that next year, the UK aviation scene will look very different.

Thankfully though, it’s not all doom and gloom as we say farewell to 2015 because this year has certainly had it’s highlights!

Battle of Britain 75th Anniversary

The most notable celebration of 2015 was the BoB 75th Anniversary. With events being held up and down the country to commemorate the greatest aerial battle in history, we were given some very unique opportunities to witness the iconic fighters of the Second World War in action.

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Duxford, Biggin Hill and RIAT all held their own celebrations but the biggest, and easily most impressive, was the phenomenal event held at Goodwood. The event was organised by the Boultbee Academy and saw some 30,000 people enter the historic aerodrome (free of charge) to witness one of the largest gatherings of Spitfires and Hurricanes (plus the newly restored Blenheim) since the end of the war.

After a very long wait (no surprises here; the wet weather had a massive part to play in the day’s proceedings!), the fighters began to line up on the all-grass runway and took off in numerous groups of two, three or four; each with their own commemorative route to fly over parts of the southern England.

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The sight and sound of so many fighters really was something that had to be seen to be believed.

Return of the USAF

2015 saw the very welcome return of the US Air Force to UK airshows, with the most notable contribution being a pair of A-10 Thunderbolt II’s to both RNAS Yeovilton Air Day and the Royal International Air Tattoo at RAF Fairford.

The A-10 is an aircraft that I’ve wanted to shoot up close for a very long time and finally I had the opportunity to do exactly that. The USAF personnel that were tasked with this deployment were extremely accommodating and after a short conversation with the team at Yeovilton, I was invited behind the barriers to get the shots I’d been after for so many years.

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It was fantastic to see that later in the day, the pilots had removed a section of the barriers and were allowing the public to queue up and have short tours of the aircraft. PR exercises like this are hugely appreciated by the public and it’s the sort of thing that would be great to see from the RAF.

The A-10 is constantly under threat from DoD cutbacks so it was brilliant to see them over here for (possibly) the last time.

Japanese Treat

In recent years, the team at RIAT have been pulling out all the stops to bring the show to the forefront of international aviation once more. More nations attended the show than ever before this year but the undeniable star of the event was not one, but two of the Japan Maritime Self-Defence Force’s Kawasaki P-1 MPA.

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The type has only been in service with the JMSDF for a couple of years, so when the announcement was made that they’d be attending RIAT, the enthusiast community went mad; and understandably, this was a booking of monster proportions!

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Rumours had been circulating since early January that Tokyo were in discussions with the MoD about the potential export sale of the P-1 to the RAF in order to fill the MPA void left by the mothballed Nimrod MRA4 back in 2010. With two P-1 aircraft attending the show, this rumour began to gather further backing, especially when an unannounced flight of unknown government personnel took place one morning from RAF Fairford.

Sadly it wasn’t to be and it was announced in the SDSR last month that the RAF would be acquiring the P-8 Poseidon in a deal between the MoD, US DoD and Boeing.

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Lynx AH7 Retirement

After nearly 40 years of service with the Army Air Corps, the Agusta Westland Lynx AH7 finally retired on July 31st. AH7 numbers had been gradually reducing over the last couple of years as the Wildcat AH1 was brought into service to replace it.

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Possibly the most famous and easily recognisable Lynx variant to date, the AH7 was a popular aircraft both on the airshow circuit and the battlefield.

After a visit to RNAS Yeovilton earlier in the year, it had been discussed that there would be no ceremony to celebrate the type’s retirement and instead it would simply get brushed under the rug with very little media coverage. Fortunately this idea quickly disappeared and a small media event was organised at AAC Middle Wallop to give the aircraft the send off it deserved.

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Seven serviceable helicopters sat on the pan before simultaneously starting up and lifting off for the final time. It was originally planned for the lead aircraft to be painted in a special commemorative scheme, depicting four schemes that the aircraft had worn during it’s time in service but sadly this never came to fruition due to a lack of funding.

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The helicopter’s navigated the airfield before coming straight towards us in a ‘7’ formation. As the formation reached the pan, the trailing aircraft broke off from the rest and steadily increased it’s altitude. After carrying out a 360 degree survey of the area, the solo Lynx AH7 carried out it’s signature maneuver; one final backflip.

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All seven aircraft returned to the pan and shutdown at exactly the same time. The airfield briefly fell silent before family and friends erupted into a round of applause. The AH7 will be sorely missed.

End of an Era

One word: Vulcan.

Having been acquired by the Walton family in 1993, the Vulcan To The Sky Trust was founded and over a period of many years, the team completed the ‘most complicated restoration to flight’ in history. In 2007, and for the first time in nearly 15 years, Avro Vulcan XH558’s engines were throttled to the max and the aircraft took off from Bruntingthorpe Aerodrome, ready for it’s second life as a Cold War-era display aircraft.

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The Vulcan has been seen at almost every major airshow in the country over the last eight years but it was confirmed earlier this year that due to withdrawal of OEM support, the aircraft’s Permit To Fly would cease to exist before the year was out.

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Whether you’re a fan of the aircraft or like me, get frustrated at the very thought of it and it’s mass following, there’s no denying the impact that it’s had on the UK circuit, be it positive or negative.

During it’s post-RAF days, the aircraft has been flown in a fairly sedate manner and no matter how much the commentary goes on about the Vulcan ‘howl’, it’s not that captivating (not for me anyway). For the first time since it’s resurgence, I was absolutely blown away by Kev Rumens’ display on the Saturday of RIAT this year.

