Centenary Flight Finally Takes Off

Written and photographed by Tom Mercer | October 1st 2016

On Wednesday 14th September, after more than six months in the planning, the three centenary scheme Chinooks finally came together for a one-off celebratory flight; departing from RAF Odiham for a photographic tour of Southern of England.

Before 2015 the Royal Air Force went more than 25 years without painting a special commemorative scheme on a Chinook aircraft. Turn the clock forward by 18 months and the UK Chinook Force now has a trio of them; each celebrating 100 years of three key Squadrons.

It seems like just yesterday that the first of the three, the 18 (B) Squadron Chinook, rolled out of the Serco paint shop and was presented to the media at RAF Odiham. It was back in May 2015 when the whole centenary project became a reality and since then it’s just got bigger and bigger; 27 Squadron quickly joined the team with ‘Nellie’ and then earlier this year, 28 Squadron at RAF Benson with their brightly coloured offering. All three specials were designed and painted by the same team; Flt Lt Andy Donovan handled the design work and approvals process while the extremely talented team at Serco brought the designs to life.

As soon as the team knew that there would be three special scheme Chinooks, plans were put in motion to get all of them together for a very special photographic flight to commemorate the occasion.

The initial flight was scheduled for late May but at very short notice the flight was scrubbed. The RAF Chinook fleet is in demand around the globe so it’s easy to understand that a flight of this nature might fall to the bottom of the ‘to-do’ list. Flt Lt Donovan started to analyse Squadron diaries and the team worked as hard as they could to reschedule the flight as soon as possible but operational commitments and aircraft serviceability meant that the earliest it could all be rescheduled for was September 15th.

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“We were determined that if this flight ever happened, we would do this properly and we knew this would require lots of planning. We had to consider the potential for less than ideal weather in September and ensure we had a backup option if conditions weren’t favourable.” said Flt Lt Donovan, “Our main focus was on developing an unrestricted profile so we could maximize opportunities if we got lucky. I began by analysing sun bearings and elevations in the week selected and then planned a route that hit some stunning UK landmarks whilst keeping us orientated correctly on each leg;  ensuring illumination of both the aircraft and backdrops simultaneously. We operate in some of the most congested airspace in the world in Southern England so all of this had to fit around that too.”

With less than a week to go everything was looking good but at the last minute the Met Office forecasts alluded to a possible front coming in on the day of the flight which would ultimately lead to less than ideal conditions. The team at RAF Odiham made the call to reschedule the flight for the Wednesday, a day that by the look of it was going to be wall-to-wall sunshine all day long. Good news; the engineers now had 24 hours less notice to deliver but everything was theoretically ready to go, including the Lynx AH.9 photo-ship that was kindly provided by 657 Squadron.

So finally, on Wednesday September 14th, after two scrubbed flights and countless challenges in between, the three commemorative Chinooks assembled at RAF Odiham and took off together for a very special centenary flight.

It’s easy to see that RAF Odiham have put a lot of hard work into getting these special schemes signed off but the truth of the matter is that none of it would have been possible without the highly skilled team at Serco, the true unsung heroes of the entire centenary project.

“It was a memorable day for not only me personally but for the small team at Odiham Paintshop to finally see the three historic art work pieces displayed in all their glory; having been hand-crafted with many hours of blood, sweat and tears by such a small team” said James Littlejohn, “To be finally recognised after over a year of waiting was a momentous occasion and was the final piece in our puzzle.”

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“My small team worked relentlessly to make this magic happen and I couldn’t have done it without them. They are incredible and to produce this, with myself leading as the only one with major experience, and the four others from my team with limited to none on anything of this scale or difficulty is nothing short of amazing. We did not stop until every line was perfect and every inch of the aircraft were symmetrical.”

The team at Odiham had little choice but to keep this flight on the down-low for a number of reasons. Firstly, there was no guarantee that all four aircraft would start without a snag which may have ultimately cancelled the sortie and left a lot of people disappointed. Secondly though, there were fears that excessive crowds may gather at the planned landing sites and with that would come a possibly unacceptable level of risk. The rules and regulations surrounding public shows are quite rightly strict and with that in mind, this had to be approached professionally and cautiously.

In the aviation community, keeping something of this scale quiet is next to impossible, however a small group of enthusiasts had managed to piece together little bits of information and took a gamble on the fact that the flight might turn up on SPTA but it wasn’t clear from the NOTAM where this would be. These guys know the Plain inside out and thought that one of the most likely places for a flight of this size to arrive would be on Everleigh Drop Zone…and they were right! 

Mr Ian Harding is a regular contributor to the UK military aviation press and, living locally to Odiham, was lucky enough to be invited to the launch. He later commented on the day’s preceedings:

“It is extremely difficult to sum up the historical importance of the events I witnessed on Wednesday both at RAF Odiham and later that evening at Everleigh Drop Zone on Salisbury Plain. Having spent almost 50 years following aviation in many guises, I can honestly say I have witnessed few events which match the sight of the three Odiham and Benson special painted Chinooks appearing from behind Sidbury Hill silhouetted against a descending but golden sun. It was indeed a ‘wow’ moment which heightened when all three aircraft returned with the sun now illuminating their anniversary markings like never before. During a week of national remembrance encapsulated by the ‘poppy’ at the head of the 18 Squadron cab, the formation`s slow initial descent was movingly poignant. Six months of preparation by so many people; senior officials, aircrew, engineers, media etcetera, and it had been nailed perfectly. Even the weather behaved!”

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“What helped make this event special and distinguish it from many is that the crews obviously made the call to route their formation to the Plain in the hope that photographers and walkers who visit Everleigh and the local area frequently would be around and hence have the opportunity to witness this brief moment of history. I can only imagine the positivity this generated in the air when they looked down to see people gazing at them. Everyone waited to see what the aircrew would do before sensibly positioning themselves having noticed by now that an RAF photographer was in attendance and positioned. Everyone behaved impeccably. The sense of anticipation for us as each aircraft then shared the lead at the head of a ‘triangular’ formation; 28 Squadron, then 27 and finally 18, before finally stacking, was intense. It was 30 minutes of unbridled joy.”

Photography Courtesy of RAF Odiham. Crown Copyright 2016.
Photography Courtesy of RAF Odiham. Crown Copyright 2016.

“There was an emotional and moving sense of occasion throughout which was enhanced by the history and relevance of each aircraft’s anniversary scheme. With the sun descending, each provided a glowing but appropriate tribute to 100 years of operational service from each squadron. Wednesday for all sorts of reasons, was the perfect way to bring them together and focus minds on this. Ultimately, a century of anything should be celebrated and it has been done well. Miss the opportunity…and it is lost forever. The image of these three Chinooks together will make people smile within military circles and outside for years to come. You cannot put a price on that! As the three aircraft departed Everleigh’s overhead for the final time, those fortunate to witness the formation simply looked to the sky and clapped, which summed the mood up perfectly.”

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Having conducted a flight over some spectacular landmarks, the four-ship flight returned to base at just gone 1800 hours with the job well and truly completed. On this occasion everything paid off and as you can see from some of the work featured in this article, the photographic team at RAF Odiham captured some spectacular imagery; they really are a team to be reckoned with.

Centenary Flight done!