2015 Aviation Highlights

Aviation, Features

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!

Flywheel Festival

2015, Aviation, Reviews

During the Second World War, RAF Bicester was home to many different frontline types including the Spitfire, Halifax, Anson and Blenheim, and was instrumental in the training of operational bomber squadrons. Today though, the ex-MoD site is owned by Bicester Heritage Ltd and remains largely intact with a number of listed buildings still in place. Bicester Heritage bought the facility with the intent of creating the UK’s first ‘business park’ dedicated to preserving historic motoring and aviation, whilst using the existing infrastructure to run their operation. Having formed a small events team in 2014, ‘Flywheel Festival’ was born and the gates to Bicester Heritage were opened for the inaugural show of all things vintage.

It’s very rare these days for new shows to arrive on the UK circuit but Flywheel Festival slotted into the calendar nicely and brought something refreshingly new to the table; a vintage style ‘wings and wheels’ show that gorged on themes from a bygone era.

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Almost the moment that you stepped foot inside the venue, you could tell that this event was going to be something special; the smell of oil and fuel was incredible! The day promised both on-track action and displays in the air, and I have to be honest that even with the horrendous weather on the Saturday (sadly the only day I could make it), the show was incredibly enjoyable.

Start Your Engines!

I have been following the story of Bicester Heritage for a number of months now and it has been somewhere that I’ve been wanting to visit for a while. There is something so incredibly enticing about the world of historical motoring so I was really looking forward to getting up close and personal with some of the most influential cars from the past 70 years.

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The paddock was located just behind the old Air Traffic Control tower and was designed almost perfectly for the visiting public. The cars were lined up and parked (mostly) in their running order to make the process of getting to the track as fluid as possible. There were no big metal barriers preventing you from getting up close to the vehicles, just a small line of rope that spent most of the day on the floor.

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I found that the owners were more than happy to openly discuss the highs and lows of owning such temperamental historic motors, and most were actually keen to get you as close to the cars as you wanted to be. The atmosphere in the paddock area was fantastic and there was a real buzz about the place; it seemed that everyone was completely aware of their surroundings and knew exactly when they needed to get out of the way without even being asked to move.

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With my pass collected and the sound of engines starting up, it was time to head around to the far side of the track and start capturing the action.

The circuit was a simple figure of eight controlled by a team of marshals and was lined with hay bales in case anything took a turn for the worse. The persistent rain pretty much all day meant that the ground was wet and slippery but it didn’t seem to stop some drivers from pushing the limits of their ability! It took some time to work out where to get the best shots but the beauty of it was that it was so easy to move about the outside of the track.

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Austin 7 Ulster Special, 1930

The track acted as the arena of the complex and was surrounded by vintage vehicles that were dotted all over the showground. This included a number of WWII tanks, a Dakota that was flown in on the Friday as well as plenty of other vintage cars and trucks.

The on-track driving started shortly after the gates opened and ran for most of the day. Each driver would have at least two runs before the session ended and the idea was that when the track sessions were complete and the drivers were prepping for the next round, something would take to the skies to entertain the crowds. Due to the weather this didn’t exactly go as planned but we’ll get to that later.

Being so close to the action offered something that many ‘wings and wheels’ style events don’t because the motoring aspect normally only occurs on the runway but with the all-grass runway at Bicester, that wasn’t an option.

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Sprite Sebring, 1960

As I said earlier, the on-track driving was split up into a number of sessions that ran throughout the day so you could quite easily experiment with your locations and photography techniques; if you missed the shot that you wanted the first time around, you were pretty much guaranteed that you’d get another chance to get it right! In the constant drizzle this proved almost invaluable.

The driving was incredibly entertaining and was narrated fantastically by a very knowledgeable team. For motoring novices like myself, this was a much needed part of the day and I think without it, the event would have been very different (and not necessarily in a good way).

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Allard J2, 1950

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Lotus Mk X, 1955

Towards mid-afternoon I have to admit that I was starting to lose interest in seeing the same cars go around again but I think that’s because I was photographing them for most of the day up until that point. I felt that the motoring side of the event could have been improved slightly by changing the track layout midday, it would have been fairly simple to reconfigure the figure of eight into an oval and by doing so, would have allowed the drivers to get up a little more speed on the straights to demonstrate the true power of their engines.

Preparing For Take-Off

The persistent rain, low cloud base and exceptionally poor visibility had a massive effect on the air displays that took place on the Saturday.

The display programme was delayed by approximately 90 minutes but the afternoon’s flying finally got going when the beautiful Dragon Rapide started its engine and gracefully took to the sky. It may have been raining still (quite heavily actually) but what followed was ten minutes of exceptionally majestic display flying by David Finnegan. This was the first time that I had seen this particular Rapide in the sky but the shape and sound of the aircraft never ceases to impress. This was possibly some of the most challenging weather I’ve shot in recently but I just about came away with some usable images.

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As the weather continued to deteriorate, the Great War Display Team were forced to delay their display by almost an hour but it was well worth the wait. I’ve seen these guys perform a number of times over recent years and have found their routine a little confusing if you can’t quite hear the commentary that goes with the display. However, at Flywheel the commentary was more than audible which meant that the display flowed incredibly well and for the first time (that I’ve ever seen anyway) small pyrotechnics were used on the ground to add another dimension to the display. The team put on a brilliant demonstration of WWI dogfighting tactics and should be applauded.

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As the Tiger Nine started to prepare for their flight, the heavens opened and most were forced to take cover under one thing or another. Fortunately I was stood near the corporate hospitality tent at the time and the staff were more than happy for us to take shelter and wait the rain out. A massive thank you to all involved for allowing this to happen.

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The clouds finally started to break and allowed the nine de Havilland Tiger Moths to form up on the runway, ready for the start of their display. I’ve read a lot about this team and heard many interesting tales about them but amazingly, in the five years I’ve been interested in this hobby, I’d never actually seen them display before.

The display itself consisted of a number of formation fly-bys before breaking crowd centre and finishing the routine with a mass flypast. It sounds simple and it was, but at the same time it was a faultless demonstration of just why this particular aircraft was such a popular choice when training the RAF fighter pilots of the 1940s. The raw talent of the pilots was clear to see with such precise and graceful formation manoeuvres. This display was a superb fit for the historic surroundings.

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It was by this time that unfortunately, due to the weather, both the Spitfire and Blenheim were forced to call it a day. The storms that had recently passed over the Oxfordshire countryside had now reached further east and had got quite a lot worse. This meant that a safety call was made and that both aircraft remained on the ground at their respective airfields.

It would seem that the organisers were incredibly eager to get both these aircraft on the ground early on Sunday and true to their word, that’s exactly what happened. As the Blenheim touched down at its former base, the crowd erupted into spontaneous applause; by all accounts it was a pretty emotional moment for many of the older generation that were present. The Blenheim was followed closely by the photo-reconnaissance Spitfire of Peter Teichman and both went on to perform spectacular displays later that day.

