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!

27 Squadron Centenary

Features

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gazelle Squadron Night Shoot

Photo Posts

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

Dunsfold Wings & Wheels

2015, Reviews

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

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

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

Aviation at its Best

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Burning Rubber

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

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

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

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

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Still a Top Show

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

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

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

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

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

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 – 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 – 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…

Review – The Royal International Air Tattoo 2014

2014, Aviation, Reviews

The Royal International Air Tattoo prides itself on being the world’s largest military airshow but over the last couple of years many have begun to doubt that. With much to improve on from 2013, the team pulled out all the stops to put on one hell of a show.

Every July, aviation enthusiasts descend on a usually quiet and picturesque village in the Cotswolds and set up, on the most part, for a full six days of intense aviation action. RAF Fairford is operated by the USAFE and each year hand over control to the Royal Air Force Charitable Trust Enterprises based out of Douglas Bader House. In recent years the team have had a lot to answer for in terms of some of the decisions that have been made about the show but it would appear that 2014 will go down in history as a ‘classic year’.

In the current economic climate it’s increasingly difficult to secure the ‘rare’ items that many enthusiasts want to see and as a result we’ve had to adjust our expectations accordingly. One of the unique features of RIAT (Royal International Air Tattoo) is the long build-up and how the team attempt to excite it’s longstanding customer base with weekly participation updates. By mid June last year, many were saying that the best years had been and gone and that the participation list was anything but exhilarating. In contrast, by mid June this year the impressive and unexpected updates just kept on coming. 2014 saw the return of the USAF (albeit with just a couple aircraft), the Estonians (which given the size of their force is impressive), the Hellenic Air Force and the Japanese as well as many other regular attendees.

For many in the hobby it’s increasingly obvious that aircraft rarity is more important than abundant displays by common types. It would appear that given the feedback from last year, the team at RIAT listened to this request and boy did they deliver.

The Star Of The Show

Fitter. That’s all that needs to be said really – a cold war relic that somehow manages to keep going in a world of fifth-generation, multi-role aircraft. RIAT managed to secure the Polish Air Force Su-22 role demo display which consists of not one, but two of the Russian built fighters. It would be fair to say that the display – which was a combination of formation passes and missed approaches – was not the most dynamic of routines and didn’t fully demonstrate the capabilities of the aircraft but when you’ve got an act like this that’s rarely seen outside of mainland Europe, who cares? The display was loud, dirty and at times fast – tick, tick and tick. Job done. It’s a shame that an aircraft couldn’t be supplied for the static park but that’s just me being greedy!

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Italians In Force

For me the Su-22’s main challenger(s) were everything that the Italians could offer to the show. The Italian Air Force provided a C-27J Spartan, Panavia Tornado, Eurofighter Typhoon and an AMX International AMX (plus the Frecce Tricolori).

The Spartan display has always been an epic show and this year it continued in that manner and delivered a brilliant display that really demonstrated the capability of the transport aircraft. It’s amazing to see an aircraft of that size looping and rolling – I’m still not sure I understand how it’s all possible.

Both the Typhoon and Tornado have been present at the show before but this was the first time seeing the Tornado for me. The RAF’s Tornado Role Demo has now been absent from the UK circuit for two years so to see the aircraft in the air again, albeit with another Air Force, was an absolute delight. The two fast jet displays may not have been the most photographically friendly of the day but they definitely delivered on the ‘fast’ front. The routines seemed to be flown at close to maximum (allowed) speed almost the entire duration of the displays and when you’ve got a Tornado streaming past you fully swept, what more can you ask for?

The AMX was at the Air Tattoo  in 2010 but I’d not seen it before. Although I started to look around the static park by the time it began it’s display, it appeared to be a very dynamic routine which made plenty of noise.

The Italian Air Force has to be applauded for it’s contribution to the 2014 flying programme.

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A Trio Of Fighters

Specifically in this case, the relentless Lockheed Martin F-16. Displays for the type were provided by the Royal Netherlands Air Force, Belgian Air Component and the Turkish Air Force. Three very different displays from three different nations.

For the last few years (in my opinion anyway) the Dutch have ruled the F-16 display world. Their routines have always been fast, dynamic, with plenty of noise and in true patriotic fashion, flown in a bright orange aircraft. Sadly due to budget cuts the ‘Orange Lion’ is no more and for 2014 at least, the display is flown in a standard all-over grey F-16 with a team logo on the tail. The colour is most certainly missing from the display but the skill and excitement is still there.

On the mainstream European circuit, the Belgians have been their closest competition but the routine this year just didn’t seem to cut it for me. It appeared uncharacteristically high in places and extremely distant from the display line which meant that as a whole, the routine was a little underwhelming.

