2015 Aviation Highlights

Aviation, Features

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

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

Battle of Britain 75th Anniversary

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

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

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

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

Return of the USAF

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

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

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

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

Japanese Treat

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

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

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

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

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Lynx AH7 Retirement

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

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

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

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

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

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

End of an Era

One word: Vulcan.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Looking to 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

27 Squadron Centenary

Features

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Northolt Nightshoot – 8/10/15

Photo Posts

A couple of weeks ago RAF Northolt hosted the 19th edition of their bi-annual night shoot. The Northolt night shoots are becoming more and more popular with each event, this time time attracting aircraft from the Royal Air Force, Empire Test Pilot School (Boscombe Down – Qinetiq) and French Presidential Fleet (Flotte Présidentielle).

Old Sarum Airshow

2015, Reviews

The county of Wiltshire is steeped in history and is world famous for being the home of Stonehenge. Just a few miles down the road lies the very traditional, picturesque Old Sarum Airfield. With beautiful rolling hills as a backdrop, the airfield is an almost ideal venue for an Airshow and although there was a small event held for the Para Charity last year, 2015 was the first time that a full-scale Airshow has been held on site. The organisers promised a varied display programme and a major headliner item;  I made the short trip down the A303 to see what the inaugural Old Sarum Airshow had to offer.

Rumblings of a new event at Old Sarum started doing the rounds at the beginning of the year but it wasn’t until the season had started that the Airshow was confirmed by its organisers. Almost as soon as the website went live, a list of possible participants was published and this included the mighty Avro Vulcan XH558. Initial reactions were understandably sceptical but once VTTS had confirmed their appearance, tickets for the Saturday show (the event was run over an entire weekend) were almost sold out. In the wake of Shoreham, the organisers chose to withdraw the Strikemaster display that had been booked to appear but other than that, the show was to carry on as scheduled.

A Winning Combination

Although the flying programme had been advertised as starting at 11:30am, the show didn’t get underway until 1:30pm.

Opening the show was supposed to be a Spitfire and Hurricane pair from Biggin Hill but sadly the Hurricane had run into an issue. Fortunately the team at Biggin Hill have a large array of warbirds to choose from so instead sent a pair of Spitfires.

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Once a number of items had departed to hold, the first Spitfire roared over the hangar and joined the display line with a beautiful topside pass. RW382 conducted a short solo routine before it was joined by the second Spitfire, TA805. The pair conducted a number of tight formation passes, as well as a stunning tail chase; once the pairs section was complete, TA805 became the centre of attention and closed off the opening act with its own display.

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The RAF Tutor display has been seen at many shows over the summer but I don’t think any venue has suited the aircraft as much as Old Sarum did. The Tutor is the Royal Air Force’s basic trainer and relies heavily on the use of altitude during its routine; the display starts high so that there is enough momentum for the opening sequence of manoeuvres. As such, the aircraft tends to get lost in the sky at some of the bigger shows but the short display line at Old Sarum meant that the aircraft felt much closer than usual so you were really able to appreciate the complexity of the routine.

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Having seen Peter Davies’ autogyro display earlier in the year at Abingdon, I had a rough idea of what to expect from the routine but was still blown away by Peter’s flying ability. On the premise of the aircraft being an autogyro, you would think to some degree that the display would be boring but it really is incredible. The little aircraft was thrown around the sky in a way that just shouldn’t be possible for something of that size. As I have already said elsewhere, Peter’s display really has been one of the most surprisingly impressive of the display season.

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It amazes me that even with the number of shows that I’ve been to over the years, there are still some acts that I’ve not seen and up until two weeks ago, Bob Grimstead and his Fournier RF-4 motorised glider were one of those acts. I had to research the aircraft type before the show as I wasn’t too sure what it was and I have to be honest, my first thought was ‘this is going to be dull’. How wrong could I have been?! Similar to Flt Lt Andy Preece’s display in the Tutor, the closeness and nature of the routine really demonstrated Bob’s superb flying ability. Bob has already asked if he can return to the show next year!

