Dunsfold Wings & Wheels

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

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

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

Aviation at its Best

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Burning Rubber

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

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

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

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

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Still a Top Show

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

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

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

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

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

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!

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.

Review – RNAS Yeovilton Air Day 2014

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

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

International Visitors

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

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

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

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

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Classic Aircraft

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

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

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

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

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What Royal Air Force?

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

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

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

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

The Home Team

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Still One Of The Best

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

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

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

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

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

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

Royal Navy 1 – RAF 0.

Review – Farnborough Airshow 2014

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…

Feature – Farnborough Fights Back

Once upon a time in a bygone era, Farnborough Airshow was the Airshow to attend. With many brand new and even some prototype aircraft being flown by the world’s greatest test pilots, the Hampshire town was the place to see past, present and future offerings for airlines and air forces around the globe. Decades later, Farnborough Airshow exists in a shadow of its former self – the 2012 show was one to forget for the aviation enthusiast but the team at FIA are keen to put things right for 2014.

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RAF Eurofighter Typhoon at FIA 2012

The 2012 show had many things wrong with it; overcrowding, an average display programme, star items from the trade show leaving before the weekend, the trade halls closing for the weekend, overpriced catering, lack of toilets, and an expensive ticket price for what was on offer. Earlier this year I had the chance to meet with the team behind the scenes and reiterate the concerns that we all had from the show two years previous.

I went along expecting to get into a bit of a spat over what is expected from an Airshow but I have to say, I was pleasantly surprised. The team put their hands up and admitted that they’d let people down and that after holding several focus groups with both enthusiasts and local members of the community, they knew what they needed to do.

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FIA needs star items like the KAI T-50 Golden Eagle from 2012

To give you a little background – the trade show and public show are run as two completely separate events (Farnborough International Airshow and Farnborough Airshow respectively) and therefore trying to get trade aircraft to stay for the public show is a big ask. As was the case in 2012, many star items did in fact leave before the public show and for 2014 the team have tried to correct this. Investing quite heavily in manufacturers and foreign governments, the 5 1/2 hour public show has managed to secure star items like the F-35B, Airbus A380, Breitling Super Constellation and a Spanish Naval Harrier (the result of more than 14 months of negotiations with Spanish authorities).

F-35B © Lockheed Martin Corporation

The theme for the 2014 public show is ‘100 Years of Aviation’ and while some Airshows have had quite weak themes in the past, Farnborough Airshow are really focused on honouring this centenary and will be showcasing the past, present and future of aviation. As well as those aircraft already mentioned, there will also be a replica Me262 in the flying display this year – this is a fantastic achievement for Farnborough and it will be the first time that this aircraft has ever flown in the UK. The show will also commemorate 100 years since the start of the First World War with a brilliant display from the Great War Display Team.

It would appear that Sarah Harding, Head of Flight Operations at Farnborough has recognised that the show needs to evolve and offer the public a little something extra. For 2014, this will come in the form of some very special double acts. The F-35B will appear in the air with the Spanish Navy Harrier, demonstrating the capabilities of V/STOL aircraft while the Me262 will display with the Classic Air Force Meteor – both of these displays can only be seen this year at Farnborough. It’s not just in the air that things are improving either – for the first time ever, the static exhibit space is full for both the trade and public shows; and there are many operators still on a waiting list for a space should one become available.

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Sarah Harding, Head of Flight Operations with Shaun Ormrod, Chief Executive FIA

As well as the public show, the trade show is also set to be a massive hit this year with early figures indicating –

  • 20 bespoke buildings for individual exhibitors
  • 98% of self-build hall space sold
  • 18 international pavilions, 2 new: Norway and Malaysia
  • 56% international exhibitors; 44% UK exhibitors
  • 3 new countries participating – Tunisia, Malaysia and Thailand
  • 26% of exhibitors are new to FIA
  • 15% of exhibitors have increased space on 2012
  • Part of the new Chalet Row A development has been sold to Martin Baker for the next five shows
  • New delegations and UK MoD lounge
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The brand new Chalet Row A development

While there is a big tick against the flying and static displays, there is a lot outstanding to make 2014 a vast improvement on the last couple of shows. In February, the team were eager to tell us that the there will be many more changes – more toilets, a greater range of catering facilities and a revised crowd line layout.

Unfortunately though, the trade halls will remain closed. The closure came in 2012 due to two reasons; Health and Safety were concerned that the larger models could pose a risk to smaller children and also, participating companies could not afford to keep their stalls manned for the weekend where they weren’t making any sales. The days of going home with bags full of freebies are sadly over.

