Back in 1947, the very first Yeovilton air show took place at its namesake’s Royal Navy Air Station (RNAS) found in Somerset. Now, some 7 decades later and the RNAS Yeovilton International Airday 2017 is one of the most highly anticipated shows of the UK airshow season. With the Airday team renowned for attracting numerous rare aircraft both on the ground and in the air, an estimated crowd of some 40,000 people crammed on to the airfield to witness 2017’s showcase of Fleet Air Arm personnel and equipment – once again the team delivering a fantastic family day out.
The highlight of any Airday is without doubt the Commando Assault Finale featuring the Royal Marines, numerous vehicles and helicopters along with pyrotechnics galore. This is in itself is worth the entrance fee alone, so it was a huge disappointment that due to operational commitments and the modernisation programme of the Commando Helicopter Force Merlin Fleet, that the role demo was sadly missing from RNAS Yeovilton International Airday 2017. One can only hope it makes a return in the future, as this is without doubt one of those centrepieces unique to the venue.
The five hour flying display, commencing with Rich Goodwin and his Muscle Pitts Bi-plane demonstrating some absolutely breathtaking aerobatics and finished with the Swiss Air Force Aerobatic team Patrouille Swiss displaying their patriotic painted six Northrop F-5 Tiger IIs, was supplemented with a multitude of historic and modern aircraft from the Royal Navy, Royal Air Force, British Army and various air arms from across Europe as well as the United States of America. There were a number of specially painted aircraft in the static display from Belgium, Denmark and notably the Czech Air Force with their evocative Spitfire schemed L-159 ALCA – complete with Royal Air Force roundel transfers added soon after arrival from its home base of Čáslav.
The largest and most popular aircraft in the static was once again the huge Boeing C-17A Globesmaster from the 315th Airlift Wing, Charleston AFB in North Carolina, USA. The aircraft has become a regular sight at Airday over the last few years and the queues to walk through the inside of the aircraft shows its popularity. The crew had flown a local sortie in the days leading up to the show from the host base up to Wales, and even flew it through the famous Mach Loop, a first for the type, which was captured on video and still images by a number of lucky enthusiasts. The crew didn’t stop smiling all day and answered the constant questions about their aircraft and their unit’s capabilities and efforts to support worldwide operations. It was a first class demonstration of Public relations and they proved great ambassadors for the United States Air Force.
The Airday flying display was a truly international event with participants from the Czech Air Force flying both a pair of L-159 ALCA and JAS 39C Gripen and the Belgian Air Component bringing their solo F-16AM Fighting Falcon. Returning were the French Navy supporting with a pair of Dassault Rafale M, whilst the Royal Danish Air Force made a very rare appearance in the air with the line-ups second F-16AM.
The show ground was as always packed with stalls, rides, simulators and marching bands along with interactive hangar displays and helicopter pleasure flights to entertain families throughout the day – everything needed to make the day a truly family oriented event.
With the first sea trials of HMS Queen Elizabeth (R08) now underway, the first landing on the Royal Navy’s new flagship aircraft carrier was undertaken by a RNAS Culdrose based Merlin HM2 of 820 Naval Air Squadron in the days leading up to the show. It was therefore somewhat appropriate to see one of these mighty helicopters being put through its paces with a very nimble flying display – the type’s characteristic blade ‘chirp’ following it throughout. In comparison, the privately owned Westland Whirlwind HAR10 – the world’s sole airworthy example – in RAF markings flew a Search and Rescue Role demo. With the Mighty Sea King now retired from the role, it was pleasing to see this rare and colourful airframe undertaking a demonstration of what was its primary role. The Whirlwind was also in service with the Fleet Air Arm, including RNAS Yeovilton’s 845, 846 and 848 Squadrons.
It was good to see the Royal Air Force at the show with aircraft from different generations, namely the Eurofighter Typhoon, The RAF Aerobatic Team Red Arrows flying their nine Bae Hawk T1s, and the RAF Battle of Britain Memorial (RAFBBMF) flight featuring the photogenic silver Spitfire PR19 and the newly painted and serviced Avro Lancaster BI PA474.
