Riding The Rollercoaster

Written and photographed by Tom Mercer | September 4th 2017


The RAF Chinook Display Team has been around for a number of years and the team have managed to impress the crowds time and time again with their incredibly dynamic display. When last year’s display team all but disappeared after the Royal International Air Tattoo, many were left wondering as to what had happened to the team and whether we’d ever see anything like it again.

As the UK Chinook Force transitioned from the HC2 to the HC4, it was questionable as to whether we’d ever see a fully dynamic Chinook display again. Whilst the HC4 was more than capable of conducting the same display sequence, much more data than before was being recorded and after testing, this quickly showed certain stresses that were being unnecessarily put on the air frame as a result of display flying. This meant that the display had to be re-thought and certain limits were put in place to stop the unnecessary loads.

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After the team’s display at the 2016 Royal International Air Tattoo, random data samples were submitted to Boeing which showed additional stresses on the air frame and as a result, display flying on the Chinook was halted.

While we were at Odiham late last year, it became apparent that 2016 may have been the last year of the Chinook Display Team, at least in it’s traditional sense. However, over the winter many discussions took place and it was decided that if the routine was flown a certain way, the Chinook Display could return to the airshow circuit in it’s current form. Hooray!

The Chinook Display has been a favourite with airshow-goers for a long time, mainly due to the sheer size of the aircraft and the way that it can be thrown around the sky. The 2017 team comprised of personnel from both 18 Squadron and 28 Squadron, all of which have front-line responsibilities as well as being part of the display team at weekends.

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While we’re used to seeing the Chinook roll up and down in the Rollercoaster, the display hasn’t always been this dynamic.

“I was first involved with the Chinook display back in 2003 when Squadron Leader Dave Morgan first ‘reinvented’ the display. It wasn’t a fully dynamic display back then but more of a role demo.” Sgt James Ashwell explains, “The role demonstration started with a tactical landing and a Land Rover drove down the ramp with an ‘armed’ unit before we departed to do some heavy lifting in front of the crowd.” 

“We had to be prepared for the sort of missions that we’d be conducting out there.”

The role demo display went on right up until the Chinook Force got heavily involved in Iraq and Afghanistan, then everything changed.

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The Afghanistan deployments were full-on. You’d do your pre-deployment workups for a number of weeks and then be out in a hot, dusty and intense climate for months on end, carrying out countless troop movements and being on standby 24/7 with the Medical Emergency Response Team.” said Flt Lt Matt Holloway, Display Team Supervisor for 2017. “Obviously when UK forces ceased military operations in Afghanistan, everything changed for the Chinook Force and we were able to start training in areas that we hadn’t done for a number of years. Back in the mid-2000s, combat training was relentless and it had to be. We had to be prepared for the sort of missions that we’d be conducting out there. Fortunately, our focus has now shifted and whilst we’re still conducting combat training, we’re also training in colder climates again and getting to hone our skills for humanitarian operations. Having said that, we’re always on high readiness, ready to deploy globally at short notice.”

With that in mind, it’s understandable that the display team took a break; there simply wasn’t enough time or resource available to continue.

Sgt Ashwell moved on from the Chinook and spent some time at RAF Brize Norton on both the C-130J Hercules and Tristar, While I was away at Brize, the Chinook display team reformed and got given the green light once more. I wanted some of that action.” The natural progression was to move on to the RAF’s latest heavy-lift platform but Sgt Ashwell had other ideas, “I had the option to move to the A400M Atlas when Tristar operations finished but I wanted to get back to the Chinook Force and be part of the display again.”

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“The more people that aren’t in a formal controlled area that’s been designated by an airshow’s FDD, the more difficult it makes it for us to conduct our routine.”

Flt Lt Andy Smith, this year’s Display Pilot also wanted the same, I’ve been flying the Chinook for 7 years now and being at Odiham, the display team is something that’s always in the back of your mind. Display flying is the absolute technical pinnacle of flying and I’ve loved every second of it. I remember being that child at an airshow when I was younger, watching the display teams and wanting very much to be part of it. I can only hope that we have inspired someone as much as I was when I was that age.”

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The Shoreham incident understandably changed UK airshows, perhaps forever, with many new rules and regulations. While the changes in regulations have certainly changed things from a spectators point of view, Flt Lt Smith explains what it all means from a crew’s perspective, Not only are there all-encompassing display regulations provided by the CAA and MAA, now each display location can have it’s own special rules and regulations. As well as that we have to be very aware of secondary and tertiary crowds external to the showground that may build up during shows. Safety is absolutely paramount.” Flt Lt Smith continues, “The more people that aren’t in a formal controlled area that’s been designated by an airshow’s FDD, the more difficult it makes it for us to conduct our routine. Seeing people outside the designated crowd area might mean that we have to move unexpectedly to the left or right, or even climb in some circumstances just to make sure that we’ve got that extra buffer. The downside to this is that it can (and usually does) make things look untidy, it means we’re further away from the crowd and it makes the display unintentionally longer in places.”

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The team were forced to withdraw at short notice from the Scotland National Airshow back in July ‘due to limitations imposed by recent changes in CAA regulations’ and instead of conducting a full display, the team had to settle for a flypast.

Is a flypast as impressive as a full display? Of course it isn’t. Does a Chinook (or any aircraft for that matter) flying straight and level down a runway inspire the next generation? We very much doubt it.

So what next for Odiham’s finest? It’s fair to say that given the limitations now imposed on the team, the 2016 and 2017 routines were nowhere near as dynamic as displays of old from the likes of Flt Lt Paul Farmer or Flt Lt Charlie Brown in the HC2. Does the current display still stir the crowd? To a degree, it does, but we can’t help but feel that a return to a role demonstration would be much better suited to current regulations. We certainly feel that role demos are a much better PR tool than standard displays; just look at what the French are doing with the Rafale and Mirage.