So it’s time to put 2012 to rest and look ahead to what’s in store for 2014. I seriously hope that everything comes together for the team this year and that both the trade show and public show turn out to be a massive success. Farnborough Airshow will never be able to reproduce the glory days but it can certainly do it’s best to return as a favourite amongst the enthusiast crowd.

FIA, I’ve got everything crossed for you!

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Farnborough International Airshow runs from 14th-18th July with the public show running from 19th-20th July. To find out more, head over to http://www.farnborough.com, follow @FIAFarnborough on Twitter and like Farnborough Airshow on Facebook.

Review – Support Our Paras Show

The Parachute Regiment Charity was set up to help support soldiers and families of The Parachute Regiment, as well as members of the Airborne Forces who are also in need of help. In 2008, a small but successful event was held at Old Sarum airfield in Salisbury and after six years away, the organisers decided to put another show together for the 11th May.

The weather forecast for the show wasn’t great but for once it wasn’t rain that was the issue. The 30-40mph gusts were a real cause for concern and it could quite easily have led to all participating aircraft being unable to display – the first show of 2014 at Old Warden was cancelled early in the morning due to the extreme conditions. Fortunately though, those that braved the wind were rewarded with a very pleasant day in the Wiltshire countryside.

The main air displays didn’t start until after 2pm but the early birds were treated to a short role demonstration by a Chinook HC4 from RAF Odiham. As two Jackals secured the landing site, the Chinook carrying Prince Michael of Kent appeared out of nowhere and flew in from the hills in the distance. As the aircraft touched down, soldiers from 2 Para poured out and immediately started countering the enemy’s attack. With the area secure and the role demonstration over, Prince Michael made his way by convoy to the crowd line to meet members, past and present, of The Parachute Regiment. The role demo was exciting to watch and it’s always great to see frontline aircraft perform operationally in a way that the public may not always get a chance to see.

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The role demonstration was over by about 11am and with the high winds, the display programme was already in it’s third iteration since Saturday evening. Flying wasn’t due to get underway properly until 2.30pm so there was plenty of time to have a look around the small event, get up close and personal with an AAC Lynx Mk7 from Middle Wallop and also watch the Chinook  depart and return to base. At an event of this size, three hours seemed like a long time to wait for the displays to start but this was made easier by the presentations that were made in the main arena area.

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The display programme was reshuffled for a fourth time because sadly several aircraft were unable to get out of their home airfields – this included the Great War Display Team and Duxford based Spitfire MH434. The planned jump by the Red Devils Parachute Display Team was also scrubbed as the gusts at lower levels proved to be too dangerous.

Finally, the display programme started and the first of two Yak-50s took to the sky. Designed by the Soviet Yakolev company in 1970s, the Yak-50 was the chosen aircraft of the national aerobatic display team. The USSR wanted an aircraft that would dominate international display competitions and they weren’t concerned about how much it would cost. The result was a 360mph, turbo-charged radial engine monoplane that soon dominated competitions later in that decade. G-SKPH is a member of the Aerostars display team and put on a fantastic solo display in very challenging conditions. Although the display was flown a little higher than normal, the skill involved in such a routine was easy to see and was more than enough to whet the appetite for what laid ahead.

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Ben Lovering was next to display in the Raging Bull of Biplane Aerobatics. G-KLAW is a Christen Eagle II – a kit-built sporting biplane that was designed as a competitor to the Pitts Special. Ben put on a brilliant display of aerobatics but unfortunately due to it’s size and the height at which it was performed, the aircraft was lost all but lost at times. Had the display been slightly lower, I’m confident it would have been extremely photographic.

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The RV8tors have become a regular sight at airshows up and down the country over the last few years and in the skies above Old Sarum, the pair put on a stunning display in less than ideal conditions. The smoke generators on the home-built RV8 really demonstrated the drift that both Alistair Kay and Andy Hill had to contend with. Both have to be applauded for managing to pull off a pairs routine in such high winds.

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The second Yak-50 got airborne, this time it was an aircraft marked ’49’ from the Yakovlevs Display Team based at Henstridge Airfield in Dorset. The silver and red colour scheme looked great and although I’m used to seeing the full team display, this solo managed to show off the Yak-50 in all it’s glory. Unfortunately I messed up my shutter speeds on this display and didn’t realise until I got home. I’m hoping that I get to see the full team display somewhere later this year.

