Always a favourite with enthusiasts, RNAS Yeovilton Air Day 2016 had a tough act to follow after the great lineup at the 2015 show. In addition, with the withdrawal of the ‘Junglie’ Sea Kings from service, the question many were asking was could the finale of the show still live up to expectations? Adam Duffield and Duncan Monk spent the day at the Somerset base to judge for themselves.
RNAS Yeovilton is home to the Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm’s Lynx, Wildcat and Commando Helicopter Forces (CHF) alongside the aircraft of the Royal Navy Historic Flight (RNHF) and the Fleet Air Arm Museum. Every year, the base opens its doors for its award winning Air Day to let the public to get a feel of what the force undertakes on a daily basis as well as showing off a packed and varied flying display.
On the ground, the static lineup provided a chance to get up close with some interesting airframes. As with many military focused shows over the years, a steady decline in static displays was evident with a few noticeable gaps when compared to shows just a few years ago. Despite this, quality over quantity always counts and the return of a United States Air Force Boeing C-17 Globemaster III from Charleston Air Force Base (along with their ‘mini’ C-17!) was a real ‘catch’. Throughout the day, the jet was open giving the public a chance to walk through the interior, which attracted the largest queues of any of the aircraft. Two other transport aircraft also attended with the German Air Force providing a Transall C-160D (50+67) complete with special markings on the tail to celebrate 60 years of the Luftwaffe (similar markings having been applied to a number of the air arms airframes at this time) and a CASA C-295 (013) from the Polish Air Force.
As can be expected given the bases own aircraft and those held within the Fleet Air Arm museum’s collection, a number were out on display around the showground. A pair of Westland Lynx HMA.8’s (XZ731 and XZ691) flanked by a single AgustaWestland Wildcat HMA.2 (ZZ529) were positioned next to each other with aircrew on hand to give detailed information to compare the two similar yet altogether different aircraft. Two further Wildcats were on show and displayed with a variety of armaments and operational equipment surrounding them whilst the Royal Navy’s newest addition, the Merlin HC.3 – ZJ121 in this instance – was also represented in the static. Getting their annual ‘airing’ from the confines of the museum were McDonnell Douglas Phantom FG.1 XV586 and British Aerospace Sea Harrier FA.2 ZH800, which is marked up as ZH801. Joining them on display in one of the hangars was perhaps the most famous ‘Junglie’ of all – Westland Sea King HC.4 ZA298, ‘The King of the Junglies’ – which has recently joined the collection.
International fast jet participation came from the Dutch, Belgian and German Air Forces thanks to a pair of F-16AM (J-871 and J-201), a single F-16BM (FB-21) and Tornado IDS (45+09) respectively. The Belgians also brought a Dassault Falcon 20 (CM-02) to the show that was parked up next to a lovely looking French Falcon 10 MER (185) – the latter still carrying centenary markings from the 2010 celebration of French Naval Aviation. Just a selection of the static display has been listed here and there was certainly plenty to look around during the day. The one downside that has always plagued Yeovilton’s static display for photographers is the extreme close proximity of the metal fencing surrounding the aircraft making it incredibly difficult to get clear shots of the majority of aircraft. With a few less static items now than would have been seen for example five years ago, surely an extra couple of feet of extra space could be given around them without impacting the chance for the public to still get ‘up close’?
Opening the action in the air was a diamond formation of two Lynx HMA.8 (ZD257 and ZD565) and two Wildcat HMA.2 (ZZ396 and ZZ375) flying a single flypast. With the Royal Navy Lynx fleet being steadily withdrawn (around ten now remain in service) the type is expected to be formally retired from the force in just under a year having given over 30 years’ service and will be replaced by the Wildcat. Similar to last years opening, the flypast represented not only another type going out of service but also a reminder of the modernisation the force is currently undergoing.
Providing a stomach churning display of unlimited aerobatics, Rich Goodwin gave a spirited display in his Pitts S-2S (G-EWIZ) that left many doubting what they were seeing as the red, white and blue biplane gyrated around the sky. This highly modified Pitts, dubbed the ‘Muscle Pitts’, has inconceivable performance numbers wise and its agility in the air enables it to fly some incredible maneuvers including Rich’s signature ‘Tower of Power’, sporty knife edge take off and also attempting to imitate a rotary aircraft at points by using the power to hang from the prop seemingly stationary in the air.
After a last minute cancellation for the 2015 Air Day, it was great to see the Norwegian Air Force Historic flight bring their MiG-15UTI to Yeovilton. Originally built in Poland as a SB Lim-2, the aircraft carries the ‘Red 18’ markings of famous cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin who flew the type during his air force career and performed a number of photogenic passes during its display, which coincided with the heaviest, and thankfully briefest of rain showers.