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The display started with an unusually short and steep take off with more power than I’ve ever seen from the aircraft, followed by a very tight turn over the hangars. Every part of the routine felt familiar but each segment was flown with so much more enthusiasm than had been seen previously. The display completed with a level pass that accelerated into a steep climb and ‘extreme’ wingover at the top of the tower. People looked around at each other and then back to the aircraft; “Was that a roll?”, I heard people saying. No, it wasn’t but it looked damn close!

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I was so taken aback by the routine that I barely have any photos of it! Rumens apparently received a slap on the wrists for that display, and understandably so but I am so happy that I can say ‘I was there’.

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Sadly, the rest of the display season returned to formality with sedate and mundane routines. After two country-wide farewell tours, numerous photo flights and a CAA investigation into an apparent barrel roll, the aircraft took it’s final flight at short notice from Robin Hood Airport and that was it; the end of Vulcan XH558.

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The decision to base XH558 at Robin Hood permanently after it’s retirement was questioned by many in the aviation community and the plans criticised by many. With such tight access enforced by the airport, it’s difficult to see how XH558 will last much longer than a couple of years (if that) before it becomes financially problematic.

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The only conceivable long-term solution would have been to have the aircraft return to Bruntingthorpe’s Cold War collection for fast-taxi purposes but with relationships broken there, and a rumoured outstanding debt, it’s not hard to see why Bruntingthorpe was never really on the table as a viable solution.

Looking to 2016

2016 will undoubtedly be a difficult year for the UK aviation community and understandably, a year of change. 2015 has been tough in places and more than ever before, we all need your help in securing a safe future for airshows in the UK.

2016 will also be a year of change for me as this 2015 review will be the last article that gets published on Tom Mercer Photography.

I have been working on a new and exciting aviation project that will be launching in the new year. ‘Aviation Highlights’ will be dedicated to bringing you news, articles and features similar to what you’ve so kindly been reading over the last three years or so, but bigger and better than ever before!

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The wheels are already in motion for ‘Aviation Highlights’ and I can now announce two features that I’m currently working on for publication early next year:

  • Working closely with Boeing, Aviation Highlights will be analysing their commitment to aviation in the UK, and taking a look inside one of the world’s aviation giants.
  • Aviation Highlights will also be working with RAF Brize Norton to get up close with two of the RAF’s latest acquisitions; the A400M ‘Atlas’ and A330 ‘Voyager’.

I will be covering major UK airshows over the course of the summer, as well as other key aviation events such as the Sea King Mk4 retirement from Royal Navy service and planned UK tour of the US-based ex-Royal Navy Fairey Gannet.

With Aviation Highlights taking the focus of my journalism, this website will return to it’s original photographic-heavy content.

Thank you for all support over the last few years, I hope you’ll join me on the next adventure by following @AvHighlights on Twitter!

Shuttleworth Uncovered

After a run of sold out events throughout the summer, the team at Old Warden wanted to end the season on a high with a special show that would allow people to get up close and personal with one of the country’s most special museums. The ‘Shuttleworth Uncovered’ show was all about getting people involved with the historical collection and it was a spectacular way to close the season.

Uncovering the Magic

As is normal with shows at Shuttleworth, the air display didn’t start until early in the afternoon but this meant that there was plenty of time to wander around the grounds and get a feel for what the museum is all about.

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Traditionally at Shuttleworth shows, you can pay a small amount extra and get access to the flightline to take close-up shots of the collection’s aircraft. This wasn’t the case at this event though.

The far end of the display line that is usually classified as ‘air side’ was turned into a small showground area where a number of participating aircraft were located. There were no barriers to contend with so you really could get as close to the action as was physically possible with staff encouraging you to participate in a number of activities.

Throughout the morning, museum personnel were giving a variety of talks about the various aircraft on display. The level of interaction between the public and museum staff was fantastic to see and the events team should be congratulated for the way that this was organised.

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Flying High

Shuttleworth is all about historical UK aviation and nothing says ‘British’ quite like the fighters of World War II. After a short flypast from the BBMF Dakota, three fighters formated for a number of flypasts before breaking off into their own solo displays; the based Hawker Sea Hurricane, newly acquired Hawker Hurricane (ex-Peter Vacher) and the recently restored Kennet Aviation Supermarine Seafire.

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The Seafire was particularly nice to see again and although I’d already seen it over the duration of the summer, this felt much closer and like a much more polished routine.

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The season closed at Shuttleworth last year with a spectacular mock air race from a bygone era and the team were keen to remind us of our racing heritage once more in the shape of the de Havilland DH.88 Comet and Percival Mew Gull. Both are famous in the world of air racing and it was an absolute delight to see these two together in the air again. If you’ve never seen it before then you are seriously missing out, the sight and sound of the Comet is just phenomenal!

On paper this perhaps shouldn’t have been one of the highlights of the show but the pairing of the Provost and visiting Harvard was beautiful. The routine was very well choreographed and for the most part, was an exceptionally tight formation. Like many displays at Shuttleworth, the pair made full use of the unique curved display line which made for some pretty special photographic opportunities.

