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!

Shuttleworth Uncovered

2015, Reviews

After a run of sold out events throughout the summer, the team at Old Warden wanted to end the season on a high with a special show that would allow people to get up close and personal with one of the country’s most special museums. The ‘Shuttleworth Uncovered’ show was all about getting people involved with the historical collection and it was a spectacular way to close the season.

Uncovering the Magic

As is normal with shows at Shuttleworth, the air display didn’t start until early in the afternoon but this meant that there was plenty of time to wander around the grounds and get a feel for what the museum is all about.

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Traditionally at Shuttleworth shows, you can pay a small amount extra and get access to the flightline to take close-up shots of the collection’s aircraft. This wasn’t the case at this event though.

The far end of the display line that is usually classified as ‘air side’ was turned into a small showground area where a number of participating aircraft were located. There were no barriers to contend with so you really could get as close to the action as was physically possible with staff encouraging you to participate in a number of activities.

Throughout the morning, museum personnel were giving a variety of talks about the various aircraft on display. The level of interaction between the public and museum staff was fantastic to see and the events team should be congratulated for the way that this was organised.

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Flying High

Shuttleworth is all about historical UK aviation and nothing says ‘British’ quite like the fighters of World War II. After a short flypast from the BBMF Dakota, three fighters formated for a number of flypasts before breaking off into their own solo displays; the based Hawker Sea Hurricane, newly acquired Hawker Hurricane (ex-Peter Vacher) and the recently restored Kennet Aviation Supermarine Seafire.

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The Seafire was particularly nice to see again and although I’d already seen it over the duration of the summer, this felt much closer and like a much more polished routine.

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The season closed at Shuttleworth last year with a spectacular mock air race from a bygone era and the team were keen to remind us of our racing heritage once more in the shape of the de Havilland DH.88 Comet and Percival Mew Gull. Both are famous in the world of air racing and it was an absolute delight to see these two together in the air again. If you’ve never seen it before then you are seriously missing out, the sight and sound of the Comet is just phenomenal!

On paper this perhaps shouldn’t have been one of the highlights of the show but the pairing of the Provost and visiting Harvard was beautiful. The routine was very well choreographed and for the most part, was an exceptionally tight formation. Like many displays at Shuttleworth, the pair made full use of the unique curved display line which made for some pretty special photographic opportunities.

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I’m the first one to admit that the Extra 300, at times, can be a little on the boring side; there are many of them around and when flown in formations aren’t the most exciting of displays. However, Mark Jefferies was booked to fly his Extra 330SC solo routine in front of the Old Warden crowd and quite honestly, it was possibly the best solo Extra routine I’ve seen to date.

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Having seen some fairly sedate (but beautiful) routines throughout the day from the collection’s aircraft, the fast pace of the routine was received with open arms. Flying a lengthy routine of varying maneuvers with smoke and firework-like pyrotechnics on the wing tips, seemed to be exactly what the crowd had been waiting for.

I’ve been documenting this industry for the best part of five years now and I have never seen a reaction from the crowd quite like after this performance. The entire crowd jumped to their feet, cheering, waving and clapping as Mark stepped out of his aircraft. Bravo Sir!

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As well as the above mentioned acts, there were also displays from the rest of the collection’s aircraft, including the incredibly rare and magnificent Edwardian aircraft but almost everyone at Shuttleworth was there for one thing; the final public display of Avro Vulcan XH558.

The show was a complete sellout and throughout the day anticipation and excitement had been building, with many discussing just how much they couldn’t wait to see the tin triangle making full use of the curved crowd line, allowing for that perfect top-side shot.

The Avro Anson had taken off fifteen minutes prior to the Vulcan’s display slot so it was obvious the two were going to formate for a special flypast. The crowd fell silent as the two historic aircraft flew on to the display line and carried out a couple of passes before breaking off.

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The stage was set for what (in principle) could have possibly been one of XH558’s standout displays of it’s second career; golden autumn light, a sellout crowd, a unique display line and an almost cloudless sky. Sadly it wasn’t to be.