As the home of the Royal Navy Historic Flight, it is no surprise that a new organisation, Navy Wings, chose the event for their public launch. Bringing together the RNHF and Fly Navy Heritage Trust along with private operators of Royal Navy aircraft as Navy Wings Associates, this promising new initiative aims to inspire future generations. Not only that, a secondary aim is to create a focus for remembrance to all things naval aviation. To that end, three aircraft in particular formed an important part of the launch. Since its, return to flight, the RNHF Swordfish W5856 has travelled around the country providing many a chance to see the famous torpedo bomber and is the most often seen of the RNHF assets at this time providing a vital public link to the collection.
Recently added as a Navy Wings associate aircraft and in its first public display season, Westland Wasp XT787 (G-KAXT) piloted by Dr Terry Martin has already become a much respected display. Painted in a South Atlantic camouflage scheme as would have been worn by the type during the Falklands conflict, the Wasp saw over 30 years of service with the Royal Navy and is therefore a fitting addition to the Navy Wings and, presently, their only rotary aircraft.
Of course, the jewel in the crown and star item for many attending the show is de Havilland Sea Vixen FAW2 XP924 (G-CVIX) which for the display was flown by former Harrier pilot CDR Simon Hargreaves. Operated by the Fly Navy Heritage Trust since being gifted to them in 2014 (more on that here – http://www.aeroresource.co.uk/news/sea-vixen-homecoming/), it is the only example of the type flying in the world and currently the largest classic jet displayed in the UK. After a superb display which saw ‘ribbons’ streaming of the wingtips, the aircraft was taxied across the runway and in to a ‘holding pen’ in the middle of the crowd line showing off its wing folding mechanism as it did so.
Fans of warbirds were not to be left out with some excellent examples on show throughout the day. The Battle of Britain Memorial Flight provided the pairing of Hurricane Mk IIc PZ865 and Spitfire Mk Vb AB910 performing a formation entrance before splitting for their own solo routines. From The Fighter Collection based at Duxford came Goodyear Corsair FG-1D G-FGID representing just part of the Royal Navy’s carrier based force during the Second World War. To complete the single engined warbirds lineup was Supermarine Seafire LF III PP972 (G-BUAR) in the hands of Richard Grace who flew a superb routine through the blue skies.
Making a welcome return after an absence of 16 years at the show, the distinctive shape of Boeing B-17G ‘Sally B’ was the largest aircraft in the skies at the show with its usual graceful display including the dedication pass with smoke. Representing a somewhat newer era, Tony de Bruyn’s OV-10 Bronco display is another favourite and, whilst a regular at a number of UK shows throughout the year, is always good to see with the aircraft which for 2016 sports discrete ‘Tiger’ markings on the tail and underbelly fuel tank.
Leading in to a short break around lunchtime (and just before a short, sharp shower!) another of the aircraft from the Bronco Demo Team – Short Skyvan G-PIGY – took to the skies carrying the Royal Navy Raiders parachute team. With the machine climbing to height and attempting to find a break in the clouds, the ten jumpers – made up of two Royal Navy, four Royal Marines and four Army personnel – managed to successfully exit the aircraft on their second pass and land on target in front of crowd center.
Always a crowd favourite at any show and an instantly recognisable team, the Royal Air Force Red Arrows appeared on time as always. Now in his second year as Red 1, Squadron Leader David Montenegro led the team in to a full display (thanks to a fortunate break in the weather) which for 2016 includes a number of slightly different formations and figures alongside passes dedicated to British Astronaut Tim Peake and legendary naval aviator Captain Eric ‘Winkle’ Brown.
Joining the ‘Reds’ in team fixed wing aerobatics displays were two teams with prop aircraft in the form of the Polish Air Force’s Team Orlik and the Royal Jordanian Falcons. Named after their Polish built PZL-130 Orlik turboprop trainers, the Polish team filled the sky with a formation of seven aircraft. Whilst a perfectly executed display, the early section seems to leave a number of pauses as the team reposition that sadly breaks up the flow of the display. On the other hand, the Extra 300 equipped Royal Jordanian Falcons fly a much tighter four-ship routine and, whilst often maligned by enthusiasts, their skill and well-flown performance cannot be knocked.