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I’m the first one to admit that the Extra 300, at times, can be a little on the boring side; there are many of them around and when flown in formations aren’t the most exciting of displays. However, Mark Jefferies was booked to fly his Extra 330SC solo routine in front of the Old Warden crowd and quite honestly, it was possibly the best solo Extra routine I’ve seen to date.

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Having seen some fairly sedate (but beautiful) routines throughout the day from the collection’s aircraft, the fast pace of the routine was received with open arms. Flying a lengthy routine of varying maneuvers with smoke and firework-like pyrotechnics on the wing tips, seemed to be exactly what the crowd had been waiting for.

I’ve been documenting this industry for the best part of five years now and I have never seen a reaction from the crowd quite like after this performance. The entire crowd jumped to their feet, cheering, waving and clapping as Mark stepped out of his aircraft. Bravo Sir!

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As well as the above mentioned acts, there were also displays from the rest of the collection’s aircraft, including the incredibly rare and magnificent Edwardian aircraft but almost everyone at Shuttleworth was there for one thing; the final public display of Avro Vulcan XH558.

The show was a complete sellout and throughout the day anticipation and excitement had been building, with many discussing just how much they couldn’t wait to see the tin triangle making full use of the curved crowd line, allowing for that perfect top-side shot.

The Avro Anson had taken off fifteen minutes prior to the Vulcan’s display slot so it was obvious the two were going to formate for a special flypast. The crowd fell silent as the two historic aircraft flew on to the display line and carried out a couple of passes before breaking off.

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The stage was set for what (in principle) could have possibly been one of XH558’s standout displays of it’s second career; golden autumn light, a sellout crowd, a unique display line and an almost cloudless sky. Sadly it wasn’t to be.

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This should have been a really special display, something to remember the aircraft by, a stunning send-off for one of the nation’s most loved aircraft, but it was anything but special. The display felt just like any other display from the last eight years; sedate and completely underwhelming. The crew made absolutely no use of the curved display line and for the most part, it felt like the aircraft was being displayed over another county.

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I really was expecting something memorable from XH558 but it left many feeling disappointed and quite frankly, completely gutted at the missed opportunity.

Keeping the Magic Alive

More, now than ever before, the airshow community is under the microscope and is undergoing possibly the most significant review ever but what is incredibly comforting to see is that people are still massively interested in aviation.

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The Uncovered event was possibly the busiest I have ever seen at Shuttleworth and regardless of the ‘Vulcan Effect’, this is massively important given the current climate.

Once again, the team of dedicated people at Shuttleworth managed to put on an absolute spectacle of a show and while the ‘star’ of the show left a lot to be desired, the rest of the display programme was sublime.

See you next year!

27 Squadron Centenary

27 Squadron was formed back in 1915 as a Squadron within the Royal Flying Corps. During the last 100 years, the Squadron has been at the forefront of the modern battlefield and this week unveiled a special schemed Chinook to celebrate the occasion.

On 5th November 1915, 50 men were taken from No. 24 Squadron Royal Flying Corps and put under the control of Capt G J Malcolm with immediate effect, forming No. 27 Squadron. Since the Squadron’s formation, personnel have been involved in almost every major conflict since and have contributed to all aspects of air power.

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The Squadron was originally equipped with the Martinsyde G.100 ‘Elephant’ (hence the animal’s prominence on the Squadron crest), an aircraft originally intended for use as a fighter but one that actually found itself more suited to reconnaissance and bombing missions in 1916 when the unit moved to France during the Great War. Having participated in some of the biggest battles of the war, the Squadron re-equipped with the Airco DH.4 light bomber in 1917, before returning to the UK in 1920 to be disbanded. After an incredibly short hiatus, 27 Squadron was reformed and assumed air-policing duties over the North-West frontier.

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Less than 20 years later, the Squadron became a Flying Training School operating de Havilland Tiger Moths, Hawker Harts and Wapitis, before re-equipping once more with the Bristol Blenheim bomber. With the Second World War in full flow, 27 Squadron were relocated to Malaya and were tasked with fighting the Japanese advancements but were quickly overpowered and again disbanded in early 1942.

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Having reformed again later in 1942, the Squadron joined 47 Squadron and formed an anti-shipping Strike Wing with rocket-equipped Bristol Beaufighters. For the third time in its history, 27 Squadron were once again disbanded in 1946.

Over the following 40 years, the Squadron was disbanded again on two separate occasions but also underwent some drastic changes. Having flown Douglas Dakotas during the historic Berlin Airlift, the Squadron relocated once more to RAF Scampton in Lincolnshire where the unit flew the English Electric Canberra, and later, the mighty Avro Vulcan. 27 Squadron played a crucial role in the UK’s nuclear anti-deterrent strike force for more than a decade.

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The Squadron moved to RAF Marham in 1983 where they were allocated the brand new Panavia Tornado GR1, before moving to their current home of RAF Odiham and flying the Boeing Chinook.

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The Chinook has been involved in every major conflict since the type entered service and under the guise of 27 Squadron, remained a key part of ISAF operations in Afghanistan right up until the very end when UK forces were finally withdrawn from the country in April this year.

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The Squadron is always ready to deploy at short notice and this was certainly the case earlier this year when they were called upon to aid with the relief effort in Nepal. Although the support was ultimately not required in the end, the deployment proved that the Squadron is always ready to respond to a global crisis.

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For now at least, personnel are finally enjoying a rest from enduring frontline operations; happy centenary 27 Squadron!

