After scooping the Silver Award in the South-West Tourism Excellence Awards for ‘Event of the Year’ in 2011, much was expected from the Senior Service once again. Duncan Monk reports from the home of the Fleet Air Arm at the 2012 RNAS Yeovilton Air Day.
The main theme of this year's event at RNAS Yeovilton was ‘Falklands 30’, celebrating 30 years since the Falkland Islands were reclaimed from an invading Argentinean force.
A strong Flying display line up had been announced in the run up to the show, with displays due from the home team including the Black Cats Lynx pair display, RN Historic Flight Swordfish and Sea Fury. Also promised were The Saudi Hawks, who would be making their Yeovilton debut (although their UK debut belonged to RIAT in 2011), French Navy Rafale M, RAF Tornado Role Demonstration, RAF Battle of Britain Memorial Flight and the Royal Air Force Aerobatic Team - The Red Arrows. A great selection of Classic Jets such at the Meteor T7, Vampire T55 and Venom FB1 from Classic Aviation Trust, and Hunter T7 from the Hunter Flight Academy were also included within the line up. The finale was to be the much heralded and spectacular Commando Assault - very much a unique feature of the Yeovilton Air Day.
Moved from its usual second weekend in July due to the Olympics, the weather still managed to locate the Airday and did its best to dampen spirits. Having had a morning of what could be described as T-shirt weather, it was very frustrating to see dark clouds roll overhead just as Flt Lt Bird took off in his gaily painted patriotic RAF Hawk T.1. Despite the dark clouds, it thankfully remained mostly dry - bar some very brief showers. The temperature had plummeted, but things would warm up as the show progressed towards its finale...
A few disappointments pre show were that the French Rafale display had been cancelled, (the saving grace was one aircraft still allocated for the static), and also the French NH-90 didn't arrive, nor did the RAF King Air.
The static display looked sparse compared to previous years, but what was on display seemed to be crammed near the 845/846 hangar, making life difficult for the photographer.
However there was a fantastic selection of Royal Navy aircraft on display, both past and present - including Sea Harrier FA.2, Harrier T8, Wessex, Lynx HAS.3/HMA.8, Wildcat and Sea King Mk4, 5 & 7.
The crews from the RAF Merlin, USAF Pavehawk, German Navy Lynx and French Falcon 10 were all kept busy with the public keen to talk to them and look around their aircraft. Credit must go to the crews for allowing the hordes of people to clamber around inside their aircraft and answering question after question. They also did a roaring trade in memorabilia.
There seemed to be plenty of Royal Navy personnel on hand to talk to and they were also keen to show their aircraft off to the waiting public, with long queues forming to look around.
As previously stated the Show kicked off with one of the first displays of the 2012 season for the 208(R) RAF Hawk T.MK.1/1A, fantastically displayed by Flt Lt Phil Bird. The colorful scheme was wasted though as it unfortunately displayed under a huge black cloud.
More Hawks followed this up, the Red Arrows taxiing for their display shortly after. This was the first time the author had seen the 7 ship display, and it proved to be just as good as a 9 ship display, and crucially just as dynamic. One pass certainly brought a lump to many throats. A pass was dedicated to the two RAFAT pilots who sadly passed away last year - Flt Lt Egging and Flt Lt Cunningham. The two outer aircraft putting on red smoke as the aircraft completed a turn in front of the crowd, whilst the other 5 remained with white smoke.
The final Hawk display of the show was from the Saudi Hawks display team from Saudi Arabia, making only their second appearance in the UK - taking to the gloomy Somerset skies to entertain the huge crowds. Flying six BAE Hawk aircraft, they perform with similarity to the Red Arrows, with a show of two halves - firstly as a six ship, then splitting into two sections. It's no surprise that some of their moves are Red Arrows-esque as they have an RAF Squadron Leader as a liaison officer.
Chris Hearnes flying Hawker Hunter G-FFOX soon followed, the aircraft is now adorned with a Union Flag across its tail in celebration of Her Majesty's Diamond Jubilee. Again the weather put paid to the opportunity for any photographs of the colour scheme, but Chris put on a spirited display with plenty of swooping passes and wonderful climbs. He certainly knows how to show the Hunter’s best side.