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Another two displays that I’d not seen before were those of the Auster TW536 and US Navy schemed Harvard. Both aircraft seemed to display quite far out and as a result didn’t seem to have much impact. Had they been closer, I’m confident that both would have been much more impressive.

There were three different display teams present at Old Sarum: Team Raven, The Turb Team and the Great War Display Team. I have seen the Turbs and GWDT at many shows over the summer; both are hugely entertaining and really seem to appeal to families of all ages.

This was the first time however that I had the opportunity to see Team Raven in the flesh. The team is formed of five Vans aircraft of varying models and as you would expect, the display has both formation and solo elements to it. The aircraft are decorated in slightly bizarre USAF markings that as far as I’m aware, are completely irrelevant to the team but then I guess it doesn’t matter all that much. After all, Miss Demeanour is a technicolour Hawker Hunter! The routine seemed a little rough around the edges, with slightly loose formations in places but nevertheless, the display was enjoyable to watch and the team has certainly got a lot of potential.

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I have been following Lauren Richardson’s progress on Twitter for some time now and it was fantastic to finally see her display in person. The Pitts Special is in incredibly agile little aircraft and is almost perfect for smaller shows. Lauren did her absolute best to entertain the capacity crowd and her display seemed to be greatly appreciated, right until the very final pass which came complete with a crowd line Mexican wave.

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The Spitfire pair weren’t the only warbirds in attendance at Old Sarum. Three other World War II veterans displayed over the skies of Salisbury: the latest restoration from the Royal Navy Historic Flight, Fairey Swordfish W5856, P-51 Mustang Ferocious Frankie and B-17 Sally B.

W5856 is the oldest flying aircraft in the Royal Navy and this was the first time that I had seen it display. The Swordfish is a truly incredible aircraft but it’s hard to believe that it fought alongside aircraft like the Seafire; the two seem worlds apart. The routine consisted of a number of graceful passes and while not the most energetic of displays, the Swordfish was still a delight to see.

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Nigel Lamb is a busy man and is currently in the midst of the Red Bull Air Race Championship but somehow he still finds the time to fly Ferocious Frankie (I can’t blame him really!). Nigel is a terrific display pilot with an impressive CV and his routines in the P-51 really are quite special. The routine was filled with the sound of the Mustang’s whine and although we didn’t know it at the time, Nigel wasn’t quite finished after his final low pass.

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The show was due to close with a formation flypast from XH558 and Sally B but after an extensive photo sortie along the south coast, XH558 had begun to experience difficulties with what was described as ‘a severe fuel leak’. Much to the disappointment of the crowds at both Old Sarum and Goodwood (where she was also due to display at the Revival), the crew had no choice but to return to Doncaster as soon as possible. This left the organisers with a small gap in the programme but after a quick radio chat, Nigel agreed to take the Vulcan’s place in the formation and in my eyes, this formation made much more sense. After all, the P-51 is at home escorting bombers to their destination.

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After two passes, Ferocious Frankie departed back to Duxford and left Sally B to close the show in style. There is no doubt about it, the B-17 was a perfect closing act and every single inch of the Wiltshire sky was filled with the glorious sight and sound of Sally B; over an airfield the size of Old Sarum, the aircraft looked spectacular.

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So Much To Learn

It’s fair to say that the display programme for Old Sarum was fantastic but unfortunately the same cannot be said for the rest of the show.

From the very moment the show was announced, confusion surrounded everything to do with the event. The website was incredibly basic and amazingly didn’t even tell you any timings for the show. There was no official Facebook Page or even a Twitter handle, and in this day and age you’re simply foolish to take social media for granted when it comes to PR and advertising.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, things got even more confusing when tickets went on sale. Tickets for the parking and show entry had to be purchased separately for some reason and had both a ‘face value’ and ‘actual value’. As far as I can see there wasn’t any real reason for this but it was certainly one of the strangest pricing structures I’ve ever seen for an airshow.