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The Chinook team joined forces with AAC at Cosford a number of years ago for a Medical Emergency Response Team demo. A Chinook was brought in to lift an ‘injured’ soldier while an Apache provided cover. It was an incredible sight and demonstrated the sort of work that the crews had conducted on a regular basis in theatre. Sgt Ashwell mentioned that they’d approached the Apache team to do something similar this year but sadly the diaries never aligned.

2018 will see the Royal Air Force celebrate it’s centenary and according to Flt Lt Holloway, there’s plenty going on behind the scenes to make sure that it’s celebrated in style on the airshow circuit. Whether we’ll see a return of the Chinook display, Chinook role demo or even a wider RAF role demo is all very much unknown at the moment. All we can do is keep our fingers crossed and hope for the best…

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#SupportAirshows

50 Years Young: Celebrating the Gazelle’s Milestone

Written and photographed by Tom Mercer | May 9th 2017


The Falklands, Northern Ireland, Iraq and Afghanistan; under the control of the British Army, the Aérospatiale Gazelle has been at the forefront of some of the largest conflicts the country has been involved with. While it may not be the most powerful or technically advanced helicopter platform, the Gazelle is still being utilised by British forces (as well as other nations) today and looks like it’s service life will easily go beyond half a century.

The Gazelle has been in service with the British military since the summer of 1974 and was initially drafted in to replace the aging Sioux. While the helicopter was initially operated solely by the Army, their strengths were soon widely recognised and shortly, further orders were made so that the Gazelle could also operate with the Royal Navy.

The Gazelle came into it’s own as an observation and reconnaissance platform; the Northern Ireland campaign had led the Army to adapt in the way that it played the field and skills learnt back then were so crucial and advantageous that they were used again during the Gulf War. Usually flying in pairs with little protection, the Gazelles would head out to the battlefield and try to understand the lay of the land; whatever was observed was then relayed back to the trailing pair of Lynx Mk7s who would then follow up if firepower was required.

The Gazelle has the record of being the longest serving rotary asset in the UK armed forces and in fact has recently had it’s service life extended until at least 2025, where it will continue to operate in a reconnaissance, training and special forces capacity.

While it has been an extremely reliable helicopter for British forces, the Gazelle has also been operated by many other nations around the world. So with its 50th birthday on the horizon, Threshold.aero decided back in early 2016 that they’d like to help commemorate the event with a special fly-in at AAC Middle Wallop.

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The team at Threshold.aero began preparing for this special commemorative event over a year ago and after much hard work and countless communications, close to 30 Gazelles were invited to take part.

All 23 UK-based Gazelles were amongst those invited, as well as numerous air arms, in some cases as far as Western Europe! While not all the invited guests turned up in the end, 19 arrived on the day which included two from the Armée de Terre.

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“The French Army and their command structure were deeply honoured that we’d invited them and they did everything they could to attend. Even though we’d had word they were on their way on the Friday, there was still a very real possibility that they wouldn’t make it for a number of reasons – even when they arrived over the airfield there was still a worry they would land elsewhere!” – Threshold.aero

Threshold.aero teamed up with the Museum of Army Flying and proactively promoted the event successfully across the social media channels; as of the Friday afternoon some 1000+ advance tickets had been sold and a further 200+ tickets were sold on the gate on the day. These numbers are something that the organisers could have only dreamed of when they were planning the day, no doubt all helped by the glorious sunshine that was forecast for the weekend.

While the event was marketed as a fly-in, there were also a number of trade stalls in the public area that catered very nicely for both families and enthusiasts alike.

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Once all visiting aircraft had arrived (this included additional aircraft other than just Gazelles), the airfield was opened up and people were allowed to walk around and interact with the crews.

Everyone seemed to be in good spirits and with a barbecue on the go by the museum cafe, who could blame them? The event felt extremely relaxed and had a lovely family feel to it, I don’t know whether it was just because of the weather but all crews involved seemed genuinely interested in talking to people about why they love their aircraft. The French in particular were extremely keen to get as many people to sit in their aircraft as they possibly could throughout the afternoon.

As the afternoon moved on we were ushered off of the airfield so that the visiting aircraft could prepare for departure, while it may have seemed a little earlier than expected, everyone’s home airfield had to be considered.

One by one the helicopters spooled up their little engines and lifted off to depart Middle Wallop; witnessing such a large amount of Gazelles depart in such a small time frame really was rather special.

The Gazelle 50th event brought about a very early start to the UK aviation event calendar but one that was very much welcomed by the enthusiast community. Holding an event in early April not only proved that it was possible but also that sometimes, if you cross absolutely everything, the weather may just turn out to be ok.

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Threshold.aero really did exceed all expectations; it wasn’t really clear during the build-up to the event as to what the site would actually look like and knowing how difficult photography can be at Middle Wallop, that was a little worrying. However, everything turned out just right on the day and saw what the team believe to be the largest gathering of Gazelle helicopters anywhere since the early 2000s; that’s something that simply must be applauded.

The good news? This was just the first of many events that the guys are planning to run throughout 2017 and beyond. To find out more, head over to https://www.threshold.aero/.

All that’s really left to say is Happy 50th Birthday to the Aérospatiale Gazelle!

Centenary Flight Finally Takes Off

Written and photographed by Tom Mercer | October 1st 2016

On Wednesday 14th September, after more than six months in the planning, the three centenary scheme Chinooks finally came together for a one-off celebratory flight; departing from RAF Odiham for a photographic tour of Southern of England.

Before 2015 the Royal Air Force went more than 25 years without painting a special commemorative scheme on a Chinook aircraft. Turn the clock forward by 18 months and the UK Chinook Force now has a trio of them; each celebrating 100 years of three key Squadrons.

