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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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!