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!

Black Cats Helicopter Display Team

Features

The Black Cats are the Royal Navy’s helicopter display team and were first introduced to the UK circuit as the ‘Lynx Pair’ back in 2001. Until 2013, the team had flown two Lynx helicopters but now, after a successful split routine in 2014, the 825 NAS team have re-equipped with two of the Navy’s latest maritime attack aircraft; the Agusta Westland Wildcat. After weeks of planning, I headed down to RNAS Yeovilton in June to meet the team and find out about the 2015 display.

The Wildcat may look remarkably similar to the Lynx Mk8 in places but it’s decades ahead in terms of its technological capabilities; the engines are more powerful (50% greater on each engine), the aircraft has a completely new tail design and the cockpit is fitted with a state-of-the-art digital cockpit.

For the 2015 display season, the team is being led by Lt Dave Lilly (Black 1) and Lt James Woods (Black 2). Lt Lilly is no stranger to the Black Cats having displayed with the team back in 2009 but for Lt Woods, 2015 is a year full of new experiences.

Having displayed the Wildcat for the first time last year, albeit with a Lynx Mk8, how easy was it to put the 2015 routine together?

We didn’t actually use last year’s routine as a basis because of the compromises that were made due to the difference in aircraft types. We can now concentrate solely on Wildcat; the operating window for the aircraft has improved drastically since last year. We can hover more, use a little bit more speed and a little bit more angle of bank where required.– Lt Dave Lilly

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I think it was back in January when we started the very beginning of the workup. Most of the maneuvers were practised in isolation before they were eventually strung together into a full routine.” – Lt James Woods

It took about a week or so to put it all together. I sat down with a blank bit of paper and came up with what I thought would be a reasonable routine. I talked it through with James and the Standards team to make sure that what we’re trying to do is achievable. There’s a bit of compromise, a bit of advice but in about a week or so we had a decent outlook for about 90% of the display.” – Lt Dave Lilly

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The Black Cats are relatively unique in the sense that they can offer both a pairs and solo routine. This offers a lot of flexibility to show organisers with varying amounts of funding but also to the team itself should an aircraft go unserviceable just minutes before their display slot.

At the end of last year/beginning of this year, all airshows put their requests into the Royal Navy for which assets they would like. At the end of January, all bids are collated and a discussion takes place to decide where assets are allocated for the season. The decision depends on how much a particular show can afford, the type of site the show is at (whether it can accommodate the larger pairs display) , but also on the day itself it could be down to the weather or serviceability as to which routine is flown. If a pairs routine is booked and one of the aircraft goes U/S, it’s nearly always possible to refocus, gather your thoughts and take off for a solo display. The fact that we can alternate between the two means that it’s very rare for us to miss a show. The solo display also gives us the benefit of being able to show off a little more. It’s a completely different routine and because we’re not trying to keep up with another aircraft we can be a little more dynamic.” – Lt Dave Lilly

“Both routines are good fun to fly for different reasons. The pairs display is satisfying to get right because there are just so many different components; it’s a very demanding routine. The solo is enjoyable because you’re entertaining the entire crowd all on your own; it’s a big responsibility and a huge pleasure. I think I’m probably looking forward to the pairs displays most though!” – Lt James Woods

Unlike the Red Arrows, being a member of the Black Cats is not a full time job and the team is mostly made up of willing volunteers from the Squadron.

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Part of the process for this year was to properly transition from Lynx to Wildcat. Last summer the Squadron were looking to see how to man the team for this year. There is a limited number of people in the Squadron and initially we look for volunteers. I was more than happy to return having displayed 6 years ago and I believe my experience helped to develop the team. James was selected based on his skill and role within the Squadron but also on where he’s going to be in the future.” – Lt Dave Lilly

As has been said already, 2015 is James’ first time with the team and it’s already been quite a rollercoaster of a journey!