Gazelle Squadron Night Shoot

Last weekend, the Gazelle Squadron held their first ever night shoot at Bourne Park Airfield. The weather had been fairly horrible during the day which meant that the ground was absolutely soaking! The clouds eventually cleared and under clear night sky, we were treated to the sight and sound of multiple aircraft based at the small, all-grass airfield.

Northolt Nightshoot – 8/10/15

A couple of weeks ago RAF Northolt hosted the 19th edition of their bi-annual night shoot. The Northolt night shoots are becoming more and more popular with each event, this time time attracting aircraft from the Royal Air Force, Empire Test Pilot School (Boscombe Down – Qinetiq) and French Presidential Fleet (Flotte Présidentielle).

Old Sarum Airshow

The county of Wiltshire is steeped in history and is world famous for being the home of Stonehenge. Just a few miles down the road lies the very traditional, picturesque Old Sarum Airfield. With beautiful rolling hills as a backdrop, the airfield is an almost ideal venue for an Airshow and although there was a small event held for the Para Charity last year, 2015 was the first time that a full-scale Airshow has been held on site. The organisers promised a varied display programme and a major headliner item;  I made the short trip down the A303 to see what the inaugural Old Sarum Airshow had to offer.

Rumblings of a new event at Old Sarum started doing the rounds at the beginning of the year but it wasn’t until the season had started that the Airshow was confirmed by its organisers. Almost as soon as the website went live, a list of possible participants was published and this included the mighty Avro Vulcan XH558. Initial reactions were understandably sceptical but once VTTS had confirmed their appearance, tickets for the Saturday show (the event was run over an entire weekend) were almost sold out. In the wake of Shoreham, the organisers chose to withdraw the Strikemaster display that had been booked to appear but other than that, the show was to carry on as scheduled.

A Winning Combination

Although the flying programme had been advertised as starting at 11:30am, the show didn’t get underway until 1:30pm.

Opening the show was supposed to be a Spitfire and Hurricane pair from Biggin Hill but sadly the Hurricane had run into an issue. Fortunately the team at Biggin Hill have a large array of warbirds to choose from so instead sent a pair of Spitfires.

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Once a number of items had departed to hold, the first Spitfire roared over the hangar and joined the display line with a beautiful topside pass. RW382 conducted a short solo routine before it was joined by the second Spitfire, TA805. The pair conducted a number of tight formation passes, as well as a stunning tail chase; once the pairs section was complete, TA805 became the centre of attention and closed off the opening act with its own display.

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The RAF Tutor display has been seen at many shows over the summer but I don’t think any venue has suited the aircraft as much as Old Sarum did. The Tutor is the Royal Air Force’s basic trainer and relies heavily on the use of altitude during its routine; the display starts high so that there is enough momentum for the opening sequence of manoeuvres. As such, the aircraft tends to get lost in the sky at some of the bigger shows but the short display line at Old Sarum meant that the aircraft felt much closer than usual so you were really able to appreciate the complexity of the routine.

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Having seen Peter Davies’ autogyro display earlier in the year at Abingdon, I had a rough idea of what to expect from the routine but was still blown away by Peter’s flying ability. On the premise of the aircraft being an autogyro, you would think to some degree that the display would be boring but it really is incredible. The little aircraft was thrown around the sky in a way that just shouldn’t be possible for something of that size. As I have already said elsewhere, Peter’s display really has been one of the most surprisingly impressive of the display season.

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It amazes me that even with the number of shows that I’ve been to over the years, there are still some acts that I’ve not seen and up until two weeks ago, Bob Grimstead and his Fournier RF-4 motorised glider were one of those acts. I had to research the aircraft type before the show as I wasn’t too sure what it was and I have to be honest, my first thought was ‘this is going to be dull’. How wrong could I have been?! Similar to Flt Lt Andy Preece’s display in the Tutor, the closeness and nature of the routine really demonstrated Bob’s superb flying ability. Bob has already asked if he can return to the show next year!

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Another two displays that I’d not seen before were those of the Auster TW536 and US Navy schemed Harvard. Both aircraft seemed to display quite far out and as a result didn’t seem to have much impact. Had they been closer, I’m confident that both would have been much more impressive.

There were three different display teams present at Old Sarum: Team Raven, The Turb Team and the Great War Display Team. I have seen the Turbs and GWDT at many shows over the summer; both are hugely entertaining and really seem to appeal to families of all ages.

This was the first time however that I had the opportunity to see Team Raven in the flesh. The team is formed of five Vans aircraft of varying models and as you would expect, the display has both formation and solo elements to it. The aircraft are decorated in slightly bizarre USAF markings that as far as I’m aware, are completely irrelevant to the team but then I guess it doesn’t matter all that much. After all, Miss Demeanour is a technicolour Hawker Hunter! The routine seemed a little rough around the edges, with slightly loose formations in places but nevertheless, the display was enjoyable to watch and the team has certainly got a lot of potential.

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I have been following Lauren Richardson’s progress on Twitter for some time now and it was fantastic to finally see her display in person. The Pitts Special is in incredibly agile little aircraft and is almost perfect for smaller shows. Lauren did her absolute best to entertain the capacity crowd and her display seemed to be greatly appreciated, right until the very final pass which came complete with a crowd line Mexican wave.

