Chinook Display Q & A

Towards the end of the display season the Chinook Display Team offered their supporters the opportunity to ask any questions that they may have thought of over the course of the season. The Chinook Display Captain, Flt Lt Stu Kynaston, has answered a selection of these below.

Why is the Chinook Display never on the bill at the two main shows north of the border; East Fortune in July and Prestwick / Ayr in September? – Colin McLeod

The Chinook Display Team do not get to choose themselves which events they attend. A show will submit a bid to Joint Helicopter Command, who collate a provisional schedule for the team. The team then get the opportunity to establish if that schedule is feasible – for example a bid for both Cornwall and Cumbria on the same day cannot be achieved, but they cannot choose shows that haven’t submitted a bid. If there are multiple bids for the same day the team try to find a way of achieving them all, but if this can’t be done they will then a decision will be made based on practicalities.

In 2017 the team were set to display at East Fortune, but the weather meant that the display was cancelled. In 2018 the team were bid for, but the event organisers withdrew their bid prior to the show.

Prestwick bid for the Chinook Display this year, but the event falls on the same weekend as the Bournemouth Air Festival, and therefore the team could only be allocated to one event. At the time the team were expecting to be displaying at East Fortune, and that, coupled with the RAF Events Team (who allocate the fixed wing displays) having allocated the Typhoon Display to Prestwick, meant that Bournemouth won the bid for the Chinook Display.

It will be passed to the 2019 team and Joint Helicopter Command that Scotland has not had a display for a couple of years, and that will be fed in to the planning process, but I, as the 2018 captain, cannot say if the team will be allocated to a Scottish show next year.

What does it take to be in the Display Team? How many hours of flying the Chinook do you need? Dawn Rhodes

There is no minimum number of flying hours specified to conduct display flying. All display crews however are very experienced pilots, and will generally have in excess of 1500 hours. The Chinook Display Team are volunteers, and at the end of a display season the Squadron Commander will invite requests for the following year. He is not just looking at a candidate’s flying ability, but also their suitability for media work and engagement – the flying is just a small part of what the team will do throughout a season. The captain will usually be confirmed first, with the remainder of the team shortly afterwards.

What emotions do you go through the very first time you fly a Chinook? – Gillian Snell

The first time I flew the Chinook I remember being in shock at the size of it. The start of the Chinook conversion takes place in the classroom (ground school) and the simulator, which is just a cockpit rather than a full aircraft, and you don’t get the sense of scale that you find in the live aircraft. I remember turning over my shoulder and seeing this enormous cabin disappearing towards the back, with the crewman looking tiny down on the ramp. You realise just how vast the Chinook is!

Once airborne it is easy to lose sight of how large the aircraft is – the view from the cockpit is surprisingly restricted and the aircraft handles so well that it doesn’t feel like a large aircraft. I remember then getting very used to the size of the Chinook, and it was only when I saw a training aircraft parked next to one a few months later that I was recalibrated!

What is it like going from the first time you ever try to fly the display to the last shows of the season? Is there a big difference in how you view the flying or how you plan for it? – David Franklin

It’s quite a journey! The start of the display workup was really challenging, as a lot of the manoeuvres were either brand new for the display, or flown to really fine margins compared to normal, so a one hour practice sortie was exhausting. The first time I sat through the display sequence I was grinning like mad, whilst wondering how I would manage to do it! After a couple of weeks I had learnt all the individual manoeuvres, and started linking them together. This was really good fun, but again hard work, as suddenly it became even more important to exit a manoeuvre on the right parameters. I remember my first full sequence – it was incredible but also mentally exhausting. I couldn’t believe it had only been 12 mins – I felt like I’d been flying for hours!

From Public Display Authority (PDA) onwards there is very little difference in the flying. PDA is the benchmark for the season – that is a really polished and perfected sequence, flown at the end of a very intense workup. From this point forwards I would drop to sometimes just one show a week, rather than every day, and that was challenging. There are no warmups for a public show – you’re straight into performing to the public regardless of whether you displayed that morning or a week ago. Across the season the flight data is monitored to ensure that the display is still being flown to the correct standard, and complacency hasn’t set it. It would be very easy to just ‘find a little more’ each week but then you risk breaching PDA, aircraft limits and the professional standards expected from the team. It is these reasons that mean the first and last shows of the season will look the same, with the same planning and preparation. The only difference really is that having done many more displays, it does get easier, so there is more scope to enjoy the show and take in the view!

What does it feel like to be selected as a display crew? Have you all enjoyed flying together and were you crewed together before the year or is it just for display? Sue Pearce

Being selected for display duties brought a wide range of emotions. Firstly, I was immensely proud – there is only one Chinook Display captain each year, and to be chosen to represent the Chinook Force as the display captain was a huge honour. There was also excitement – with the RAF Centenary this year I knew it was going to be an incredibly busy year, and that there would be great opportunities available throughout the season. I also had a sense of nervousness though, as it is a very different style of flying from what I had done previously, and the standard required to achieve a Public Display Authority is very high.  As the season draws to a close, it is something that I will look back on with pride, with some amazing memories from what has been an incredible season.