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Just in case you hadn’t got your full fix of Soviet props for the day, a beautiful Yak-11 was next on to the grass runway. The throaty roar of the Yak-11 is absolutely fantastic and in true Russian style, the display came complete with a familiar dark smoke trailing behind the aircraft. A beautifully glossy paint scheme added to the joy of watching this warbird display. This was the first time that I had seen this type fly and I’m already looking forward to seeing it again. A superb demonstration of display flying.

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Having had several items cancel earlier on in the day, it was a surprise to hear that RAF Brize Norton were sending in a Hercules for a couple of flypasts. This was a real treat and it is believed that this was arranged last minute – the aircraft had been conducting a two hour training mission over the Salisbury Plain Training Area and the organisers managed to pull in a favour. The first flypast was a simulated supply drop with the ramp down and the aircraft flown at nice slow speed. The C-130J went into circuit before winding up the engines to perform a final high speed pass. The Hercules is becoming a rare sight at UK airshows so well done to the team on securing this.

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Now in late afternoon, there were just two aircraft left to display and the first of those was the Duxford based Scottish Aviation Bulldog. The aircraft was also in the flying display at Abingdon last week so I knew what to expect from the display. The Bulldog should be a lesson to the RAF on how the Tutor display should be flown; the aircraft are of similar size and power yet this display is flown with much more enthusiasm.

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The buzz of the Extra 300 has become synonymous with competition aerobatics and although the noise can be slightly irritating at times, Justyn Gorman from World Aero Aerobatics really put on a fantastic display of high ‘G’ manouvers. The World Aero Aerobatics team were a unique act – the team had agreed to display free of charge in exchange for their manager doing the commentary for ten minutes, talking about the aircraft, pilot and parent company. It’s not very often that you get something for free these days and it’s nice to see that some people are still managing to think outside the box.

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All that remained was for the visiting aircraft to depart (which included a gorgeous Gazelle of the Gazelle Squadron Display Team) and the evening sunset ceremony to take place. The Support Our Paras event is only in it’s second year and it’s yet to be decided as to whether the event will return in 2015 or not. Attendance figures did not appear to be exceptionally high but with strong winds and very little advertising, it’s easy to see why. I only found out about the event at Abingdon last week because one of the organisers there was helping at Old Sarum on the day. With many online forums, websites and social media, it’s difficult to understand why this event wasn’t publicised more.

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The show has everything needed to make this a success in the future – a team of willing volunteers, a great location and plenty of space for people to set up stalls and mobile shops. With a little bit of work, Support Our Paras could easily be turned into a ‘country fayre’ style show and become a flagship fundraising event for The Parachute Regiment Charity. Only time will tell what will happen next but I for one hope that this returns to the calendar in 2015.

To find out more about The Parachute Regiment Charity, visit www.paracharity.org and follow @ParaCharity on Twitter.

2013 Review

2013 has been an incredible year for me and whilst I’ve already started making plans for 2014, it’s time to take a look back at some of the highlights from the last twelve months.

My aviation year started all the way back in May with a visit to RAF Odiham where the 2013 RAF Chinook Display Team were working on their display a few weeks prior to their PDA. After 90 minutes of continuous practice, I sat down with the team to work on my first written piece of the year – little did I know at the time that this would be my first printed article and would later appear in Odiham’s Helicon magazine.

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May was a busy month because I also visited Abingdon Air and Country Show – the traditional display season starting point. Abingdon was slightly different for me this year as I was also invited along to the night shoot on the evening before the public day. Abingdon was a very strong show this year with some stand out displays and cracking weather.

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As if that wasn’t enough for May, I then went to see the An-2 Club team down at Popham airfield – the team have had a tough twelve months and back in April, due to financial strains, they decided to take a year out and reassess things. The good news is that things have dramatically improved since then and 2014 is looking like a strong year for the Popham based team.

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In June I visited the RAF Cosford Airshow for the first time and I have to say that it was a strange experience to say the least. Firstly, the layout of the showground was unlike anything I’d ever seen before – the main runway/display line and static displays were separated by a massive onsite car park. This meant that if you wanted to go from one side to the other you had to cross the large car park, which to me just seemed like a massive inconvenience. The air and static displays itself were fantastic though – a good balance between old and new but it also stayed true to what an Airshow should be; decent displays without the need for lots of  unrelated sideshows. The highlight for many was the Harrier GR.3 which had been restored and staged inside a classic camouflage hide – something that Cosford are looking to build upon in the coming years. Another highlight of Cosford was the MERT role demo that was put together by the RAF and Army – it was a fantastic demonstration of how our forces work together in Afghanistan to bring our injured soldiers home. And who could forget that one off Apache display from Captain Wales A.K.A. Prince Harry?!

