2015 Aviation Highlights

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

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

Battle of Britain 75th Anniversary

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

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

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

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

Return of the USAF

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

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

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

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

Japanese Treat

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

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

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

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

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Lynx AH7 Retirement

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

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

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

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

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

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

End of an Era

One word: Vulcan.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Looking to 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

27 Squadron Centenary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Black Cats Helicopter Display Team

The Black Cats are the Royal Navy’s helicopter display team and were first introduced to the UK circuit as the ‘Lynx Pair’ back in 2001. Until 2013, the team had flown two Lynx helicopters but now, after a successful split routine in 2014, the 825 NAS team have re-equipped with two of the Navy’s latest maritime attack aircraft; the Agusta Westland Wildcat. After weeks of planning, I headed down to RNAS Yeovilton in June to meet the team and find out about the 2015 display.

The Wildcat may look remarkably similar to the Lynx Mk8 in places but it’s decades ahead in terms of its technological capabilities; the engines are more powerful (50% greater on each engine), the aircraft has a completely new tail design and the cockpit is fitted with a state-of-the-art digital cockpit.

For the 2015 display season, the team is being led by Lt Dave Lilly (Black 1) and Lt James Woods (Black 2). Lt Lilly is no stranger to the Black Cats having displayed with the team back in 2009 but for Lt Woods, 2015 is a year full of new experiences.

Having displayed the Wildcat for the first time last year, albeit with a Lynx Mk8, how easy was it to put the 2015 routine together?

We didn’t actually use last year’s routine as a basis because of the compromises that were made due to the difference in aircraft types. We can now concentrate solely on Wildcat; the operating window for the aircraft has improved drastically since last year. We can hover more, use a little bit more speed and a little bit more angle of bank where required.– Lt Dave Lilly

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I think it was back in January when we started the very beginning of the workup. Most of the maneuvers were practised in isolation before they were eventually strung together into a full routine.” – Lt James Woods

It took about a week or so to put it all together. I sat down with a blank bit of paper and came up with what I thought would be a reasonable routine. I talked it through with James and the Standards team to make sure that what we’re trying to do is achievable. There’s a bit of compromise, a bit of advice but in about a week or so we had a decent outlook for about 90% of the display.” – Lt Dave Lilly

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The Black Cats are relatively unique in the sense that they can offer both a pairs and solo routine. This offers a lot of flexibility to show organisers with varying amounts of funding but also to the team itself should an aircraft go unserviceable just minutes before their display slot.

At the end of last year/beginning of this year, all airshows put their requests into the Royal Navy for which assets they would like. At the end of January, all bids are collated and a discussion takes place to decide where assets are allocated for the season. The decision depends on how much a particular show can afford, the type of site the show is at (whether it can accommodate the larger pairs display) , but also on the day itself it could be down to the weather or serviceability as to which routine is flown. If a pairs routine is booked and one of the aircraft goes U/S, it’s nearly always possible to refocus, gather your thoughts and take off for a solo display. The fact that we can alternate between the two means that it’s very rare for us to miss a show. The solo display also gives us the benefit of being able to show off a little more. It’s a completely different routine and because we’re not trying to keep up with another aircraft we can be a little more dynamic.” – Lt Dave Lilly

“Both routines are good fun to fly for different reasons. The pairs display is satisfying to get right because there are just so many different components; it’s a very demanding routine. The solo is enjoyable because you’re entertaining the entire crowd all on your own; it’s a big responsibility and a huge pleasure. I think I’m probably looking forward to the pairs displays most though!” – Lt James Woods

Unlike the Red Arrows, being a member of the Black Cats is not a full time job and the team is mostly made up of willing volunteers from the Squadron.

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Part of the process for this year was to properly transition from Lynx to Wildcat. Last summer the Squadron were looking to see how to man the team for this year. There is a limited number of people in the Squadron and initially we look for volunteers. I was more than happy to return having displayed 6 years ago and I believe my experience helped to develop the team. James was selected based on his skill and role within the Squadron but also on where he’s going to be in the future.” – Lt Dave Lilly

As has been said already, 2015 is James’ first time with the team and it’s already been quite a rollercoaster of a journey!