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This should have been a really special display, something to remember the aircraft by, a stunning send-off for one of the nation’s most loved aircraft, but it was anything but special. The display felt just like any other display from the last eight years; sedate and completely underwhelming. The crew made absolutely no use of the curved display line and for the most part, it felt like the aircraft was being displayed over another county.

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I really was expecting something memorable from XH558 but it left many feeling disappointed and quite frankly, completely gutted at the missed opportunity.

Keeping the Magic Alive

More, now than ever before, the airshow community is under the microscope and is undergoing possibly the most significant review ever but what is incredibly comforting to see is that people are still massively interested in aviation.

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The Uncovered event was possibly the busiest I have ever seen at Shuttleworth and regardless of the ‘Vulcan Effect’, this is massively important given the current climate.

Once again, the team of dedicated people at Shuttleworth managed to put on an absolute spectacle of a show and while the ‘star’ of the show left a lot to be desired, the rest of the display programme was sublime.

See you next year!

Flywheel Festival

2015, Aviation, Reviews

During the Second World War, RAF Bicester was home to many different frontline types including the Spitfire, Halifax, Anson and Blenheim, and was instrumental in the training of operational bomber squadrons. Today though, the ex-MoD site is owned by Bicester Heritage Ltd and remains largely intact with a number of listed buildings still in place. Bicester Heritage bought the facility with the intent of creating the UK’s first ‘business park’ dedicated to preserving historic motoring and aviation, whilst using the existing infrastructure to run their operation. Having formed a small events team in 2014, ‘Flywheel Festival’ was born and the gates to Bicester Heritage were opened for the inaugural show of all things vintage.

It’s very rare these days for new shows to arrive on the UK circuit but Flywheel Festival slotted into the calendar nicely and brought something refreshingly new to the table; a vintage style ‘wings and wheels’ show that gorged on themes from a bygone era.

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Almost the moment that you stepped foot inside the venue, you could tell that this event was going to be something special; the smell of oil and fuel was incredible! The day promised both on-track action and displays in the air, and I have to be honest that even with the horrendous weather on the Saturday (sadly the only day I could make it), the show was incredibly enjoyable.

Start Your Engines!

I have been following the story of Bicester Heritage for a number of months now and it has been somewhere that I’ve been wanting to visit for a while. There is something so incredibly enticing about the world of historical motoring so I was really looking forward to getting up close and personal with some of the most influential cars from the past 70 years.

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The paddock was located just behind the old Air Traffic Control tower and was designed almost perfectly for the visiting public. The cars were lined up and parked (mostly) in their running order to make the process of getting to the track as fluid as possible. There were no big metal barriers preventing you from getting up close to the vehicles, just a small line of rope that spent most of the day on the floor.

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I found that the owners were more than happy to openly discuss the highs and lows of owning such temperamental historic motors, and most were actually keen to get you as close to the cars as you wanted to be. The atmosphere in the paddock area was fantastic and there was a real buzz about the place; it seemed that everyone was completely aware of their surroundings and knew exactly when they needed to get out of the way without even being asked to move.

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With my pass collected and the sound of engines starting up, it was time to head around to the far side of the track and start capturing the action.

The circuit was a simple figure of eight controlled by a team of marshals and was lined with hay bales in case anything took a turn for the worse. The persistent rain pretty much all day meant that the ground was wet and slippery but it didn’t seem to stop some drivers from pushing the limits of their ability! It took some time to work out where to get the best shots but the beauty of it was that it was so easy to move about the outside of the track.

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Austin 7 Ulster Special, 1930

The track acted as the arena of the complex and was surrounded by vintage vehicles that were dotted all over the showground. This included a number of WWII tanks, a Dakota that was flown in on the Friday as well as plenty of other vintage cars and trucks.

The on-track driving started shortly after the gates opened and ran for most of the day. Each driver would have at least two runs before the session ended and the idea was that when the track sessions were complete and the drivers were prepping for the next round, something would take to the skies to entertain the crowds. Due to the weather this didn’t exactly go as planned but we’ll get to that later.

Being so close to the action offered something that many ‘wings and wheels’ style events don’t because the motoring aspect normally only occurs on the runway but with the all-grass runway at Bicester, that wasn’t an option.