© Chris Byrne, Flywheel Festival 2015

Back to Saturday though and it was over to the single Yak-50 of the Yakovlevs Display Team to close the show. The blanket of grey made way for some rare clear blue sky and with that, the purpose-built aerobatic aircraft quickly gained altitude to begins its full display. The Yak-50 is renowned for its aerobatic ability and is a previous winner of the World Aerobatic Championships, on two separate occasions.

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I have seen this particular display many times and it never ceases to impress. The Yak-50 is an incredible piece of Russian engineering and has an unmistakable sound that goes hand in hand with its epic aerobatic capability. The solo display was a fitting finale for the Flywheel Festival’s first day and meant that the show ended on a high note.

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As for the Sunday finale, well it was supposed to be ‘nation’s favourite aircraft’; the mighty Avro Vulcan. XH558 is sadly now in her final display season and the Flywheel Festival organisers had worked exceptionally hard to secure the flypast to sign-off their inaugural show but it wasn’t to be. Due to an unforeseen incident on the runway at Doncaster airport, the Vulcan was forced to sit running idle for longer than anticipated and this led to the aircraft being lower on fuel than had been planned for.

Unfortunately no-one at Bicester was informed of this and as a result the large crowd that had turned out to see the majestic lady, were forced to wait for something that was never going to happen. The organisers tried to contact personnel of VTTS on multiple occasions but there was no answer and no explanation of what was going on until it was too late. The news that the Bicester flypast had been scrubbed only reached the team at 1715 when they eventually managed to get hold of the PR representative. VTTS had been tweeting for the duration of their flight and regardless of whether they were in the air or on the ground somewhere, it would have been incredibly easy for them to let Flywheel know. In a time where you can say so much with just 140 characters, it seems almost unacceptable that people were left uninformed and disappointed until the very last minute. Such a shame as this could have been a superb ending to the weekend.

Due to the cancellations, the air display was left feeling a little thin but I love what they’re trying to be achieve at Bicester. If Flywheel is to continue (and I believe it will), the air display needs to feature just as heavily as the motoring and more iconic aircraft from the period should be included. It would be fantastic if the budget could stretch to a couple of vintage jets too; obviously they wouldn’t be able to operate from the airfield itself but they would fit in perfectly. At the end of the day this will all come down to budget.

So Much Promise

As the dust begins to settle, the team at Flywheel Festival can look back on their first show and be incredibly proud of what they’ve managed to achieve.

Even with the horrific weather on the Saturday, some 6000+ people attended the show over the two days. At £25 for an adult ticket (that also included a free in-depth souvenir programme worth £5) the event was good value for money, especially if you’re interested in both elements of the show.

The food and drink on offer was of a quality that many air show goers are not particularly used to; freshly made pizzas prepared and cooked while you wait, and freshly made burgers that were cooked to order. The food at each outlet was fairly priced with the most expensive pizza costing just £7 – I don’t know about everyone else but I am much happier paying that sort of money for quality rather than just a couple of pounds less for an average greasy burger.

With a little tweaking here and there, this event has the potential to be one of the highlights on the UK circuit. Bicester Heritage oozes class and prestige, and on that alone promises an awful lot of excitement for the future.

I truly believe that the 2016 show will be an absolute must!

Bruntingthorpe Cold War Jets Day

2015, Aviation, Reviews

Bruntingthorpe Aerodrome has become synonymous with the golden age of British aviation and is home to a collection that makes any enthusiast feel like they’ve time travelled to a bygone era. The airfield opens its gates to the public twice a year for the Cold War Jets Day event; a whole day filled with the thundering sound of old-school jet engines. Bruntingthorpe has been on my to-do list for a number of years now and I thought it was about time to make the 250 mile round-trip to check out what all the fuss is about.

Based just outside of Lutterworth in Leicestershire, the Aerodrome is the former site of RAF Bruntingthorpe and was originally constructed as a heavy bomber base during the Second World War. After the War the airfield was taken over by Powerjets Ltd.; Frank Whittle’s highly experimental jet aircraft testing company, and was later used as the base for Avro Vulcan XH558’s overhaul and return to flight in 2008.

Today, Bruntingthorpe Aerodrome is home to one of the greatest (if not the best) collections of Cold War-era aircraft anywhere in the world and the talented team of volunteers pride themselves on the large number of airframes that are kept in a ground running capacity.

After just over two and a half hours of driving, I pulled up and entered an exceptionally nostalgic world of jet-powered aviation.

WARNING! You May Lose Your Hearing…

The day’s running didn’t start until around 1130am so this gave plenty of time to have a look around the ‘museum’ section of the airfield. Between the ex-RAF Tristars and VC-10s are a number of aircraft that have been collected by the site over recent years.

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The aircraft are all looking a little worse for wear but I guess that’s what you’d expect from a collection that’s housed outside in all that Mother Nature has to offer. Reminiscent of the Gatwick Aviation Museum, Bruntingthorpe offers aircraft a place to retire and live out the rest of their lives being adored by those that have fond memories of the British aviation industry. The aircraft – with their peeling and cracked paintwork – make excellent subjects for close-up photography and I have to admit I was completely in my element and spent the best part of two hours crouching in all sorts of weird positions to get the shots I wanted.

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It was soon time to grab my place on the relatively short (and restrictive) crowd line and the first aircraft of the day to fire up it’s engines was the last-serving ex-RAF Nimrod MR2. The aircraft was officially handed over on April 29th 2010 and has been kept in ground-running condition ever since. I vaguely remember seeing the Nimrod at airshows but I’d never seen it as up-close as this! With the rain continuing to saturate the runway, XV226 pirouetted in front of the crowd before blasting straight down the runway.

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Bruntingthorpe is home to four Blackburn Buccaneers that are looked after by The Buccaneer Aviation Group and two of these were in serviceable condition for running. XW554 was first to take to the damp runway.

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As the crew began to pour on the coals, I put my ear defenders on and got goosebumps as the glorious Buccaneer roared ferociously down the tarmac. I’ve only ever seen these aircraft in museums before, so to see something like this right in front of me really was quite incredible.

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The fantastic thing, as I’ve already mentioned, is that this was just the first of two Buccaneers to run. The second came much later in the afternoon and unlike the first one, looked completely beaten up; just how an aircraft should look when it’s retired from active service. The runway had dried up by the time XX900 (owned by David Walton) took to the stage but even without the spray, the Buccaneer is a truly incredible aircraft and created one of the most spine-tingling moments of the day!

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After a flurry of Jet Provosts, the peculiar looking ex-RAE (Royal Aircraft Establishment) Canberra WT333 – affectionately known as ‘Trebble Three’. WT333 didn’t enter service with the RAF and instead served purely as a flying testbed with the likes of the RAE at Farnborough and Boscombe Down.

The Canberra fired up in a plume of thick black smoke and with engines running, the bulbous airframe stumbled down the runway and greeted the crowd with a slow head-on turn before returning to her starting position. With the throttle on, WT333 started rolling down the tarmac at speed and lifted its nose into the air; you could almost feel how much she wanted to get off the ground!