It’s been incredibly exciting. The flying is dynamic and completely different to usual daily taskings. You’re using the aircraft in a different way which instantly makes the work more demanding; it’s a little more difficult to master than basic flying. It’s a massive step up.” – Lt James Woods

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I have a slight advantage of doing this before, all the maneuvers are taken from previous displays in my past two years. It’s James’ first time so he’s trying to learn how to fly as a display pilot rather than a frontline pilot. It’s all about having an appreciation of where you need to be in a number of steps time. If I make a mistake, James has to accept that and not go with what he thinks he should do but stick with the plan.” – Lt Dave Lilly

There’s a lot of trust between us. Essentially Dave flies the maneuver and is primarily concerned with the formation’s tracking in relation to the ground. I’m concerned with being in the right place relative to him. I’m always trying to make sure that I’m in the correct position relative to Dave and he has to trust that I’m going to be there. We need to be able to respond quickly if anything was to go wrong be it birds, a gust of wind or just poor positioning.” – Lt James Woods

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Although Dave is experienced with the individual aspects of the routine, there’s one thing that’s been a real challenge during the workup for James and it’s known as the Carousel…

It’s a tricky one because we’re in very close proximity to each other, nose to nose and getting the rate of turn for us both, matched nicely with the differing wind speeds and directions, is exceptionally challenging. As each tail passes through the wind, it affects the aircraft’s heading quite drastically but hopefully you never actually see that from the ground. We try to keep the formation as tight as possible. Chat between the aircraft is kept to a minimum during these moments so that we can completely focus on the task at hand.” – Lt James Woods

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Practise, of course, overcomes most of these initial difficulties but displaying at different sites all over the country poses an entirely new challenge.

Once we’ve finished the workup on base at Yeovilton, you become very familiar with the local landmarks so moving to a new airfield for any given show is always a slight unknown. We will always fly at least one practise at every airfield we display at to familiarise ourselves with the local area and to learn where our reference points are. Displaying over water always adds an additional complexity to the routine too but it doesn’t affect us as much as, maybe, the RAF because we’re so used to operating over water anyway. Reference points are obviously not as still as they would be on land but you can still use geographical features on the coastline to help.” – Lt James Wood

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With the display season now in full swing and the biggest show of the year for the team just on the horizon, where else are they looking forward to displaying?

I always think of Bournemouth, I was lucky enough to do the first and second show there and it’s an exceptionally busy weekend. We usually display in the afternoon as The Black Cats but also take part in the beach landing role demonstration in the morning. The crowds are always huge and unusually we get to take off from the back of a ship, over the sea in our natural environment. Bournemouth is an absolute must for the Royal Navy and is a spectacle not to be missed.” – Lt Dave Lilly

You will be able to see the Royal Navy Black Cats at a number of shows up and down the country this summer but you might not see them coming. For the first time in a number of years the team have been authorised to run in from behind the crowd. So, when everyone else is trying to spot them on the horizon, turn around and look up!

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I’d like to take this opportunity to thank both Dave and James for their time and also for allowing me to capture their rehearsals in great detail.

Best of luck for the rest of 2015!

18 (B) Squadron Celebrates 100 Years of Service

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.

Feature – Junglie: Past, Present and Future

On Monday January 26th, two Sea King Mk4s deployed to Rollestone Camp from their home base of RNAS Yeovilton in Somerset. Exercise Merlin Storm 2 was to be a week-long exercise accompanied by 45 Commando Royal Marines with a programme of winch training, under-slung load training and a full airborne assault which would take place in the early hours of Friday morning. Although the exercise was primarily a Royal Navy one, it was heavily supported by Apaches from AAC Middle Wallop and additional Tornado fast-air when required. On Wednesday I was invited to spend the day with the crews of 845 NAS to find out how it was all going.

845 Naval Air Squadron is the sole remaining Sea King Mk4 squadrons of the Commando Helicopter Force; the wings of the Royal Marines. The Commando Helicopter Force is a specialised amphibious unit that is primarily responsible for supporting 3 Commando Brigade, Royal Marines. The Royal Navy Sea Kings have been involved with almost every major conflict since the Falklands and the Mk4 got it’s ‘Junglie’ nickname not from their green colour but from the role that the Commando helicopter squadrons played in Borneo, back in the 1960s.