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Sprite Sebring, 1960

As I said earlier, the on-track driving was split up into a number of sessions that ran throughout the day so you could quite easily experiment with your locations and photography techniques; if you missed the shot that you wanted the first time around, you were pretty much guaranteed that you’d get another chance to get it right! In the constant drizzle this proved almost invaluable.

The driving was incredibly entertaining and was narrated fantastically by a very knowledgeable team. For motoring novices like myself, this was a much needed part of the day and I think without it, the event would have been very different (and not necessarily in a good way).

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Allard J2, 1950

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Lotus Mk X, 1955

Towards mid-afternoon I have to admit that I was starting to lose interest in seeing the same cars go around again but I think that’s because I was photographing them for most of the day up until that point. I felt that the motoring side of the event could have been improved slightly by changing the track layout midday, it would have been fairly simple to reconfigure the figure of eight into an oval and by doing so, would have allowed the drivers to get up a little more speed on the straights to demonstrate the true power of their engines.

Preparing For Take-Off

The persistent rain, low cloud base and exceptionally poor visibility had a massive effect on the air displays that took place on the Saturday.

The display programme was delayed by approximately 90 minutes but the afternoon’s flying finally got going when the beautiful Dragon Rapide started its engine and gracefully took to the sky. It may have been raining still (quite heavily actually) but what followed was ten minutes of exceptionally majestic display flying by David Finnegan. This was the first time that I had seen this particular Rapide in the sky but the shape and sound of the aircraft never ceases to impress. This was possibly some of the most challenging weather I’ve shot in recently but I just about came away with some usable images.

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As the weather continued to deteriorate, the Great War Display Team were forced to delay their display by almost an hour but it was well worth the wait. I’ve seen these guys perform a number of times over recent years and have found their routine a little confusing if you can’t quite hear the commentary that goes with the display. However, at Flywheel the commentary was more than audible which meant that the display flowed incredibly well and for the first time (that I’ve ever seen anyway) small pyrotechnics were used on the ground to add another dimension to the display. The team put on a brilliant demonstration of WWI dogfighting tactics and should be applauded.

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As the Tiger Nine started to prepare for their flight, the heavens opened and most were forced to take cover under one thing or another. Fortunately I was stood near the corporate hospitality tent at the time and the staff were more than happy for us to take shelter and wait the rain out. A massive thank you to all involved for allowing this to happen.

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The clouds finally started to break and allowed the nine de Havilland Tiger Moths to form up on the runway, ready for the start of their display. I’ve read a lot about this team and heard many interesting tales about them but amazingly, in the five years I’ve been interested in this hobby, I’d never actually seen them display before.

The display itself consisted of a number of formation fly-bys before breaking crowd centre and finishing the routine with a mass flypast. It sounds simple and it was, but at the same time it was a faultless demonstration of just why this particular aircraft was such a popular choice when training the RAF fighter pilots of the 1940s. The raw talent of the pilots was clear to see with such precise and graceful formation manoeuvres. This display was a superb fit for the historic surroundings.

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It was by this time that unfortunately, due to the weather, both the Spitfire and Blenheim were forced to call it a day. The storms that had recently passed over the Oxfordshire countryside had now reached further east and had got quite a lot worse. This meant that a safety call was made and that both aircraft remained on the ground at their respective airfields.

It would seem that the organisers were incredibly eager to get both these aircraft on the ground early on Sunday and true to their word, that’s exactly what happened. As the Blenheim touched down at its former base, the crowd erupted into spontaneous applause; by all accounts it was a pretty emotional moment for many of the older generation that were present. The Blenheim was followed closely by the photo-reconnaissance Spitfire of Peter Teichman and both went on to perform spectacular displays later that day.

© Chris Byrne, Flywheel Festival 2015

Back to Saturday though and it was over to the single Yak-50 of the Yakovlevs Display Team to close the show. The blanket of grey made way for some rare clear blue sky and with that, the purpose-built aerobatic aircraft quickly gained altitude to begins its full display. The Yak-50 is renowned for its aerobatic ability and is a previous winner of the World Aerobatic Championships, on two separate occasions.