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I quickly realised that my 70-300mm lens was going to be a bit of a tight fit for some of the aircraft even at the 70mm end and I paid the price with the Victor – it was just too big to get in the frame.

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Designed and built by the Handley Page Aircraft Company, the Victor was the last of the three V-Bombers to enter service with the Royal Air Force in 1958 and the last to be retired in 1993 (albeit in a different role by that point).

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As XM715 blasted down the runway, the rumble of the four Conway engines reverberated throughout your body and sadly, before you knew it, the chute was deployed and the aircraft was slowing down in the distant heat haze. A truly awesome sight; I can only imagine what it must have looked like in the sky.

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It was soon time for the moment that I had been waiting for literally all day, the English Electric Lightning.

The Lightning Preservation Group owns both Lightnings at Bruntingthorpe and they’re both stored in the relatively new QRA shed, just off the old taxiway. Both are in ground running condition but only XR728 was serviceable; I didn’t care to be honest, I’d never seen a Lightning moving under it’s own power before so I was just desperate to see one!

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I’d been pretty brave with shutter speeds for most of the day, lingering somewhere between 1/80 sec and 1/160th sec and so far it’d been great. The shutter speed was dialled in at 1/100th sec; what a mistake to make! I completely underestimated the speed of the Lightning and quickly lost track of it through the viewfinder as it shot past. As a result, I didn’t capture a single sharp shot of it on full reheat but hand on heart, I can honestly say I’m not that bothered – I was completely astounded by the raw power of those engines. The thrust was like nothing I’d ever experienced and it was easily my highlight of the day.

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The freshly painted L-29 Delfin made a brief appearance on the tarmac before the VC-10 brought an end to the day’s proceedings. It was quite strange to see the VC-10 just rolling along the runway, it seems like only yesterday that these graceful aircraft were still in the skies above RAF Brize Norton. Regardless of the relatively short time that’s passed since their retirement, it was really good to see ZD241 taking a stroll again.

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Organised Chaos

That’s what springs to mind anyway when I think about everything other than the aircraft.

The programme of aircraft runnings for the day is changeable and with such complex aircraft I completely understand that. What I didn’t quite understand was the 30-45 minute gaps between one aircraft completing its run and the next one starting (it’s worth noting that there wasn’t an awful lot of explanation over the tanoy either). It would be a much more fluid event if the aircraft could be run up continuously, one after the other and I don’t see why this couldn’t happen if the main taxiway at the top of the airfield was closed off for the afternoon. Maybe someone could shed some light on this?

The lengthy gaps were filled with demonstrations from various large scale models and while these were quite captivating the first time round, they quickly lost my interest when they went up for a second and third time. That’s not to say that I didn’t enjoy them because I did, especially the Hunter and VC-10 (complete with refuelling probes) but they would have been much better off if they were scattered throughout the day a little more.

Unfortunately a couple of the R/C pilots annoyed photographers at the far end of the crowd line when they placed the Vulcan and Victor far too close to the runway, meaning that uncluttered panning shots of aircraft were almost impossible towards the latter part of the day. We tried to get them moved a little but no one seemed interested in helping. With it being a fee-paying event, I thought this aspect could have been handled a little better.

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For all the people that were there (and there were quite a lot), there was a single food outlet selling the usual burgers, hot dogs and chips that we’ve come to expect from events like this. The prices were incredibly reasonable but because it was the sole outlet, the queues were phenomenally long for most of the day (upwards of forty minutes at times). The catering was even more frustrating towards the end of the day when they’d sold out of everything apart from sausages and chips but you didn’t find this out until you’d got to the front of the queue after a half hour wait!

There were also only two sets of toilets and again, these had incredibly long queues for most of the day. The event opened at 9am and by 11am the majority of the men’s toilets had seen better days with a lot of people opting to queue up again but this time for the disabled portaloos.

Quality Vs Practicality

There’s no doubt that Bruntingthorpe’s selection of Cold War-era aircraft are the cream of the crop for any aviation enthusiast but for me, the event was sadly let down by other departments.

A little more organisation and planning on the ‘showground’ front could go an awful long way at an event such as this. This show was relatively miserable in terms of the weather, I dread to think what the facilities would have been like had it been a scorching hot day.

Like I said, on the aircraft front Bruntingthorpe have absolutely nailed it with top quality aviation nostalgia that is second to none but as an event, the day was lacking in a lot of places. The good news is that I think lessons can be learnt from the day and the issues can be resolved pretty easily.

If you’ve not been to one of Bruntingthorpe’s Cold War Jet open days before then you’d be a fool not to go, bite the bullet and make the trip to see these incredible aircraft. Just make sure that you take some ear defenders and be prepared to wait around for a good percentage of the day.

18 (B) Squadron Celebrates 100 Years of Service

Aviation, Features

18 (B) Squadron was established in 1915 by the Royal Flying Corps at Northolt airfield and although the face of the Squadron has changed considerably over the last 100 years, the Squadron is still at the heart of the Royal Air Force. I was invited to RAF Odiham on Thursday May 14th for a sneak preview of the special centenary scheme Chinook and to learn about how the scheme was designed.

To mark 18 Squadron’s centenary, a small team at RAF Odiham were tasked with researching the Squadron’s history and designing a very special scheme to commemorate their last 100 years of service. An intimate photo shoot was organised for Thursday afternoon and sheltered from the rain in one of the hangars, the commemorative scheme on ZA712 was finally revealed. At first, the scheme looks incredibly impressive but when you start to look at it in more detail, you quickly realise just how much time and effort has gone into it.

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Flt Lt Andy Donovan, a Pilot on 18(B) Squadron’s OCF, was on hand to talk us through the scheme:

“We’ll start at the very beginning of our existence; the crest on the side here – the white Pegasus and the blue shield – is the crest that the Squadron started with back in 1915. Major G I Carmichael was the first Commanding Officer when we were a Royal Flying Corps unit. In 1918 we became a Royal Air Force unit and it took until 1936 for the RAF to standardise Squadron badges (the crest you see today with the red pegasus is on the other side of the cockpit). The change from white to red was made by the Commanding Officer in 1936 when he decided that the white pegasus, against a white background would easily get lost and as such, needed to be drastically redesigned. He wrote to those in charge and asked to change the pegasus to red so that it stood out clearly from the all-white background.”

The decision had been made to include the original Squadron badge on the aircraft right from the very beginning but this soon led to a much bigger idea; was it possible to design a scheme that encapsulated the transition from 1915 right up to 2015? The concept was to show the transition from the white wings of the early Pegasus, to the red wings of the modern day Pegasus.

“The white banding at the front of the aircraft is to recognise the wings of Pegasus and ‘Animo Et Fide’ is the squadron motto; this translates to ‘With courage and faith’.”