Unless deployed on operations we tend not to fly with a constituted crew on the Chinook Force. In the UK you will generally fly with a different crew on every sortie, so to have a dedicated crew for the display season has been really good. We had flown with each other prior to the season, but not so regularly, and I think I speak for all of us when I say that we’ve really enjoyed it, and spending so much time together has certainly made us much closer than we were at the start of the year. Working together so closely really builds trust in each other, and everyone can rely on each other to be doing the right thing at the right time, even without being asked to, which is really important in the high workload environment that is display flying.

The Typhoon Team seem to fly displays all over Europe. I realise you can’t travel as quickly or as far perhaps, but is there ever an appetite to bring the display to those of us in now rooted inside the EU? – Alexander Greet

The Chinook Display has been involved with overseas shows in the past, and were planning to do some in the 2018 season too. Having conducted a Role Demonstration in Berlin in April, the team were set to travel to southern France for a full display in June, though a lack of available Mk6a aircraft meant that the team sadly had to withdraw from that show. There were also bids for the team during September, but the team had to call the season to an end earlier than they would have liked in order to return to operational training overseas – the day after the final show, the team deployed to the USA to join a desert environmental exercise in preparation for operations next year.

Whilst we don’t travel as quickly as the Typhoon, a lot of the northern European shows are actually closer to our home than some of the UK shows! More foreign shows are certainly something that we will look to include in future seasons should the balance with operational output allow us to.

Designing a Display Masterpiece

Written and photographed by Tom Mercer and Flt Lt Andy Donovon | 16th May 2018

Helmets adorned with custom designs are a relatively common thing to behold in the world of military aviation, especially in the display world, but few come in as elaborate a form as the 2018 Chinook Display helmets and even less are replicated seven times!

The Chinook Display crews have for many years flown with painted helmets but these have tended to be simple in nature and consisting of stripes of the British National or Squadron colours. For the RAF100 season the team felt that the time was right to produce something quite staggering, not only to celebrate the milestone but also to showcase the talents of RAF Odiham personnel in delivering projects of this nature. The Station has abundant amounts of experience in the field of decorating aircraft to celebrate big anniversaries in recent years but with an off-Station committee directing what markings were to be applied to a Chinook airframe for RAF100 the team turned their attention towards celebrating with their helmets…and what a result!

RAF Odiham’s Station Commander, Group Captain Lee Turner, has been incredibly supportive of the display team since he and 27 Squadron selected the crew late last year. When shown the design for the helmets he gave the project his backing and that paved the way for 27’s safety equipment specialists to start stripping down the electronics from redundant Mk4 helmets ready for the paint bay to begin their work. Luckily, with upgraded helmets now arriving in service at Odiham, there was an excess stock of the older type which enabled the project.

Leading the paint bay team at Odiham is Mr James Littlejohn, who learned his trade in the days when the RAF had its own painters and finishers. Now contracted out to Serco, the facility at Odiham is a busy one so James agreed to assist the team in his own spare time. It was December 2017 when the helmets arrived into the bay, making it a 6-month project from start to finish! Asking James about the RAF100year, he was clearly keen to play his part:

“As and ex-RAF serviceman, to be involved in such a significant milestone as the RAF100 display has been a real honour. This project was one of the biggest challenges I’ve undertaken to-date, due to the size and intricacy of the task. However I could see right from the start that this was going to be very rewarding for me personally. I’ve always relished being challenged and to work along side Flight Lieutenant Andy Donovan again, who has led us to produce four huge paint designs on Odiham-based aircraft in recent years, I knew it was a team to make this a memorable event. The icing on the cake was being asked to carry out such a special design on his crew’s helmets for each member of the prestigious display team!”

The helmet was designed by team co-pilot Flt Lt Andy Donovan and incorporates the eagle from the Royal Air Force crest as it’s biggest feature. Amazingly, when you stand close to it you realise that it’s white details are further embellished with black shadows behind which is quite beautiful but must have been incredibly fiddly to do once, let alone seven times! So why seven? As we know there are three pilots and three crewmen qualified on the display routine but another helmet has been painstakingly crafted for this year’s display manager; the intent being that it will be made available for people to view at air shows whenever the team is able to achieve a ground footprint. They certainly look impressive in photos but up-close they really are a sight to behold. James Littlejohn is certainly pleased with how they have turned out:

“I have no words for the end result that would do the final product justice. I put my heart and soul into each display helmet to make sure they were identical and each as special as another. I’ve lost count of the hours of my own time that I put into them, including one 12-hour stint and a midnight finish along side Andy last Christmas to make sure the eagles were perfectly applied. Each helmet has its own unique challenges as not one is the same as another and had to be uniquely masked, adding hours of time. We couldn’t account for this but it made the final product even more special and that is one aspect people won’t ever see! I am just happy it has brought so much happiness to the crew on this special year. I also can’t forget my team who supported me along the way and helped with masking and delicate touches, just when you needed that boost they were there to help me out and I couldn’t ask for a better team.”

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!