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The Spitfire pair weren’t the only warbirds in attendance at Old Sarum. Three other World War II veterans displayed over the skies of Salisbury: the latest restoration from the Royal Navy Historic Flight, Fairey Swordfish W5856, P-51 Mustang Ferocious Frankie and B-17 Sally B.

W5856 is the oldest flying aircraft in the Royal Navy and this was the first time that I had seen it display. The Swordfish is a truly incredible aircraft but it’s hard to believe that it fought alongside aircraft like the Seafire; the two seem worlds apart. The routine consisted of a number of graceful passes and while not the most energetic of displays, the Swordfish was still a delight to see.

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Nigel Lamb is a busy man and is currently in the midst of the Red Bull Air Race Championship but somehow he still finds the time to fly Ferocious Frankie (I can’t blame him really!). Nigel is a terrific display pilot with an impressive CV and his routines in the P-51 really are quite special. The routine was filled with the sound of the Mustang’s whine and although we didn’t know it at the time, Nigel wasn’t quite finished after his final low pass.

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The show was due to close with a formation flypast from XH558 and Sally B but after an extensive photo sortie along the south coast, XH558 had begun to experience difficulties with what was described as ‘a severe fuel leak’. Much to the disappointment of the crowds at both Old Sarum and Goodwood (where she was also due to display at the Revival), the crew had no choice but to return to Doncaster as soon as possible. This left the organisers with a small gap in the programme but after a quick radio chat, Nigel agreed to take the Vulcan’s place in the formation and in my eyes, this formation made much more sense. After all, the P-51 is at home escorting bombers to their destination.

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After two passes, Ferocious Frankie departed back to Duxford and left Sally B to close the show in style. There is no doubt about it, the B-17 was a perfect closing act and every single inch of the Wiltshire sky was filled with the glorious sight and sound of Sally B; over an airfield the size of Old Sarum, the aircraft looked spectacular.

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So Much To Learn

It’s fair to say that the display programme for Old Sarum was fantastic but unfortunately the same cannot be said for the rest of the show.

From the very moment the show was announced, confusion surrounded everything to do with the event. The website was incredibly basic and amazingly didn’t even tell you any timings for the show. There was no official Facebook Page or even a Twitter handle, and in this day and age you’re simply foolish to take social media for granted when it comes to PR and advertising.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, things got even more confusing when tickets went on sale. Tickets for the parking and show entry had to be purchased separately for some reason and had both a ‘face value’ and ‘actual value’. As far as I can see there wasn’t any real reason for this but it was certainly one of the strangest pricing structures I’ve ever seen for an airshow.

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People turned up on the Saturday nice and early for the ‘Gates Open’ time of 8.30am (which was printed on tickets) only to be told that gates weren’t actually opening for another hour. Once inside, there was an announcement to say that the flying wouldn’t start until 1:30pm, some two hours later that had been previously mentioned online. Bearing this in mind, and the fact that there were only a handful of retail stalls on site, this meant that some people had arrived on site somewhere between 7.30am-8:00am to then wait six hours for something to happen. I just can’t understand why gates opened so early in the morning for a flying display that started so late in the day; the mind boggles.

I think it’s also pretty obvious looking at the two days that the so-called ‘Vulcan Effect’ was in full force on the Saturday. The first day of the show was almost a complete sell-out and while this shouldn’t have been a problem, the organisers were unfortunately let down by a large percentage of their booked caterers when the simply didn’t turn up. This meant that there were just three options for food and drink, including the airfield café. With clear skies, warm weather and LOTS of people, some were left queuing for over 45 minutes just to get a burger. Sadly this couldn’t be helped.

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Although the flying itself was exemplary, the air-side organisation along the crowd line left a lot to be desired. Participating aircraft were parked all across the front of people for most of the display line and this meant that take-off and landing shots were almost impossible. I appreciate that people might want to be close to the action but there was so much other space at either end of the crowd line that the aircraft had no need to be parked where they were.

I really do hate to be so negative about a show in its first year but I feel that so many of these things could have been avoided if they’d just been planned a little better. That’s not to say that the organisers didn’t work hard to get this show sorted but everything just felt incredibly rushed. In a world where something can be published in as few as 140 characters, it seems inexcusable that the organisers couldn’t even provide correct timings for the show.

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It would also seem, as much as I hate to say it, that the attendance figures on the Saturday were mostly related to the planned appearance of the Vulcan. From photos and comments I’ve seen online, Sunday by contrast was incredibly quiet in terms of attendees. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Airshow returned next year as a single day event.

All that said, it’s not all doom and gloom for the Old Sarum Airshow. The event has proven that an Airshow can take place at this beautiful venue and even with all the frustrations on the day, the show itself has so much potential. The organisers have already apologised for some of the confusion surrounding the show and with a little more thought and planning, I don’t see any reason why Old Sarum Airshow can’t become a regular on the UK circuit.

On the whole, Old Sarum Airshow was a hugely frustrating event but I’m really excited to see what the future holds for this newcomer.

Welcome to the wonderful world of Airshows!

Dunsfold Wings & Wheels

For over 50 years Dunsfold Aerodrome’s history remained top secret under the protection of the Official Secrets Act but in 1990 the government declassified records and the importance of Dunsfold was revealed to all. The airfield played a crucial role in the Second World War but once war was over, the airfield was declared as inactive in 1946. Some five years later, the airfield once again returned to the forefront of British aviation and became home to the infamous Hawker Aircraft Company, where the boundaries of modern technology were pushed to their limits in order to design, test and develop aircraft like the Harrier and Hawk. It’s fair to say that Dunsfold Aerodrome is a shadow of its former self but each year the public are welcomed on to the historical site to enjoy the wonderful Wings & Wheels show.