It seems like just yesterday that the first of the three, the 18 (B) Squadron Chinook, rolled out of the Serco paint shop and was presented to the media at RAF Odiham. It was back in May 2015 when the whole centenary project became a reality and since then it’s just got bigger and bigger; 27 Squadron quickly joined the team with ‘Nellie’ and then earlier this year, 28 Squadron at RAF Benson with their brightly coloured offering. All three specials were designed and painted by the same team; Flt Lt Andy Donovan handled the design work and approvals process while the extremely talented team at Serco brought the designs to life.

As soon as the team knew that there would be three special scheme Chinooks, plans were put in motion to get all of them together for a very special photographic flight to commemorate the occasion.

The initial flight was scheduled for late May but at very short notice the flight was scrubbed. The RAF Chinook fleet is in demand around the globe so it’s easy to understand that a flight of this nature might fall to the bottom of the ‘to-do’ list. Flt Lt Donovan started to analyse Squadron diaries and the team worked as hard as they could to reschedule the flight as soon as possible but operational commitments and aircraft serviceability meant that the earliest it could all be rescheduled for was September 15th.

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“We were determined that if this flight ever happened, we would do this properly and we knew this would require lots of planning. We had to consider the potential for less than ideal weather in September and ensure we had a backup option if conditions weren’t favourable.” said Flt Lt Donovan, “Our main focus was on developing an unrestricted profile so we could maximize opportunities if we got lucky. I began by analysing sun bearings and elevations in the week selected and then planned a route that hit some stunning UK landmarks whilst keeping us orientated correctly on each leg;  ensuring illumination of both the aircraft and backdrops simultaneously. We operate in some of the most congested airspace in the world in Southern England so all of this had to fit around that too.”

With less than a week to go everything was looking good but at the last minute the Met Office forecasts alluded to a possible front coming in on the day of the flight which would ultimately lead to less than ideal conditions. The team at RAF Odiham made the call to reschedule the flight for the Wednesday, a day that by the look of it was going to be wall-to-wall sunshine all day long. Good news; the engineers now had 24 hours less notice to deliver but everything was theoretically ready to go, including the Lynx AH.9 photo-ship that was kindly provided by 657 Squadron.

So finally, on Wednesday September 14th, after two scrubbed flights and countless challenges in between, the three commemorative Chinooks assembled at RAF Odiham and took off together for a very special centenary flight.

It’s easy to see that RAF Odiham have put a lot of hard work into getting these special schemes signed off but the truth of the matter is that none of it would have been possible without the highly skilled team at Serco, the true unsung heroes of the entire centenary project.

“It was a memorable day for not only me personally but for the small team at Odiham Paintshop to finally see the three historic art work pieces displayed in all their glory; having been hand-crafted with many hours of blood, sweat and tears by such a small team” said James Littlejohn, “To be finally recognised after over a year of waiting was a momentous occasion and was the final piece in our puzzle.”

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“My small team worked relentlessly to make this magic happen and I couldn’t have done it without them. They are incredible and to produce this, with myself leading as the only one with major experience, and the four others from my team with limited to none on anything of this scale or difficulty is nothing short of amazing. We did not stop until every line was perfect and every inch of the aircraft were symmetrical.”

The team at Odiham had little choice but to keep this flight on the down-low for a number of reasons. Firstly, there was no guarantee that all four aircraft would start without a snag which may have ultimately cancelled the sortie and left a lot of people disappointed. Secondly though, there were fears that excessive crowds may gather at the planned landing sites and with that would come a possibly unacceptable level of risk. The rules and regulations surrounding public shows are quite rightly strict and with that in mind, this had to be approached professionally and cautiously.

In the aviation community, keeping something of this scale quiet is next to impossible, however a small group of enthusiasts had managed to piece together little bits of information and took a gamble on the fact that the flight might turn up on SPTA but it wasn’t clear from the NOTAM where this would be. These guys know the Plain inside out and thought that one of the most likely places for a flight of this size to arrive would be on Everleigh Drop Zone…and they were right! 

Mr Ian Harding is a regular contributor to the UK military aviation press and, living locally to Odiham, was lucky enough to be invited to the launch. He later commented on the day’s preceedings:

“It is extremely difficult to sum up the historical importance of the events I witnessed on Wednesday both at RAF Odiham and later that evening at Everleigh Drop Zone on Salisbury Plain. Having spent almost 50 years following aviation in many guises, I can honestly say I have witnessed few events which match the sight of the three Odiham and Benson special painted Chinooks appearing from behind Sidbury Hill silhouetted against a descending but golden sun. It was indeed a ‘wow’ moment which heightened when all three aircraft returned with the sun now illuminating their anniversary markings like never before. During a week of national remembrance encapsulated by the ‘poppy’ at the head of the 18 Squadron cab, the formation`s slow initial descent was movingly poignant. Six months of preparation by so many people; senior officials, aircrew, engineers, media etcetera, and it had been nailed perfectly. Even the weather behaved!”

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“What helped make this event special and distinguish it from many is that the crews obviously made the call to route their formation to the Plain in the hope that photographers and walkers who visit Everleigh and the local area frequently would be around and hence have the opportunity to witness this brief moment of history. I can only imagine the positivity this generated in the air when they looked down to see people gazing at them. Everyone waited to see what the aircrew would do before sensibly positioning themselves having noticed by now that an RAF photographer was in attendance and positioned. Everyone behaved impeccably. The sense of anticipation for us as each aircraft then shared the lead at the head of a ‘triangular’ formation; 28 Squadron, then 27 and finally 18, before finally stacking, was intense. It was 30 minutes of unbridled joy.”

Photography Courtesy of RAF Odiham. Crown Copyright 2016.
Photography Courtesy of RAF Odiham. Crown Copyright 2016.