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People turned up on the Saturday nice and early for the ‘Gates Open’ time of 8.30am (which was printed on tickets) only to be told that gates weren’t actually opening for another hour. Once inside, there was an announcement to say that the flying wouldn’t start until 1:30pm, some two hours later that had been previously mentioned online. Bearing this in mind, and the fact that there were only a handful of retail stalls on site, this meant that some people had arrived on site somewhere between 7.30am-8:00am to then wait six hours for something to happen. I just can’t understand why gates opened so early in the morning for a flying display that started so late in the day; the mind boggles.

I think it’s also pretty obvious looking at the two days that the so-called ‘Vulcan Effect’ was in full force on the Saturday. The first day of the show was almost a complete sell-out and while this shouldn’t have been a problem, the organisers were unfortunately let down by a large percentage of their booked caterers when the simply didn’t turn up. This meant that there were just three options for food and drink, including the airfield café. With clear skies, warm weather and LOTS of people, some were left queuing for over 45 minutes just to get a burger. Sadly this couldn’t be helped.

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Although the flying itself was exemplary, the air-side organisation along the crowd line left a lot to be desired. Participating aircraft were parked all across the front of people for most of the display line and this meant that take-off and landing shots were almost impossible. I appreciate that people might want to be close to the action but there was so much other space at either end of the crowd line that the aircraft had no need to be parked where they were.

I really do hate to be so negative about a show in its first year but I feel that so many of these things could have been avoided if they’d just been planned a little better. That’s not to say that the organisers didn’t work hard to get this show sorted but everything just felt incredibly rushed. In a world where something can be published in as few as 140 characters, it seems inexcusable that the organisers couldn’t even provide correct timings for the show.

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It would also seem, as much as I hate to say it, that the attendance figures on the Saturday were mostly related to the planned appearance of the Vulcan. From photos and comments I’ve seen online, Sunday by contrast was incredibly quiet in terms of attendees. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Airshow returned next year as a single day event.

All that said, it’s not all doom and gloom for the Old Sarum Airshow. The event has proven that an Airshow can take place at this beautiful venue and even with all the frustrations on the day, the show itself has so much potential. The organisers have already apologised for some of the confusion surrounding the show and with a little more thought and planning, I don’t see any reason why Old Sarum Airshow can’t become a regular on the UK circuit.

On the whole, Old Sarum Airshow was a hugely frustrating event but I’m really excited to see what the future holds for this newcomer.

Welcome to the wonderful world of Airshows!

Dunsfold Wings & Wheels

2015, Reviews

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

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

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

Aviation at its Best

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Burning Rubber

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

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

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

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

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Still a Top Show

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

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

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

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

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

RNAS Yeovilton Air Day

2015, Reviews

RNAS Yeovilton was commissioned as HMS Heron on June 18th 1940 and by the middle of the Second World War, young pilots were being taught essential fighter tactics on the Supermarine Seafire and Hawker Sea Hurricane. Since then the Station has been home, in one form or another, to some of the greatest sea-borne aircraft that this country has ever seen; the Venom, Sea Vixen, Buccaneer, Phantom and Sea Harrier. Today though, the Somerset base is the hub of the rotary Maritime Force and Commando Helicopter Force. On July 11th the gates were opened to the public for the annual award-winning Airshow and Air Day celebrated the Station’s 75th anniversary in style.

In the last couple of years Air Day has suffered from multiple headliner cancellations through no fault of its own, most notably in 2014 when numerous participants pulled out in the fortnight leading up to the show and the organisers were left pulling in lots of favours to bulk out the programme. Even with those cancellations though, Air Day has always been held in high regard by the enthusiast community.

An International Triumph

The programme for Air Day this year featured a number of international visitors both in the air and on the ground.

The French Navy were invited to return to the Somerset skies with their Maritime Role Demo; a ten minute display of air superiority from two Rafale and two Super Etendard aircraft. The Super Etendard doesn’t have long left in service so it was a real success to get these aircraft back over for a proper send off. As you can probably gather from the display, the Super-E (as it is affectionately known) is gradually being replaced by the fierce Dassault Rafale-M which has been in service with the French Navy since 2000.