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July is naturally the busiest time on the UK display calendar with most of the big shows taking place within a few weeks of each other. My first show of the month was RNAS Yeovilton’s Air Day where I attended both days and got to work with the Royal Navy Black Cats Helicopter Display Team – unfortunately due to circumstances outside of my control the article was scrubbed and never saw the light of day. As usual the Navy put on a spectacle of a show – if you’ve never seen the commando assault finale then you’re missing out!

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My second show and possibly the highlight of my year was the Royal International Air Tattoo at RAF Fairford – not because of the air display itself (which featured a breathtaking flypast consisting of the Red Arrows and BA’s new A380) but because I got to spend an entire day behind the scenes with the RAF Chinook Display Team. The work from this hasn’t seen the light of day yet as it is still waiting official sign-off from the RAF but the work will (hopefully) be displayed early next year at my first exhibition.

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The beginning of August was fairly quiet but the end of the month and into September became extremely busy with two shows and two new articles.

The first airshow was at Dunsfold Aerodrome in Surrey for the annual Wings & Wheels display. Once more it was a superbly organised event and almost perfect in every way (except for the total washout on Saturday). The show itself had a good mixture of motoring, classic aircraft, helicopters and fast jets but equally as important, the showground layout was extremely well designed.

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A few days later I was invited by RAF Odiham to write an article on the Chinook HC4 and the Chinook force drawdown in Afghanistan. The organised day was an opportunity for members of the armed forces to speak to the media and discuss the processes involved in preparing for withdrawal from certain areas of Afghanistan. My main focus for the day was to capture an overall view of the exercise, document the Chinook HC4 and also speak to (then) RAF Odiham’s Station Commander.

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Next stop was Bournemouth Air Festival and it was my first time shooting from the cliff top. Bournemouth is a special show because you get to see the Fleet Air Arm operating in their natural environment and being on the cliffs gives the perspective of almost looking down upon all of the displays. The highlight of the show for me was the Royal Navy’s anti-piracy role demonstration which involved all aspects of the force, including the Royal Marines.

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2013 has been an eventful year for aviation and unfortunately it saw the retirement of the mighty VC-10. Fortunately I was invited to Dunsfold Aerodrome where Brooklands Museum were taking delivery of ZA150. Although owned by Brooklands, the aircraft will remain at Dunsfold for the foreseeable future and there is a high chance that it will be maintained in fast taxi condition and should be on display at next year’s Wings & Wheels event.

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So in a nutshell, that’s what I’ve been up to in the last twelve months. It has been a very enjoyable year but it is nice to take a step back over the winter and look at everything that I’ve achieved. Plans are well underway already for 2014 and I hope that you will continue to follow me along the way.

I’d like to take this opportunity to thank all those that have helped make 2013 such a fantastic year – it wouldn’t have been possible without you!

The start of the 2014 Airshow season is just five months away…

Review – Dunsfold Wings & Wheels

For the first time this year, organisers decided to host the annual Wings & Wheels show on the Saturday and Sunday of the bank holiday weekend instead of the Sunday and Monday. When they saw the forecast for the weekend I can only imagine what must have been said in the office…

Having had such a brilliant two days last year, I once again opted for the two day ticket but almost immediately started regretting that decision on Saturday morning. Setting up early seemed almost pointless with just a handful of people on the display line first thing. Chair out and umbrella firmly in the ground for what was going to be a very miserable day.

The forecast early on in the week said that both Saturday and Sunday were both going to be full of sun and cloud – unfortunately as the week went on. Saturday’s forecast just got worse and worse. True to the forecast it was very wet and the cloud base was extremely low which meant poor visibility all around.

The car runs were slightly sparse with many private operators choosing not to run as there was too much standing water and only a handful of air displays got airborne during the day – the first of which was Peter Teichman in Lulu Belle. The Kittyhawk’s engine purred as it took to the dull grey sky and Peter showed that even in these horrendous conditions, you could still put a warbird through it’s paces. This was to be Peter’s first display of the day as he later performed a full routine with his Hawker Hurricane – disappearing into the low cloud clearly didn’t stop the Hangar 11 owner from having fun!