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The last couple of decades have been a testing time for the Commando Helicopter Force as they’ve been deployed to both Iraq and Afghanistan where they’ve had to perform outside of their main role. The Sea Kings had to be upgraded to Mk4+ standard so that they could cope with the high altitude, desert environment and this included: stronger rotor blades, more powerful engines, defensive aids and decoys to combat heat seeking missiles as well as night-vision goggles.

With British forces withdrawing from Afghanistan, it’s time for the Commando Helicopter Force to get back to what it does best; assisting the Royal Marines with amphibious operations. Exercise Merlin Storm 2 was a chance to practice the land based element of an amphibious assault and should have consisted of both Sea King and Merlin helicopters (as the name suggests) but the 846 NAS Merlins had already deployed to Norway. As a result the ‘Junglie’ Sea Kings were tasked to take full control of the exercise.

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After an in-depth morning flight briefing, the engineers prepared the two helicopters for the day ahead. I sat down with Lt Steve Pearce to discuss the past, present and future of the Commando Helicopter Force.

“In recent years we’ve been so focused on both the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts that we can finally get back to more traditional training. The reason that the Commando Helicopter Force exists is for amphibious operations; taking Marines from the ship to the shore. We haven’t really done anything like that since 2003 – that was the last real world amphibious assault. A lot of the guys who have been flying for the last 10 years are experienced ‘Junglie’ pilots but have not had many deck landings.”

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Much like we’ve seen with the RAF Chinook and AAC Lynx squadrons, the Royal Navy Sea King Mk4s have mainly been operational in hot and dusty environments, so has this had an impact on the CHF as a whole?

“We are still the most specialised amphibious helicopter support unit in the world, however during the last ten years in Afghanistan we have been focused on flying in the ‘land’ environment, we are now able to concentrate on the littoral role. Hopefully we’ll also be able to get more involved with the regular amphibious exercises like Exercise Joint Warrior and Cougar deployment.”

Cougar is a four-month deployment and includes a number of amphibious and maritime exercises. The Royal Navy team up with partner nations throughout the Mediterranean and Middle East regions to ensure that the task group is ready to respond to any international crisis.

“We’re doing a lot more work with the Royal Fleet Auxiliary at the moment as well and that’s a bit of a double-edged sword. Although we can quite easily land on their ships’ decks, they’re not true warships and as such, are not ideally equipped for our operations.”

There are currently only twelve active airframes between the two Commando Helicopter Force squadrons and this number will fall even further to just seven in the near future as the aircraft heads to retirement in fourteen months time. With just over a year left, what will the crews be doing?

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“We are currently on high-readiness – if something happens anywhere in the world, we can be called up at very short notice to deploy there and get the job done. After that we’ll have eleven months left to run, effectively keeping the skillsets alive for the junior crews and the plan is to make many airshow appearances up and down the country – a farewell tour if you like. Operationally we’ll be maintaining the maritime counter-terrorism role, although that will mainly be carried out by the more senior crews. In May, 845 NAS will take on the Merlin and 848 NAS will step up on the Sea King Mk4. Essentially we will be re-badged, 848 NAS will be the same crews and the same airframes but a different squadron.”

The Royal Navy are replacing the aging Sea King Mk4 with the ex-RAF Merlin Mk3. Over the next few years, the 25 Mk3 Merlins will undergo conversion to Mk4 standard so that the aircraft is fully capable of deploying in a maritime/amphibious role. It is understood that the Merlin will not maintain the ‘Junglie’ commando green colour and once converted, will be decorated in the same grey camouflage scheme as the Royal Navy Wildcat.

You would have thought that it would be safe to assume that the Sea King crews will convert to the Merlin but it doesn’t seem to be that straight forward, Lt Pearce explains why.

“It will all depend on what’s happening at the time. There are an awful lot of senior ‘Junglies’ higher up the chain that would get priority when it comes to the conversion course. They’ll take up the first few courses and we’ll then need to slot in behind them. I imagine some guys will probably move to Wildcat and some will get early Staff jobs to further their career.”