“There was an emotional and moving sense of occasion throughout which was enhanced by the history and relevance of each aircraft’s anniversary scheme. With the sun descending, each provided a glowing but appropriate tribute to 100 years of operational service from each squadron. Wednesday for all sorts of reasons, was the perfect way to bring them together and focus minds on this. Ultimately, a century of anything should be celebrated and it has been done well. Miss the opportunity…and it is lost forever. The image of these three Chinooks together will make people smile within military circles and outside for years to come. You cannot put a price on that! As the three aircraft departed Everleigh’s overhead for the final time, those fortunate to witness the formation simply looked to the sky and clapped, which summed the mood up perfectly.”

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Having conducted a flight over some spectacular landmarks, the four-ship flight returned to base at just gone 1800 hours with the job well and truly completed. On this occasion everything paid off and as you can see from some of the work featured in this article, the photographic team at RAF Odiham captured some spectacular imagery; they really are a team to be reckoned with.

Centenary Flight done!

USAF Bombers Deployed to RAF Fairford for Ample Strike 2016

Written and photographed by Tom Mercer | September 10th 2016

The United States Air Force (USAF) have deployed three strategic bombers to RAF Fairford in support of the annual Ample Strike training exercise. For the third time running, the Czech Republic will take the lead and host up to eighteen allied nations who will work alongside each other to train Joint Terminal Attack Controllers (JTACs), Forward Air Controllers (FACs) and Close Air Support (CAS) units on the battlefield.

RAF Fairford, home to the world famous Royal International Air Tattoo, may seem like a fairly sedate standby airfield for most of the year but when required, the base can be turned into a fully operational hub in very little time. Fairford played a vital role for the USAF throughout the 1990s and early 2000s when B-52s were based there during the Gulf War and Iraq War. The last couple of years have seen a return to form with further bomber deployments but it’s all in the aid of training on an international scale.

The flying schedule for Ample Strike 2016 began on September 5th and will run for 11 days. To get an idea of what the exercise entails, and specifically what sort of missions the B-52 will be tasked with, Aviation Highlights spoke with Captain James Bresnahan:

“The B-52’s primary mission is to provide Close Air Support training to JTACs and Forward Air Controllers out on the battlefield. US bombers participate in international exercises fairly frequently. Providing CAS training like this is now fairly commonplace. We operate with our allied nations using joint procedures. Ample Strike ensures that all the controllers get training on the ground, that operational readiness is increased and international interoperability is improved.”

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The B-52 Stratofortress was designed and built by Boeing during the early 1950s when the USAF submitted a requirement for a long-range, subsonic bombing platform. Aviation has come a long way since the aircraft’s entry into service, so how exactly is a bomber of this age still relevant today?

“This particular aircraft started on the production line in 1960 and has since had multiple avionics, communications and weapons upgrades. We’re able to carry the widest variety of weapons in the US inventory as well as the most current and updated weapons. Our upgraded communications platform allows line of sight and beyond line of sight comms to take place. The equipment that crews are trained on also have access to the very latest tactics, techniques and procedures to keep the entire process up-to-date and relevant to today’s global mission. We plan to fly the B-52 for at least an another 25-30 years with continual updates to follow. Any advancements in weaponry within the US military will continue to find its way on to the B-52.”

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There’s no doubt that the B-52 has displayed exceptional endurance and assurance throughout it’s time in service. Some may see these deployments and exercises as, perhaps, a little antagonising but in reality that’s not the case. Large-scale complex international exercises like Ample Strike allow allied nations to strengthen their relationships and learn from each other on the battlefield.

“The missions that we’re executing during Ample Strike are carried out by a single aircraft but we may be working with multiple ground parties throughout the exercise. We’ll take off from Fairford, complete the scenario over in the Czech Republic and then return to land here. Our scenarios are CAS based and the training is provided to ground forces in order to simulate the purpose of the JTAC and FACs. On-time, on-demand fire support and air support is delivered as required, coordinating point of contact on the ground to enable safe and effective support to ground forces. I suspect that a lot of these JTACs have never worked with American bombers so it’s a new experience for them and provides brand new training on an aircraft type they’ve likely not worked with in the field before.”

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With so many nations participating both in the air and on the ground, you might think that it’s difficult to debrief on the missions that have been completed but once the crews have landed back at RAF Fairford, a series of in-depth ‘feedback’ sessions begin over the telephone and via email.

Believe it or not, this is the very first time that B-52s and B-1s have deployed to the same airfield in support of an international exercise.

Although the two types have been deployed together, they’re not actually working together in the air. Aviation Highlights spoke exclusively to Colonel Denis Heinz, Commander 489th Bomb Group, to find out more:

“On the face of it we’re essentially carrying out the same mission; helping train the JTACs and the FACs but we’re flying on alternating days. For what we’re doing out here and the missions that we’re flying in support of Ample Strike, the B-52 and B-1 are basically the same. They both have targeting pods and both are carrying the same simulated weapons. The main real difference is that the B-1 is supersonic and we still do a lot of low level training. On Monday for example, as part of our scenario, we conducted a show of force. We dropped down to about 1000ft and increased our speed to about 500 knots; it’s a very effective way of establishing yourself on the battlefield and something that the B-52 simply isn’t capable of.”

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Colonel Heinz flew the B-52 from Fairford during the Iraq War so he knows just how capable a platform it is but how does it compare to the B-1?

“They’re both phenomenal aircraft but the Block 16 upgrade on this B-1 is just outstanding. I’m still learning my way around it but there’s so much more information available to the crew. You can select what you want to see on each of the 4 or 5 screens; we call them ‘declutters’ because you can tailor it to what you want to see and when during the mission. That way you get just the information that’s relevant to you. The Block 16 jets’ systems have also been upgraded so that they can also talk to each other in the air. You can see what other B-1s are carrying, what they’re targeting, which AWACS they’re communicating with and if required, that information can be available to you too in an instant.”

The good news is that Ample Strike 2016 won’t be the last time you see B-1s deployed to the UK in support of an international exercise.