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Dunsfold managed to secure the RNLAF historic flight B-25 Mitchell for the third year running but unlike the last two years, it actually turned up! The WWII bomber graced the skies above Dunsfold and put on a truly magnificent display. Plenty of sweeping turns and low passes easily made this a contender for top display but unfortunately Saturday was the only time it managed to run through it’s routine. Shortly after take off on Sunday, the pilot reported that the gear was locked down and therefore the aircraft landed almost immediately. A real shame considering the weather on Sunday was fantastic.

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The AAC Apache, RN Lynx and RAF Chinook also all managed to put on a display for the crowd but these were also somewhat hampered by the persistent drizzle and low cloud.  All three put on superb displays considering the conditions but Flt Lt Paul Farmer stole the show when he managed to pull of the the full 720 degree downward spiral mid-display – incredible considering the cloud base.

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Saturday was all over and done with at 4pm as the heavens opened – well done to Jonathon Whaley for still managing to get out for a fast taxi on what looked like a river by the time I left!

With Saturday’s weather behind us, the sun was shining and blue skies were aplenty as I pulled up for day two on the Surrey based show. Temperatures slowly rose throughout the day and the sky just kept getting better and better for photography. I’d almost go as far as saying that it was the best light I’ve shot in all year.

The runway was still a little damp from the night before but this didn’t stop anyone from coming out for a run. Every single serviceable car powered up the straight demonstrating that this show wasn’t just about what was in the sky but that it was also about what the motoring industry has to offer. From classic Mustangs to modern day Porsches, Aston Martins to hot rods – there was something for everyone including a visit from the Louisiana State Police.

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The first air display of the day came from Dan Arlett in his Jet Provost. Dan took off into an almost cloudless blue sky and the lingering vapour made for some incredibly shots. The display seemed to go on forever and I simply didn’t want it to end – it was one of the most entertaining displays I’ve seen this year and was easily the most photogenic. An outstanding display by a former RAF jet trainer – thank you Dan!

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Something slightly different to a normal air display and an act that hasn’t been seen at Dunsfold before was the Reds Duo RC Hawk display team. The 1/4 scale Hawks lined up and took to the air in formation and performed a routine which consisted of passes and aerobatics pulled from the Red Arrows synchro pair display. I was expecting to find this little display boring but it was absolutely brilliant and even the real Reds approved of the smoke filled show.

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The Brietling Wingwalkers flew into the display circuit and Dani and Freya demonstrated once again that you have to be incredibly fit to perform acrobatics whilst in flight. The bright orange Stearman aircraft are always a pleasure to see and somehow manage to make the crowd smile every single time they fill the aerodrome with smoke.

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The RAF Odiham based Chinook team returned for the second day in a row to demonstrate the agility and capability of the tandem rotor aircraft. Dunsfold was one of the display venues that the team had hand picked earlier in the year so that they could say thank you to the owners for letting them use the aerodrome for training – and what a way to say thank you! Another top performance by the award winning display team and the penultimate show of their season.

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Lt Si Dixon carried on the rotary theme by taking the Lynx up for the solo Black Cats routine. Throwing the aircraft around the sky as if it were just a toy, Si demonstrated just what the Agusta Westland helicopter is capable of. It’s still a little strange to see the Black Cats  display as a solo performance but I’m really excited for what the 2014 season holds…bring on the Wildcat!

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After a slightly disappointing solo display at Abingdon back in May, I was slightly sceptical about seeing the Gnat pair display but I had no need to be. Flying in from North Weald and straight into their routine, the two Folland Gnats filled the sky with smoke trails and put on a very impressive display of formation flying – it’s easy to see why the Reds used to fly them! A smaller airfield and another aircraft led to this display being one of my favourite from the weekend. Well done guys!

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After another faultless display by the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight, XH558 began running in for it’s display. Although I’m getting a little bored of seeing the cold war giant display, the crowd seemed to disagree. The aerodrome fell almost silent as the Olympus engines kicked into life and let out a short burst of that infamous howl – a nice sight to see but I’m not sure I’ll miss it that much when it’s gone.

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Over the far side of the airfield, nine Hawks were powering up and children started to gather at the display line – it was time for the Red Arrows. Taking off in three staggered formations of three, the Reds retracted their landing gear and went into circuit to start their display. I love seeing the younger ones’ reactions when the Reds take to the sky – nothing on earth produces a smile quite like the site of red, white and blue smoke. The Arrows are on top form again this year and every single one of their displays has been fantastic – well done guys and thank you!

