Written and photographed by Tom Mercer | July 22nd 2016
Each summer RNAS Yeovilton, home of the Commando Helicopter Force, hosts the Royal Navy’s flagship show. Air Day has gathered quite a following over the years and is regarded by many as one of the best airshows in the UK due to the explosive set pieces and fine array of international participation.
RNAS Yeovilton International Air Day has traditionally been a two-day event with a smaller event on the Friday and the main airshow on the Saturday. This year was no different but the Friday event was re-branded as ‘Arrivals Day’ rather than the historic ‘Photocall’.
Up until 2014 the ‘Photocall’ had allowed spectators to watch the arrivals and display validations from an on-site enclosure and then photograph some of the static exhibits in the early evening with minimal surrounding clutter but due to a regulations change that year, validations were no longer able to take place while paying spectators were present. The 2015 show kept the ‘Photocall’ name and led many to believe that they’d still be able to capture the static exhibits once the arrivals had finished mid-afternoon but this wasn’t the case. Quick changes and a slight lack of communication had caused confusion among spectators and most were left feeling disappointed at the end of the day. It’s good then that the new ‘Arrivals Day’ did exactly what it said on the tin and people were able to witness the arrivals up until late afternoon when the airfield was closed for display validations.
The airfield was opened to the public at just gone 09:00 under gorgeously blue skies and soon people were marching quickly towards the fence to grab their place on the crowd line.
Stars of the Static
After their welcome return to last year’s show, the USAF and their C-17 were invited back to RNAS Yeovilton. The US Air Force Reserve crew of The 315th Airlift Wing flew their C-17 straight in from Joint Base Charleston, South Carolina and took up their spot on the Somerset tarmac.
The C-17 was open to everyone on the Saturday and saw a steady flow of visitors all day long with queues stretching a couple of hundred people at times. While on board we spoke to the crew and they couldn’t believe just how many people were genuinely interested in them; coming to the UK for airshows was apparently something that most servicemen hope to do at least once in their career as the reception and atmosphere is unlike anything in the US.
Several European countries also contributed to Air Day’s static display. Some of the favourites included the Belgian Air Component and Dutch Air Force F-16s, the German Air Force with their aging Transall (a rare sight which gave a phenomenal low flypast on the Friday) and Tornado IDS, and the Polish Navy with a specially marked M-28 Bryza.
The Textron AirLand Scorpion Jet also returned for it’s second appearance at Air Day in as may years. Fingers crossed we may see this in a UK flying display some time in the next couple of years as the aircraft has recently been selected by Qinetiq and Thales as their favoured replacement for the current Alpha Jet and Hawk test beds.
International Air Displays
Yeovilton once again attracted a number of international participants for the flying display.
Team Orlik, named after the native single-engine turboprop PZL-130 Orlik trainer they fly, represented Poland in the afternoon’s display programme with a well choreographed formation routine.
The routine consisted of formation flypasts before splitting into two sections, allowing a pairs sequence to take centre stage. While the flying was of a very high quality, the large radius that the team displayed in didn’t really lend itself to the Yeovilton display line and more often than not, the team felt very distant from crowd centre.
The Royal Jordanian Falcons made their annual trip to Yeovilton to kick-start the UK leg of their European tour. The Falcons have been flying at UK shows for years now and their commitment to our airshow circuit simply has to be applauded. Each display is flown with such precision and prestige but it has to be said that the four-ship Extra 300 L routine is becoming a little stale and is in need of a refresh. While a single display is entertaining, for those of us that have been watching them for many years it’s difficult to see what changes are made (if any) year on year.
The undeniable international star, and perhaps the star item of the entire show, was the Aéronavale role demonstration. The French Naval Aviation role demo team were invited back for 2016 after their stunning four-ship display last year. Sadly the Super Etendard was retired from service within the last two weeks so the team has been reduced to just a pair of Dassault Rafale M aircraft.
The Rafale pair took off with full afterburner before carrying out a number of close formation ‘dirty’ passes showing the strengthened undercarriage and arrestor hook. The two aircraft separated for the second half of their routine and roared into life, the sound of reheat reverberated through the crowd and sent shivers down the spine; for several long minutes the Rafales absolutely owned the Somerset sky. The French have proven, more than once, that fast jets can work together to produce a thoroughly captivating role demonstration and to see two aircraft like this tearing up the airfield was a real treat. It’s such a shame that the RAF don’t display their aircraft like this anymore, after all, the Tornado Role Demonstration Team was a massive hit with the public.
Even with everything else going on around you, it’s hard to forget that this is the Royal Navy’s flagship event and what better place is there to launch a new Navy initiative?