In recent weeks the Airshow community has been thrown into a media frenzy, with every aspect of the industry coming under extreme scrutiny following the tragic accident at the Shoreham Airshow. Strict measures were instantly put in place to help prevent a similar incident occurring; all UK-based Hawker Hunter variants were grounded, pending a full investigation by the AAIB, and all vintage jet aircraft displays were temporarily restricted to a number of flypasts, rather than their usual aerobatic sequences.

In light of this news, a number of events up and down the country announced that they had decided to cancel or postpone their event, but this wasn’t really an option for the Wings & Wheels team. The team quickly realised that now, more than ever before, the Airshow community needed to stand strong, acknowledge what had happened but at the same time, continue to demonstrate just how safe the UK Airshow circuit is and to re-confirm that this country really does have one of the safest and strictest set of Airshow regulations anywhere in the world (regulations that are the envy of many foreign nations).

Aviation at its Best

In September 2013, one of the last RAF VC-10’s touched down at Dunsfold Aerodrome for the final time. Brooklands and Dunsfold Park had worked together to acquire this example and the plan was for the aircraft to be in taxiing condition by the weekend of the show in 2014. Due to a number of technical difficulties (and perhaps an underestimation in what was required in maintaining such a complex aircraft) this didn’t happen but it was promised that the Conway engines would roar once more at Wings & Wheels this year; and boy did they roar! Brooklands delivered on their promise and much to the enthusiasts’ delight, opened the Sunday show with two fast taxis up and down the runway.

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With the VC-10 runs complete and the first round of motoring out of the way, it was time to reflect on the events at Shoreham and hold a minute’s silence. As the announcement was made over the  loud speakers, people immediately stood to show their respect; it was so silent that I’m pretty sure you could have heard a pin drop on the other side of the airfield!

The end of the 60 seconds were signalled by Peter Teichman in his P-40 Kittyhawk screaming over the tree tops and carrying out a victory roll over the aerodrome, before going to hold briefly prior to conducting his solo display. Peter is one of the best (perhaps the best) warbird display pilots going, so for him to take part in this way was an extremely fitting tribute to the events that had occurred just a week previous.

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Rich Goodwin’s ‘Muscle Biplane’ act is becoming increasingly popular on the UK circuit and for Wings & Wheels, his display had been altered slightly to include a number of ‘races’ in which he tried to match his ability with that of a Porsche 911 that was going at speed up and down the tarmac. There is no doubt about it, Rich Goodwin’s aerobatic ability is phenomenal and no two displays are exactly the same due to the nature of the free-flow routine; the Pitts Special is a great little aircraft and it was certainly pushed to its limits by Goodwin.

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A familiar sight at Dunsfold is the Aces High DC-3 Dakota. The aircraft has been a star of many Hollywood films and TV series, and has a rather unique, distressed look to it. For such a large aircraft, this display was flown with exceptional grace and was an extremely photogenic display. I’ve seen this routine on a number of occasions over the last few years and this was easily one of the most polished to date.

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Another common sight at Wings & Wheels was the Old Flying Machine Company pairing of Spitfire MH434 and P-51 Mustang Ferocious Frankie. This act has been at the event on numerous occasions over the last few years but the display always manages to impress with its tight formations and solo routines. The formation section of the display seemed especially tight this year and the pilots of OFMC really have to be applauded for their skills in flying such historic aircraft.

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Although the 2015 Chinook Display team is made up of members of 27 Squadron, the team have been displaying in the 18 (B) Squadron centenary-schemed aircraft at a number of events over the summer. The aircraft has been somewhat of a ‘problem child’ over the course of the season but finally, I was able to see the display in this special commemorative paint scheme. In my opinion, the Odiham-based team have easily won the award (again) for the most consistently impressive RAF display this year; there’s something about the gravity-defying, tandem rotor routine that just never gets boring.

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Returning to the Surrey airfield again was the Dutch B-25 Mitchell. Even though the aircraft are very different, the RAF could learn a trick or two from display routines like this; the B-25 was thrown about the dull grey sky and almost instantly brought a bit of colour to proceedings. Always a welcome sight and a thoroughly entertaining display.

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One of the stars of the show for me was the Norwegian Air Force Historic Squadron MiG-15. This was fortunately the only aircraft affected by the temporary display regulations and whilst the aircraft was a joy to see (and one that I’ve never actually seen in the air before), the tame routine left a lot to be desired. There didn’t appear to be much of the trademark Russian-built black smoke but I’m guessing that’s because the display wasn’t flown at any real speed. A disappointing display in my eyes but this couldn’t be helped; in terms of the aircraft though, it’s another one that I can tick off my wish-list!

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I can’t really believe that I’m saying this but the Breitling Wingwalkers have been fairly absent from the display circuit this summer with much of their work being focused on a more international scale, with trips to India, Japan and Dubai. To see them back in the air down South was a welcome sight and whilst their display is of a much slower pace to most items, the formation and opposing sections of the routine are incredibly photogenic. The sound of the radial engines is also something that I’ll never tire of!

