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.”