The Red Arrows, led by Red One Sqn Ldr David Montenegro now in his third year as Team Leader put on a polished display as ever with a number of new moves for 2017. That said, the aircraft look somewhat tired with aspects of their paint scheme looking faded, quite probably due to their recent mammoth and hugely successful tour of the Far East.
The 2017 RAF Typhoon display pilot this year is Flt Lt Ryan Lawton of 29(R) Squadron out of RAF Coningsby. After completing flying training in 2006, Ryan flew the Tornado GR4 before being chosen to take part in a trial during 2011 to complete the Typhoon conversion course purely in the simulator! He was subsequently posted to 11 Squadron – also at RAF Coningsby – in 2012 and later joined 29(R) Squadron a couple of years after. Disappointingly, after a recent trend of colourful anniversary marked jet, there is no special schemed aircraft allocated for this year’s Typhoon display, unlike so many of Europe’s air force squadrons who make a huge effort year on year. This year’s display appears more dynamic but a little distant than previous years with a number of new manoeuvres being thrown in which given how long the type has been on the circuit is refreshing to see.
As mentioned, the BBMF Lancaster has undergone a huge overhaul and repaint, but sadly, this has been plagued with niggling issues and run nearly two months overdue. Despite having undertaken ‘her’ first test flight on the Monday prior to Airday from Duxford Airfield where she is under the care of ARCo, the Flight’s flagship was limited to a number of straight and level flypasts with the beautiful silver PR19 Spitfire with its smokey Griffin engine in tow. This was the Lancaster’s first outing and credit must be given to the BBMF for making the effort to try to fulfil her planned duties whilst they had yet to achieve PDA. Spitfire PS915 in its eye-catching silver paint scheme, represents PR MK XIX Spitfire PS852 that was flown by Flight Lt Ted Powles AFC in February 1952 to a height of 51,550 feet, a record breaking altitude for a Spitfire.
The British Army Apache Helicopter Display Team or AHDT operated with two Apaches AH1s when first appearing on the circuit in 2012, but with operational commitments taking priority, the team are fielding single aircraft in 2017. However, with a well-choreographed display and scripted commentary accompanied by the use of spectacular pyrotechnics, the single aircraft display captures the attention of all especially with the aircraft’s finale – the ‘wall of fire’. A second example was on hand in the static display, giving people a chance to see this menacing machine up close.
The Royal Navy has retired a number of stalwart aircraft in recent years which were a mainstay of Airday in the past – the venerable ‘Junglie’ Sea King Commando Mk4 and the Westland Lynx HMA8, the latter being the mount of the Royal Navy Display Team The Black Cats for many years. The Black Cats – flown by four aircrew from 825 NAS – now operate two Leonardo AW159 Wildcat HM2 aircraft with a team of dedicated volunteer engineers out of RNAS Yeovilton. However, the Wildcat display at Yeovilton wasn’t performed by the Blackcats, but instead saw an informative and well thought out Wildcat maritime role demo. The aircraft are very photogenic due to the two-tone colour scheme they wear and the demonstration showed the various roles of the Wildcat utilising flares and pyrotechnics.
The Royal Navy Historic Flight (RNHF), now encompassed by the Navy Wings umbrella, has had its fair share of bad luck over the years with it’s stable of aircraft – the latest incident being the sad – but incredibly well flown wheels up landing by Cdr Hargreaves in their mighty Sea Vixen FAW2 (G-CVIX). As can be imagined, the machine’s planned appearance in the air was cancelled. However the DH Sea Vixen, Sea Hawk, and Fairey Swordfish LS326 were all present on static. With both Fairey Swordfish grounded due to issues – W5856 having issues with engine valves and LS326’s engine undergoing a rebuild and piston checks – it means sadly both aircraft are spending most of the season in the collection’s hangar and will not appear on the airshow scene this year. A stark situation, leaving the RNHF and Navy Wings in the unenviable position of having a hangar full of unserviceable aircraft.