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The RAF Hawk T2 Display Team are new to the circuit this year and their display is built around a role-demonstration, with a view to showing off the capabilities of the modern jet-trainer aircraft. The RAF Valley-based team have built a routine that shows off the aircraft’s agility nicely but at times the two-ship passes feel very distant. The pyrotechnics add another dimension to the display and I feel that this team has an awful lot of potential. In their inaugural year, they’ve done Valley proud!

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The rest of the air segment featured displays from The Blades, Turb Team, two Aerobility-backed routines (Yak-52 and Glider – both flown by Guy Westgate), Sally-B, the RAF Typhoon/Spitfire Synchro Pair, RAF Tutor and the RAF Typhoon Display Team. The solo Typhoon display was perhaps the most impressive Eurofighter Typhoon display I’ve ever seen; the combination of noise, power and reheat wrapped up the 2015 show in style.

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The Vulcan was due to attend but must to the disappointment of the crowd, XH558 couldn’t get through the bad weather front that was lingering around country for most of the day.

There were many intriguing acts this year but I can’t help but feel that the aviation element of Wings & Wheels is starting to feel a little stagnant. If you look at the above, the B-25, Blades, Turb Team, OFMC pair, DC-3 and to a degree, the Kittyhawk, are all acts that appear at Dunsfold almost every year (or at least feel like they’re far too common there). With the wealth of warbirds and display teams in this country, I find it difficult to understand why we don’t see more variety at Wings & Wheels year on year.

With the Vulcan exiting the display scene later this year, I really hope that the organisers make the most of the spare funding and book some really interesting (and new to the event) items in 2016.

Also, what happened to the large-scale model section this year?

Burning Rubber

Keeping true to the ‘Wheels’ part of the event’s name, the show also focuses heavily on motoring with two sections of running from both historic and modern-day cars and motorbikes.

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The first segment runs right at the beginning of the day and the noise that some of the vehicles produce is almost spine-tingling at times. Whether you’re interested in motoring or not, the speed at which some of these cars can go is truly fascinating and the first run is always something that I’m interested in. To see so many beautiful motors at once is a real treat.

I guess that’s where one of my main problems with the show comes from. Just two hours later, that entire run of cars and motorbikes is repeated and you end up with an almost identical 60-minute slot of driving. No one usually watches any given TV programme and then re-watches the exact same episode just two hours later that day; why would you?

It’s not the first time that I’ve said this and I have a feeling that it won’t be the last, but the motoring element of the show really could benefit from a little re-think. Why not break up the running order into two sections so that you don’t have to just run a repeat session? Many people immediately around me were making similar comments on the day and a large proportion of the crowd line took the second session as an excuse to go and get some food or have a toilet break. A few years back I remember seeing a Mercedes-Benz act at Dunsfold; what happened to that? Motoring entertainment acts do exist and I can’t understand why they’re not used more at shows like this.

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Still a Top Show

Despite the slightly familiar air displays and repetitive motoring sections, Wings & Wheels is still a very enjoyable event and always manages to provide an entertaining day at a reasonable ticket price.

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The team are always thinking on their feet and brought in a load of hay for the weekend to help out with the extremely boggy ground. The showground itself wasn’t too bad but the car park itself was incredibly muddy and slippery. The car park could have really benefitted from some metal tracking on the main paths coming in and out but as it dried out towards the end of the day, it got a little better.

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It was also great to see an even larger range of catering options available on site this year; people are definitely willing to spend a little more at the moment, as long as they’re getting a quality product in return.

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Many have moaned about the queues getting out of the car park but from what I can gather, this wasn’t really avoidable. A lot of people decided to leave once they found out that the Vulcan wasn’t attending (an hour or so before the end of the show) and at that time, by design, there weren’t as many marshals around to direct traffic so it became a free-for-all to get out first. Had some people hung around at the end of the show, grabbed a coffee and listened to the live music, they would have found that getting out of the site was in fact incredibly easy; it was then only the slow moving traffic all the way to Guildford that was a problem but that seems to be completely unavoidable.

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In my eyes, the organisers have got a little work to do for the 2016 show but I can guarantee that I’ll be there regardless of any changes. Wings & Wheels is still a great show and for atmosphere and friendliness, is still one of the best on the display calendar.

Red Bull Air Race – Round 5, Ascot Racecourse

For the second year running, the UK leg of the Red Bull Air Race championships took place at Ascot Racecourse; a track that’s more used to hosting horse racing than air racing. Staged over three days; Practice on Friday, Qualifying on Saturday and the Race on the Sunday, the weekend promised to be full of adrenaline and excitement for the capacity crowd.

Qualifying took place on the Saturday of the race weekend and determined the starting order for Sunday. For those unfamiliar with the format of the Red Bull Air Race, Race Day is broken down into three distinct rounds; Round of 14, Round of 8 and then Final 4, as described below:

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As the race itself didn’t start until mid-afternoon, there was a chance to get up close and personal with both the pilots and aircraft in the pit area. It was more than a little refreshing to be invited into most of the hangars for a chat and some unique photo opportunities, with most of the participants available to answer any queries.

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It was also great to see so many people waiting at the fence to grab photos and autographs from their favourite pilots.

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Race Report

The format of the Round of 14 means that those that perhaps didn’t perform to the best of their ability during qualifying, effectively get given a second chance to proceed in the race and in the most extreme case can mean that the slowest person from Saturday knocks the fastest person out.

