Written and photographed by Tom Mercer | July 1st 2016
Airshows at Shuttleworth are normally all about the based aircraft and usually only a few external display acts are booked for each show, however that wasn’t the case with the recent Fly Navy event at Old Warden which presented the very best of our naval aviation past.
Since whispers of the Fly Navy show surfaced last year, people were trying to work out exactly what such an event at Old Warden would look like and how well the theme would be used. As the weeks went by and participating acts were confirmed, the Fly Navy display programme quickly became extremely exciting; there’s no doubt about it, the organisers were super keen to take a trip down memory lane and indulge in vintage naval aviation. Fly Navy was tipped by many to be one of the best displays of the year.
All at Sea
As always at Old Warden, the flying display didn’t start until early afternoon which meant that there was plenty of time to check out what was going on around the airfield. The Fly Navy event was partly organised by the Fly Navy Heritage Trust and Royal Navy which meant that it was the perfect opportunity for them to show off some of their latest equipment in the form of a Merlin Mk2, Lynx HMA.8 and the Scan Eagle UAV.
Due to its close proximity to parked vehicles, the Merlin had to fly in on the Saturday so sadly there was no flying to be seen from the RNAS Culdrose team. It’s easy to see just how valuable a PR tool airshows are to our armed forces, as throughout the day people were queuing up to speak to the crew and learn all about the Merlin.
The Lynx was a big addition to the show and although it was only scheduled to be on static display, it’s location on the airfield meant that unlike the Merlin, it’d be flying in during the show. The Lynx is becoming a rare sight in public as the force is gradually reduced in size, ready for it’s retirement from service next March, so to see this outside RNAS Yeovilton was a real treat. The Lynx departed mid-afternoon which meant that the it’d be flying in the best light of the day; missing most of the Chipmunk display to capture it was well worth it.
With the current Royal Navy types on the ground, it was time to start the show and what better way to begin the afternoon than with a flypast from two icons of British Naval aviation; the Shuttleworth Sea Hurricane and Fly Navy Heritage Trust Sea Vixen.
The Sea Vixen (and more than 80 tonnes of spare parts) was acquired by the FNHT back in 2014 when Julian Jones of DS Aviation sold it to the team for the grand total of £1. It’s fair to say that ‘Foxy’, as she is affectionately known as by her loyal fans, has become the crown jewel of the Trust and is loved by enthusiasts all over. The Sea Vixen isn’t usually ready until much later in the year, normally making it’s first display of the year at RNAS Yeovilton International Air Day, so it was a great privilege to see it above Old Warden and making full use of the curved display line. Some in the industry thought that it wouldn’t be possible for another aircraft to capture the public’s imagination like the Vulcan did but Sea Vixen may just be that aircraft. Incredible.
The Hurricane went off to hold and join up with another visiting aircraft; the beautiful Seafire Mk III. The pair flew on to the display line in a very tight formation and gave a number of passes together before breaking off into their own routines.
The Sea Hurricane is flown during almost every airshow at Old Warden but this was the first time that this Seafire had displayed there. The Sea Hurricane is on home turf at Shuttleworth and knows exactly how to make full use of the unique display line; sadly the same cannot be said for the Seafire. The fighter was flown in an incredibly graceful manner but for most of the display felt too far away and seemed to stick to a straight line. For some reason the display slot was much longer than normal which meant that the Seafire had a lot of time to kill and had we had last years regulations, this wouldn’t have been a problem but at the distance it was flown at, unusually for a warbird it just seemed to go on and on.
Having seen Terry Martin display the Westland Wasp at Abingdon earlier in the year and knowing roughly what the routine consists of, it was exciting to hear that he’d been displaying at Shuttleworth as the display would offer lots of opportunities to capture the helicopter in front of the farmhouse and surrounding trees. This was something that had already been witnessed when it arrived early morning.
Watching the Wasp being thrown around the sky was very enjoyable and Terry has certainly absolutely nailed the routine. This display works exceptionally well in small, tight display areas so was almost a perfect fit for Old Warden and the freshly cut grass certainly added something different to the routine.