It’s been incredibly exciting. The flying is dynamic and completely different to usual daily taskings. You’re using the aircraft in a different way which instantly makes the work more demanding; it’s a little more difficult to master than basic flying. It’s a massive step up.” – Lt James Woods

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I have a slight advantage of doing this before, all the maneuvers are taken from previous displays in my past two years. It’s James’ first time so he’s trying to learn how to fly as a display pilot rather than a frontline pilot. It’s all about having an appreciation of where you need to be in a number of steps time. If I make a mistake, James has to accept that and not go with what he thinks he should do but stick with the plan.” – Lt Dave Lilly

There’s a lot of trust between us. Essentially Dave flies the maneuver and is primarily concerned with the formation’s tracking in relation to the ground. I’m concerned with being in the right place relative to him. I’m always trying to make sure that I’m in the correct position relative to Dave and he has to trust that I’m going to be there. We need to be able to respond quickly if anything was to go wrong be it birds, a gust of wind or just poor positioning.” – Lt James Woods

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Although Dave is experienced with the individual aspects of the routine, there’s one thing that’s been a real challenge during the workup for James and it’s known as the Carousel…

It’s a tricky one because we’re in very close proximity to each other, nose to nose and getting the rate of turn for us both, matched nicely with the differing wind speeds and directions, is exceptionally challenging. As each tail passes through the wind, it affects the aircraft’s heading quite drastically but hopefully you never actually see that from the ground. We try to keep the formation as tight as possible. Chat between the aircraft is kept to a minimum during these moments so that we can completely focus on the task at hand.” – Lt James Woods

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Practise, of course, overcomes most of these initial difficulties but displaying at different sites all over the country poses an entirely new challenge.

Once we’ve finished the workup on base at Yeovilton, you become very familiar with the local landmarks so moving to a new airfield for any given show is always a slight unknown. We will always fly at least one practise at every airfield we display at to familiarise ourselves with the local area and to learn where our reference points are. Displaying over water always adds an additional complexity to the routine too but it doesn’t affect us as much as, maybe, the RAF because we’re so used to operating over water anyway. Reference points are obviously not as still as they would be on land but you can still use geographical features on the coastline to help.” – Lt James Wood

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With the display season now in full swing and the biggest show of the year for the team just on the horizon, where else are they looking forward to displaying?

I always think of Bournemouth, I was lucky enough to do the first and second show there and it’s an exceptionally busy weekend. We usually display in the afternoon as The Black Cats but also take part in the beach landing role demonstration in the morning. The crowds are always huge and unusually we get to take off from the back of a ship, over the sea in our natural environment. Bournemouth is an absolute must for the Royal Navy and is a spectacle not to be missed.” – Lt Dave Lilly

You will be able to see the Royal Navy Black Cats at a number of shows up and down the country this summer but you might not see them coming. For the first time in a number of years the team have been authorised to run in from behind the crowd. So, when everyone else is trying to spot them on the horizon, turn around and look up!

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I’d like to take this opportunity to thank both Dave and James for their time and also for allowing me to capture their rehearsals in great detail.

Best of luck for the rest of 2015!

Feature – Junglie: Past, Present and Future

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.

2013 Review

2013, Reviews

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review – RNAS Yeovilton Air Day 2013

2013, Aviation, Reviews

Following hot on the heels of RAF Waddington International Air Show, Air Day certainly had a lot to live up to and with temperatures soaring into the thirties, everything was in place for a sell out show in the Somerset countryside.

Yeovilton has always been one of my favourite shows on the UK circuit (this was my sixth year), mainly because it’s full of helicopters and pyrotechnics but also because of the warm and friendly atmosphere created by those that put the show together. Unfortunately last weekend was an absolute scorcher with a cloudless blue sky and this does not make it easy for photographers as the crowd is facing into the sun all day. Shooting into the sun generally means a lot of exposure compensation and bleached backgrounds, however I just about managed to come away with some fairly reasonable shots.

It’s fair to say that back in 2012 the organisers had a difficult time finding exotic acts for the show because most of Europe’s fast jet displays were pre-booked at a continental display. 2013 was a different story altogether with displays from the Czech Air Force, Belgian Air Component and the welcome return of the Royal Jordanian Falcons – add that to the might of the Royal Naval Fleet Air Arm and a couple of displays from the RAF and you’ve got yourself a fantastic line up. Two star acts had cancelled by the time the show came round; the Czech Hind and Swiss F-18 but I barely noticed their absence with everything else that was going on.

