Designing a Display Masterpiece

Written and photographed by Tom Mercer and Flt Lt Andy Donovon | 16th May 2018


Helmets adorned with custom designs are a relatively common thing to behold in the world of military aviation, especially in the display world, but few come in as elaborate a form as the 2018 Chinook Display helmets and even less are replicated seven times!

The Chinook Display crews have for many years flown with painted helmets but these have tended to be simple in nature and consisting of stripes of the British National or Squadron colours. For the RAF100 season the team felt that the time was right to produce something quite staggering, not only to celebrate the milestone but also to showcase the talents of RAF Odiham personnel in delivering projects of this nature. The Station has abundant amounts of experience in the field of decorating aircraft to celebrate big anniversaries in recent years but with an off-Station committee directing what markings were to be applied to a Chinook airframe for RAF100 the team turned their attention towards celebrating with their helmets…and what a result!

RAF Odiham’s Station Commander, Group Captain Lee Turner, has been incredibly supportive of the display team since he and 27 Squadron selected the crew late last year. When shown the design for the helmets he gave the project his backing and that paved the way for 27’s safety equipment specialists to start stripping down the electronics from redundant Mk4 helmets ready for the paint bay to begin their work. Luckily, with upgraded helmets now arriving in service at Odiham, there was an excess stock of the older type which enabled the project.

Leading the paint bay team at Odiham is Mr James Littlejohn, who learned his trade in the days when the RAF had its own painters and finishers. Now contracted out to Serco, the facility at Odiham is a busy one so James agreed to assist the team in his own spare time. It was December 2017 when the helmets arrived into the bay, making it a 6-month project from start to finish! Asking James about the RAF100year, he was clearly keen to play his part:

“As and ex-RAF serviceman, to be involved in such a significant milestone as the RAF100 display has been a real honour. This project was one of the biggest challenges I’ve undertaken to-date, due to the size and intricacy of the task. However I could see right from the start that this was going to be very rewarding for me personally. I’ve always relished being challenged and to work along side Flight Lieutenant Andy Donovan again, who has led us to produce four huge paint designs on Odiham-based aircraft in recent years, I knew it was a team to make this a memorable event. The icing on the cake was being asked to carry out such a special design on his crew’s helmets for each member of the prestigious display team!”

The helmet was designed by team co-pilot Flt Lt Andy Donovan and incorporates the eagle from the Royal Air Force crest as it’s biggest feature. Amazingly, when you stand close to it you realise that it’s white details are further embellished with black shadows behind which is quite beautiful but must have been incredibly fiddly to do once, let alone seven times! So why seven? As we know there are three pilots and three crewmen qualified on the display routine but another helmet has been painstakingly crafted for this year’s display manager; the intent being that it will be made available for people to view at air shows whenever the team is able to achieve a ground footprint. They certainly look impressive in photos but up-close they really are a sight to behold. James Littlejohn is certainly pleased with how they have turned out:

“I have no words for the end result that would do the final product justice. I put my heart and soul into each display helmet to make sure they were identical and each as special as another. I’ve lost count of the hours of my own time that I put into them, including one 12-hour stint and a midnight finish along side Andy last Christmas to make sure the eagles were perfectly applied. Each helmet has its own unique challenges as not one is the same as another and had to be uniquely masked, adding hours of time. We couldn’t account for this but it made the final product even more special and that is one aspect people won’t ever see! I am just happy it has brought so much happiness to the crew on this special year. I also can’t forget my team who supported me along the way and helped with masking and delicate touches, just when you needed that boost they were there to help me out and I couldn’t ask for a better team.”

The Journey to PDA

Written and photographed by Tom Mercer | 11th May 2018


Planning for the 2018 RAF Chinook Display Team started much earlier than usual, with the first discussions and decisions being made as early as December 2017. The team were keen to make sure that all the administrative work was completed as soon as possible so that the foundations for the display season could be bedded in sooner rather than later.

For 2018, the RAF’s centenary year, the Chinook Display Team is crewed by members of 27 Squadron from RAF Odiham. Unlike other RAF display teams, the Chinook Display utilises operational crews and operational aircraft; the display is very much a secondary role. In comparison, the Red Arrows are a dedicated full-time display team and as such have a dedicated pool of aircraft solely for display purposes; for the duration of the display season the team’s primary role is to maintain display currency and entertain crowds both here and abroad.

