Feature – A Summer of Blade Slap

Aviation, Features

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

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

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

The Displays

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Best Display This Year?

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

Looking Ahead to 2015

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

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A Chinook HC2 over Basingstoke earlier this year

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

The HC4 looks almost identical to the HC2 from the outside

The HC4 looks almost identical to the HC2 from the outside

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

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

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

2013 Review

2013, Reviews

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…