Importantly for the home crowd, there were two pilots flying the flag for Great Britain; Nigel Lamb of the Breitling Racing Team and Paul Bonhomme of Team Bonhomme, winner of the Ascot race in 2014 and leader of the 2015 championship.

Nigel Lamb went up against Kirby Chambliss (Team Chambliss) in Heat 5 and picked up a 2-second time penalty for ‘Incorrect Level Flying’ which meant that his chances of progressing to the next round were severely impacted. However, Chambliss then went on to pick up a similar time penalty in the last stages of his run and this meant that incredibly, Lamb was through to the Round of 8.

The rest of the field continued with their duals and after a particularly intense Heat between Matt Hall and Pete McLeod, Hall joined Muroya, Bensenyei, Ivanoff, Sonka and Lamb to take up his place in the Round of 8.

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Qualifying fastest on Saturday, Paul Bonhomme was in the best position possible to crack on with getting the job done on Sunday but it wasn’t going to be easy. Hannes Arch took to the sky first and set the fastest time of the day so far, putting his terrible qualifying behind him and guaranteed himself a place in the Round of 8. Bonhomme was under pressure to perform but just couldn’t quite put his mark on the circuit and lost out to Arch by seven tenths of a second but fortunately for Paul and the team, his time was enough to get him through to the next round as the Fastest Loser.

After a short break, the Round of 8 got underway and saw Lamb facing off against Australia’s Matt Hall. Lamb appeared to be in a world of his own as he posted his quickest time of the weekend but it just simply wasn’t enough to beat a truly stunning performance from Hall which saw the Brit instantly knocked out.

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Matt Hall joined Muroya and Ivanoff in the Final 4 with just the last place to be decided in Heat 7.

The Race format meant that Bonhomme was to face Arche once more and Paul put in a stunning time that set the bar high but unfortunately the crowd were robbed of that fight. For the second time in the weekend, Hannes Arch and UBFS Racing were unable to get their engine started and after running out of time were declared out; Bonhomme was through and within reach of the top prize.

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Unlike the previous two rounds, the Final 4 is a straight fight and the best time wins. Bonhomme was set to fly last and it was looking like all he had to do was fly a clean lap as each of the finalists picked up time penalties, with Hall guaranteeing himself second place on the podium, setting a time of 1:09.024.

As Bonhomme started his run to the first gate, 29,000 people were on their feet cheering and clapping with encouragement for the home team. Eyes darted between watching Bonhomme fly tightly around the gates and to the big TV screens in front of the crowd. As Paul reached the final gate he was well within the green and meant that as he shot through the finish gate and into the vertical, he had completed his lap in a time of 1:06.416 – just under three seconds faster than Hall!

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For the second time in two years, Paul Bonhomme claimed first place at Ascot and goes into Round 6 of the Championship with a lead of eight points over Matt Hall.

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Filling The Gaps

Tasked with entertaining the massive crowd between the Rounds were the AAC Apache Helicopter Display Team, RAF Chinook Display Team and Breitling Wingwalkers.

2015 has seen the Apache team conducting a pairs role demonstration but due to the confined display line at Ascot, this was not possible. Instead a solo aircraft took to the sky and put the helicopter through its paces much to the delight of the crowd, many of whom had not seen the aircraft before judging by various comments that could be heard. The display may have lacked the explosive punch that we’ve become accustomed to over the last few months but it certainly did a good job of showing off the agility of the aircraft.

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Having stunned the crowd with their gravity-defying routine in 2014, Red Bull invited the Chinook Display Team back to Ascot to once again demonstrate the incredible manoeuvrability of the tandem-rotor aircraft. Chucking the helicopter about the sky seemed to leave an incredible lasting impression with the crowd as almost everyone rose to their feet and applauded the team as they bowed and exited to land back on. There may have been no running landing in their display but the increased number of nose-down quick-stops seemed to go down well!

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The Breitling Wingwalkers have been busy all over the world this year and incredibly, Ascot was the first time that I had seen them display this season. Unfortunately for the team, there was little wind and this meant that their smoke lingered on the display line for longer than was desirable but the full two-ship display still seemed to entertain the crowd.

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The Venue

There’s no doubt about it, Ascot Racecourse has a fantastic atmosphere and is an incredible place for flying but there is a lot about the venue that leaves a sour taste in the mouth.

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Like in 2014, it was as if no-one had told the people on the gates that this wasn’t going to be a normal race day and when help was needed, a number of staff didn’t appear to have the answers that were required. One particular member of staff on the entrance gates was heard telling a paying visitor that they were not allowed to bring their picnic in and that they must eat it all before they got in as ‘his boss wanted them to spend their money inside the gates’ – this wasn’t a joke either, he was deadly serious. Similar reports of this sort of behaviour were also voiced on social media over the weekend, leading me to think that perhaps the guidelines for picnics needs to be revised for the event next year; especially when the prices of food and drink on the premises were higher than even the most expensive Airshows on the calendar. While there was certainly lots of variety, charging £8 for a single burger is unbelievably expensive when you’ve already paid £40 entry.

Ascot provided yet another fantastically exciting race weekend and I’m already looking forward to it again next year but certain aspects of the venue need to be refined if it’s going to attract the same people back again.

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!

Black Cats Helicopter Display Team

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

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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

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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.

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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!

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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!