Written and photographed by Tom Mercer | June 27th 2017
Fly Navy. Two words synonymous with the Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm. Two words said with such pride by those involved. Two words that represent the past, present and future of our naval air power. Last year the Shuttleworth Collection and Fly Navy Heritage Trust teamed up to put on a very special show showcasing the Fleet Air Arm through the ages and it was such a massive success that the event was run for a second time.
The Fly Navy show at Shuttleworth in 2016 was easily one of the most enjoyable shows of the season, not just at Old Warden but across the entire UK display circuit. It just worked so well; aircraft pulled from the pages of a comprehensive Fleet Air Arm encyclopedia, flown by some exceptional pilots. It really was a show that just kept on giving as the day went on.
It should come as no surprise then that when it was announced that the event would be back in 2017, many were keen to attend again. Shuttleworth had a problem though; how do you improve on an almost perfect event? The answer is fairly simple actually, you try to do the same again but even better!
The star attraction of the flying display, following it’s hugely impressive routine last year, was the stunning Sea Vixen. Or at least that was supposed to be the case. After a successful display at the IWM Duxford Air Festival, a hydraulic failure meant that the gear didn’t come down as expected on approach to RNAS Yeovilton and the aircraft was forced to make a controlled landing.
Upon initial inspection and brief reporting across social media, it didn’t look too bad; it looked as though the external fuel tanks had taken much of the impact. However, as investigations have continued, the situation has worsened and it’s now expected that the aircraft will be out of action for at least two years, and will require extensive repair work. Will we see the Sea Vixen back in the air at all? We certainly hope so and wish the team every bit of luck with the restoration.
Stepping Through Time
The air display programme was once again well organised to give spectators the chance to walk through naval aviation history with both the past and present on show.
The Second World War period was well represented with the collection’s beautiful Hawker Sea Hurricane, Westland Lysander and Avro Anson. Each of these three aircraft graced the skies above Old Warden and more importantly, in a way that was much more familiar to those that attend Shuttleworth regularly. Last year was a year of confusion and this led to some uncharacteristically distant displays by the collection aircraft; however we’re happy to report that things seem to be back to normal for the most part and based aircraft are once again making full use of the curved display line.
The WWII era was a vital period of growth and development for the Fleet Air Arm so it’s only right that it was represented so heavily at Fly Navy. Also joining in with the fun was the Hawker biplane trio, Gloster Gladiator, BBMF Spitfire and Hurricane, Consolidated PBY Catalina, TFC’s Grumman Bearcat and Wildcat pair, and a Shuttleworth debut for the recently restored Hawker Fury. It’s always hugely interesting to see how aircraft designs changed and adapted throughout the Second World War; it really was one of the most progressive times for aviation simply due to the demands that were on the industry at the time.
While each of these aircraft performed brilliant routines and demonstrated the naval theme well, there was one display that stood out much more than anything else. Strangely, the display that stood head and shoulders above the rest was one that we’ve all seen countless times before; the gorgeous Catalina. It was flown with such precision and power; the routine hadn’t changed from the last time we saw it but the team on board absolutely nailed every element of the display. It was simply breathtaking at times!
It wasn’t all about fixed wing aircraft of course. Modern day naval aviation was represented by a Merlin Mk2 and Wildcat HMA2 from RNAS Culdrose and RNAS Yeovilton respectively. The Merlin was already in place for the weekend but the Wildcat turned up late morning on the Sunday for everyone to see.
Representing the more historical side of rotary naval aviation was the North Weald based Bell UH-1H Huey and a very rarely seen Westland Wasp from Thruxton. You can’t help but love the sound of the Huey, but the real treat here was the Wasp! We’d not seen this Wasp display before and it was a perfect display for the closeness of Shuttleworth; and against the treeline just looked fantastic!
Of course, you don’t get fighter pilots without training on something before hand. The Fly Navy show made sure that the training section of the Royal Navy’s past was also on show and heading this up was the Navy Wings Chipmunk T.10 and North American T6; the latter of which was flown by the exceptionally talented and experienced John Beattie. The sound of the T6 is unmistakable and while the display itself was nicely flown, it did feel far too distant at times and in the fading light made photography difficult. On the other hand, the Chipmunk routine was as impressive as ever given its size and speed, and was a delight to see.
There were a number of biplane trainers also in the air, namely the Avro Tutor, de Havilland DH.60 Cirrus Moth and DH.60X Moth, all of which complimented the trainer section very nicely.
The Problem with a Sequel
You know when you watch a superb Hollywood blockbuster and in that moment, you think it’s the best film you’ve ever seen? Well how often does a sequel come about that you feel as passionately about? The Dark Knight springs to mind, but sadly the second Fly Navy show was more like Jaws 2; not entirely unnecessary but nowhere near as good as the first time out.
To be fair to Shuttleworth, it wasn’t their fault. The unfortunate mishap with the Sea Vixen meant that the show was without its star item. Many were also looking forward to seeing the Skyraider but sadly that was also unserviceable at the time. With two big acts not appearing, the show had lost a little of its oomph
One thing worth mentioning was the new food and drink vans that were open during the show. It looks like Shuttleworth has invested a decent amount of money in these new outlets but they just didn’t work smoothly enough and for most of the day, the queues were unacceptably long. During the morning it took over 50 minutes to get a bacon roll and 25 minutes to get a coffee in the afternoon. It may be that the team was still getting used to how these new outlets worked so we can only hope this improves at future shows this summer.