Whilst rotary action should be of no surprise at the show given the current types operated by the Royal Navy, two displays representing other services were also in the lineup. The Attack Helicopter Display Team (ADHT) featuring the Army Air Corps AgustaWestland Apache AH.1 (ZJ223) is back for 2016 but with a single aircraft. Giving a demonstration of its role on the battlefield, the commentary provides an excellent description of the operational relevance to the manoeuvres being performed and, with Yeovilton giving a chance to include pyrotechnics, a very explosive display! The second act made their debut at the show as a flying display item in what was only their second public performance. The Gazelle Squadron have become a hit in the static park over the last couple of years and their flying display shows great promise. Featuring two Gazelle HT.3s – XZ934 (G-CBSI) in a 32 Squadron RAF VIP scheme and ZB627 (G-CBSK) in a RAF 2FTS scheme – the display consisted of a number of formation and opposition passes with some formation hover moves thrown in for a well-rounded display. It should also be noted that the team had another aircraft in the static park, a HT2 (XX436/G-ZZLE) which has recently been repainted in a 705 NAS scheme of the Sharks display team – a unit with which it served during its military career.
Front line fighter jets were also on show with the Royal Air Force and Aéronavale providing displays. After their excellent display in 2015 with a pair of Dassault Rafales and Super Etendards, the French returned this year with another pair of Rafale M aircraft (serial 20 and 6) operated by Flotilla 11F at Landivisiau. With the Super Etendard just weeks away from retirement at the time of the show, the Rafale pair tore up the sky in their own way with some lovely formation passes before performing numerous simulated attack runs which saw impressively seamless rejoins from both the aircraft. Also demonstrating its own sky tearing ability was the Typhoon Solo display (ZK352) from 29 Sqn and flown by Flt Lt Mark Long. Returning to a standard marked jet for the 2016 season, what the display may lack in aircraft colour it sure makes up for in terms of power and agility. With an on-crowd dirty barrel roll amongst the highlights it is has to be up there as one of the best Typhoon displays seen to date from the junior service.
Of course, RNAS Yeovilton is home to a significant proportion of the Royal Navy’s helicopter fleet and the display programme included a significant contribution from most of the units based there. Most well-known and often seen are the Black Cats with a pair of Wildcat HMA.2 helicopters (ZZ396 and ZZ375). After their transition from the Lynx HMA.8, the display may not yet be quite as dynamic as was seen with their previous mount but has steadily built up over the last few years and includes a number of opposition passes plus some close formation work along the crowd line.
With 2016 marking the last Yeovilton (and most likely any show) display appearance of a Lynx HMA.8, the Maritime Attack Role Demo aimed to give a glimpse of the role that the Lynx has undertaken for so many years and which the Wildcat is taking over. Despite this display intending to be the shows swan song for the type, it seemed that the pair of Lynx (ZD257 and ZD565) played ‘second fiddle’ to the Wildcat pair (ZZ519 and ZZ375) with much of the focus seeming to be on the these rather their venerable predecessor.
But, if there is one thing that Yevoliton Air Day is known for, it is the Commando Assault demonstration that traditionally closes the show. With the ‘Junglie’ Sea Kings now retired, 2016 saw the first demonstration with the Merlin HC.3/HC.3a purely at the forefront of the Commando Helicopter Force and many wondering if it would look, and feel the same. Supported by a single Hawk T1 (XX159), a pair of Wildcat AH.1s (ZZ410 and ZZ510 operated by 652 Squadron AAC) and the ADHT Apache, the six Merlins of 846 NAS (five x HC.3 – ZJ118/B, ZJ130/O, ZJ132/Q, ZJ135/T, ZJ137/W – and one HC.3a ZJ994/AC) were at the forefront of the action. From troop transport and insertion via fast rope to underslung loads, it was truly impressive to see the Merlins thundering about the airfield at low-level, gear up and in formation – they certainly appear to be a formidable and capable force supporting the ground unit that comprised personnel from 40 Commando. The much-anticipated flare release from previous years also made a return with the Merlin doing its best to expend the Navy’s entire supply of flares in a single salvo! With all assets completing the demonstration and lining up in front of the crowd, all that was left was for the finale to close the show for yet another year – the wall of flame.
With RNAS Yeovilton Air Day 2016 done and dusted, it’s clear to see why it still holds a rating as one of the biggest and best airshows in the UK. As is usually said, the Commando assault is alone worth attending the show for but the addition of displays such as the Rafale pair, MiG-15 and Sea Vixen help to pull together a solid lineup. Whilst the sun position makes it difficult for photographers, it gives a good chance to put the camera down and watch the skill and precision of the displays in full rather than through a viewfinder. With the 2017 show missing another Royal Navy asset, the Lynx HMA.8, it will be interesting to see how the show evolves. If you can though, it’s certainly a show worth making the effort to attend!