The UK Chinook Force is a front-line helicopter unit controlled by Joint Helicopter Command (JHC) and is constantly on high readiness to be deployed anywhere around the world at short notice. Just last year a number of aircraft were deployed to the Caribbean within a matter of days to assist with the Hurricane Irma relief effort and just prior to their season starting, members of the 2018 team and others were scrambled overnight to assist the civilian authorities in Cumbria after heavy snowfall. Some were also detached on a major UK tactics exercise at RAF Leeming until the week before the work-up period commenced so the tempo was high right up to the word ‘go’ on display activity.

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The 2018 display team was selected by the Officer Commanding 27 Squadron and RAF Odiham’s Station Commander before the year had even begun. Amongst the initial work to enable the display, the team were faced with a challenge that needed to be resolved before anything else could happen. 2018 was to be the first year in which the HC6A variant of the aircraft was to be used and with this came complications. The Chinook timeline is a complicated one but to keep it simple, the HC6A is effectively an upgrade of what were originally HC1 airframes in 1978 or HC2A airframes delivered in the 1990s.

The paperwork that is used to certify that a Chinook aircraft is approved for flight is known as its Release to Service, or simply RTS, and as the HC6A is ultimately an upgrade of an older model with the addition of a new digital automatic flight control system, this rather changed the playing field. From an engineering standpoint this was, in some respects, a new aircraft being put forward for display duties. Limitations that once applied to the HC1 in 1978 and carried through to HC2 and HC4 upgrades had to be analysed to re-validate things such as rate of climb, maximum angles of bank or pitch up and down. Work then needed to be done to prove continued validity of such limits on the HC6A or suggest amendment or removal in certain cases. With this work complete the HC6A was accepted for UK service but the impact on the display task, which operates the aircraft to the edge of its flight envelope, had to be fully digested to ensure that this more extreme mode of flying was still within the scope of the RTS. Only then could the flying start…!

While the team had been selected early on, it’s not just a case of jumping in the aircraft and starting to fly the display straight away. The display routine was discussed at length before the team crewed-in for the first time with 2017 Display Captain Flt Lt Andy Smith from 18(B) Squadron and both supervisor and display captain attended a display symposium early in 2018 to take on board lessons from all UK display teams which had been learned the previous year.

On 26 March, after much preparation, the 27 Squadron crew began flying individual manoeuvres at 200ft above the ground at RAF Odiham with Flt Lt Smith in the co-pilot’s seat, to build Flt Lt Kynaston’s familiarity and handling finesse through each move. The new co-pilots then began to deliver their ‘patter’ of aircraft parameters from the jump seat – a steep learning curve to verbalise all of the required data clearly and quickly in a rapidly changing environment. As each practice session was completed, elements of the routine were improved upon until eventually the entire routine came in thirds and then fully at 200ft. The next step – take it down to just 100ft!

Display practice times are embargoed at RAF Odiham which means that for the designated time period on any given day, no other aircraft movements should occur until practice has been completed. This is hugely important as the crew must have no concerns about other air activity in the area as they build enough experience to be ready for their Public Display Approval (PDA), when Commander Joint Helicopter Command visits and decides whether he/she is content to approve the display in a public forum. It’s fair to say however that even when the display practices are booked in well in advance, not everything always goes to plan. Due to the operational commitments of the UK Chinook Force, things can change at a moment’s notice and aircraft availability may mean that the team cannot get up for practice when they had originally planned to.

The Squadron’s movements for the day are laid out on a big whiteboard with magnetic notes detailing crews, flight times, embargoes and aircraft availability. Along with a system that tracks similar information for the other Squadrons at Odiham, this all comes together to form a complex timetable that, for the most part, remains fairly static. However, if an aircraft goes unserviceable on start-up and the rectification work is expected to take hours rather than minutes, you could be mistaken for thinking that the whiteboard has turned into some sort of strategic board game as tiles begin to move and the various ‘players’ begin discussing priorities with the airframes that are left.  

The key questions were asked – which flights, if any, could be shuffled around to free up an aircraft for practice? Even if an aircraft was identified, would it have enough hours left on the clock to be used for the display practice? Regular engineering checks are carried out after a set number of flying hours and more in-depth investigations are conducted post-display flights which again has an impact on other sorties looking to utilise the airframe afterwards. Further taxing the planners is the requirement for the display airframe to be an HC6A.

