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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