The team from Turkey blew the other two nations out of the water. This was the first time I’d seen the ‘Solo Turk’ F-16 and I seriously hope that it isn’t the last. A truly mesmerising display meant that I actually forgot to take photos for most of the display. A fantastic black and gold paint scheme helps the aircraft stand out in a sea of grey/blue, add smoke winders and plenty of noise to that and you’ve got the ingredients for a stand-out performance. Solo Turk, take a bow.

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Reds 50

‘Reds rolling now…’ – a phrase that’s been heard countless times over the last five decades by people all over the world.

The Royal Air Force Aerobatic Team may be a national treasure to us but the Red Arrows are also an international icon. They are the display team that all others strive to be, they are the pilots that every young boy/girl want to be, they are British and they are most definitely the best.

2014 marks the 50th display season for the Reds and the Royal International Air Tattoo was keen to mark this milestone in style. For the first time ever, the Friday of RIAT was turned into a public day and sold as a ‘Red Arrows All-Access’ event. Display teams from all over were invited to attend and celebrate; The Patrouille Suisse, The Patrouille De France, The Breitling Jet Team and The Polish Air Force Orliks.

Display teams aren’t for everyone but with the Red Arrows, I never get tired of seeing them. The sight of nine red BAE Hawks in diamond formation never fails to make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up and with the patriotic red, white and blue smoke, you can’t help but feel extremely proud to be British.

The Reds may have been going for 50 years but they just keep getting better – the 2014 team are flying the routine exceptionally tight and in all honesty, it’s one of the best I’ve seen in recent years. Happy Birthday and keep up the incredible work!

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Empty Space

As well as an extensive flying display programme, RIAT also boasts on having the largest and most diverse static aircraft display in the world.

2013 was empty on the ground – aircraft were sparse and big gaps lurked where USAF heavies usually parked up. US sequestration put an unfortunately grim spin on the static park last year and although the list was bolstered somewhat this year, it was still a fairly quiet place to be.

Even with several C-130s parked up, numerous F-16s and a USAF KC-135, the park still felt a little empty. There were still lots of large gaps that used to be filled but maybe that’s something that we’re going to have to get used to. The world is an ever changing place and I think we’re probably going to have to suck it up and be happy with what we get.

The Reds 50 theme seemed to help out the static park a little. To the far east of the airfield was a cordoned off area where the Red Arrows were parked up (with other display teams at times) and this offered the chance to get a little closer than normal to the team. This area was opened up on the Friday and gave people a chance to have a look around.

It wasn’t all doom and gloom though, the Hellenic Air Force brought over two of their aging A-7 Corsairs, another rarity that the enthusiast community welcomed open armed. The Greek Corsairs are the last in the world and are due to be retired in the near future. A type that most likely won’t ever be seen at an airshow again – RIAT have to be applauded once again for their persistence in acquiring the two aircraft.

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A Classic Year

2014 signalled a year of improvements but most importantly a year of change. Tim Prince, one of the founders of the Royal International Air Tattoo and CEO of the RAFCTE, steps down this year and hands the reigns over to a fresh-faced, passionate and dedicated organising team. Tim will be remembered by many as the face of RIAT and with his departure, many will see this as the end of an era and quite rightly so.

The flying display was spot on this year with plenty of variety and rarity. If the team can match that in years to come, then words such as ‘classic’ and ‘vintage’ may in fact becomes terms (ironically) of the past.

It’s also worth noting that vast improvements have been made to the showground itself. The ‘service stations’ that were implemented last year were bigger and better – more toilets and a larger selection of food outlets convinced me that this is the way forwards for RIAT.

As well as that, extra teams of security were employed to police the queues that build-up before the gates open. Queue jumpers were removed and forced to join the back (at least at the blue gate where I was situated), a concept that amazingly has taken this long to implement. Please, please, please bring this back next year – if you don’t get up early enough then you join the back of the queue. Deal with it.

One thing that the team definitely need to improve on in my opinion is the souvenir programme. Priced at £12, the advert filled magazine is an absolute rip-off. No other show charges this much for a programme and I find it difficult to understand what makes it so expensive – yes it’s a little glossy and places and yes it has a lot of pages but it really is no more than a padded magazine. The average aviation magazine is £5 and display programmes can be as cheap as £4 so why charge so much?! This was the first year I’ve not bought one and I honestly can’t say that I missed it. With the presence of social networking getting stronger by the day, it’s increasingly easy to find out what’s displaying and when. Unless the price is drastically reduced, I certainly won’t be purchasing it again.

RIAT, see you next year!

Farnborough International Airshow 2014 – Wednesday Highlights

Features

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.

Displays

Farnborough International Airshow 2014 – Tuesday Highlights

Features

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?

Displays