“I’m personally still pretty new to the B-1s but the B-52s have participated in Ample Strike since 2010. Now that we’re part of the 307th Bomb Wing, which is the lead unit for sending bombers to exercises, we’ve got the B-1 involved too and we’re hoping to participate in Ample Strike each year now. We’ve been asked to do another deployment in Norway shortly but again, it all depends on the training cycle and aircraft availability.”

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Ample Strike runs until September 20th with flying elements scheduled to end on September 16th.

Gatwick Aviation Museum

Written and photographed by Tom Mercer | June 13th 2016 | Updated June 10th 2017


The Gatwick Aviation Museum, located just outside the boundaries of the airport, showcases the very best of the ‘golden age’ of British aviation and it’s origin can be traced back more than twenty five years to when Peter Vallance started his private collection of aircraft.

Peter, like many of us, had a serious passion for aviation and wanted the world to see his special collection of British aircraft.  As the number of airframes increased over a number of years, it quickly became apparent that keeping the aircraft outside wasn’t ideal and as such, Peter started a long campaign to get planning permission approved for a purpose-built structure to house the collection. This campaign went on for many years and planning permission was denied by the local council in 2011 due to it’s close proximity to the airport and it’s location within the Metropolitan Green Belt, and although Peter lodged a formal appeal against this decision in January of the following year, this was quickly dismissed once more just six months later.

Peter sadly passed away in 2013 and never got to see his vision fulfilled. The Gatwick Aviaton Museum has since been set up as a charitable trust and is now by a dedicated team of volunteers. Just when the team thought it would never happen, in 2015 planning permission was finally granted for a purpose-built structure and the museum was temporarily closed to the public while the new hangar was constructed. In April 2016, the museum was reopened and we went along to see what had changed.

A Museum Reborn

Arriving on site it’s instantly clear to see the transformation that’s taken place; where an old wooden building once stood, is now a brand new hangar and car park. We really couldn’t wait to get inside any longer!

Once you’ve stepped through the door and paid your entrance fee (we’ll come back to this later), you’re greeted with a small but extensive display looking back at Gatwick Airport’s history. The display contains an extremely interesting array of items from various airlines that used to operate out of Gatwick before they were all eventually merged into or sold to other airlines.

This first section of the hangar is split in two and houses the Gatwick Airport display above, a small shop and the Collection’s beautiful Hawker Sea Hawk. The Sea Hawk has been lovingly restored to static condition and looks as if it’s only just rolled off the production line back in 1951.

The main area of the hangar is where things really start to get interesting though.

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The team at the museum have been really clever with the layout of the hangar and have kept things to an absolute bare minimum. The aircraft have been positioned with as much space around them as possible, moving nearly all engines and other artefacts to the walls either side of the hangar.

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Add the very large skylights that run the width of the museum roof into the equation and you’re looking at one of the best museums in the country for photography (all shots inside the hangar in this article were shot handheld at ISO-400).

The front end of the hangar houses the Collection’s Gloster Meteor T.7 and de Havilland Venom F.B. 50 Mk1.

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Both aircraft are ready to receive a new coat of paint in the coming months/years as many years of sitting outside has taken it’s toll on their original schemes; the Meteor in particular, which had been located at a number of museums across the country before Peter Vallance purchased it in 1988.

Taking centre stage right in the middle of the hangar is the superb and exceptionally good looking de Havilland Sea Vixen TT.8.

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XS587 is a survivor of the 67 Sea Vixen FAW2 that were produced by de Havilland for the Royal Navy and having served her time aboard HMS Eagle and HMS Victorious, this example was converted for drone and target towing duties. The aircraft was initially acquired by a gentleman named Mike Carlton (check out a book called Hunter One if you’ve not heard of him) who registered the aircraft on the civilian register as G-VIXN and had the full intention of returning it to flying condition. Sadly this never happened and upon his death, the aircraft was sold at auction and joined the Gatwick Aviation Museum in 1990.

The rear of the hangar is home to three more legendary British aircraft; a Hawker Siddeley Harrier GR.3, Hawker Hunter T7 and English Electric Lightning F.53.

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Having made her first flight in May 1969, Harrier XV751 spent much of her life with the Royal Air Force at RAF Wittering and was used in both GR.1A and GR.3 configurations before being handed off to the Royal Navy to be used as a maintenance airframe in the late 1980s. The aircraft was acquired by the museum in Royal Navy colours but it has since been extensively worked upon and now sits resplendent in it’s original RAF 3 Squadron colours.

The Collection’s Lightning is rather special. ZF579 is an F.53 variant, the export model based on the F.6 interceptor version that was popular with the Royal Air Force. There was a lot of export interest in the Lightning but at the time, the RAF versions in service were not entirely suitable. As a result, BAC developed a multi-role variant for foreign air forces, this particular example of which was purchased by the Royal Saudi Air Force in 1968.

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After nearly twenty years of service with the RSAF, the aircraft was flown back to the UK and dismantled for long-term storage in a container. Unlike most other ex-RSAF Lightnings that were stored in water-damaged containers, ZF579 was in a pretty good state when it was purchased by the museum in 2000. The aircraft has been slowly restored to as close to original condition as possible and looks absolutely fantastic; if all goes to plan, this aircraft may make it’s first engine run at the museum later this year.

Due to the size of the building, there are still a number of aircraft outside including another Hunter, the beautiful Blackburn Buccaneer S.1 (another aircraft with planned engine runs later this year) and the mighty Avro Shackleton.

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The volunteers were on hand all afternoon to give tours of the Shackleton. Our tour was given by a volunteer who just happened to be a veteran of Coastal Command and spent much of his time flying the Shackleton during his service with the RAF. We stepped on board and were instantly transported back to the 1950s and guided through each section of the aircraft, being told extensive first-hand stories every step of the way. Getting to experience something like this in a museum is incredible; clambering all over an old aircraft while listening to tales from someone who knows the aircraft inside out was an absolute honour and worth the entrance fee alone.