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I have seen this particular display many times and it never ceases to impress. The Yak-50 is an incredible piece of Russian engineering and has an unmistakable sound that goes hand in hand with its epic aerobatic capability. The solo display was a fitting finale for the Flywheel Festival’s first day and meant that the show ended on a high note.

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As for the Sunday finale, well it was supposed to be ‘nation’s favourite aircraft’; the mighty Avro Vulcan. XH558 is sadly now in her final display season and the Flywheel Festival organisers had worked exceptionally hard to secure the flypast to sign-off their inaugural show but it wasn’t to be. Due to an unforeseen incident on the runway at Doncaster airport, the Vulcan was forced to sit running idle for longer than anticipated and this led to the aircraft being lower on fuel than had been planned for.

Unfortunately no-one at Bicester was informed of this and as a result the large crowd that had turned out to see the majestic lady, were forced to wait for something that was never going to happen. The organisers tried to contact personnel of VTTS on multiple occasions but there was no answer and no explanation of what was going on until it was too late. The news that the Bicester flypast had been scrubbed only reached the team at 1715 when they eventually managed to get hold of the PR representative. VTTS had been tweeting for the duration of their flight and regardless of whether they were in the air or on the ground somewhere, it would have been incredibly easy for them to let Flywheel know. In a time where you can say so much with just 140 characters, it seems almost unacceptable that people were left uninformed and disappointed until the very last minute. Such a shame as this could have been a superb ending to the weekend.

Due to the cancellations, the air display was left feeling a little thin but I love what they’re trying to be achieve at Bicester. If Flywheel is to continue (and I believe it will), the air display needs to feature just as heavily as the motoring and more iconic aircraft from the period should be included. It would be fantastic if the budget could stretch to a couple of vintage jets too; obviously they wouldn’t be able to operate from the airfield itself but they would fit in perfectly. At the end of the day this will all come down to budget.

So Much Promise

As the dust begins to settle, the team at Flywheel Festival can look back on their first show and be incredibly proud of what they’ve managed to achieve.

Even with the horrific weather on the Saturday, some 6000+ people attended the show over the two days. At £25 for an adult ticket (that also included a free in-depth souvenir programme worth £5) the event was good value for money, especially if you’re interested in both elements of the show.

The food and drink on offer was of a quality that many air show goers are not particularly used to; freshly made pizzas prepared and cooked while you wait, and freshly made burgers that were cooked to order. The food at each outlet was fairly priced with the most expensive pizza costing just £7 – I don’t know about everyone else but I am much happier paying that sort of money for quality rather than just a couple of pounds less for an average greasy burger.

With a little tweaking here and there, this event has the potential to be one of the highlights on the UK circuit. Bicester Heritage oozes class and prestige, and on that alone promises an awful lot of excitement for the future.

I truly believe that the 2016 show will be an absolute must!

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.

Review – Dunsfold Wings & Wheels

2014, Reviews, Uncategorized

For the past ten years, the August bank holiday weekend has been home to the Dunsfold based Wings & Wheels show – an all-day event dedicated to showcasing both motoring and aviation displays.

The Wings & Wheels show is celebrating it’s tenth anniversary this year and Dunsfold Park were extremely keen to show that they’re still one of the best shows on the UK circuit. With two massive crowd-pulling aircraft confirmed for the show, the ‘double V effect’ led to an almost capacity show on Saturday and a completely sold out show on the Sunday.

The Wings

The team at Dunsfold Park pride themselves on being able to stage a fantastic air display year in, year out and 2014 was no different. With a backdrop of greenery at both ends of the airfield and a relatively short crowd line, the venue has become synonymous with both warbird and vintage jet displays.

After being absent from the show in 2013, the Old Flying Machine Company Spitfire and P-51 Mustang made an incredibly welcome return in the form of MH434 and Ferocious Frankie. If you’ve only ever seen WWII aircraft flown in the hands of the RAF’s BBMF then you might be in for a bit of a shock. With plenty of low, extremely tight formation flypasts and two superb solo performances, the OFMC duo certainly rank extremely highly on the list of this country’s best warbird displays (if not the best). The noise of these two aircraft in close formation is just phenomenal and it really is a display that’s ideal for photographers. I’m not sure I’ll ever tire of seeing these two machines.