The UK Chinook fleet consists of a mix of HC4, HC5, HC6 and HC6A aircraft, split between three squadrons at RAF Odiham and one at RAF Benson, and individual aircraft are assigned to specific squadrons. It is therefore possible on a given day for 27 Squadron to have no more serviceable HC6As available if others are undergoing maintenance if the display primary suffers an issue on start. At times a call to their sister unit, 18(B) Squadron, occurs and the question is asked whether 27 can borrow an HC6A for the day or for the sortie alone. 27 Squadron may have plenty of serviceable HC5s of HC6s but due to the different configurations the engineering foundation required across the various authorities in the UK would be immense to confirm that these are appropriate for display flying. There are other far higher priority efforts on-going which make this unrealistic. So if 18 Squadron has an HC6A assigned to a flight but the tasking could use any type of Chinook, an aircraft swap can sometimes be arranged within a matter of hours, putting the team back in the air.

Early on in the work-up the display is not necessarily of the highest importance in comparison to other tasks but when PDA draws closer and Odiham has wall-to-wall sunshine, it can be frustrating for the team to be stuck on the ground without an aircraft to practice in. Imagine going on holiday somewhere exotic only to get there and be told that you must stay inside for the duration of your trip; picture those levels of frustration and you’re probably close to the feeling of being stood in front of that whiteboard at the time. Even when the display does ‘win’ in such a scenario, it is likely at the cost of another training sortie that has taken hours to plan by another crew.

This is just one of the many challenges that the team have faced on their journey to PDA but these challenges have been overcome every single time. As if that’s not enough, during the build-up to the start of the display season, the team have made a number of appearances at PR events up and down the country, deployed to the ILA Berlin air show for a week to provide a role demonstration rather than a full display and Stu Kynaston somehow found the time to run the grueling Marathon Des Sables in the Moroccan desert to raise money for the RAF 100 appeal – if you’d like to donate then please click here.

With Flt Lt Smith deeming the new 2018 display safe at 100ft, he stepped out and completed his handover to 27 Squadron. On 3 May the new crew flew alone for the first time, back at 200ft initially and then stepped down to 100ft again during a sortie that same afternoon. The first full linked routine happened on 8 May and the final run-up to PDA began.

The 2018 display season is set to be a busy one with over 25 appearances currently booked in the diary. If you see the display team at an event over the summer then please come and say hello! The team are going to make sure that the RAF centenary is celebrated in style with plenty of blade-slap!

Biggin Hill Festival of Flight

Written and photographed by Tom Mercer | 25th September 2017


London Biggin Hill Airport may be a calm general aviation airport today but during the Second World War RAF Biggin Hill was one of the most important fighter bases in South East England. The airfield played a crucial role in the RAF’s plan for protecting our shores during the Battle of Britain. Numerous Squadrons of Spitfires and Hurricanes were based at RAF Biggin Hill throughout the war and it is thought that these air assets were responsible for well over 1000 downed enemy aircraft. 

2017 sees Biggin Hill celebrate its centenary and what better way to do that than with a special commemorative airshow. The airfield is no stranger to airshows, having been home to the famous Biggin Hill International Air Fair events from the early 1960s, all the way up until the abrupt cancellation of the event in 2010. Airshows returned to Biggin Hill in 2016 with the new-look Festival of Flight but it didn’t quite capture the ‘international’ element of old. That was until this year.

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Flying High

The organisers of the Festival of Flight managed to pull out all the stops this year and book acts not only from the UK but also from two foreign nations; Belgium and the Czech Republic.

The RAF was represented well by the Red Arrows, Typhoon, Chinook, BBMF Spitfire, Tucano and Hawk T2. The Red Arrows were around all weekend, as was the Typhoon, albeit only displaying in the air at Biggin Hill on the Sunday. Despite that, the Typhoon had a number of commitments throughout the Saturday which meant that we got to see it take off and land during the day.

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The Battle of Britain Memorial Flight were only able to supply their Griffon-powered Spitfire for the display due to the (at the time) ongoing investigations with the Merlin-powered aircraft. It was great to see that even with the troubles the Flight were facing, they were still able to get an aircraft in the air for the weekend.