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The first segment of the display consists of formation passes before the two types break crowd centre and bring the noise. Both the Super Etendard and Rafale-M demonstrated how dynamic they can be when required and delivered the perfect balance of noise and speed. The participating Squadrons had only recently returned from operational duty so for them to have worked up a presentable role demonstration in such a short amount of time, really was quite impressive. The fast jets of the French Navy proved that they’re a force to be reckoned with at sea – something that the Royal Navy is in dire need of.

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Patrulla Aguila also returned to Yeovilton with their seven-ship aerobatic display. The team were last at Air Day in 2005 and on that visit, won the award for ‘Best Overall Display’.

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Formed in 1985, the team flies the Spanish-built, patriotically decorated, CASA C-101EB Aviojet and unlike the Red Arrows, being part of the team is a secondary job for its pilots. As is quite common on the continent now, the routine was flown to a backing track of European dance music and I must admit, I rather like it. The enthusiastic commentary and fast-paced music really make the display enjoyable and while it is a little on the long side (in the region of 30 minutes), the formation landing to finish really is something that has to be seen to be believed!

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The Royal Jordanian Falcons may need to think of a new name soon, as year on year they return to the European circuit for most of the summer. The team have become a familiar sight at Yeovilton and returned as a four-ship display again for 2015.

The Extra EA300Ls may not be the most thrilling aircraft in the world but there is no denying the level of skill and competence that the pilots have; when you start to analyse the display, the routine really is quite technical and superbly flown. If nothing else, the Royal Jordanian Falcons simply have to be applauded for their dedication to the UK Airshow scene.

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The Czech Gripen was originally supposed to be displaying at Air Day but withdrew some time ago when the whole fleet was grounded. This was subsequently replaced by the L-159 ALCA (Advanced Light Combat Aircraft) and while it was good to see the aircraft back over here, the display itself felt incredibly distant and as a result, left the crowd wanting more.

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Unfortunately the Norwegian Air Force Historic Squadron MiG-15, which was supposed to be a star item, remained grounded and never made it to the UK in time for Air Day.

The international participation continued throughout the show ground with aircraft from the German Navy, Czech Air Force, Polish Navy and Royal Norwegian Air Force but the stars of the static display were the US Air Force A-10Cs, C-17 and NATO E-3A Sentry.

The US have been noticeably absent from the UK circuit for a number of years due to Sequestration so it was absolutely fantastic to see them back on the ground. As has always been the case with the US military, the teams on the ground were incredibly welcoming and more than happy to talk about their role. Much to the delight of those visiting, both the C-17 (which was awarded ‘Best Static Display) and A-10Cs were opened up later in the day for tours. The USAF really should be given an award for the way in which they present themselves and interact with the public; the RAF could learn a trick or two from them.

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Family Support

Support from the RAF and Army Air Corps has been somewhat lacking in recent years at the Royal Navy’s flagship event but 2015 saw a return to form with display items from both forces.

The Apache Helicopter Display Team from AAC Wattisham were representing the Army side with their new two-ship, pyro-heavy role demonstration.

The scenario is simple; a two-ship Apache formation is out on patrol when their aircraft are threatened by an RPG attack. The first simulated rocket is fired from the ground so Gunship 1 and Gunship 2 separate to assess the battlefield. Enemies are quickly identified by the advanced Longbow radar and both aircraft come in for a low strafing run. Enemy destroyed? Not a chance!

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The next five minutes are filled with simulated demonstrations of the Apache’s highly valued arsenal. Further strafing runs from the 30mm cannon, rockets from the helicopters’ pylon-attached pod and the finale; the mighty Hellfire. Each piece of weaponry has its own bespoke pyrotechnic explosion and each is well executed, timed perfectly with the aircraft’s positioning and in-cockpit audio. As the battlefield falls silent, the crowd are given an overview of the Apache and both aircraft drift up and down the crowd line, crossing over at several points. The Apache role demonstration really is fantastic and I can’t fault it in any way, I hope that the two-ship routine sticks around for a few more years.

Flying the flag for the RAF were the Red Arrows, BBMF Spitfire pair, Typhoon and Chinook. To be fair to the RAF, both the Chinook and Typhoon were on the programme last year but the Chinook failed to make it and the Typhoon was a single flypast.