Value For Money

Visiting the recently re-opened museum was an absolute treat from start to finish and really should be on every enthusiasts’ bucket list for this year. With its minimalist layout, some of the best interior lighting conditions ever seen at a museum and access to a number of incredibly unique airframes (and people), the Gatwick Aviation Museum is a true winner.

With an adult ticket price of just £5, a visit to this place is a steal and even if the museum were to double their prices, you’d still be getting more than enough for your money!


Progress Update

Written and photographed by Tom Mercer | June 10th 2017


Following on from a successful ground run of the museum’s extremely rare English Electric Lightning F.53, the museum stayed open into the evening on Saturday 20th May and hosted their very first evening photo-shoot.

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With this being the first event of it’s kind held at the museum since it reopened, it was a fairly small affair but this worked entirely to its advantage. The staff were more than happy for those attending to take control of the setup in order to get the images they required and were extremely accommodating with any specific requests.

The evening was extremely laid back, starting in the sunshine and ending under a dark sky, and allowed us to talk to members of the engineering team about what they’ve got planned for the future.

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While the Lightning has now had it’s engines run twice in public, these have only been ‘dry’ and while that’s a fantastic achievement in itself, they’re not stopping there. The team plan to run each of the engines in reheat later this year but if the Lightning is to carry on with these ground runs then some further work is required. An extension of the current concrete area would make maneuvering the aircraft much easier and would also allow for greater distance between the aircraft and the hangar when these reheat runs are carried out.

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The evening session was also the last chance to see the Blackburn Buccaneer S.1 all in one piece as she’s about to be completely stripped, repainted and rebuilt from the ground up; a restoration project that’ll be running for at least the next five years. Now that may seem like a long time but it sounds like it’s going to be well worth it!

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The good news is that this was just the first of many events to come, so if you want to stay up-to-date with everything going on, head over to the museum’s Facebook page and hit ‘Like’!


Gatwick Aviation Museum is open every Friday, Saturday and Sunday from 10:00 until 16:00. To find out more please visit http://www.gatwick-aviation-museum.co.uk.

Exclusive: 28 Squadron Completes Trio of Special Scheme Chinooks

Written and photographed by Tom Mercer | May 3rd 2016

28 (Army Cooperation) Squadron was formed as a training unit on 7th November 1915 and initially operated a variety of aircraft including the Avro 504, Sopwith Pup, Henry Farman F20, Bristol Scout, Airco DH2 and Airco DH5. As the First World War got underway, it became apparent that the Squadron was destined to evolve into a frontline combat unit and in 1917 was deployed to mainland Europe, equipped with the Sopwith Camel. Almost a century after being awarded its first Battle Honours for its involvement on the Italian Front, the Squadron is no longer on the frontline but the personnel of 28 still have a very important role to play in today’s Royal Air Force.

After a short time flying the Lysander and Hurricane during World War Two, 28 Squadron went on to serve in Burma conducting reconnaissance missions for the Army. The Squadron re-equipped numerous times during its post-war time in the Far East, flying jet aircraft like the Vampire, Venom and Hunter before converting to rotary types in the late 1960s.

When Hong Kong was formally handed back to China in 1997 the Squadron disbanded and didn’t see active service again until 2001 when RAF Benson became home to the Merlin Force. It handed the type over to 845 NAS of the Commando Helicopter Force in July last year.

With the now Royal Navy Merlins gradually moving to their new home at RNAS Yeovilton and combat operations in Afghanistan officially over, spare capacity was foreseen at RAF Benson and the growing UK Chinook Force was likely to place pressure on the facilities at RAF Odiham; to put this into perspective, the RAF is the largest operator of the Boeing Chinook outside of the United States. The decision was taken to stand down the Operational Conversion Flight (OCF), which had for many years served as C Flight on 18(B) Squadron, and relocate it to Benson where it would merge with the Puma OCF to assume the distinguished number plate of 28 Squadron.

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The Squadron became operational in October 2015 under the command of Wing Commander Marty Lock, returning to their original training role and becoming a joint Operational Conversion Unit (OCU) for the RAF’s Chinook Mk4 and Puma Mk2. On completion of the training course, qualified Chinook pilots and crewmen from 28 Squadron are posted to 7, 18(B) or 27 Squadron at RAF Odiham where they continue to fly the Mk4 and some go on to complete a further course which allows them to operate the newly-delivered Mk6. The Chinook Mk5 will shortly become a regular sight on the Hampshire skyline too when they arrive back from upgrade, having begun their lives at Mk3 standard. The other half of 28 Squadron’s output is focused on the Puma Mk2 and upon finishing the training course, crews move the short distance between hangars at Benson to join either 33 or 230 Squadron.

To mark the centenary, a Royal Parade took place at Benson on 7th April 2016, in what had previously been 78 Squadron’s hangar. The hangar has since been given an enormous facelift with brand new purpose-built facilities being installed to accommodate the OCU and facilitate the world-class tuition provided to ab-initio students and crews returning to RAF Support Helicopter aviation. The Squadron had elected not to celebrate its centenary the previous November, having only reformed three weeks earlier, instead taking a slightly longer run-up by combining the event with the opening of its new hangar this year. During the ceremony the Squadron was reviewed by His Royal Highness Prince Michael of Kent.

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The parade was conducted in front of a Chinook and Puma helicopter, both of which had been decorated to mark the occasion. The Puma has temporary decals which have been applied to the cabin doors only; whilst 28 Squadron utilises the airframes, they remain ‘pooled’ assets which are shared with frontline Squadrons and could be deployed at short notice, meaning any permanent colours could adversely impact operational flexibility.IMG_9544-Edit-20160503

The Chinook however, is ‘on the Squadron books’ and therefore isolated from the deployable fleet whilst it remains with the OCU; this allowed the airframe to receive the same treatment as the 27 and 18 Squadron commemorative aircraft.

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Once the ceremony had finished, I caught up with the creative team behind all three of the centenary schemed Chinooks: Flt Lt Andy Donovan from 27 Squadron and James Littlejohn from Serco at RAF Odiham.