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The Hawk T2 from RAF Valley and two Tucanos from RAF Linton-on-Ouse were on static display, joining a rather beautiful de Havilland Dragonfly, Westland Wessex, Bronco and slightly strange-looking Dornier Do-28A-1. The Tucano will be going out of service shortly so it was a treat to see both a normal scheme and the 72 Squadron special scheme together at the same time.

The flying display was bolstered by some fantastic formation flying from the Breitling Wingwalkers, Trig Aerobatic Team and a unique ‘little and large’ display, to name just a few.

The Wingwalkers have become a slightly rare sight in the UK in recent seasons as they’ve chosen to display abroad more often than not, so it was great to see them doing their thing and covering the airfield in their ‘baby oil’ smoke.

The Trig Aerobatic team joined the Stearmans on the bi-plane front and demonstrated once again just why they’re considered by many to be one of the best civilian pairs displays on the UK circuit. Their tight formations and perfectly timed manoeuvres make for an entertaining routine.

While it might be a slightly strange concept, the ‘little and large’ display was actually a very welcome addition to the programme. This act has been around for a couple of years but this was the first time we’d got to see it in person. The display was flown by an Extra 330 and a R/C scale model of the 330, painted in exactly the same scheme. Considering one of these aircraft was being flown from the ground, the timing and positioning of this routine has to be applauded. You’ve never seen spacial awareness quite like it!

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Having the Festival of Flight on the same weekend as the airshow at Eastbourne meant that the two events were able to share acts to a certain extent. This worked to Biggin Hill’s advantage and helped secure the Belgian Air Component F-16 display. The display aircraft sadly had some issues early on the Friday morning and departed back to base to see if the issues could be fixed. The team then returned late in the day on Friday with a standard scheme aircraft in place of the display scheme; this actually worked out well as it is a much rarer sight in the UK than the display jet.

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Forget all of that though because the stars of the show, without a doubt, were the displays from the Czech Air Force. Not only did we get a solo display from the Hind and the Gripen, we also got a combat Search and Rescue (SAR) demonstration from the Hip and Hind.

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The Hind and Gripen were superb but the combat SAR demo was the real gem here. Why? Well this was the first time ever that an in-service Hip had displayed in the UK. Despite the huge number of Hips in service with Forces around the world, the UK has only ever seen manufacturer-demonstrated displays at airshows, so not only was it a major coup for Biggin Hill to get anything from the Czech Air Force, to get the Hip and Hind display was just next level stuff!

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With nearly all the excitement done with, it was left to the home team to close the 2017 show and boy did they do it in style. A trio of Biggin-based warbirds took to the sky and flew some stunning formation flypasts before one of the Spitfires broke away and began to wind up into its own solo routine.

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The next ten minutes were pure heaven as the Spitfire was put through its paces in what can only be described as one of the most breathtaking warbird displays we’ve ever witnessed. The display was flown with so much grace and precision that it felt like it went on forever. The pilot appeared to be having the time of his life and as the sun started to set, it seemed like the perfect way to celebrate 100 years of Biggin Hill.

The Next 100 Years

Biggin Hill is a venue that just oozes history and it’s not too difficult to imagine the organised chaos that would have unfolded as countless fighters took to the air in the 1940s. While the airfield today is just a shadow of its former self, elements of the original RAF installation still exist and access to this is about to be improved with the construction of the new Memorial Museum.

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The 2017 Festival of Flight was a massive success and for the first time a small arrivals day was held on the Friday. Yes it was a fairly quiet day but it gave us the chance to shoot some of arriving aircraft that weren’t flying over the weekend. The organisers also threw in a commemorative baseball cap which was a very pleasant surprise.

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What was quite nice about the event was that it somehow managed to maintain the atmosphere of a smaller show, something along the lines of Abingdon, while attracting some phenomenal international participation.

The big question though is what exactly will next year’s Festival of Flight look like? Will we see further international participation to the same extent we did this year? Perhaps, especially if it’s held over the same weekend as Eastbourne again.

One thing is for sure, we can’t wait to go back for more!

#SupportAirshows

Riding The Rollercoaster

Written and photographed by Tom Mercer | September 4th 2017


The RAF Chinook Display Team has been around for a number of years and the team have managed to impress the crowds time and time again with their incredibly dynamic display. When last year’s display team all but disappeared after the Royal International Air Tattoo, many were left wondering as to what had happened to the team and whether we’d ever see anything like it again.