The Reds arrived in style, as always, and the team quickly started filling the sky with smoke. Due to the low cloud base, only a rolling display was possible but this was more than enough to get the crowd excited and on their feet. I’ve seen the Red Arrows more times than I count and as much as I enjoy watching them, the display can only change so much year on year. What I absolutely love seeing though, are the facial expressions on the younger generation – 20 years ago my love for aviation was kick-started by those same little red jets.

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The Typhoon was back with a vengeance this year, presenting one of the most comprehensive routines that I have ever seen from the Royal Air Force. The Typhoon Display Team appear to be flying a number of aircraft this year; the red centenary scheme, the D-Day invasion stripes or, as was the case at Yeovilton, the full-fuselage commemorative Battle of Britain camouflage scheme. There’s no denying that the Typhoon looks fantastic in old-school camouflage and makes you realise just how boring our aircraft look in the all-over grey.

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The 2015 display is full of noise and high-g manoeuvres, meaning that for a large percentage of the routine, the aircraft is on full reheat. The combination of vapour trails, afterburner, fast manoeuvres and special scheme make this year’s Typhoon display something special.

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The Odiham based Chinook Display Team came in low and fast from behind the hangars before pulling up into the opening nose-down spiral. As you’ll probably know, I’ve been very fortunate to follow the team over the last couple of years and have seen the display develop quite a lot under the guise of each display pilot. The team have taken elements from last year’s routine and have completely made it their own; plenty of blade slap and gravity defying manoeuvres continue to make the RAF Chinook an award-winning display, walking away from Yeovilton again with the ‘Best Rotary Wing Display’ award.

Nobody Does It Better

Air Day has become synonymous with loud, explosive action and this year was no different. Although the Black Cats had displayed in two Wildcat aircraft earlier in the day, that clearly wasn’t enough for the Royal Navy’s attack helicopter.

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Two Lynx and two Wildcat took to the sky to start their Maritime Force role demonstration. This display hasn’t changed a lot over the years but the anti-piracy scenario is still incredibly relevant and gives the public a chance to see the crews demonstrate the skills that they use on a daily basis when deployed all over the world. The role demo does a very good job of displaying the differences between the two aircraft and makes it easy to work out just how much more advanced the Wildcat is when compared to the Lynx. It also works really well as an introduction for the finale of the show.

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Commando Assault – two words which fill people of all ages with excitement and adrenalin. Each year Air Day is closed with a phenomenal display by the Commando Helicopter Force and this year it was bigger and better than ever.

The face of the CHF is changing and for the first time in many years, the Mk4 ‘Junglie’ Sea Kings took a back seat. The Sea Kings are gradually being withdrawn from service and 2015 was the last time that the aircraft will appear in the sky at Air Day as the type is being phased out by the recently acquired, ex-RAF Merlins and these took centre stage in the show’s finale.

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The story for the Commando Assault remains similar but with a different line-up of aircraft; four Sea Kings, four Merlins, two Lynx, two Wildcat, two Apaches and a Hawk T1 which plays the future role of the F-35.

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The battle commences and Royal Marine Commandos are deployed from the nearby Queen Elizabeth Class carriers. Apaches are called in to provide top-cover and make sure that the Merlins and Sea Kings are able to hover safely while the troops fast-rope into the danger zone. Helicopters continue to arrive in waves and before too long, the airfield is covered in Marines that are trying to force the enemy to retreat. With the enemy identified, the Apaches and Hawk release their weaponry and multiple pyrotechnic explosions follow.

With the battlefield secured and the enemy defeated, every participating helicopter formed up on the airfield to face the audience and come into the hover. Last year things didn’t go to plan for this part of the finale but thankfully, this year it did. Once each helicopter had confirmed that it was in place, the trigger was pulled and the ‘wall of fire’ ignited, creating a truly awesome background for the Commando Assault finale.

Best of the Rest

The display was bulked out by a number of other display items including the Vulcan, Rich Goodwin’s Pitts Special, Sea Vixen, Norwegian Vampire pair, one half of the Czech Mates, Agusta Westland’s AW609, Avro Anson, Seafire and Huey.