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2014 is an epic year for any aviation fan – for the first time in more than 50 years, two flying Lancasters are in the UK at the same time. The Battle of Britain Memorial Flight at RAF Coningsby are currently hosting the Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum’s Avro Lancaster ‘VeRA’ and for a handful of shows in the country, both aircraft are displaying together with fighter escorts. Wings & Wheels was one of those events that drew a lucky straw and my goodness did it show. Having attended the show for the past six years, I’ve become quite used to the relaxed and laid back atmosphere at Dunsfold but this year was the busiest I’ve ever seen it – if you weren’t on the crowd line by 9.15am then you’d missed your chance for a front row seat. The routine was mainly just the normal BBMF trio routine with an additional Lancaster – don’t get me wrong, it’s incredible what the team have achieved in getting the aircraft over here but I’m just so gutted that we didn’t get to see ‘VeRA’ in all her glory in a solo routine. Saying that though, the sight and sound of all those Merlin engines was simply spectacular and a really special tribute to all those that were lost in WWII.

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Making it’s second appearance at the show in as many years was the Royal Netherlands Air Force Historic Flight B-25 Mitchell. After a problematic weekend last year, the team behind ‘Sabrina’ demonstrated that you really don’t have to just fly wide circuits with historic aircraft and put on a truly breath taking display of strength and agility. Looking at the American-made bomber, you’d never believe that the aircraft was capable of flying in the way that the team did – it makes you wonder what a slightly heavier bomber would be capable of if there were no limitations…

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The Dunsfold Park team have become renowned for putting together unique flypasts and this year there were two such displays. The first consisted of the B-25 Mitchell, the Dunsfold based DC-3 and the OFMC fighter pair and much like the BBMF routine, it was a fitting tribute to all those that took part in the Second World War. The second formation routine saw Avro Vulcan XH558 take to the skies with the three-ship Gnat display team and although it was a nice thing to see, I actually thought that it was a rather lack-lustre formation. I think I would have preferred to see the three Gnats leading at the front of the formation in a short arrow, rather than at each tip of the Vulcan’s vast triangular fuselage. Putting that personal dissatisfaction aside, the organisers have to be applauded for continually thinking outside of the box and supplying elements that can only be seen at Dunsfold.

The Midair Squadron continued the classic jet theme with their Canberra PR.9 and Hunter T.7. Over the past twelve months, the Kemble based display team have well and truly stamped their mark on the UK airshow scene. The display started out with a beautifully elegant pairs routine which showed off the pilots’ skill in maintaining a constant close formation throughout the opening section. After a crowd centre break, the Hunter and Canberra split into two solo performances. Both aircraft were flown with extreme enthusiasm, especially on the Canberra’s finale which brought back that almighty high speed pass from earlier in the year at Abingdon – boy can that aircraft howl! It’s easy to see why the team have had so many bookings this year, I’ve got everything crossed for the Midair Squadron to be around for many years to come.

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The display programme was bolstered by both Army Air Corps and RAF assets. Continuing on a rollercoaster of epic proportions, the Odiham based Chinook Display Team took to the skies over Dunsfold and delivered yet another awe-inspiring display of power and agility – the type carries out a lot of routine training at Dunsfold so it means an awful lot to Odiham to be able to say thank you in their own special way.