As the UK Chinook Force transitioned from the HC2 to the HC4, it was questionable as to whether we’d ever see a fully dynamic Chinook display again. Whilst the HC4 was more than capable of conducting the same display sequence, much more data than before was being recorded and after testing, this quickly showed certain stresses that were being unnecessarily put on the air frame as a result of display flying. This meant that the display had to be re-thought and certain limits were put in place to stop the unnecessary loads.

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After the team’s display at the 2016 Royal International Air Tattoo, random data samples were submitted to Boeing which showed additional stresses on the air frame and as a result, display flying on the Chinook was halted.

While we were at Odiham late last year, it became apparent that 2016 may have been the last year of the Chinook Display Team, at least in it’s traditional sense. However, over the winter many discussions took place and it was decided that if the routine was flown a certain way, the Chinook Display could return to the airshow circuit in it’s current form. Hooray!

The Chinook Display has been a favourite with airshow-goers for a long time, mainly due to the sheer size of the aircraft and the way that it can be thrown around the sky. The 2017 team comprised of personnel from both 18 Squadron and 28 Squadron, all of which have front-line responsibilities as well as being part of the display team at weekends.

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While we’re used to seeing the Chinook roll up and down in the Rollercoaster, the display hasn’t always been this dynamic.

“I was first involved with the Chinook display back in 2003 when Squadron Leader Dave Morgan first ‘reinvented’ the display. It wasn’t a fully dynamic display back then but more of a role demo.” Sgt James Ashwell explains, “The role demonstration started with a tactical landing and a Land Rover drove down the ramp with an ‘armed’ unit before we departed to do some heavy lifting in front of the crowd.” 

“We had to be prepared for the sort of missions that we’d be conducting out there.”

The role demo display went on right up until the Chinook Force got heavily involved in Iraq and Afghanistan, then everything changed.

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The Afghanistan deployments were full-on. You’d do your pre-deployment workups for a number of weeks and then be out in a hot, dusty and intense climate for months on end, carrying out countless troop movements and being on standby 24/7 with the Medical Emergency Response Team.” said Flt Lt Matt Holloway, Display Team Supervisor for 2017. “Obviously when UK forces ceased military operations in Afghanistan, everything changed for the Chinook Force and we were able to start training in areas that we hadn’t done for a number of years. Back in the mid-2000s, combat training was relentless and it had to be. We had to be prepared for the sort of missions that we’d be conducting out there. Fortunately, our focus has now shifted and whilst we’re still conducting combat training, we’re also training in colder climates again and getting to hone our skills for humanitarian operations. Having said that, we’re always on high readiness, ready to deploy globally at short notice.”

With that in mind, it’s understandable that the display team took a break; there simply wasn’t enough time or resource available to continue.

Sgt Ashwell moved on from the Chinook and spent some time at RAF Brize Norton on both the C-130J Hercules and Tristar, While I was away at Brize, the Chinook display team reformed and got given the green light once more. I wanted some of that action.” The natural progression was to move on to the RAF’s latest heavy-lift platform but Sgt Ashwell had other ideas, “I had the option to move to the A400M Atlas when Tristar operations finished but I wanted to get back to the Chinook Force and be part of the display again.”

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“The more people that aren’t in a formal controlled area that’s been designated by an airshow’s FDD, the more difficult it makes it for us to conduct our routine.”

Flt Lt Andy Smith, this year’s Display Pilot also wanted the same, I’ve been flying the Chinook for 7 years now and being at Odiham, the display team is something that’s always in the back of your mind. Display flying is the absolute technical pinnacle of flying and I’ve loved every second of it. I remember being that child at an airshow when I was younger, watching the display teams and wanting very much to be part of it. I can only hope that we have inspired someone as much as I was when I was that age.”

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The Shoreham incident understandably changed UK airshows, perhaps forever, with many new rules and regulations. While the changes in regulations have certainly changed things from a spectators point of view, Flt Lt Smith explains what it all means from a crew’s perspective, Not only are there all-encompassing display regulations provided by the CAA and MAA, now each display location can have it’s own special rules and regulations. As well as that we have to be very aware of secondary and tertiary crowds external to the showground that may build up during shows. Safety is absolutely paramount.” Flt Lt Smith continues, “The more people that aren’t in a formal controlled area that’s been designated by an airshow’s FDD, the more difficult it makes it for us to conduct our routine. Seeing people outside the designated crowd area might mean that we have to move unexpectedly to the left or right, or even climb in some circumstances just to make sure that we’ve got that extra buffer. The downside to this is that it can (and usually does) make things look untidy, it means we’re further away from the crowd and it makes the display unintentionally longer in places.”