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Over the last few years Dunsfold has become infamous for putting together unique formations that you’ll be hard pushed to find elsewhere and this year they carried on that tradition with not one but two set pieces. Firstly was the RNHF Sea Fury and the Hangar 11 Hurricane which performed a few formation flypasts before breaking into their individual routines. The second formation seemed as though it was arranged last minute – there was a brief gap in the display programme while the Wingwalkers, Sea Fury and Swordfish all departed. The commentators then announced over the loud speakers that they were going to positions themselves together and fly in for a formation fly past before going their separate ways. Top marks to all involved, especially the RNHF Sea Fury which had to fly with flaps down just to slow down enough.

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Now late into the afternoon and the sun was starting to go down in a clear sky, needless to say that for the remaining displays the light was absolutely phenomenal. First to take to the sky in the fading light was the multicoloured Hawker Hunter – Miss Demeanour. Dunsfold’s aim is to get aircraft involved with the show that have some sort of history with the airfield and of course, the aerodrome was home to Hawker/Hawker Siddeley back in the day. Jonathon was able to put on an outstanding show and there were even traces of that desirable blue note – a controversial scheme but always a truly awesome display.

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The day concluded with displays by the RAF Typhoon and AAC Apache. As I mentioned earlier, the light was out of this world and meant that both displays made for some incredible shots. Flt Lt Jamie Norris gave yet another amazing display in his Eurofighter aircraft – I really feel that the Typhoon has been brought to life this year and that’s all down to Jamie so lets keep that momentum going into next year.

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The Apache closed the show demonstrating that the combat proven helicopter is more than capable of keeping up with the likes of the Chinook and Lynx in terms of display flying. Although not a full aerobatic display like it’s Dutch cousin, the Wattisham based team still managed to fill the sky and wow the crowd with it’s tight banking and combat manoeuvres.

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So Dunsfold Wings & Wheels 2013 really was a show of two halves – a rain filled Saturday and sunny Sunday. After leaving the grounds soaking wet on Saturday I really feared for the organisers and couldn’t work out why they’d decided to change the show days given that it’s always been such a huge success in the past. Nevertheless, the weather pulled in the crowd on Sunday which hopefully more than made up for the lack of money taken on Saturday. The organisers must be highly applauded for their efforts in constantly rescheduling the show on Saturday and making sure that the audience were not left totally disappointed. Gaps in the display programme were filled with aviation related chat which didn’t feel at all forced so congratulations to the commentary team too. One thing also worthy of mentioning was the improved layout of the show ground – toilets were placed throughout the arena meaning that you never had to walk far and the dedicated WWII re-enactment area was very interesting. The bigger shows could learn an awful lot about catering if they were to speak to the organisers too, with a huge selection of food available; hog roasts, locally sourced burgers and even a Domino’s wagon – as well as all the fast food regulars.

If you ignore the terrible weather on Saturday then I really can’t fault the show.

Full marks awarded to Dunsfold Park.

Roll on 2014…

Review – Royal International Air Tattoo

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The Royal International Air Tattoo is seen by many enthusiasts as THE greatest military air show in the world but this year’s show left a sinking feeling in my stomach. Slightly sceptical about the show, I headed to the Gloucestershire countryside on 20th July to see what the organisers had to offer.

The 2011 show was a total disaster on the ground – a plethora of stalls totally unrelated to aviation, a concert stage that meant the commentary feed was inaudible and far too much money was spent on acts to display on that stage which ultimately led to a poorer display in the air as a result. It’s fair to say that the enthusiast community was thoroughly unimpressed with the outcome and many a meeting was held by those in charge to address the many complaints generated from unhappy customers. A few months passed and it was announced that 2012 would be a classic year for the Air Tattoo – a stripped back show trying to get back to its aviation roots without any of the cumbersome additions that plagued the ground just 12 months previously.

Last year’s show was absolutely fantastic. As promised the concert stage had all but vanished and the stalls selling double glazing, garden swings and ornaments had also disappeared. The focus was clearly on getting star items for both the flying and static displays…and it showed! The team at RIAT had turned over a new leaf and for the first time in many years it felt as though all was on track to get back to the glory days of aviation. The aviation community praised the efforts put in by all involved and were genuinely excited for this year’s show…that was until the plans for this year were revealed.

Much of the fun about the Air Tattoo is in finding out what will be attending in the months running up to the show. This year though, the excitement turned into frustration and disappointment when ‘star’ items turned out to be RAF displays that were always guaranteed to be there anyway. The lack of US hardware both on the ground and in the air was compensated with civilian flown warbirds which many would argue, do not belong at the world’s biggest military air show. As if that wasn’t enough, the press day consisted of an RAF Typhoon landing, a BMX stunt display and a comment that will probably be remembered as the beginning of the end – a comment stating that RIAT’s biggest competitor was a theme park and that’s the sort of atmosphere they wanted to create.