The resident Westland Lynx force put on a fantastic set piece, involving four Lynx aircraft. The demo involved chasing down some "pirates" in a speed boat being towed up and down the runway whilst trying to recover a hostage. They also showed how they would deal with an intruding/lost aircraft, in this case a Grob Tutor, by gaining visual contact, radio comms and then shepherding it out of the area. A surprise was to see 2 of the Lynx pull up and fire off a plethora of flares, making for a fantastic ‘angel’ effect, catching most people off guard!
The Royal Air Force's Tornado Role Demonstration once again put on an amazing display utilising two Tornado GR4’s from XV Squadron RAF Lossiemouth, callsign "Poker".
Again the Demonstration showed a scenario which played out their typical role in Afghanistan, with plenty of high speed passes for a ‘show of Force’, strafing and bombing runs. Pyrotechnics made for some serious explosions, and uniquely a small flare simulating a SAM launch against the aircraft. Some serious thought had gone into this demonstration, which gives the public a rare chance to see a glimpse of what the Tornado actually does.
Another unique flypast was orchestrated by the Fleet Air Arm as they put 4 Lynx aircraft in formation with the Royal Navy Historic Flight’s Fairey Swordfish. With 2 Lynx either side it was a great chance to capture a rarely seen formation. The Swordfish then went on to perform its own, with some great flying, showing just how maneuverable the ‘Stringbag’ really is.
More vintage military aircraft were present in the form of Classic Flight's Meteor T.7, Vampire and Venom. To see all three of these aircraft airborne together is pretty rare, and they were all wonderfully flown, not least the Meteor, which seemed to stay show center for the whole of its display. Some amazing swooping turns certainly had me thinking he may get red carded, but thankfully he was allowed to finish his amazing aerial performance - and was certainly in contention for display of the day.
An eye opener was seeing the Meteor turning finals for runway 27 as a huge beast loomed from the opposite direction - a wonderfully rare and impressive appearance of an Antonov An-124 Condor, or "Ruslan". The organisers had pulled a masterstroke getting this aircraft for Airday, and most people were expecting a flypast only from the lumbering beast.
The An-124 is on contract to the MOD from Antonov Design Bureau. Operating out of RAF Brize Norton, it is used to take heavy vehicles, helicopters and stores into and out of Afghanistan.
Appearing to be flying too slow to stay airborne, the AN124 performed a tight 270 degree turn as it passed crowd center, before turning away then turning back in for one last slow flypast before departing back to RAF Brize Norton. It was a mesmerizing and rare sight, that will live long in the memory.
The finale to every Airday is the Commando Assault. A set piece involving the Royal Marines, an Army Air Corps WAH-64D Apache, a Lynx from 847NAS, eight Sea Kings from the Commando Helicopter Force and 2 Hawks from NFSF(FW). Although the practice days were flown using eight SK4’s, the actual demonstration was flown with only seven for reasons unknown.
Wave after wave of Sea Kings flew around, deploying troops by fast roping, bringing in underslung guns and vehicles, and an amazing rare sight as two Sea Kings pulled up and deployed a full load of flares as per the Lynx pair earlier in the display, again catching many by surprise.
Plenty of fast passes by the Hawks to maintain a presence followed, which led to huge pyrotechnic explosions as strafing runs, bombs and artillery hit home. It wasn’t long before the ‘hostiles’ were overcome and the Royal Navy and Royal Marines were victorious once more, receiving a huge round of applause from the crowd which had surged to the fence line to watch the finale up close.
Some certainly had doubts about whether the show would put a smile on visitors faces, especially after the cancellation of the French Navy Rafale M Display and the lack of foreign participation, but they should not have worried, as all in all it was a tremendous day out.
The flying had few gaps and was well managed, the static display was squeezed in places, but was more than adequate. The crews were friendly, welcoming and more than happy to show the public inside and around their aircraft.
The Royal Navy has once more managed to pull off yet another fantastic Airday. The Aircrew and HM Forces members were readily available to talk to, and nothing was too much trouble. The whole show has a ‘feel good’ factor about it, and long may that continue.