I decided to take a look round the static aircraft early in the morning while the majority of people were still coming in. A decent selection of aircraft all round but it was definitely quality over quantity this year.

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The displays kicked off at 11am with nine glorious BAe Hawks appearing from over the main complex trailing the infamous red, white and blue smoke – the one and only Red Arrows. I was unable to photograph their display (possibly for the first time ever) as I was busy on the Lynx pan but from what I saw, it was the usual effortless, spotless display from the Royal Air Force Aerobatic Team.

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Once the Reds vacated the vicinity, the familiar sound of slapping blades echoed around the airfield as the Chinook Display Team ran in to crowd centre to begin their display. The 2013 team are kicking up a storm on the UK circuit this year and having just won the ‘Best Display’ accolade at Waddington a couple of weeks ago, it was nice for the team to add another trophy to their cabinet as they were awarded ‘Best Rotary Display’. Congratulations once more on a truly spectacular display routine!

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Many still say that they attend an air show for one reason and one reason only – to see Avro Vulcan XH558. After taking off and displaying at another show, The Spirit Of Great Britain flew in from the far left in complete silence but unusually this wasn’t silence from the crowd. This year’s Vulcan display appears to be very sedate and almost (dare I say it) a bit boring with very little of that infamous ‘Vulcan Howl’. The entire display was just about rescued by the quick climb which generated that much needed noise. Another disappointing display from the Cold War icon and I wouldn’t be surprised if fundraising starts to struggle as a result of the lacklustre 2013 routine.

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The first of the foreign displays took to the air around midday in the form of the Czech Air Force L-139. The ALCA (Advanced Light Combat Aircraft) is a Czech-made multi-role combat aircraft derived from the Aero L-59 Super Albatros. The aircraft has been operational with the Czech Air Force since early 2000 and this was their chance to show off the capability of their homegrown lightweight combat aircraft. Although the display was a little high at times, it was still a tightly flown routine and I’m glad that I can add it to my list of display aircraft that I’ve seen.

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 The Royal Jordanian Falcons took to the skies in formation but unusually they were only flying a three ship display. Unfortunately the fourth Extra was tucked up in a hangar with cracked cockpit glass and this meant that the routine was missing it’s solo element. Due to the missing aircraft, the display was cut a little short but as usual these guys put on a very nice display of aerobatic precision.

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One of the best things about RNAS Yeovilton is that they are one of the only UK venues to allow the use of flares and pyrotechnics during displays and the Maritime Role Demo certainly didn’t disappoint. The idea behind this routine is give the public an idea of what the maritime Lynx force encounters on a daily basis. One of the main roles of the Lynx force is to patrol the sea in search of pirates and this was the storyline for Saturday’s show.

As a crew of pirates enter the area and kidnap a helpless female, the Royal Navy is alerted to their presence and send in the Lynx force to assess the situation.

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Once the RN have worked out what’s going on, the helicopters attempt to stop the pirates but are fired upon and immediately the Lynx has to take evasive action.

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The Lynx finally manages to bring a stop to the chaos and rescues the damsel in distress as the pirates are detained. A fantastic operational display and I for one love seeing the role demonstrations that our armed forces put together. Certainly one of the highlights of the day for me!

Yeovilton is also well known for putting together some unique formations and this year the organisers managed to get the Hangar 11 P-51, RNHF Sea Fury and North Weald based Skyraider in the sky at the same time. Three very nicely flown displays from classic warbirds and a real treat for the ears.

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An unusual display item for Air Day was the Saab 2000 from Eastern Airways. Although not the most interesting aircraft in the world, it made a pleasant change seeing a turbo prop airliner being thrown about the sky.

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Having seen a preview of the Czech Gripen display on Friday, I was excited to see the Tiger schemed airframe take to the skies once more for it’s routine. The Saab Gripen may not be everyone’s cup of tea but I for one really like it. It’s nowhere near as powerful as the Eurofighter Typhoon but it’s still a fast multi-role aircraft and the Czech’s sure knew how to throw it about. Some high speed passes and plenty of high altitude loops meant that the Czech Gripen display team was awarded ‘Best Fast Jet’ display for 2013. Well done!