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The Pegasus wings are clear to see at the front of the aircraft

“We had to trawl through all the photographic archives that we could find, which in itself was difficult because we (the Squadron) spent a lot of time deployed in the Second World War, so struggled to find photographs from that period. What became clear quite early was that in the 1920s, the identifying mark for the squadron was a white square, so we made the decision to break this thick white line with a square about a third of the way along the fuselage. Looking a little more widely, the white paint gave us an opportunity to recognise the age we were dealing with and with the black and grey paint, allowed us to convey the photographic technology of that era.”

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A white square was the identifying mark of 18 Squadron in the 1920s

“Moving back towards the tail end of the aircraft, you’ve got these various different bands and lines, they signify the various changing roles of the Squadron in the modern age. Now that my colleagues on the Squadron have returned from Afghanistan this is even more true and the Chinook Force as a whole is starting to diversify it’s training again so that it’s ready for any eventuality in the world; the recent deployment of three 27 Squadron Mk3 Chinooks to Nepal at short notice is a great example of that readiness. The white behind the fourth window along signifies the maritime role that we’re involved in as well, the wave demonstrates our commitment to exercises like Joint Warrior aboard HMS Ocean.”

A white wave signifies the Squadron's commitment to maritime operations

A white wave signifies the Squadron’s commitment to maritime operations while the red bands indicate the ever changing role of the UK Chinook Force

“Having recognised the early years of the Squadron already, we get down to this rear section and show the 1950s Canberra era when we were part of the Scampton wing but based at RAF Upwood. The Canberras usually carried a speedbird graphic on their nose, blue or black depending on where you read about it, but we’ve applied a bit of artistic license in making it red to coincide with the rest of the scheme.”

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The red ‘speedbird’ is a nod to the Squadron’s time equipped with the Canberra

“We then push right up to the modern day with the colours on the tail and if we look back 25 years to 1991, we were working on the 18 Squadron 75th anniversary scheme for the Chinook Mk1; this was a red and black scheme on the fuselage too. While this scheme is quite different, it owes a lot to that scheme from the early 1990s.”

“On the front, above the cockpit, you can see a poppy graphic and a white ‘W’. Prior to going into the paint shot, the aircraft was coded AT but we decided that the W was more relevant for this scheme because we are one of a few squadrons to have a Victoria Cross winner in our history, with Wing Commander Hugh Gordon Malcom. He was well known for leading extremely dangerous raids in his time and in December 1942 he was airborne on a mission to attack an enemy airfield to make sure that assets on the ground couldn’t be used to attack an offensive that was going on in the area by allied forces. During that raid, the entire Squadron was shot down alongside him which makes this a very significant event in our history; the ‘W’ recognises his Blenheim which carried a ‘W’ on the tail/fuselage. The red poppy sadly recognises each and every life lost in the last 100 years of 18 Squadron. We must never forget the sacrifices made by those who have come before us and at this time of celebration it was highly important to make them part of this moment.”

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To say that a lot of time and effort has gone into the design of this scheme would be a massive understatement. The sheer scale of the design has to be applauded.

“We’ve gone about as far as we possibly could with it, bearing in mind the limitations that were put on us. Looking back, the only time that a scheme has been done on this scale on a Chinook was in 1989/1990 for the 7 Squadron 75th anniversary. Amazingly there was no meaningful record of past schemes from an engineering perspective, the last accurate record we have is of the Gulf War scheme from 1991.”

Interestingly enough, ZA712 was actually one of the Gulf War schemed aircraft all the way back in 1990.

“It’s been a real challenge for the Station and not just because of its commitments all over the world. We were limited in scope because it was a ‘new’ challenge for the Station and the Chinook Project Team who provide engineering support to the fleet from Abbey Wood. We were therefore limited on how much of the aircraft we were allowed to paint. Additionally, with just 6 months to turn the project around…including design, co-ordination and generation of the mass of engineering documentation that goes with a project of this scale, we were unable to clear the use of new paint colours in time and were therefore restricted to the relatively ‘small paint palette’ which existed in stock already and was cleared for application to the Chinook airframe. In an ideal world we would have had a totally blank canvas but were also required to avoid the majority of safety/servicing markings so again, everything had to fit around those…quite a challenge! To turn this around for the Squadron in just six months has been difficult to say the least.”

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What makes this commemorative scheme even more impressive is that it was designed solely by active members of 18 Squadron and as Flt Lt Donovan explains, at times, the project progressed with as little as two or three people on board:

“It was entirely designed by the Squadron but due to operational commitments, this meant that at times it was just myself and Flt Lt Ryan Stowe working on it. I am only just converting to Chinook so I’ve had a period of four months waiting to get started, so working on this design has been an absolute honour. It’s absolutely not about us though. It’s taken a huge percentage of the Squadron’s involvement, plus the very talented and committed engineers and paint specialists at Odiham to get this researched, designed and delivered on time.”

“The aircraft has been painted on base by Serco and took roughly three weeks to paint from start to finish. The level of detail is unprecedented, you’ll find areas all over the fuselage with a number of different colours on just one rivet. This particular airframe had only recently returned from theatre so was completely sand-blasted. The whole fuselage was stripped, painted green and then had the special scheme applied.”

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Serco engineers working on the paint scheme – 2015 Crown Copyright

When compared to other Air Forces around the world, I think it’s fair to say that RAF special schemes have been somewhat lacking in recent years but 2015 seems to be a year of brilliantly designed specials. I’ve often wondered how it feels to be gifted the privilege of delivering and flying a one-off airframe; Flt Lt Donovan summed it up perfectly:

“It’s incredibly surreal. Juggling a lot of things for the past six months has been very tricky but seeing the finished aircraft here, I feel extremely proud. To stand here and see it in the flesh is surreal. It’s been fairly difficult keeping the design a secret. We started with chalk markings on the aircraft in February, so it’s been a long time coming. Obviously it’s something that happens in the fast jet fleets quite often but on rotary aircraft, it’s almost unheard of.”

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The good news is that there will be plenty of time to see ZA712 out and about in this scheme as it won’t be removed until the aircraft enters deep maintenance in the early part of 2016. Although the 2015 Chinook Display is flown by 27 Squadron, I wouldn’t be surprised if you see the 18 Squadron airframe appear at a number of events up and down the country, after all, why wouldn’t you want to show it off to the world?!

I’d like to take this opportunity to thank the team at RAF Odiham for organising this intimate shoot and interview.

Review – Shuttleworth Season Finale ‘Race Day’ Airshow

2014, Aviation, Reviews

The Shuttleworth ‘Race Day’ airshow was the finale to Old Warden’s long season and for many enthusiasts, the last airshow of the year. The weather forecast had been getting marginally better for a number of days and on Saturday night I took a gamble and booked my ticket.

You couldn’t have asked for more really; a crisp autumn day and plenty of displays to watch in the skies above rural Bedfordshire. I attended the Military Pageant airshow earlier in the year and it was more than enough to tempt me back again for the end of season display.