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The show was closed by the AAC Apache and for 2014, the Wattisham team have opted for a role demonstration. The scenario follows a typical mission in Afghanistan – whilst out on a routine patrol, the Apache is called in to provide close air support for a coalition unit who are heavily under fire on the ground. A show of force (a low and fast pass without any use of weapons) prompts the enemy to launch a surface-to-air missile (SAM) which narrowly misses the gunship. After repositioning, the aircraft is authorised to fire a Hellfire missile on the enemy position and to use it’s 30mm cannon to completely neutralise the enemy. It’s thought that the enemy are all but gone when the Apache takes enemy fire from small arms but they’re quickly dealt with when the mosquito (the name the Taliban have given to the mighty helicopter) unleashes a salvo of CRV7 rockets. The Apache’s weapons systems are simulated by specially designed pyrotechnics which range from a series of single bursts of smoke for the strafing run to full blown balls of fire that represent rocket and Hellfire attacks. The whole routine is very reminiscent of the old Tornado Role Demo and it’s an absolute pleasure to watch – personally I prefer these types of display to the more normal aerobatic performances. To see just a fraction of what an aircraft is capable of in a combat environment is incredibly impressive and it gives a fantastic insight into the role that they play outside of the airshow bubble. I really hope that the role demo returns in 2015 – it would be great to see the Apache joined by an AAC Wildcat and maybe even some Army ground elements. I strongly believe that role demonstrations captivate the audience much more and it can only be a good thing for recruitment.

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The Wheels

The motoring element, like the air display, is broken up into two separate segments; one in the morning and one in the middle of the afternoon. The cars and motorbikes are provided by Brooklands Museum as well as many private owners/collectors. Once again Dunsfold slightly improved the motoring section by having several different groups of vehicles run right along the crowd line so that people could get a little closer while the main driving was still happening on track.

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As much as I love watching the motor displays, I don’t quite understand why it’s repeated later in the day. At the moment it’s broken into two one-hour slots which are exactly the same – for the first run the audience seems to be fully immersed in the sights and sounds that cars and bikes have to offer but later on in the day, it seems like it’s used by most to go and get some food or to look around the stalls. I feel that the show could really benefit from breaking up the motoring section into two completely different sections, even if that it means that each section is only 30-40 minutes long. I’m confident that in doing so, the team would be able to keep all eyes on the track at all times of the day, rather than just doing a complete re-run from a couple of hours previous.

The Rest of The Show

Also new for the 2014 show was a small remote controlled aircraft section. After the very successful Dunsfold debut of the ‘Reds Duo’ last year, a larger contingent was put together for this year and I have to be honest, it was a very welcome addition. The skill that these people have in controlling an aircraft from the ground is incredible and one of them was just ten years old! I’m 24 years old and all I can do with my R/C Spitfire is fly it into the ground.

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As usual there was a nice mixture of aviation related stalls which is a danger to any enthusiast who carries a purse or wallet – amazingly I managed to resist buying anything although I did very nearly buy a nice print off Aces High.

The Brooklands owned Vickers VC-10 that retired to the airfield late last year was supposed to conduct it’s first public taxi runs this year but unfortunately the aircraft has deteriorated more than was expected and as a result it will not be ready for running until the 2015 show.

For all that Wings & Wheels is an airshow, the number of aircraft on the ground for the public to see and get close to is fairly limited. Yes you can pay to go on both the VC-10 and 747 but it could be so much more. The amount of space available on the taxiway at the end of the airfield (next to the two large aircraft) where some displaying aircraft park, is not used nearly enough and it would be great if this could be opened up early in the morning for a limited number (possibly first-come first-served) of people to get close for photographs. I honestly feel that Wings & Wheels still has room to grow without becoming too big for its boots – even something like a small night shoot could easily be arranged on the Friday or Saturday night without too much hassle or extra costs.

I went on the Saturday but heard that exiting the site on Sunday was a bit of a nightmare with some cars only moving a few metres in half an hour. If the show continues to attract unique and special aircraft, it may soon be time to start thinking about advance ticket sales only.

Overall the 2014 show was a massive success; a close to capacity crowd on Saturday, a total sell out on Sunday and plenty of star items all combine to make Wings & Wheels one of the best airshows of the year.

Happy 10th birthday Wings & Wheels – I cannot wait to see what the next decade holds for the Surrey show.

Review – RNAS Yeovilton Air Day 2014

2014, Aviation, Reviews

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

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

International Visitors

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

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

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

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

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Classic Aircraft

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

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

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

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

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What Royal Air Force?

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

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

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

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

The Home Team

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Still One Of The Best

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

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

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

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

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

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

Royal Navy 1 – RAF 0.

Review – Farnborough Airshow 2014

2014, Aviation, Reviews

After a hugely successful and record breaking week at the Farnborough International Airshow, airfield owners TAG once again opened up the gates to some 80,000 people for a mid-summer spectacle.