Typically, as soon as we’d finished our interview and the crews were getting ready to lift, the heavens opened and Salisbury Plain was pelted by hail. The next couple of hours were trying for the crews, the wind really picked up and the exercise was unfortunately cut short. The gales became too strong for junior Marines to safely winch in and out of the woodland area and the temperamental weather also made the under-slung load training exceptionally difficult.

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The ‘Junglie’ Sea Kings may have been around for some 30 years but their time is running out and the clock is ticking. 2015 will be the last chance you have to see the infamous helicopter take part in the explosive Commando Assault finale at RNAS Yeovilton Air Day so get your tickets now at:

http://www.royalnavy.mod.uk/news-and-latest-activity/features/yeovilton-air-day-2015

I’d like to thank the crews of 845 NAS for their time and hospitality, and also the Commando Helicopter Force Public Relations office for granting the access required to make this article possible.

Feature – A Summer of Blade Slap

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

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

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.

Farnborough International Airshow 2014 – Wednesday Highlights

The third (and final trade day for me) day has come to an end at Farnborough, here are the biggest talking points of the last 24 hours.

News

  • After a whirlwind day of ‘will they/won’t they’ for both Farnborough and Lockheed Martin, the decision was finally made that although the aircraft has been cleared to return to flight, the F-35B will not be making it’s international debut at Farnborough Airshow this summer.
  • BAE Systems revealed that it’s Taranis combat UAV had conducted a new series of test flights in an ‘undisclosed location’. These new tests were carried out some time between late 2013 and early 2014, and included flying the aircraft in full stealth configuration, making it virtually invisible to radar.
  • Qatar Airways’ boss, Akbar Al Baker has explained that it was in fact Airbus that cancelled plans to display the airline’s A380 and described it as a way for the manufacturer to ‘bully’ the airline into taking delivery of the aircraft. The airline head also said that even though the aircraft wouldn’t have been delivered in time for the airshow, he was hoping that Airbus would display the Qatar liveried A380 on his behalf.
  • AgustaWestland have signed their first UK air ambulance deal for their developmental AW169 helicopter with the Kent, Surrey & Sussex Air Ambulance Trust. The type is due for certification later this year.
  • Since its launch on Monday, Airbus have already received 105 orders for their A330neo aircraft.
  • Airbus have announced that the A350XWB will use just one engine across the board; the Rolls-Royce Trent 7000.
  • Boeing has selected BAE Systems to provides its latest 777X with a flight control electronics system.
  • Even with Boeing displaying the P-8 Poseidon as a future MPA option for the UK, the RAF have announced that they are looking into the possibility of extending the life of the Sentinel R1 fleet by adding maritime capability with the help of Raytheon. This is not seen as an MPA option as such but more of a hybrid gap-filler.

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Farnborough International Airshow 2014 – Tuesday Highlights

The second day at Farnborough International Airshow promises to be just as successful as the first. Today is a big day for Boeing as the P-8 Poseidon gets airborne in front of an international crowd for the first time in the UK.

News

  • The MoD and Agusta Westland have confirmed that the upgraded Merlin HM2 has entered service four months ahead of schedule.
  • Martin Baker has signed a deal to supply the Turkish Air Force’s Hurkus B turbo-prop trainers with the Mk T16~N ejection seat.
  • Boeing has so far received: 490 787-8 aircraft, 409 787-9 aircraft and 132 787-10 aircraft.
  • Air Asia X are to order 50 Airbus A330neo aircraft.
  • Boeing reveals key elements of their new 777X; the newest twin-aisle long-haul aircraft. Advances include a cabin altitude of 6000 ft, windows 15% larger than the competition, all new interior design, a cabin that is 16 inches wider than the competition, next generation LED lighting and lower cabin noise. Production on over 300 orders begins in 2017 with initial delivery targeted for 2020.
  • UPDATE: The Lockheed Martin F-35A/B/C models have all been cleared to fly but Lockheed Martin and the DoD have made the decision not to send the aircraft to the UK. Big blow for the UK and for Lockheed Martin considering an order is yet to be signed – with the cabinet reshuffle, just how committed is the UK to the Joint Strike Fighter Programme?

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