Flt Lt Andy Donovan:“My first warning that this might be coming my way came in late 2015 when one of the crewman instructors told me that OC28 had me in his sights. Having moved on to 28 from 18 Squadron I was by that point in the closing stages of my training on the OCU and heard nothing else until January when the time came to ask the Boss to sign my logbook. Like many a Junior Pilot getting used to the lay of the land I was re-briefed on various inadequate aspects of my course summary before I thanked OC28 for the Squadron’s contribution to my training and turned to leave, convinced I was going to escape unscathed. It was of course at that point that the voice behind me said ‘so what are your plans for the 28 Squadron centenary cab then?’ Freedom was so close!”

Unlike the 18 Squadron special from last year, the scheme that’s been applied to the 28 Chinook was based mainly on the Squadron badge that was approved by King Edward VIII in 1936.

Flt Lt Andy Donovan: “At the request of 18 Squadron, the scheme we delivered for that aircraft told a story but the design for this one is a little more simplistic, as per the 27 Squadron equivalent. The two images that inspired the design were the demi-Pegasus from the Squadron badge and the crossed Kukri flash which has been associated with 28 Squadron since 1994 and marks a long-standing association with the now-disbanded 48 Gurkha Infantry Brigade. If you remember the Merlins, you may recall that they displayed the Kukris on the tail so the inspiration for the livery was to combine those two recognisable emblems and turn it into a piece of tail art.”

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Flt Lt Andy Donovan: “I had some early discussions with a friend, Adam Johnson, who designed 29(R) Squadron’s centenary tail and the Battle of Britain ’75 markings, both applied to Typhoons at Coninsgby. Between us we hammered out a style for the Kukri outlines and I then took the rest of the work forward from there. Over the course of the three projects our methods have evolved as James and I have worked out new ways to achieve quite complex tasks. When we began 18’s neither I nor the paint team really knew what the limits were. A common phrase used in the military is your left and right of arc – we had to identify what was outside our capabilities at Odiham and at which point our aspirations were too simple for something as significant as a 100-year celebration. We made a decision to stick to blocks of colour with 18’s as, whilst complex in scope, it could all be masked carefully by hand. By the time of 27’s we had begun to talk about an approach that would take my digital artwork and outsource work to RAF Marham’s graphic department, to whom we are eternally grateful, who have the ability to produce large stencils, known as sign masks. These are far from easy to apply to the Chinook but they opened up a host of possibilities. James has led the Serco team who have delivered the aircraft and they have done an incredible job getting this painted up in time. He’s been an absolute stalwart during the three different projects but is no stranger to this sort of work as earlier in his career he has specials to his name such as 6 Squadron’s spotted Jaguar from 2007 so in many ways he’s made a rod for his own back!”

James Littlejohn: “The desert Jaguar too. I was also responsible for Harrier anniversary tail art on three different aircraft before I moved down to Odiham, left the RAF and became a civilian working for Serco. The first time Andy and I met was during the planning phase for the 18 Squadron aircraft.”

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It’s fair to say that given the scale of the projects, James probably has a few more grey hairs now.

Flt Lt Andy Donovan: “18’s was hard. They all have been in their own way but for that one we had to essentially prove to everyone that we could do it. It hadn’t been done in 25 years on the Chinook and convincing the right people took a long, long time. Even the deputy commander of 18 Squadron said he would eat his hat should we ever get centenary colours on to an aircraft – to my knowledge he has not stayed true to his word on that one! At the time 27 Squadron were working on a plan to place decals on to an aircraft to celebrate their 100th anniversary. They were however still heavily committed to Operation TORAL in Afghanistan, prior to the Puma Force taking over that commitment, which meant that as 18’s rolled out on to the line their options widened, yet the number of people they had at home in the UK was minimal.”

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Flt Lt Andy Donovan: “They had a very pro-active and capable crewman running the project and when he approached me to ask if I could assist with a larger design there was about six weeks remaining to their parade – the turn around on that project was ridiculously quick and I am still amazed that we achieved it at all. Bear in mind that the tempo of exercises, operations and training was as high as ever in that period and I was also trying to keep my head above water on the Ops Phase of the OCU course so the timing could have been better! On this one I think we’ve had about three months from start to finish – two weeks of which were devoted to painting.”

James Littlejohn: “Andy said “Can you do this?”. We hashed out what could and couldn’t be done and broadly speaking it looked achievable based on our experience with the previous two. We were restricted on the areas we were allowed to paint and had to get the most out of it working under time pressure, especially given that we had been assigned just a two week window in the paint shop. There was a lot to think about. What colours can we use that are already cleared for the aircraft, what are the logistical issues we need to solve to find enough of those paint stocks, where can we paint and what are the impacts of doing so, what messages do we need to convey and what is likely to gain approval? The list of questions needing answers rapidly builds. What could be achieved in ten days was the over-riding factor and what we agreed on was a big ask. This is the design that we came up with.”

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Flt Lt Andy Donovan: “Whatever James and I might agree on at Odiham there is a far wider approval system in place that must be adhered to and a good deal of my focus is on that to begin with. Various experts around the RAF and its commercial contractors feed in to that system via a body called the Camouflage Working Group which is headed by a Wing Commander at High Wycombe. There are a lot of areas that our engineers will not allow us to paint and further regulations must be taken in to account as they will all govern what the CWG allows us to do. One consideration is the servicing and safety markings; some can be moved slightly or change colour and some can’t. Where they are moved we have to justify it and come up with a solution that makes it clear as to where they apply. For example, it is no good having a ‘NO STEP’ marking dislocated from the area in which it is relevant only to find that this leads to damage to the airframe due to someone’s size 9 landing where it shouldn’t! We also have NATO-standard markings on the aircraft which are recognised internationally, such as the black squares around the gravity refuel ports.”