I think almost everyone will agree that the shows at Farnborough have become a shadow of their former self and having had many complaints from the 2012 show, the team at FIA were keen to show that they could improve on their offering.

I attended the Sunday show two years ago; the weather was beautiful but the flying display programme was average at best and the showground was far too crowded. Having held several focus groups, the organising committee had a clear idea of what they needed to do to put Farnborough back on the map.

Fast forward almost two years to the launch day of a re-branded ‘Farnborough Airshow’ and it was an almost unrecognisable event. The entire team held their hands up and admitted in front of the media that they’d fallen behind and delivered a mediocre show in 2012. It was revealed that several star items had been secured for the ‘Celebration of 100 years of aviation’ show; a Spanish Navy AV-8B II Harrier (the result of over 14 months of negotiations with Spanish authorities and a first for Farnborough), the replica Me-262 from Germany, the Breitling sponsored Super Constellation and the Lockheed Martin F-35B Lightning II.

Through absolutely no fault of their own, just weeks later the Me-262 developed a technical fault which meant that it was to take a sabatical for the rest of the 2014 display season and after a long drawn out PR disaster, Lockheed Martin announced that the F-35 would not be making the transatlantic journey due to a grounding being lifted just days before the show started.

Eyes To The Sky

As mentioned previously, the flying display was one of the main areas that needed development and as well as announcing star items at the launch, it was also explained that a contract had been signed with Airbus to keep several of their ‘trade’ items on the ground for the public show. It later transpired that this signing had been part of a new major sponsorship deal with the aircraft manufacturer for the public two day event.

The Airbus backing meant that the A400M, A380 and E-Fan were all displaying in the flying programme over the weekend and as usual, the test pilots put on an incredible show. Seeing an airliner the size of the A380 being thrown about the sky as if it were a fighter is something that has to be seen to be believed. The A400M (‘Grizzly’ as it’s known to it’s testing team) is due to enter service with the RAF later this year as the ‘Atlas’, so to see it at Farnborough demonstrating it’s tactical capabilities was a real treat. It has to be said that when it comes to large aircraft displays, Airbus are the Kings.

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A contract was also signed with Boeing to supply the airshow with its F/A-18F Super Hornet – the aircraft had flown every day for the trade week and even though I’d already seen it, the technical demonstration of the Super Hornet is simply stunning. Even with the airspace restrictions enforced by Heathrow, the Boeing flown display was easily one of the most entertaining of the weekend. A combination of high-g flicking and turning built up to a finale which consisted of a square loop flown to maximum altitude.

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Without a doubt though, the star of the show was the Spanish Navy AV-8B II Harrier. The RAF disbanded their Harrier squadrons in 2010 and retired the aircraft amidst the political storm that was the SDSR (Strategic Defence and Security Review). Having been absent from the UK circuit for over three years, a Harrier in the Hampshire sky was an almost perfect way to signal Farnborough’s commitment to delivering a better show. The display itself was reminiscent of the ‘role demo’ type displays that the RAF aircraft was forced to fly in it’s final years – three high speed passes and then five full minutes of dirty, smoking hovering. The Harrier is an incredible machine and at a show where it’s successor was a no-show, it was a poetic reminder that the RAF GR.9s were retired way before their time.

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Other highlights from the flying display included the Midair Squadron Canberra PR.9 (filling the gap left by the Me-262) which signed off on that unmistakable howl, a full routine from the Red Arrows who in their 50th year look at the top of their game, a brilliant display of solo aerobatics from Mark Jefferies, a decent routine from Kev Rumens in XH558 and a stunningly beautiful display from the majestic, dolphin-shaped Super Constellation. The ‘Connie’ was on the ground at RIAT last year but this was the first time I’d seen it in the air and even though the display consisted of just two straight and level flypasts, the sight and sound of a 1950s prop-driven airliner was a truly spine-tingling experience.

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It’s fair to say that the past, present and future were fully represented at this year’s 2014 ’100 Years of Aviation’ show.