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The team were forced to withdraw at short notice from the Scotland National Airshow back in July ‘due to limitations imposed by recent changes in CAA regulations’ and instead of conducting a full display, the team had to settle for a flypast.

Is a flypast as impressive as a full display? Of course it isn’t. Does a Chinook (or any aircraft for that matter) flying straight and level down a runway inspire the next generation? We very much doubt it.

So what next for Odiham’s finest? It’s fair to say that given the limitations now imposed on the team, the 2016 and 2017 routines were nowhere near as dynamic as displays of old from the likes of Flt Lt Paul Farmer or Flt Lt Charlie Brown in the HC2. Does the current display still stir the crowd? To a degree, it does, but we can’t help but feel that a return to a role demonstration would be much better suited to current regulations. We certainly feel that role demos are a much better PR tool than standard displays; just look at what the French are doing with the Rafale and Mirage.

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The Chinook team joined forces with AAC at Cosford a number of years ago for a Medical Emergency Response Team demo. A Chinook was brought in to lift an ‘injured’ soldier while an Apache provided cover. It was an incredible sight and demonstrated the sort of work that the crews had conducted on a regular basis in theatre. Sgt Ashwell mentioned that they’d approached the Apache team to do something similar this year but sadly the diaries never aligned.

2018 will see the Royal Air Force celebrate it’s centenary and according to Flt Lt Holloway, there’s plenty going on behind the scenes to make sure that it’s celebrated in style on the airshow circuit. Whether we’ll see a return of the Chinook display, Chinook role demo or even a wider RAF role demo is all very much unknown at the moment. All we can do is keep our fingers crossed and hope for the best…

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#SupportAirshows

RNAS Yeovilton International Air Day

Written and photographed by Tom Mercer | August 17th 2017


With no Air Day at RNAS Culdrose this year, it was down to the team at RNAS Yeovilton to showcase the very best of the Fleet Air Arm past, present and future, as well as wow the crowd with an impressive array of international participation.

The RNAS Yeovilton International Air Day has been crowned as one of the best attractions in the south west of England for a number of years now and it’s something that the team are exceptionally proud of, and understandably so. Yeovilton is a fantastic location for a naval airshow, it’s the heart of UK Wildcat operations and home to the Commando Helicopter Force; the group responsible for transporting and supporting the elite Royal Marines Commando unit. Air Day gives the general public a rare opportunity to set foot on to a fully operational front-line airfield.

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A Global Affair

RNAS Yeovilton International Air Day has managed to host some exceptional international participants over recent years and this year was no different.

A US Air Force C-17 Globemaster from Joint Air Base Charleston joined was present for the third year running and once again opened up on the Saturday for people to take a look around. However the most exciting thing about this participation was what happened on the arrivals day before the show.

The crew had a slot in the arrivals listing to complete a ‘local sortie’ but it turned out this sortie was something quite special. Rumours were circulating early in the morning that the C-17 was planning a low level run through Wales but no one believed it could actually be true; a C-17 had never been through the mach loop before! An hour after lifting off photos started appearing on social media showing the C-17 land-locked between the hills and when the crew landed back on at RNAS Yeovilton, the crowd clapped in appreciation for what they had just achieved.

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The Royal Danish Air Force F-16, which was making its sole UK appearance this year, flew an incredibly dynamic routine right from the low take off. We’ve seen many an F-16 display over the years but this was in a completely different league; the power and speed at which the entire routine was flown was exceptionally impressive. It’s a huge shame that it won’t be seen again over here this year!

The international theme continued with two displays from the Czech Air Force in the form of the solo Saab Gripen and Aero L-159 ALCA. Both had flown at Air Day previously but this time the ALCA returned with a pairs role demonstration and while not the most interesting routine in the world, it was clear to see how skilled the pilots were with some impressive close-quarter rolling manoeuvres.

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“The routine was laced with noise and speed from the moment it started”

However, when it comes to power and a show of force, you’ve seen nothing until you’ve witnessed the Rafale role demonstration from la Marine Nationale in all its glory. The French Navy fast jet role demonstration has been around for a few years now but it just gets more and more enjoyable each time you see it.