Two weeks of brilliantly blue skies and soaring temperatures meant that Saturday’s show was sold out before the gates had even opened and as I set up on the flight line at 8am, I was soon glad that I’d decided to settle down early rather than look round the static. Even though the build up to the show had been full of let downs and missed opportunities (not even approaching the Swedish Air Force Historic Flight), there was still plenty of interesting items to be seen in the air – the first of which were the routines from the Dutch Air Force.

The Dutch Air Force display teams are becoming regulars on the UK display circuit and they have to be admired for their commitment to us. Dressed in a fantastic scheme to celebrate the Dutch Air Force centenary, the Apache kicked off the weekend with a superb display of rotary agility. The Apache and F-16 completed a fly past together before the ‘Orange Lion’ kicked in the re-heat and tore up the sky. We’ve come to expect a fantastic routine from the Dutch F-16 pilots and this year’s display was no different – another superb performance in one of my favourite fighters of all time.

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The next display that was of particular interest was the Finnish Army’s new NH90 which was making it’s UK debut. I’d seen the company’s display of the NH90 back at Farnborough last year and was rather impressed with it’s routine. Unfortunately I felt a little let down by the Finnish routine because it was very much focused on crowd centre, so if you were either end of the runway you barely got a look in apart from a few turns.

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Another aircraft making its UK flying debut was the brand new Boeing KC-767A from the Italian Air Force which flew in formation with two Typhoons (one from the RAF and one from the RSV). Although a very short display with just one fly past, it was nice to see the aircraft in a refuelling formation and even more impressive were the performance takeoffs of all three aircraft.

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One aircraft that has really grown on me in the last twelve months is the Saab Gripen and to my delight there were two present at RIAT – the first of which was a routine from the Swedish Air Force. In previous years I’ve found the Swedish routine to be fairly sedate but this year it was brilliant and in my opinion was far superior to that of the Hungarian Air Force that displayed later in the afternoon. The Swedish display felt much closer to the crowd line where I was and I thought the routine flowed much more naturally. Overall though I thought they were both very good and should both be commended for their displays.

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Making a very welcome return to RAF Fairford was the Polish Air Force MiG-29. Staying low on take off and pulling into a high G turn to begin it’s display, the Polish Air Force did their absolute best to show off the power of this Eastern block fighter. A lot of afterburner and plenty of that infamous black smoke made this one of the stand out displays of the weekend. Always a pleasure to see Russian built hardware at UK shows.

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Although I said earlier that warbirds didn’t really belong at RIAT, for me there were two exceptions to that rule. The Flying Bulls have displayed here several times in the last couple of years but never at Fairford. Red Bull’s original plan was to send their P-38 Lightning and Corsair but the Lightning sadly had engine issues – as a replacement, they happily sent their chrome-finish B-25J Mitchell. I was almost glad that it had clouded over a little more when the aircraft got airborne, had it have been really sunny then the chrome finish would have been a nightmare to shoot! A lovely formation display by both aircraft before splitting and carrying out their solo routines. It was a display I’d not seen before and I look forward to seeing more from the Flying Bulls in the coming years.

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As well as their shiny new tanker, the Italian Air Force also sent their RSV Typhoon and C-27 Spartan for the flying displays. I had heard many good things about the RSV Typhoon display in previous years so was rather excited to see it announced for the flying display a few months back. As the Eurofighter multi-role aircraft left the runway, it’s smokewinders kicked in and off it went into the circuit to begin it’s routine. Although the smoke added an extra dimension to the display, I felt that the RAF Typhoon was much superior – the Italian routine lacked both power and noise. Putting the Typhoon aside, the C-27 Spartan routine was absolutely phenomenal and no matter how many times I see the transport aircraft roll and loop, it still defies physics in my eyes. A tightly flown display by the Italians – it’s incredible to see what can be done with just two of the C-130J’s turboprop engines.

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I think possibly the highlight of RIAT 2013 for me was the formation fly pasts from the RAF Red Arrows and British Airways’ brand new Airbus A380. It was one of those moments that will forever stand out in my mind and I can honestly say that it made me feel incredibly patriotic – The Red Arrows trailing red, white and blue smoke while the A380 is leading the display with BA’s trademark colours. A truly fantastic fly past and if that alone wasn’t enough, the A380 then broke off and performed a missed approach – my jaw hit the ground as the Airbus giant slammed on the thrust to pull into a climb. A very British display and one that I’ll never forget.