A Missed Opportunity

During the week, the Farnborough International Airshow takes full advantage of the space available on the ground to showcase commercial and private aircraft, helicopters and in places, light aircraft. The static aircraft that had departed the trade show on the Thursday and Friday left plenty of space that should have been filled but for some reason it wasn’t. Apart from the Catalina, a Royal Navy Merlin and the relocation of the Super Constellation, the static area felt empty. The main reason for this was that the Alenia Aermacchi, TAI and US DoD areas were at the far east of the showground – three of the biggest contingents that remained on the ground for the public days.

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I would have liked to have seen the empty space filled with more aircraft that could have represented the ‘100 Years of Aviation’ theme. There are many warbirds in this country and a handful of classic jets that would have padded out the showground a little more. It would even have been nice to see some aircraft from the RAF and AAC – Farnborough surely could have been a massive recruitment drive for both forces. On an airfield the size of Farnborough, gaps are unfortunately incredibly noticeable.

The Showground

As mentioned previously, 2012 was overcrowded and this meant that queues for both toilets and food had waiting times upwards of 30 minutes. 2014 was a different story (at least on Saturday when I attended) – many more toilets were provided and certainly at the grandstand end of the airfield, they were very clean and well maintained. Food was on the edge of becoming too expensive but at an average price of £5 for a single hot item, it seemed to fit in with the majority of other events up and down the country.

New for 2014 and on the back of similar ideas at both RIAT and Bournemouth Airshow, Farnborough Airshow Live! made it’s debut appearance. Fronted by TV presenters Michael Underwood and Angelica Bell, I have to say that I was a little nervous when I heard about the idea but any worries were soon put to rest. It turns out that both are genuinely interested in aviation and this became clear from some of the conversations that took place between Michael and the commentary team during the show. There was also a large stage just behind the main grandstand that allowed the presenters to question the likes of the Red Arrows in front of the audience. As well as the stage, the air displays were being streamed to large TV screens dotted around the showground thanks to fantastic videography from the guys over at Planes TV – this meant that you could go and get something to eat without being too far from the action.

On the whole I think this concept worked extremely well, even more so with the strong presence of families. It may not have appealed to the hardcore enthusiast but at the end of the day, Farnborough Airshow is targeted as a major attraction to families all over the South of England.

How Much?

With a gate price of £48 per head (under 16s go free), I can’t help but feel that Farnborough is somewhat lost when it comes to ticketing. On the basis of an average family (mum, dad, two teenagers and an infant), the entrance fee alone is more than £140; add travelling costs, food and drink to that and you’re probably looking at somewhere in the region of £200-£250 for a day out at the airshow.

By contrast, a ticket for the Royal International Airshow (an eight hour flying display and extensive static park) costs £44pp and a two day ticket for the RNAS Yeovilton Air Day costs just £39pp (the gate price for the Saturday is just £25). Even with a varied and entertaining flying programme like this year’s, the ticket price is still way off. If the team at FIA are serious about putting Farnborough back on the map, something has to be done about the entrance fee – there is simply no excuse.

One thing that did come down in price however was the souvenir display programme. Created by Key Publishing and priced at just £4, the quality of the programme was exceptional and a massive improvement on the over-glossy, advert filled magazine from 2012.

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The juxtaposition of the ticket price and programme is just mind boggling. I really do find it difficult to understand.

A Promising Step Forwards

To say that Farnborough Airshow is ‘the best airshow in the world’ right now would be a lie. It isn’t. What it is though, is a solid airshow that’s making footsteps in the right direction. The team listened and acted upon certain elements that were heavily criticised in recent years but there are still a handful of things that need addressing, most importantly the shows pricing structure.

With the strong re-branding and procurement of key airborne stars, Farnborough Airshow is definitely making a comeback one step at a time. In years gone by, Farnborough was the home of cutting-edge British technology and a worldwide stage for aviation; don’t be scared of it FIA, embrace it.

Having just celebrated the 70th anniversary of D-Day, the centenary of WWI and the Red Arrows 50th anniversary, aviation is once again making the headlines and one thing is clear – this country is still very much interested in airshows.

It’s time to take full advantage of that and I’m counting down the days until FIA 2016.

Farnborough, it’s over to you…