The Journey to PDA

Written and photographed by Tom Mercer | 11th May 2018

Planning for the 2018 RAF Chinook Display Team started much earlier than usual, with the first discussions and decisions being made as early as December 2017. The team were keen to make sure that all the administrative work was completed as soon as possible so that the foundations for the display season could be bedded in sooner rather than later.

For 2018, the RAF’s centenary year, the Chinook Display Team is crewed by members of 27 Squadron from RAF Odiham. Unlike other RAF display teams, the Chinook Display utilises operational crews and operational aircraft; the display is very much a secondary role. In comparison, the Red Arrows are a dedicated full-time display team and as such have a dedicated pool of aircraft solely for display purposes; for the duration of the display season the team’s primary role is to maintain display currency and entertain crowds both here and abroad.

The UK Chinook Force is a front-line helicopter unit controlled by Joint Helicopter Command (JHC) and is constantly on high readiness to be deployed anywhere around the world at short notice. Just last year a number of aircraft were deployed to the Caribbean within a matter of days to assist with the Hurricane Irma relief effort and just prior to their season starting, members of the 2018 team and others were scrambled overnight to assist the civilian authorities in Cumbria after heavy snowfall. Some were also detached on a major UK tactics exercise at RAF Leeming until the week before the work-up period commenced so the tempo was high right up to the word ‘go’ on display activity.

Crown Copyright 2017

The 2018 display team was selected by the Officer Commanding 27 Squadron and RAF Odiham’s Station Commander before the year had even begun. Amongst the initial work to enable the display, the team were faced with a challenge that needed to be resolved before anything else could happen. 2018 was to be the first year in which the HC6A variant of the aircraft was to be used and with this came complications. The Chinook timeline is a complicated one but to keep it simple, the HC6A is effectively an upgrade of what were originally HC1 airframes in 1978 or HC2A airframes delivered in the 1990s.

The paperwork that is used to certify that a Chinook aircraft is approved for flight is known as its Release to Service, or simply RTS, and as the HC6A is ultimately an upgrade of an older model with the addition of a new digital automatic flight control system, this rather changed the playing field. From an engineering standpoint this was, in some respects, a new aircraft being put forward for display duties. Limitations that once applied to the HC1 in 1978 and carried through to HC2 and HC4 upgrades had to be analysed to re-validate things such as rate of climb, maximum angles of bank or pitch up and down. Work then needed to be done to prove continued validity of such limits on the HC6A or suggest amendment or removal in certain cases. With this work complete the HC6A was accepted for UK service but the impact on the display task, which operates the aircraft to the edge of its flight envelope, had to be fully digested to ensure that this more extreme mode of flying was still within the scope of the RTS. Only then could the flying start…!

While the team had been selected early on, it’s not just a case of jumping in the aircraft and starting to fly the display straight away. The display routine was discussed at length before the team crewed-in for the first time with 2017 Display Captain Flt Lt Andy Smith from 18(B) Squadron and both supervisor and display captain attended a display symposium early in 2018 to take on board lessons from all UK display teams which had been learned the previous year.

On 26 March, after much preparation, the 27 Squadron crew began flying individual manoeuvres at 200ft above the ground at RAF Odiham with Flt Lt Smith in the co-pilot’s seat, to build Flt Lt Kynaston’s familiarity and handling finesse through each move. The new co-pilots then began to deliver their ‘patter’ of aircraft parameters from the jump seat – a steep learning curve to verbalise all of the required data clearly and quickly in a rapidly changing environment. As each practice session was completed, elements of the routine were improved upon until eventually the entire routine came in thirds and then fully at 200ft. The next step – take it down to just 100ft!

Display practice times are embargoed at RAF Odiham which means that for the designated time period on any given day, no other aircraft movements should occur until practice has been completed. This is hugely important as the crew must have no concerns about other air activity in the area as they build enough experience to be ready for their Public Display Approval (PDA), when Commander Joint Helicopter Command visits and decides whether he/she is content to approve the display in a public forum. It’s fair to say however that even when the display practices are booked in well in advance, not everything always goes to plan. Due to the operational commitments of the UK Chinook Force, things can change at a moment’s notice and aircraft availability may mean that the team cannot get up for practice when they had originally planned to.

The Squadron’s movements for the day are laid out on a big whiteboard with magnetic notes detailing crews, flight times, embargoes and aircraft availability. Along with a system that tracks similar information for the other Squadrons at Odiham, this all comes together to form a complex timetable that, for the most part, remains fairly static. However, if an aircraft goes unserviceable on start-up and the rectification work is expected to take hours rather than minutes, you could be mistaken for thinking that the whiteboard has turned into some sort of strategic board game as tiles begin to move and the various ‘players’ begin discussing priorities with the airframes that are left.  

The key questions were asked – which flights, if any, could be shuffled around to free up an aircraft for practice? Even if an aircraft was identified, would it have enough hours left on the clock to be used for the display practice? Regular engineering checks are carried out after a set number of flying hours and more in-depth investigations are conducted post-display flights which again has an impact on other sorties looking to utilise the airframe afterwards. Further taxing the planners is the requirement for the display airframe to be an HC6A.

The UK Chinook fleet consists of a mix of HC4, HC5, HC6 and HC6A aircraft, split between three squadrons at RAF Odiham and one at RAF Benson, and individual aircraft are assigned to specific squadrons. It is therefore possible on a given day for 27 Squadron to have no more serviceable HC6As available if others are undergoing maintenance if the display primary suffers an issue on start. At times a call to their sister unit, 18(B) Squadron, occurs and the question is asked whether 27 can borrow an HC6A for the day or for the sortie alone. 27 Squadron may have plenty of serviceable HC5s of HC6s but due to the different configurations the engineering foundation required across the various authorities in the UK would be immense to confirm that these are appropriate for display flying. There are other far higher priority efforts on-going which make this unrealistic. So if 18 Squadron has an HC6A assigned to a flight but the tasking could use any type of Chinook, an aircraft swap can sometimes be arranged within a matter of hours, putting the team back in the air.

Early on in the work-up the display is not necessarily of the highest importance in comparison to other tasks but when PDA draws closer and Odiham has wall-to-wall sunshine, it can be frustrating for the team to be stuck on the ground without an aircraft to practice in. Imagine going on holiday somewhere exotic only to get there and be told that you must stay inside for the duration of your trip; picture those levels of frustration and you’re probably close to the feeling of being stood in front of that whiteboard at the time. Even when the display does ‘win’ in such a scenario, it is likely at the cost of another training sortie that has taken hours to plan by another crew.

This is just one of the many challenges that the team have faced on their journey to PDA but these challenges have been overcome every single time. As if that’s not enough, during the build-up to the start of the display season, the team have made a number of appearances at PR events up and down the country, deployed to the ILA Berlin air show for a week to provide a role demonstration rather than a full display and Stu Kynaston somehow found the time to run the grueling Marathon Des Sables in the Moroccan desert to raise money for the RAF 100 appeal – if you’d like to donate then please click here.

With Flt Lt Smith deeming the new 2018 display safe at 100ft, he stepped out and completed his handover to 27 Squadron. On 3 May the new crew flew alone for the first time, back at 200ft initially and then stepped down to 100ft again during a sortie that same afternoon. The first full linked routine happened on 8 May and the final run-up to PDA began.

The 2018 display season is set to be a busy one with over 25 appearances currently booked in the diary. If you see the display team at an event over the summer then please come and say hello! The team are going to make sure that the RAF centenary is celebrated in style with plenty of blade-slap!