Race Day

The idea behind the ‘Race Day’ season finale airshow was to celebrate the golden years of ‘air racing’, most notably because this October marks 80 years since the 1934 MacRobertson Air Race in which the Collection’s de Havilland DH.88 Comet claimed first place.

To mark this anniversary, the Collection organised a special flypast of six aircraft that participated in the ‘World’s Greatest Air Race’; a de Havilland DH.88 Comet (Grosvenor House – the only specific airframe to fly in the race), a Dragon Rapide, a Miles M3A Falcon Major, a Miles Hawk, a Desoutter Mk1 and a de Havilland DH.80A Puss Moth. All six aircraft flew past in a very loose formation (sadly too loose for me to capture in one frame) and then carried out several solo fly pasts before landing in the order that they arrived in Melbourne in 1934. It was a lovely way to celebrate such a momentous occasion.

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The Air Race theme continued with another special formation flypast of three aircraft; two Percival Mew Gulls and a Vans RV-7. In 1939 Alex Henshaw flew Mew Gull G-AEXF and completed the 12,754-mile round trip in a staggering 4 days, 10 hours and sixteen minutes – some 71 years later, Steve Noujaim beat Henshaw’s record by 23 hours in a Vans RV-7. These trips to South Africa are regarded by many as two of the greatest and most intriguing stories in the aviation world and rightly so. The speed, sound and agility of the 1930s Mew Gull has to be seen to be believed, it’s a truly remarkable piece of British engineering.

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The show also celebrated the Formula 1 air racing class of aircraft with a Cosmic Wind and a Taylor JT.2 Titch. These two aircraft are exceptionally small but can travel at incredible speeds – the Cosmic Wind was first built in 1947 and can achieve an impressive airspeed of 185mph! The Formula 1 racers flew several laps of the airfield before landing safely back on the grass runway.

Capture

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The Air Race celebrations ended with a fantastic mock air race. The race used a handicap system which meant that the ten participating aircraft (two Chilton DW1s, a de Havilland DH60X Moth, Miles Hawk Speed Six, Miles M3A Falcon Major, Miles Whitney Straight, Comper Swift, Miles Magister and a Spartan Executive) took off in order of slowest-fastest with time advantages between each aircraft. Each aircraft had to complete eight laps of the triangular course which stretched to the airfield boundaries in each direction – the winner was the first to cross the finish line having successfully completed all eight laps. For twenty minutes the audience was transported back in time and it was incredibly easy to forget that you were still in 2014. The sound, sight and atmosphere was electric – the organisers did a terrific job of demonstrating what air racing was all about in a bygone era. An epic way to finish off the Race Day spectacle.

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Best of The Rest

The rest of the airshow was padded out with some truly fantastic displays.

The Hawker Hunter T7 from North Weald Airfield arrived in style low and fast and let off just the tiniest hint of a blue note. Chris Heames flew a beautiful display in what has to be one of my all time favourite aircraft and filled the sky with the roar of the timeless Avon engine.

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Hawker aircraft continued to thrill the crowd, this time in the form of the Collection’s own Sea Hurricane. I’ve seen a lot of Hurricane displays over the years but this was, hands down, the most thrilling and exhilarating routine I’ve ever seen. It felt closer than ever thanks to the sweeping curve of the Shuttleworth display line and it seemed to just go on forever – it was like an enthusiasts dream display.

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Joining the Sea Hurricane in the golden autumnal light was the Westland Lysander. The Lysander is a peculiar looking aircraft with it’s bulky fuselage and high cockpit but’s it’s an incredibly graceful and majestic aircraft. This was the first time that I’ve had the opportunity to see the Lysander in all it’s glory and it really is quite a special aircraft.

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The Shuttleworth collection is home to a fantastic array of aircraft but perhaps one of the most unusual looking airframes is the Fauval Glider. The glider was taken up on a tow and released at altitude; what followed was a brilliantly flown aerobatic sequence. With it’s short fuselage, large wingspan and small twin tail, the aircraft is capable of flipping on it’s tail in no time at all. The crowd was all but silent and all you could hear was the wind passing over the aircraft as the glider came into land. It was a glider display unlike any I’ve seen before.

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A Fitting Tribute

Overall the ‘Race Day’ finale was a show of epic proportions – a packed flying display and almost perfect weather conditions made this one of the best airshows of the year for me. I attended the Red Bull Air Race at Ascot earlier this year so was more than intrigued when I heard that Shuttleworth were planning to celebrate the golden age of air racing. There were plenty of aircraft types that I’d never been fortunate enough to see before and the mock air race finale really was enough to make your jaw drop.

It may only have been my second show at Old Warden but I feel that I’ll be attending many more shows in the coming years. There’s something quite unique about this small all-grass airfield and there’s no doubt in my mind that The Shuttleworth Collection will make you fall in love with aviation all over again.

Feature – A Summer of Blade Slap

Aviation, Features

As we head into the Autumn months, the dust is finally starting to settle on the 2014 display season and for the RAF Chinook Display Team it’s been one incredible Summer.

The UK Chinook force is one of the busiest frontline units in the world and due to ongoing operational commitments, the display team didn’t get together until late May. The original timetable went straight out of the window and before the season even got underway, the six-strong team were already under immense pressure to deliver results. It wasn’t just the available work up time that made it difficult either; operational deployments and a reducing number of HC2 airframes meant that aircraft availability and serviceability was also a real challenge.

Flt Lt Charlie Brown’s aim for this year was to create plenty of noise. That noise came in the form of ‘blade slap’, the unmistakable sound generated by the change in pitch when the aircraft rapidly alters it’s direction of flight. With assistance from the whole team, a routine was established that would best demonstrate this unique sound.

The Displays

The team kicked off their season in June with a display in front of the home crowd at RAF Odiham. Families Day was the perfect opportunity to show off the new-look routine and it would seem that from the very first nose-down bow, the display was well received. I remember speaking to Group Captain Richard Maddison, Station Commander RAF Odiham shortly after the display had finished – the smile on his face said it all really, it was definitely a show to be proud of.

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The three big shows followed – RAF Waddington International Airshow, the Royal International Air Tattoo and RNAS Yeovilton Air Day. The first two display weekends went off without a hitch and the team performed in front some huge crowds. RIAT is a massive show for the team with both their major sponsors (Boeing and Breitling) having a large presence at the event. Most would assume that display weekends are just a chance to relax and socialise, and while there is time for that, the team also has to heavily promote the role that the Royal Air Force plays in the modern world.

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With Waddington and Fairford behind them, the team were scheduled to display at RNAS Yeovilton. Unfortunately though, Yeovilton was the first appearance of the year that had to be cancelled. As the aircraft started up, engine no. 2 was indicating no oil temperature and this remained the same even after the sensors were changed, the internal wiring had to be checked and this meant that the aircraft had to be signed off as unserviceable.