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Another of Air Day’s star items was supposed to be the first public display of the Sea Vixen but unfortunately the team had failed to take their DA in time having only received their Permit to Fly last week. Even so a fairly low, high speed flypast on arrival was more than welcome and it’s a real treat to see this aircraft back in the sky.

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As the Sea Vixen was on finals, the Belgian Air Component A109 was waiting to get airborne with a full load of  flares. No sooner had it run in for the start of it’s display, the pilot had already let off the first burst of pyros. For such a small helicopter I felt at times that it was a little too distant from the crowd line but even with that, it was still a tightly flown routine and that’s why it was also awarded ‘Best Rotary Display’ along with the Chinook.

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Not to be outdone by the Czech Air Force, the RAF made sure they put on a spectacular display with the Typhoon of Flt Lt Jamie Norris. The routine for 2013 is nothing short of amazing and has plenty of noise and reheat action. Against a deep blue backdrop, the Typhoon looked wonderful – well done Jamie!

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A new addition (and a very welcome one at that) to the circuit for this year is the Royal Navy Merlin Mk2 display from RNAS Culdrose. It’s always a treat to see these giants thrown about in the sky – they always remind me of buses because of just how big they look. It’s amazing to see just how much power is in the Agusta Westland machine and this was a real pleasure to photograph. I look forward to seeing this display again later in the year.

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The final foreign display took off with plenty of reheat late afternoon in the shape of the Belgian Air Component F-16. Captain Avi Renaud “Grat” Thys wowed the crowd flying a dynamic routine with plenty of technical maneuvers, flares and smokewinders – something that I believe the RAF should look at incorporating into their displays. The Belgian’s definitely made an impressive return to Yeovilton and I look forward to their display again at RIAT.

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RNAS Yeovilton is home to the Royal Navy Black Cats Helicopter Display Team 702 NAS and for 2013 they’re displaying a solo Lynx (more on that later in my Black Cats article). Lt AJ Thompson flew a very tight routine showing off the strengths of the HMA8 Lynx but struggled to get everything out of the aircraft while the engines tried to cope with the unbearable heat. Well done on what looked like a difficult display to fly in those conditions!

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The Commando Assault finale is what Air Day is all about and this year the Agusta Westland Wildcat featured heavily, showing off exactly what it’s capable of doing and just why the MoD have chosen it as the replacement for the aging Lynx. Also new to this year’s finale was the airfield attack by enemy forces in the form of the Red Star Rebels Delfin aircraft. A simulated attack by renegade Russian fighters leads to a mass rescue mission by the Commando helicopter force – I won’t say anymore, I’ll let the pictures do the talking.

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After a tricky show in 2012, the organisers went out of their way to put on a spectacle for 2013 and they did so with huge success. A sell out crowd and superb flying display makes Air Day the show to beat for the rest of this year. It’s also worth mentioning that base personnel did everything they could to make sure that the public were kept hydrated – a huge thank you to the organisers for making that happen. The flagship show for the Royal Navy was absolutely fantastic, my only criticism would be that the stalls are still shutting up shop far too early – once the show has finished, it would be nice to be able to browse the stalls while the car parks empty. Apart from that, well done to all involved.

Roll on Air Day 2014!

Full set will be available at http://www.facebook.com/tommercerphotography 

My 2013 – Aviation Preview

2013, aircraft, airshow, autumn, Aviation, displays, photography, RAF, Reviews, tom mercer, tom mercer photography

The clocks have gone forward and the evenings are getting lighter which means that the start of the airshow season is just around the corner. Here’s a small preview of what you can expect to see from me in the coming months –

My Calendar:

May 5th – Abingdon Air & Country Show

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Dalton Barracks in Abingdon will once again host one of the first shows of the season but what can you expect to see?

Unless you’ve been in space for the past few years, you will all be too aware that there is a lot less money around today. Nevertheless, the organisers of this fairly small event have done their absolute best in putting together a stand out show. With just a few weeks left we have been promised a couple more additions to an already fantastic lineup which includes appearances from a Folland Gnat T1, the Hawker Hurricane and North American P-51D Mustang from Hangar 11, Breitling Wingwalkers, AAC Westland Lynx AH7 as well as favourites such as the RAF BBMF Avro Lancaster.