With a number of visiting aircraft out of the way, it was now time for more of the home team to join the party and show just what they had to contribute to the Fly Navy theme.
The Avro Anson joined the Dragon Rapide in the air for a number of formation flypasts. Although these two aircraft may not seem like naval types, both served at some point with the Royal Navy; the Rapide’s military variant, the Dominie was used for radio and navigation training. Sadly the Anson still isn’t using the curve to full extent like it used to so those beautiful sweeping passes are still absent from the routine.
A trio of Hawker biplanes took to the sky next; Shuttleworth’s Demon was joined by a Nimrod from The Fighter Collection and one from the Historic Aircraft Collection. The Nimrod was a great asset in the hands of the Navy and saw active service on board carriers with no less than eight different squadrons before it was replaced by the Gloster Gladiator at the start of World War II. The three biplanes were flown with extreme grace around the bend and although there weren’t any classic topside passes, the routine was still incredibly enjoyable to watch.
This was quickly followed by a couple of other formations; the first made up of four trainer aircraft all of which had a link to the Royal Navy and the second consisted of a Cirrus Moth and a French aircraft we’d not seen before, a beautiful Morane-Saulnier MS.317. The MS.317 is a modified version of the MS.315 and was used by the French Navy to train their naval aviators. Both aircraft are of limited power so were able to display fairly well within the current CAA guidelines.
It turned out that the Fly Navy show would actually be full of unique formations that haven’t really been seen anywhere else, they just kept coming!
The FNHT Swordfish and Texan were next to get airborne and were to join the Shuttleworth Gladiator for a number of flypasts. As mentioned earlier, the Gloster Gladiator replaced the de Havilland Nimrod in naval service and is an exceptionally maneuverable biplane for it’s era.
W5836 is one of two Fairey Swordfish aircraft operated by the Royal Naval Historic Flight (part of the FNHT) and was developed for the Royal Navy for use in the Second World War. The Swordfish was an effective torpedo bomber and played a vital role in the Battle of Taranto, as well as being responsible for inflicting serious damage on the German battleship Bismarck. She is flown with extreme pride by the RNHF and although it isn’t the most dynamic of displays, it’s always a pleasure to watch.
With the day almost over, it was time for The Fighter Collection to put their stamp on the Fly Navy show. The trio of naval warbirds flew in from Duxford and put on one hell of a show but I’m in two minds as to whether their displays were a perfect fit for Shuttleworth or not.
Old Warden is a phenomenal venue for a number of reasons; displaying aircraft are usually flown tight to the curved display line, flown with grace and agility, and most aircraft give beautiful topside passes.
The Wildcat, Corsair and Bearcat didn’t really utilise the curve at all. Instead, all three were flown at high speeds and this meant that the associated display distance made the aircraft feel extremely far from the crowd line for 90% of their routines. Now this is going to divide opinion; to see warbirds absolutely tearing up the sky is phenomenal but the displays just didn’t seem to fit with the mantra at Old Warden. Not only this but the displays felt like they hadn’t been tailored to make the most of the current CAA regulations. The noise and sight was fantastic but the overall impression left by The Fighter Collection displays was lacking somewhat.
A Job Well Done
The Fly Navy show may not have been as well attended as the Season Premiere but it was still a resounding success, especially amongst the enthusiast community.
By coming up with a solid theme and completely sticking to it throughout the entire display programme, the Shuttleworth team were able to show that running with a single idea can really work. The structure of the flying programme was almost perfect and with access to the Royal Navy on the ground, it meant that all areas of this show (both in the air and around the airfield) felt like they’d been covered exceptionally well.
What also made this show a success was the fantastic commentary by Be Dunnell, an expert in his field and a voice that is becoming increasingly familiar at shows up and down the country.
If Shuttleworth can come up with a thematic show of this standard just once a season then they’re on to an absolute winner. Fly Navy was an incredible show from start to finish.