After the mid-season break it was all go – six shows over three consecutive weekends. Having entertained the crowds at Eastbourne, the team made their debut at Ascot racecourse – the Red Bull Air Race World Championship made a welcome return this year and the Chinook Display Team were invited to display at the UK venue. Race day was a total sell-out and Flt Lt Charlie Brown, Flt Lt Andy Waldron and Sgt Anna Irwin ran through their routine in time to a soundtrack of intense house music. Ascot was a venue like no other and certainly one to remember.

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“Displaying in front of a Grandstand of 25,000 people ‘who just weren’t expecting it’ was a real highlight this year. Apparently we stole the show!” – Flt Charlie Brown, Display Pilot on displaying at Ascot

It was then on to Car Fest South and Dunsfold Wings & Wheels. Car Fest is held in support of Children in Need and the team were more than happy to be invited to the show for a second consecutive year. Displaying at Wings & Wheels means a lot to Odiham and in many ways is a chance to say a big thanks – Dunsfold is one of a handful of aerodromes that opens up to the RAF and as a result, the Chinooks frequently carry out training exercises in and around the airfield.

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The season ended with a weekend full of over-water displays. Unfortunately the team’s Friday appearance had to be cancelled due to another technical snag with the aircraft but nevertheless, on the final day at Bournemouth Air Festival, it’s estimated that some 600,000 people lined the beach between the two piers, giving the RAF Chinook Display Team their biggest crowd ever. From Bournemouth it was a short hop to a late addition on the display calendar – Dartmouth Regatta. Having not seen the display venue prior to the display slot, the team arrived crowd centre coming in low over a tree-lined hill top. What followed was a perfect demonstration of just how manoeuvrable the Chinook can be within a tight space and from speaking to the team the following day, it sounded like it was an awful lot of fun!

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“Arriving with the element of surprise using the terrain and displaying in such beautiful yet extremely challenging settings was brilliant. Completing the ‘over the shoulder’ effectively at the end meant almost instantly disappearing from sight of the crowd.” – Sgt Andy Caldwell, Display Crewman on displaying at Dartmouth Regatta

The Best Display This Year?

Over the course of the Summer, the display team have gathered quite a following on social media but what was their favourite moment of 2014?

Looking Ahead to 2015

On the Sunday at Bournemouth, the team displayed the Chinook HC2 for the very last time. Due to ongoing airframe upgrades under the Project Julius programme, the final HC2s will shortly undergo conversion to HC4 standard.

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A Chinook HC2 over Basingstoke earlier this year

Where does this leave RAF Odiham’s display capabilities for next year then? Well, in all honesty it’s still a little of the unknown. The upgraded HC4 is an incredibly capable aircraft but has so far not undertaken any displays; with an all-glass cockpit, it’s not known how the upgraded Chinook will react when it’s put under the strains of rigorous display manoeuvres. Depending on the outcome of display testing next month, it may be decided that the HC4 will not be used in a fully aerobatic role. This doesn’t necessarily mean that there won’t be a Chinook display in 2015, it just means that it might not be the display that we all know and love.

The HC4 looks almost identical to the HC2 from the outside

The HC4 looks almost identical to the HC2 from the outside

The Chinook is the workhorse of the RAF; it’s been involved in every major conflict since the Falklands campaign and for that reason alone, I’m confident that we’ll see it on the circuit next year.

“Its been an honour and a privilege to display in front of over 2.8million of you this season, a once in a lifetime opportunity.” – Flt Lt Charlie Brown, Display Pilot

I’d like to take this opportunity to thank the 2014 Chinook Display Team, Flt Lt Meg Henderson and Group Captain Richard Maddison, Station Commander RAF Odiham for all their help and assistance over the course of this year. Without you, none of this would have been possible.

Feature – Sea Vixen Returns To RNAS Yeovilton

Aviation, Features

Back in February this year, I was fortunate enough to get a thorough and informative interview out of Julian Jones, owner of DS Aviation and (then) Sea Vixen XP924. Just a little more than six months later and the story has come full circle – yesterday, the Sea Vixen returned to it’s former home at RNAS Yeovilton.

Sea Vixen FAW2, XP924 (known to her followers as ‘Foxy Lady’) is the sole remaining airworthy Sea Vixen and over the past decade has been maintained and flown by the team down at DS Aviation in Bournemouth. The aircraft has been flown and displayed all over the country but in the past couple of years has really struggled to make a big impact on the UK airshow scene. In 2013, the team had issues with pilot availability and over the course of 2014, the aircraft suffered a major engine failure which meant that she was unavailable for most of the display season.

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In December last year, discussions began between Julian and the Fly Navy Heritage Trust on how they could both safeguard the future of this iconic ‘Cold War era’ twin-boom jet aircraft. Julian made a life changing decision and decided to donate the aircraft to the Trust, on the condition that it would remain airworthy and still be flown at airshows in the UK. The Sea Vixen is on the civil register as G-CVIX and as such, has to fall under the wing of Naval Aviation Ltd., a subsidiary of the Fly Navy Heritage Trust. Due to the nature of the CAA the aircraft was purchased by the FNHT for a grand total of £1 and with this came; 80 tonnes of spare parts, tools and equipment from the hangar in Bournemouth plus the continuing support of chief engineer Paul Kingsbury over the next twelve months.

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Just before the aircraft was officially handed over to the team at RNAS Yeovilton, Jonathon Whaley became the last ever person to fly the aircraft both operationally and as a display when he gave a terrific demonstration of the power and beauty that comes with this historic aircraft. With Julian Jones on board, ‘Flapjack’ was given special permission from the CAA to fly one last sortie before the aircraft’s Permit to Fly changed hands. After a phenomenal show of grace and agility, G-CVIX landed in true ‘Foxy’ fashion and burst the port main-gear tyre. Within minutes the airfield’s emergency response teams were on the case and a little over forty minutes later, the ceremony carried on as normal.

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Julian Jones, former owner of Sea Vixen G-CVIX

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Jonathon Whaley, former Sea Vixen display pilot

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L-R: Admiral Russ Harding, Commodore Bill Covington CBE, Julian Jones

“This is a very special event. The Sea Vixen has a seminal place in the heart of the Fleet Air Arm, she brings with her the spirit of the pilots and observers that flew it, the engineers and maintainers who got the aircraft into the air, and the thousands of officers and sailors of the Royal Navy who manned the aircraft carriers that the Sea Vixen flew from.” – Commodore Bill Covington CBE, Trustee of the Fly Navy Heritage Trust

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As mentioned previously, the Sea Vixen will fly under Naval Aviation Ltd., a civil registered branch of the Fly Navy Heritage Trust, where she’ll join one of the two Hawker Sea Furys that the Trust currently operate. With a new home (or old depending on how you look at it), new team and a newly signed deal with Babcocks International for Quality Assurance support, what does this mean for ‘Foxy’?

“For next year it is a hard fact of life that we can only expect a limited number of hours to be affordable. We are planning on Yeovilton Air Day as her first air display and I am looking forward to that day in high expectation.” – Admiral Russ Harding

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Sue Eagles, Campaign Director of FNHT also mentioned that plans were afoot for RNAS Culdrose Air Day, Bournemouth Air Festival and hopefully the Royal International Air Tattoo.