Navy Wings was launched at Air Day and represents the very best of historic naval aviation. The pre-existing structure of the Fly Navy Heritage Trust (FNHT) and Royal Navy Historic Flight (RNHF) was already confusing enough with many not knowing the differences between the two, and while the new venture is a fantastic idea, it does muddy things even further. The Navy Wings Collection (now bear with us) incorporates all aircraft from the FNHT and RNHF plus additional privately owned historic naval aircraft that are now associated with but do not directly benefit from funds raised by the charity. Confused?
Representing Navy Wings was a privately owned Westland Wasp, the RNHF Swordfish and the collection’s flagship de Havilland Sea Vixen.
The Sea Vixen display is incredible with just the right amount of speed and noise; the routine is so photogenic that it actually feels as though it was choreographed with a photographer in mind.
Due to it’s size and uniqueness (the only flying type in the world), the Sea Vixen really does have the potential to capture the public’s heart like the Vulcan did but this relies heavily on Navy Wings’ marketing team. While VTTS are looking for funding to restore a Canberra to flight, a project that is several years away from completion, you can donate to Navy Wings now and ensure that aircraft like the Sea Vixen are kept in the air for as long as possible.
Over the years Air Day has become synonymous with it’s masterful set pieces; mass helicopter displays with lots of pyrotechnics and this year was no different.
The Lynx HMA.8 is retiring next March so the Maritime Patrol Force role demonstration was one of the final chances for the general public to see the aircraft doing what it was designed to do.
The display consisted of two Lynx and two Wildcat helicopters, working together to contain a threat at sea. The role demo was dynamic and the fantastic commentary that accompanied the display meant that you were always looking in the right direction when something was happening. The Lynx HMA.8 will be missed by many when it’s gone; no matter how advanced the Wildcat is on the battlefield, it just doesn’t have the charm of it’s predecessor.
Air Day climaxed and came to a close in the only way it knows how to, with a huge gathering of helicopters! You may think that once you’ve seen one Commando Assault, you’ve seen them all but you couldn’t be more wrong.
Once again the organisers and participants had managed to put a new spin on the Assault’s scenario. Although the fundamentals of the narrative remained the same, the way in which the story played out was slightly different. The display opened with insurgents storming the airfield and taking an innocent party hostage, while the rotary elements (six Merlin, two Wildcat and a single Apache) headed towards the front line to engage the enemy.
To see this many helicopters in the air at the same time is always an incredibly impressive sight and the organisation that goes on behind the scenes to make sure each wave of aircraft arrives at just the right time has to be admired.
Merlins flew Royal Marine Commandos into the area and they fought valiantly to take back the airfield, fast air was called in to take out fortified enemy positions, and military assets dropped in by further Merlins all while the Apache provided top cover. The Marines played a bigger part than ever in this year’s routine and it saw them coming right up to the crowd line, enabling everyone to see them up close.
With all rotary assets, Marines and support crew all lined up in front of the crowd, there was only one thing left…
Best of the Rest
Rich Goodwin opened the show in style with a superb display of complex aerobatics in his heavily modified Pitts S2S, nicknamed the ‘Muscle Biplane’. The current routine is fantastic and full of energy but according to the Goodwin it’s still not exciting enough. Next year, if all goes to plan and the team achieve technical sign-off from all relevant authorities, the aircraft will have up to three small but very powerful jet engines attached to it!
The OV-10 and MiG-15 were both flown with much grace but both routines felt too high and too distant for much of the display, especially the MiG-15 due to its smaller size.
The French weren’t the only ones to bring noise to the afternoon’s proceedings as they were joined by the Royal Air Force Typhoon Display Team and Army Air Corps Apache Helicopter Display Team.
The Typhoon has long been a favourite with the public, mainly because it makes so much noise and looks great being thrown about the sky, and it certainly didn’t disappoint at Air Day.
After a thoroughly impressive display season last year, the Apache returned with it’s pyro-heavy role demonstration but the solo display just didn’t feel as dynamic as the two-ship routine we got so used to seeing. It’d be great to see the Apache routine evolve into a British Army role demonstration with ground-based assets such as the Jackal and possibly even the Challenger II getting involved but it’s all very much a pipe dream!
The flying display also saw the Yeovilton debut of the two-ship Gazelle Squadron display team which is still very much in its infancy but one that’s looking to expand to a four-ship routine next year. As well as the Gazelle pair, the Red Arrows also made a very welcome return.
Still the Best in the West
RNAS Yeovilton International Air Day was undoubtedly a massive success again this year and it’s easy to understand why. With superb display items on show in the air and crews providing a hands-on, interactive experience throughout the static park, Air Day really was a fantastic day out for the whole family. The explosive set pieces are well worth the entry fee alone and will keep us coming back year after year! The show is not only the flagship airshow of the Royal Navy but it is also one of the best in the south-west.