Over the last few years Air Day has managed to come up with a number of unique formations and this year was no different. After much organisation behind the scenes, the Vulcan and Sea Vixen were united in the air again but were this time joined by the Vampire pair too. The formation was quite special and with the Vulcan due to retire at the end of the season, it’s something that really will never happen again. It comes as no surprise that this formation won the award for ‘Best Fixed Wing Display’.

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The highlight of the civilian displays for me though was the Huey. G-HUEY is based up at North Weald airfield and although I have seen the aircraft on static a number of times before, this was the first time that I had seen her in the air. There is nothing quite like the noise generated by the Huey and this echoed around the airfield as the crew put the legendary helicopter through its paces. A fantastically flown display indeed.

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Time for a Re-think

The showground had a good feel to it this year and was laid out pretty well. It was great to see that Yeovilton is now offering a wider range of food and drink; people seem to be willing to spend a little more for better quality food and that was evident in the size of the queues at some of the outlets.

Taking the Saturday on its own, Air Day was a complete success and a superb Airshow but I can’t complete this review without a mention of the Friday Photocall.

In previous years the Photocall has consisted of arrivals, rehearsals, display validations and a walk around the virtually empty static park at the end of the day. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case for 2015.

At a pre-season symposium, Air Day organisers were pulled up on the format of their Photocall event and were informed that due to new MAA regulations that were introduced a couple of years ago, the event in its current format no longer complied with said regulations. In simple terms, the regulations meant that Air Day were unable to conduct aircraft rehearsals or validations while members of the public were on base (for those already asking questions in their head, RIAT complies with special circumstantial rules and is therefore able to run P&V days).

This posed somewhat of an issue for Air Day; they could either cancel the Photocall completely or alter it slightly, reduce the admission fee  and hope that people would still enjoy the event.

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Anyone who has been to the Friday Photocall before will know that there are gaps where nothing happens but this year was worse than normal. We were on the airfield by 1030 this year and there were no movements until at least midday, with only a handful of arrivals before the event closed extra early at 1530. The static park was also closed to the public this year because everyone had to be off of the airfield ASAP so that foreign participants could validate; due to a printing mistake on the arrivals sheet, several believed that the static would in fact be open.

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People were frustrated by the complete lack of communication from staff up until the first announcement early afternoon and by all accounts, most felt that the day was almost a complete waste of time. With so few arrivals in so many hours, it’s almost inexcusable that none of the aircraft were asked to backtrack for photographic opportunities.

The Photocall was peculiar this year and at times it felt like the event had been completely forgotten about. If the Photocall is to survive then I think the whole day needs a drastic rethink. The event is supposed to be for the photographically-minded enthusiast, so why not tailor an event around that? Let’s say for a moment that the event in its current format is completely canned; what would you like to see in an ideal world?

For me, it’d be a case of getting all arrivals in before midday on the Friday and getting them into position in the static park without the metal fencing. With all aircraft in place, open the base for a few hours so that a limited number of people can wander and get the unobstructed shots that they desire. The static park is fine for the majority on Saturday but for those that are after that ‘perfect’ shot (whatever that may be), an event tailored specifically for photographers could be a real money spinner and would be true to the ‘photocall’ name. It’s unclear at this point whether the Photocall will return in any format next year.

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Putting the Friday aside, Air Day 2015 was a spectacular event and I’m sure that it’ll win awards from the tourism board once again. To everyone that helped organise the Royal Navy’s flagship event, thank you for a top show!

Bruntingthorpe Cold War Jets Day

2015, Aviation, Reviews

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

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

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

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

WARNING! You May Lose Your Hearing…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Organised Chaos

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

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

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

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

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

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

Quality Vs Practicality

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

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

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

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

18 (B) Squadron Celebrates 100 Years of Service

Aviation, Features

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Serco engineers working on the paint scheme – 2015 Crown Copyright

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

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

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

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

Feature – Junglie: Past, Present and Future

Features

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Feature – A Summer of Blade Slap

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.