It’s no secret that the Royal Navy Historic Flight (another branch of the FNHT) are struggling to maintain their current fleet of two Swordfish, one Sea Hawk and a badly damaged Sea Fury, so how does the acquisition of a fuel-burning jet fighter affect other Trust projects? Admiral Russ Harding was keen to address the situation –

“I am aware that there is some concern of the impact on other aircraft and projects within the Fly Navy Heritage programme, not least of all the Swordfish and Sea Fury. Let me be very clear that while the Sea Vixen crew will focus on G-CVIX, the Fly Navy Heritage Trust looks at all aircraft without favour. There is no room for a cuckoo in the nest and all aircraft will require equal support and priority according to their programmes.”

For now at least, the future of Sea Vixen G-CVIX looks bright and very shortly the aircraft will enter into an intense and thorough programme of maintenance over the winter months. There is absolutely no doubt in my mind – this is a positive move for the last airworthy Sea Vixen but it will require a lot of patience and more importantly, a lot of money. Having already received some substantial investments, the FNHT will soon be opening up to take public donations specifically for the new ‘Fly Navy Sea Vixen Project’.

It’s going to be a long wait until the Fly Navy Heritage Trust get to display ‘Foxy’ at next year’s RNAS Yeovilton Air Day but trust me, it will most definitely be worth the wait!

I’d like to take this opportunity to thank Dawn Stokes and Hannah Robinson for the invitation to attend yesterday’s ceremony. I’d also like to thank Commodore Jock Alexander OBE Royal Navy, Commanding Officer RNAS Yeovilton and his team for being such great hosts.

You can keep up-to-date with all the latest news on the Sea Vixen project by following @SeaVixenGCVIX on Twitter and by ‘liking’ the Sea Vixen Facebook page.

Feature – The Airbus A350 XWB

Aviation, Features

Airbus – a name familiar to the entire world and a company that has been at the forefront of aviation technology for the last 40 years. The manufacturer brought their latest two-aisle airliner to Farnborough International Airshow earlier this Summer and I was lucky enough to be shown around the flying test bed.

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MSN004’s flight test systems

Originally conceived back in 2004, the original A350 was mostly an all-new design but with the main fuselage based on the popular A330. After several meetings and focus groups with potential customers, this idea was rejected and as a result, the A350 XWB (Xtra Wide Wody) was born. As a direct competitor to Boeing’s 787-x series of airliners, Airbus promised that the A350 XWB would have operating costs at least 8% lower than the Dreamliner.

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The A350 XWB is a direct competitor to the Boeing 787-x Dreamliner

Design

Passenger comfort and airline operating costs are clearly at the heart of the design for the A350 XWB.

The A350 XWB is the first aircraft that Airbus have manufactured which is built, in most part, out of a carbon-fibre composite and unlike previous Airbus models, the fuselage width is exactly the same (9 seats in a 3-3-3 layout) along it’s entire length from door one to door four.

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The fuselage is the same width throughout the cabin

With a wingspan of 64.8m and a surface area of approximately 443 metres squared, the A350 XWB boasts the largest wings ever produced for a single deck, two-aisle airliner. The aircraft is also the first to feature the manufacturer’s unique ‘sharklet’ wing tips which it says are the latest advancement in aerodynamic wing design.

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The new wing design and complex composite wide body mean that the aircraft is capable of reducing fuel burn by at least 25% when compared to previous generation competing aircraft. For customer’s looking for a single deck, long-haul aircraft, figures like that are more than enough to sign on the dotted line.

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The cabin design is heavily inspired by the internationally acclaimed A380 with extra large overhead compartments (capable of taking full-size roller bags), full LED lighting systems which are capable of producing 16.7 million different colours and enhanced leg room in all classes. The increased leg room space is achieved by having brand new, fully integrated seat-connect and cabling boxes that are virtually invisible to passengers as they’re run under a full flat floor.

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Testing and Delivery

Amazingly for a modern day airliner; manufacturing, development and testing is all on schedule and the aircraft should be ready for certification by the end of this year.

MSN005 (test aircraft five and the last to be developed) is currently conducting route proving flights to demonstrate the aircraft’s operability, reliability and all round excellent performance that the fuselage and Rolls Royce Trent XWB engine can deliver. The Trent XWB testing began back in 2011 when it was fitted to one of the development A380 test beds and was certified several months later at the end of that year.

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The A350 XWB is fitted with two Rolls Royce Trent XWB engines

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The Rolls Royce Trent XWB engine was tested on a development A380

With 12 months of testing on all five development aircraft due to finish shortly, launch customer Qatar Airways will receive its first aircraft in Q3-Q4 2014.

The Future

Even with the Emirates order for 70 aircraft cancelled, the future of the Airbus A350 XWB is looking bright. To date, 742 aircraft have been ordered across all three varients by some 38 airlines including; Air Asia, Qatar Airways, Cathay Pacific, Etihad, British Airways, United and Singapore Airlines.

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The Xtra Wide Body, twin aisle aircraft will benefit both passengers and airlines alike.

This is Airbus at it’s finest, this is the future.

Review – RNAS Yeovilton Air Day 2014

2014, Aviation, Reviews

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

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

International Visitors

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

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

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

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

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Classic Aircraft

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

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

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

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

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What Royal Air Force?

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

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

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

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

The Home Team

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Still One Of The Best

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

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

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

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

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

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

Royal Navy 1 – RAF 0.

Review – Farnborough Airshow 2014

2014, Aviation, Reviews

After a hugely successful and record breaking week at the Farnborough International Airshow, airfield owners TAG once again opened up the gates to some 80,000 people for a mid-summer spectacle.

I think almost everyone will agree that the shows at Farnborough have become a shadow of their former self and having had many complaints from the 2012 show, the team at FIA were keen to show that they could improve on their offering.

I attended the Sunday show two years ago; the weather was beautiful but the flying display programme was average at best and the showground was far too crowded. Having held several focus groups, the organising committee had a clear idea of what they needed to do to put Farnborough back on the map.

Fast forward almost two years to the launch day of a re-branded ‘Farnborough Airshow’ and it was an almost unrecognisable event. The entire team held their hands up and admitted in front of the media that they’d fallen behind and delivered a mediocre show in 2012. It was revealed that several star items had been secured for the ‘Celebration of 100 years of aviation’ show; a Spanish Navy AV-8B II Harrier (the result of over 14 months of negotiations with Spanish authorities and a first for Farnborough), the replica Me-262 from Germany, the Breitling sponsored Super Constellation and the Lockheed Martin F-35B Lightning II.

Through absolutely no fault of their own, just weeks later the Me-262 developed a technical fault which meant that it was to take a sabatical for the rest of the 2014 display season and after a long drawn out PR disaster, Lockheed Martin announced that the F-35 would not be making the transatlantic journey due to a grounding being lifted just days before the show started.