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James Littlejohn: Also, the Royal Air Force logo on the side can never be moved to accommodate anything else and Andy has to ensure that various national markings are displayed prominently on the aircraft too. This and more has to be taken in to account when developing the design and if he gets it wrong the delays could lead to failure of the project as we simply run out of time trying to negotiate solutions.”

Flt Lt Andy Donovan: “For me one of the biggest differences in the managerial process on this project has been Wg Cdr Lock. He has been tremendously hands on and much of the burden that fell on my shoulders during 18’s and others’ during 27’s was handled by him. He was a major player in bringing it to fruition and I think that has meant a lot to him as the history of 28 Squadron is now very much in his hands. For me this one was important too as the instructional staff on 28 are still some of the people I know best within the Chinook Force; they had to put up with me for long enough!”

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Once all of the above had been signed off, it was time to start working on masking the design and painting the aircraft but as was mentioned above only certain paint types can be used.

Flt Lt Andy Donovan: “The paints have to be chemically appropriate for the airframe and the primer coat beneath. If we had attempted to go down the route of clearing new paint colours it would have taken a tremendous amount of time and that is time that we simply didn’t have. Equally it would incur a cost that frankly couldn’t be justified and it certainly wouldn’t be deemed as a high priority task. The days of ground crew slapping any old paint on to aircraft are well and truly over. I’m working on the basis that’s a good thing but it didn’t always feel like it!”

James Littlejohn: “All the paints that we have to use are also LIR – Low Infrared.”

Flt Lt Andy Donovan: “It’s a little ironic if you think about it because our cab is now more visible to the naked eye from a distance than it ever has been before!”

As has already been mentioned, the last twelve months has seen three different centenary designs applied to Chinooks and each one has been instantly recognisable as James and Andy’s work. The evolution from the 18 Squadron scheme to now is clear to see.

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James Littlejohn: “When we started looking into the feasibility of doing the 18 Squadron design I was the only person at Odiham that had any experience working with tail art, so to have just one person in a team of six people that has done it before…that’s where the pressure started. To put what we have done into context a little, the Operation Granby Tornado produced at RAF Marham was done by a team of ten experienced people in two and a half weeks. The aircraft is mostly just a single colour. We worked with a team of six, some of whom have no experience in this field, and in ten days have put this on to an uneven, rivet covered, curved surface. The nature of the Chinook airframe just added to the complexity of what we had to achieve. How the markings translated from front to back was a key focal area on 18’s. It called for three colours on the fuel tanks alone and I was the only one with any experience of fade work; these paints aren’t exactly designed to be used like that! You’ve really got to be on the ball! In the space of a year we’ve gone from not having any specials on the Chinook Force with no prospects of such, to having three unique, colourful and detailed schemes. It’s a massive achievement which will almost certainly never be repeated.”

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Although quite common in the fast jet community, commemorative paint schemes and tail art are less common in the rotary world and haven’t been seen on Chinooks for some 25 years. Processes have moved on an awful lot since then.

Flt Lt Andy Donovan: “As we discussed before, there was virtually no record of any special schemes at Odiham, even though we all knew that they’d happened. The last 18 Squadron design was produced for the 75th anniversary back in 1990 and the man responsible is now a simulator instructor at Benson, but on paper there is no trace of that scheme. Nor is there any record of 7 Squadron’s design from the same era. The last documented scheme was the white United Nations one with a little detail harking back to the Gulf War. What has to be noted is that engineering practices have changed beyond all recognition in that short space of time and the methods by which we as a Service deliver changes to camouflage have too. There is absolutely no doubt that without the support of our dedicated and hard-working engineers at Odiham we would not have achieved any of these schemes but for them also, this was untrodden ground. There are numerous individuals who looked at me like I had lost a few marbles when the idea of this was first raised but who balanced the tasks alongside their busy and demanding jobs to help make it happen. One in particular even played a big part in making this final one happen, despite having left to take up a new job on another Station. Without retaining his experience from afar, we wouldn’t be looking at it now.”

James Littlejohn: “That’s where you truly start to appreciate the size of the task at hand with these special schemes. Before the aircraft come anywhere near the paint bay Andy and others will have worked for months putting the engineering paperwork in place and gaining approvals. Only with that all done does the real work begin to turn plans in to reality.”

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The designs themselves have caused quite a headache for the team and that’s before paint had even touched the surface of the aircraft. The practical challenges really started once the aircraft entered the paint shop.

Flt Lt Andy Donovan: “We could never have done this without this Serco team; their drive and determination has been one of the major reasons why the work has been finished on time and just like our engineers they have to balance that with routine Station tasks that are required along the way. The week after the 28 Squadron cab exited the bay they had another airframe in there for rectification work on the cabin floor and with that return to the norm comes the end of quite a journey for them. As for whether the three were worth it – that’s for the public to decide. We’ve done all we can to produce the unexpected under significant time pressure. Of course none of that compares to the pressure my colleagues on the Chinook Force have lived with over the past decade or so on operations around the world. I’m a very new face here but all have spent long periods of time away from family and loved ones, putting themselves at significant risk to save lives and deliver capability in some very hostile and challenging theatres. These liveries offer a brief chance to reflect on that and the sacrifices and successes recorded by 100 years of history.”

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Funding of the three special tails and complete respray of the 18 Squadron aircraft (the first respray to take place at Odiham in over ten years) was assisted by Serco as part of a wider PR exercise. It’s fair to say that without that commitment, much of this would not have been possible!

If you’re out and about over the summer then you’re likely to see the 27 and 28 Squadron special tails somewhere and until recently it was believed that the same could not be said for the 18 Squadron aircraft. The team planned to have the scheme stripped as part of scheduled depth maintenance in May 2016 but due to changes in engineering timetables its input to that process has been deferred to later in the year. So if you haven’t yet had a chance to catch them in the wild, the likelihood is you can still do so before they’re gone for good.