The four-ship with two Super Etendard may not be around anymore but the Rafale pairing is super impressive nonetheless. The routine was laced with noise and speed from the moment it started and both aircraft took to the skies. Fast passes, slow passes, tight turns in formation and solo segments for each aircraft; it really was the gift that kept on giving. The display at Yeovilton has an added bonus as one of the aircraft was the ‘arctic tiger’ schemed air-frame which was painted up for the NATO Tiger Meet earlier in the year.

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Sadly the Danish, Czech and French all flew such stunning displays, the latter especially, that it almost felt like the Royal Air Force Typhoon couldn’t even begin to compete at the same level.

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International visitors were also found in the static park where there was a chance to see Lynx variants from both la Marine Nationale and Danish Naval Air Squadron, an exceptionally rare sight and one that was certainly one of the highlights of the show for us.

Fly Navy

While the foreign participation is always a welcome addition to the flying programme, it’s important to remember that Air Day is the flagship airshow for the Fleet Air Arm and perhaps one of the biggest annual public events for Royal Navy PR and recruitment; inspiring the next generation to join up as soon as they can. With that in mind, it was a massive shame to find that there was a lack of modern Royal Navy aircraft in the air.

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There was of course, as always, the Wildcat Maritime Role Demo which demonstrated the sort of scenarios that Wildcat crews are regularly faced with when deployed around the world. Yeovilton is one of very few places in the UK that allows the use of flares, and this 10 minute routine had plenty of them, even if we very nearly missed capturing them!

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The Merlin HM2 from RNAS Culdrose also put on a superb display which really showed how agile the aircraft can be when required. This is a display that’s sadly seen all too infrequently so it was a pleasure to get to see it again.

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That was pretty much it for the Royal Navy.

For the first time in years the show was without it’s spectacular Commando Assault finale that Air Day has become synonymous with. The ‘Junglie’ Sea King is no more and a much smaller Merlin force is in its place; this meant that there weren’t enough serviceable aircraft available to conduct the war-like scenario in all its glory. The ex-RAF Merlins are currently undergoing conversion to Mk4 standard which will ensure that the medium-lift helicopter is fully marine-capable for all future naval deployments. Having conducted sea trials prior to the show, there was a single Mk4 Merlin on display in it’s new all-grey scheme but this was sadly on static and only really visible to those in the hospitality tents.

There was a similar lack of representation from the historic side of the Fleet Air Arm. The star of the Navy Wings aircraft, the gorgeous de Havilland Sea Vixen, was also unable to take part in the air display due to its unfortunate forced landing earlier in the display season. Recent investigations have shown that the repairs are going to be much more costly and extensive than first thought, with the team predicting that the aircraft will be out of action for at least the next three years. A crying shame indeed but hopefully a project that the aviation community will get fully behind.

Looking to 2018

Given the lack of Royal Navy participation, Air Day 2017 won’t be remembered as a great event for the Force. Having said that, the weak showing from the RN was backed up by some exceptional international visitors.

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RNAS Yeovilton International Air Day had some of the best international displays seen anyway in the UK this year (so far) in the form of the French Rafale pair, Danish F-16 and Patrouille Suisse with their flare-filled finale.

The Commando Assault and its wall of fire was most definitely missed this year so we’ve got everything crossed that it makes a very welcome return in 2018!

#SupportAirshows

Blackbushe 75

Last year a dedicated team got together to organise Blackbushe Air Day; a fairly small event that saw the public welcomed to Blackbushe Airport with a small fly-in, to get a feel for what the airfield was all about. The event was a success and almost as soon as it had finished, rumours started to circulate that Blackbushe wanted to hold an airshow in 2017 to celebrate 75 years of the airfield.

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Blackbushe Airport is steeped in history and has seen its fair share of action over the last 75 years. The airfield was home to Spitfires and Mosquitoes as RAF Hartfordbridge during the Second World War, transformed into an operating hub for multiple cargo carriers and charter companies throughout the 1950s and 1960s, and then when it was purchased by British Car Auctions it became an airport for private, business and executive flights.

The Air Day last year was a big success and it proved an event of that size could quite easily be held at the airport. As with any new event, it had its flaws but there was nothing that couldn’t be easily fixed and it certainly gave those involved the appetite required to organise something bigger and better.