Eyes To The Sky

As mentioned previously, the flying display was one of the main areas that needed development and as well as announcing star items at the launch, it was also explained that a contract had been signed with Airbus to keep several of their ‘trade’ items on the ground for the public show. It later transpired that this signing had been part of a new major sponsorship deal with the aircraft manufacturer for the public two day event.

The Airbus backing meant that the A400M, A380 and E-Fan were all displaying in the flying programme over the weekend and as usual, the test pilots put on an incredible show. Seeing an airliner the size of the A380 being thrown about the sky as if it were a fighter is something that has to be seen to be believed. The A400M (‘Grizzly’ as it’s known to it’s testing team) is due to enter service with the RAF later this year as the ‘Atlas’, so to see it at Farnborough demonstrating it’s tactical capabilities was a real treat. It has to be said that when it comes to large aircraft displays, Airbus are the Kings.

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A contract was also signed with Boeing to supply the airshow with its F/A-18F Super Hornet – the aircraft had flown every day for the trade week and even though I’d already seen it, the technical demonstration of the Super Hornet is simply stunning. Even with the airspace restrictions enforced by Heathrow, the Boeing flown display was easily one of the most entertaining of the weekend. A combination of high-g flicking and turning built up to a finale which consisted of a square loop flown to maximum altitude.

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Without a doubt though, the star of the show was the Spanish Navy AV-8B II Harrier. The RAF disbanded their Harrier squadrons in 2010 and retired the aircraft amidst the political storm that was the SDSR (Strategic Defence and Security Review). Having been absent from the UK circuit for over three years, a Harrier in the Hampshire sky was an almost perfect way to signal Farnborough’s commitment to delivering a better show. The display itself was reminiscent of the ‘role demo’ type displays that the RAF aircraft was forced to fly in it’s final years – three high speed passes and then five full minutes of dirty, smoking hovering. The Harrier is an incredible machine and at a show where it’s successor was a no-show, it was a poetic reminder that the RAF GR.9s were retired way before their time.

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Other highlights from the flying display included the Midair Squadron Canberra PR.9 (filling the gap left by the Me-262) which signed off on that unmistakable howl, a full routine from the Red Arrows who in their 50th year look at the top of their game, a brilliant display of solo aerobatics from Mark Jefferies, a decent routine from Kev Rumens in XH558 and a stunningly beautiful display from the majestic, dolphin-shaped Super Constellation. The ‘Connie’ was on the ground at RIAT last year but this was the first time I’d seen it in the air and even though the display consisted of just two straight and level flypasts, the sight and sound of a 1950s prop-driven airliner was a truly spine-tingling experience.

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It’s fair to say that the past, present and future were fully represented at this year’s 2014 ’100 Years of Aviation’ show.

A Missed Opportunity

During the week, the Farnborough International Airshow takes full advantage of the space available on the ground to showcase commercial and private aircraft, helicopters and in places, light aircraft. The static aircraft that had departed the trade show on the Thursday and Friday left plenty of space that should have been filled but for some reason it wasn’t. Apart from the Catalina, a Royal Navy Merlin and the relocation of the Super Constellation, the static area felt empty. The main reason for this was that the Alenia Aermacchi, TAI and US DoD areas were at the far east of the showground – three of the biggest contingents that remained on the ground for the public days.

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I would have liked to have seen the empty space filled with more aircraft that could have represented the ‘100 Years of Aviation’ theme. There are many warbirds in this country and a handful of classic jets that would have padded out the showground a little more. It would even have been nice to see some aircraft from the RAF and AAC – Farnborough surely could have been a massive recruitment drive for both forces. On an airfield the size of Farnborough, gaps are unfortunately incredibly noticeable.

The Showground

As mentioned previously, 2012 was overcrowded and this meant that queues for both toilets and food had waiting times upwards of 30 minutes. 2014 was a different story (at least on Saturday when I attended) – many more toilets were provided and certainly at the grandstand end of the airfield, they were very clean and well maintained. Food was on the edge of becoming too expensive but at an average price of £5 for a single hot item, it seemed to fit in with the majority of other events up and down the country.

New for 2014 and on the back of similar ideas at both RIAT and Bournemouth Airshow, Farnborough Airshow Live! made it’s debut appearance. Fronted by TV presenters Michael Underwood and Angelica Bell, I have to say that I was a little nervous when I heard about the idea but any worries were soon put to rest. It turns out that both are genuinely interested in aviation and this became clear from some of the conversations that took place between Michael and the commentary team during the show. There was also a large stage just behind the main grandstand that allowed the presenters to question the likes of the Red Arrows in front of the audience. As well as the stage, the air displays were being streamed to large TV screens dotted around the showground thanks to fantastic videography from the guys over at Planes TV – this meant that you could go and get something to eat without being too far from the action.

On the whole I think this concept worked extremely well, even more so with the strong presence of families. It may not have appealed to the hardcore enthusiast but at the end of the day, Farnborough Airshow is targeted as a major attraction to families all over the South of England.

How Much?

With a gate price of £48 per head (under 16s go free), I can’t help but feel that Farnborough is somewhat lost when it comes to ticketing. On the basis of an average family (mum, dad, two teenagers and an infant), the entrance fee alone is more than £140; add travelling costs, food and drink to that and you’re probably looking at somewhere in the region of £200-£250 for a day out at the airshow.

By contrast, a ticket for the Royal International Airshow (an eight hour flying display and extensive static park) costs £44pp and a two day ticket for the RNAS Yeovilton Air Day costs just £39pp (the gate price for the Saturday is just £25). Even with a varied and entertaining flying programme like this year’s, the ticket price is still way off. If the team at FIA are serious about putting Farnborough back on the map, something has to be done about the entrance fee – there is simply no excuse.

One thing that did come down in price however was the souvenir display programme. Created by Key Publishing and priced at just £4, the quality of the programme was exceptional and a massive improvement on the over-glossy, advert filled magazine from 2012.

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The juxtaposition of the ticket price and programme is just mind boggling. I really do find it difficult to understand.

A Promising Step Forwards

To say that Farnborough Airshow is ‘the best airshow in the world’ right now would be a lie. It isn’t. What it is though, is a solid airshow that’s making footsteps in the right direction. The team listened and acted upon certain elements that were heavily criticised in recent years but there are still a handful of things that need addressing, most importantly the shows pricing structure.

With the strong re-branding and procurement of key airborne stars, Farnborough Airshow is definitely making a comeback one step at a time. In years gone by, Farnborough was the home of cutting-edge British technology and a worldwide stage for aviation; don’t be scared of it FIA, embrace it.

Having just celebrated the 70th anniversary of D-Day, the centenary of WWI and the Red Arrows 50th anniversary, aviation is once again making the headlines and one thing is clear – this country is still very much interested in airshows.

It’s time to take full advantage of that and I’m counting down the days until FIA 2016.

Farnborough, it’s over to you…