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The Airbus A400M was also present at the show and like the A380, it also made a fly past on the Sunday with the Red Arrows. The first time I saw the Atlas display, I remember thinking how majestic it was in the air and the show at RIAT certainly didn’t disappoint. It was fascinating to see how the Hercules’ replacement can be thrown about the sky and it’s easy to see that it will excel in an operational environment. The most impressive feature of it’s entire display was the steep approach to full stop landing using just a minute part of the available runway. I’m looking forward to these coming into service, that’s for sure.

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A first for the Air Tattoo was the participation from the Estonian Air Force who sent half of their fleet – one Antonov An-2 and an L-39 Albatross. The L-39 was for the flying display and was painted up in a scheme inspired by the Baltic Bees. The pilot gave a spirited display of the small jet trainer but at times the aircraft was just a little too far from the display line and the routine felt disjointed. At several points in the display, the commentators called the wrong parts of the display – I can only assume that they had a very basic routine script to talk about. It was lovely to see Estonia contributing so much (compared to the size of their air force) to the flying programme and hopefully as their air power grows, we’ll see more from them in the future.

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Finally for the flying displays – it would be rude not to mention another award-winning performance from the RAF Chinook display team, well done on the hat-trick!

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It’s fair to say that the static display at RIAT this year was empty compared to previous years – it would appear that Fairford just can’t cope on the ground without US participation. There were plenty of big gaps where US tankers and transporters would usually see and it all looked a bit sorry for itself – I don’t understand why they didn’t shrink the display line a little too compact everything up a little more. There were also plenty of civilian types that just wouldn’t have been seen in previous years and these simply don’t belong at a military air show.

There were really only three aircraft on the ground this year that I really wanted to see; the Breitling Super Constellation, French Mirage’s and Canberra XH134. The latter only got approval to fly in late Friday afternoon so very well done to all involved and it was great to see her back at the Air Tattoo after her final display there in 2006.

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The Super Constellation was due to attend last year but due to engine troubles, it had to cancel. Fortunately it was available this year but only for static display – nevertheless it was a chance to see a beautiful airliner from a bygone era and I really hope to see her in the air in the near future.

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The star item(s) of the static display for me were the two Mirage F1s from the French Air Force – two stunning aircraft that I’ve not seen before so it was a pleasure to shoot them up close. Sadly I didn’t see them in the air at any point but I understand that those in the Mach Loop on the Monday got a welcome treat when they took the long way home!

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As I mentioned earlier 2013 is the first in a three-year plan to change things at RIAT and this year saw the addition of ‘service stations’, a larger fayre ground and the ‘adrenaline zone’. The service stations were actually a really good idea – a choice of different food, free public WiFi and toilets all in one location and there were three of these stations (one for each coloured zone). Unfortunately the standard of the food available was still dire and the prices still unreasonable – the service stations are a great idea but really need refining.

Now the parts I wasn’t too sure on.

The adrenaline zone consisted of a Caterham driving experience where you paid £10 to go doughnutting and an extreme sports show hosted by Animal and…WD-40. On the Saturday I saw these two things from a pure aviation enthusiast perspective and thought ‘What the hell are these doing here? They’ve nothing to do with aircraft’. However on Sunday when I was walking around the showground, the Caterham experience queue was at least 30 people long all day and the stunt show was crowded and drawing more attention by the minute. The same with the fayre ground too, all day there were families queuing to go on the rides.

As much as I disagree with these things being at an air show, I guess as long as people are showing an interest in them then they’ll continue to pay for them to be there.

RIAT 2013 was strange. A fantastic flying display that overall stayed true to what the Air Tattoo is all about – securing top displays from the world’s air forces but a static display that was almost verging on being a total disaster.

If July’s show was anything to go by then this year was a turning point for the Royal International Air Tattoo.

It is absolutely crucial for the team to remember where the Air Tattoo all started and not to forget it’s pure aviation roots. After all, ‘the world’s largest military air show’ needs to remain exactly that. The show used to be something that you could be proud of but now, if it’s to carry on in this direction then I’m not so sure. There’s a lot to be learnt from 2013 and only time will tell as to whether the organisers choose to listen to the feedback or not. I know many people that are seriously considering not paying for a Mach pass next year – many who have attended the show for longer than I’ve been alive.

Sadly, due to a sell out show on both days, RIAT 2013 will be seen as a huge success but underneath those ticket sales are many things that need addressing.

RIAT…it’s over to you.