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That was the plan anyway.

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

From the very moment that the rumour was confirmed and a dedicated thread was started on the UK Airshow Review forum, people began to question how an airshow could actually take place at Blackbushe. Those that know the airport well (and the surrounding areas) all knew just how difficult it would be to get a display area cleared by the CAA but time after time when the question was asked, it was completely avoided or confirmed by volunteers involved that an air display was still being planned.

An official website soon went live with a list of anticipated participants but it was never clear as to whether these participants were going to be in the flying display or just the static display; in fact it wasn’t even really clear whether this list was simply a wish list or a confirmed participation list. It was mentioned that the person in charge of the website and social media wasn’t all that ‘tech-savvy’ but in a day and age where people heavily rely on information published online, this was a constant frustration for those trying to work out whether to attend or not.

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The uncertainty surrounding the fully-fledged airshow at Blackbushe continued right up until the Wednesday before the show when it was finally announced that the participation list had been confirmed and plans for a four hour flying display had been approved. Well, that was until the following day when it was then announced that the flying display programme had been cancelled and that instead, the day would see a series of flypasts over the designated four hour period.

Why was there such a massive change at short notice? It’s not too clear but there were plenty of rumours flying around, some regarding the CAA and some the organising team. It would be unfair for us to properly comment on this without knowing the facts so we’ve asked the team to comment and will update this article as soon as we hear from them.

As you would expect, this sudden (and dare we say it, expected) U-turn meant that people were frustrated and understandably so. The event’s legitimacy had been questioned since the very beginning but continually advertised and sold as an airshow throughout with a fairly premium ticket price. To be fair to the team, the change in plan was advertised well on social media and the description on the website quickly changed.

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However when it actually came to the day, there was pretty much no mention of it across the PA system at all. It was as if it was always supposed to be a fly-in. It soon became apparent that not everyone was aware of what was going on when people around us started asking questions as to why they weren’t actually seeing any displays.

While this may all sound a bit ‘doom and gloom’, there were some very interesting participants that turned up on the Saturday including a stunning privately-owned Beech 18 Expeditor 3TM, one of two UK airworthy Antonov An-2s and the ‘City of Exeter’ Spitfire.

As previously mentioned most aircraft on the ground participated in the flying element of the day but the highlight for many was the flypast by the Red Arrows. Blackbushe managed to secure the flypast as the Reds were returning to Farnborough Airport where they had been based for the week for their displays at the Goodwood Festival of Speed. Sadly the announcement to ‘look out’ for the Reds came over the PA system just seconds before they streamed overhead and all too quickly they were in the distance on the turn into Farnborough.

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While there wasn’t a great deal to get excited about in the air, there was plenty to see and do on the ground. One of the highlights on the ground was the area setup by British Airways. The stand was run by a team of volunteers that came from all areas of the airline including engineers and cabin crew, and they really did seem to be enjoying themselves throughout the day. The team had laid on model making, colouring-in, a pretend flight deck (complete with pretend passport and boarding pass) and even the opportunity to do ‘the one thing you’ve always wanted to do but the one thing you never want to do’; that is, inflate a life-vest!

The other massive highlight on the ground was the incredible History Hub, a special building that had been erected to showcase photography and memorabilia from 75 years of continuous operations at Blackbushe. It was so good that it almost felt like it should have been two, maybe even three times the size; it really was exceptional.

The Royal Logistics Corps should also be applauded for the amount of stuff that they brought over to put on display; plenty of ‘heavy’ equipment that’s rarely seen in public.

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A Muted Celebration

Sadly the grand plans for an celebratory airshow at Blackbushe never quite came to fruition and the weekend turned into nothing more than a glorified fly-in. While there were some interesting aircraft on show, the afternoon’s flying left a lot to be desired and sadly left many feeling slightly disgruntled.

This was only made worse on the Saturday afternoon when two buses full of people were left for a long period of time sitting on the taxiway (in the heat) waiting to get to the car park. Somehow the Catalina had been allowed to re-position prior to startup, right into a place that would affect the route to the car park. It turned out to be much, much quicker to walk around the airfield instead.

The biggest question that remains in the back of our head? Just how aware were the team that an airshow was never really going to happen? Was it known for some time or was it really as cutthroat as it seemed? We certainly hope it’s the latter but the lack of clarity throughout the build up doesn’t help our confidence.