At present there are 15 confirmed flying displays and despite the lack of current RAF displays, Abingdon looks as though it’s going to be a superb day.

You can find out more at http://www.abingdonairandcountry.co.uk/

May 26th – IWM Duxford Spring Airshow

The end of May can mean only one thing – the Spring airshow at IWM Duxford.

A short drive up the A1(M) will mean that I get my first taste of an air display at this iconic airfield and I’m really looking forward to it.

This year’s Spring airshow will commemorate the 70th anniversary of the USAF arriving at Duxford in April 1943. One act that has been confirmed to display in May to help celebrate this landmark is the Horsemen Flight Team from the US. It is unknown at the moment what aircraft they will be using in their display but whatever it is, it should be well worth going for!

You can find out more at http://www.iwm.org.uk/events/iwm-duxford/spring-air-show

12-13th July – RNAS Yeovilton Air Day

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RNAS Yeovilton is home to the Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm’s premier event and in 2012 provided yet another award winning show.

Of course being an active Royal Naval Air Station means that the Navy get to show off all their toys. After a long day, Air Day comes to a close with a spectacular role demonstration from the armed forces finest. This year will be even more special as it will see the RAF, AAC and Royal Navy get together for the first time in years – expect to see explosions, helicopters, jets, armoured vehicles and ‘armed’ marines fighting to gain control of the airfield. If you ask me, the commando assault finale is worth the entrance fee alone.

Other confirmed acts for Air Day 2013 are the RAF BBMF, RAF Red Arrows, RAF Typhoon, Royal Jordanian Falcons as well as the Swiss Air Force F/A-18C Hornet. So far this show has all the ingredients for another brilliant display like back in 2011.

To find out more and order your tickets, go to http://www.royalnavy.mod.uk/The-Fleet/Air-Stations/RNAS-Yeovilton/Air-Day-2013

20th-21st July – Royal International Air Tattoo

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The World’s largest military airshow will begin to take place from 15th July as aircraft start to arrive for what will hopefully be a great show.

Over the last few years RIAT has been criticised by many enthusiasts for becoming too commercial and forgetting it’s aviation roots. With this in mind, a meeting took place late last year to discuss which direction the show would move in and as a result, it was promised that the show would try to go back to its strong aviation origins.

Although the team are working as hard as they can on producing what they promised, so far it all looks a little thin. As a USAF base, the event usually sees many American participants on the ground but with the current state of affairs in the US, the static display could look a little bare this year.

I’ve got everything crossed that the team pull something incredible out of the bag because at the moment, I’m not entirely sure that I will be attending – this is the first year that I haven’t purchased earlybird tickets.

If you wish to find out more about the Royal International Air Tattoo, then visit http://www.airtattoo.com/airshow

August 24th-25th – Dunsfold Wings and Wheels

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This is by far one of my favourite shows of the year and I’ve no doubt that the 2013 show will be just as good as last years.

Somehow the organisers always manage to pair displays together to give the crowd a rare opportunity to see some unique collaborations.

The warm, friendly atmosphere is always extremely welcoming and this is one of the main reason why I look forward to this show so much.

Some of the items already confirmed for this year are the Royal Navy Black Cats Hellicopter Display Team, RAF Red Arrows, The Blades and the Royal Naval Historic Flight’s Hawker Sea Fury.

To find out more, check out http://www.wingsandwheels.net/

29th August – 1st September – Bournemouth Air Festival

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For the first time ever, I will be heading down to Bournemouth at the end of August for the Air Festival.

I’ve been meaning to tick this off my ‘to-do’ list for some time now but have always been unavailable for different reasons. This year I aim to capture all the magic and atmosphere from various different places along the seafront.

Already confirmed to display in front of this impressive backdrop are the RAF Chinook, BBMF, Red Arrows, RAF Typhoon, Royal Navy Merlin and the SWIP team who will again be providing a pyrotechnics enabled dusk display.

The official website isn’t quite ready but everything you need to know will be available here http://www.bournemouthair.co.uk/

So, what else?

As well as those shows, I also have a number of exciting features lined up for you guys but for now, they can remain a surprise!

If you’re going to any of these shows then please do come and say hi!

Hopefully 2013 has a lot in store for me – if all goes to plan then it should be an incredible year.