It was hoped that their Hawker Sea Fury T20 (G-RNHF/VX281) would return to display almost three years since her engine failure and subsequent emergency landing at RNAS Culdrose on July 31, 2014. Sadly the Sea Fury didn’t appear, which was somewhat disappointing as it was planned to fly a pairs flypast with the Norwegian Air Force Historical Squadrons MiG-15UTI. The Russian built jet fighter first flew in the same year that Air day started and was elegantly displayed by the Flights manager Kenneth Aarkvisla. The Sea Fury was replaced in the flying display by Hangar 11’s P51D Mustang Tall in the Saddle which was expertly flown by its owner Peter Teichman. It is safe to say he certainly knows how to display a warbird with bending topsides (something the RAF BBMF could possibly inherit to enhance their displays) allowing photo opportunities a plenty whilst the aeroplane provided its own background music with its unique whistling howl.
First flown in 1961 and approaching 60 years old, the Breguet Atlantique is a rare sight at UK air shows, or in and around the UK in general, so to have a French Navy variant booked to display made this very much one of this year’s airshow highlights. Sadly the aircraft was troubled with mechanical gremlins, and despite the best efforts of the Aéronavale engineers at its base of Lann-Bihoué it failed to make it across the channel. Desperate to maintain the flow of the airshow, and fill the vacant slot in the flying display, the organisers rustled up the Navy Wings Chipmunk in its place, which entertained the crowds with a serious of loops, and tight turns at show centre. It may not have had the presence or power of the Atlantique but the venerable ‘Chippie’ certainly put on a polished display for the crowds.
The two General Dynamics F-16AM’s in the flying display came from the Royal Danish Air Force and Belgian Air Component. The Danish aircraft certainly seemed to have the edge over Commandant ‘Gizmo’ De Moortel’s display, with a fast and dynamic demonstration of manoeuvres including a series of high-g vertical pull ups and tight turns providing plenty of vortices over the wings. Having seen the Belgian Display a week later at the Royal International Air Tattoo it seemed a completely different and somewhat more flowing and energetic display to the slightly lacklustre one witnessed here at Yeovilton.
The Royal Jordanian Falcons, an annual Airday participant and crowd favourite, displayed their four Extra EA300Ls with aplomb. Based at the King Hussein International Airport in Aqaba, Jordan, they come to Europe each summer to perform their smart formations and solo aerobatics. With traditional Jordanian music accompanying their display, and led by Capt Ahmad Al Qudah, the show peaks with their signature manoeuvre – The Hashemite Break!
The Royal Navy Parachute display team were established in 1983 and consists of serving volunteer personnel. A well-used Naval PR and recruitment platform, the team are led by Major Steve ‘Sharky’ Ward, Royal Marines and parachuted in from a Shorts Skyvan from around 5000ft – smoke pouring from canisters strapped around their ankles and various ensigns flying proudly as they fell under their canopies. The team all landed to a round of applause as they expertly hit their landing zone.
The Czech Air Force has appeared many times at Yeovilton Airday with the Saab Gripen and L-159 ALCA (Advanced Light Combat Aircraft), but this year the L-159 display was supplemented by a second aircraft for a tactical demo featuring flares and pyrotechnics. The dynamic display highlighted the performance of the ALCA in its ground attack role. The L-159 ALCA is manufactured by Aero Vodochody in the Czech Republic and is designated as a ‘light attack and advanced trainer jet’. Fourteen aircraft (12 L-159A single seat and two L-159T1 two seat trainer aircraft) were sold to the Iraqi Air Force in 2015 and allocated to 115 Squadron, who saw combat action in their jets against ISIS in 2016. The Saab JAS-39C Gripen, from the 211th Tactical Squadron, once again showed why it is a highly sought after aircraft around the world, able to fly from roads or small airstrips it can take-off using just over 2000ft of runway and land using just 1800ft of runway.
The eagerly anticipated stars of the Airday for many were to be the pair of Aéronavale Dassault Rafale M multirole aircraft from 11 Flotille based at BAN Landivisiau. The Dassault Rafale M aircraft recently conducted operations against ISIS while embarked on the aircraft carrier FS Charles de Gaulle while operating in the Mediterranean and also conducted ‘cross deck operations’ with the USS Dwight D Eisenhower whilst AeroResource were embarked on the American Nuclear powered aircraft carrier (Aircraft Carrier Operations – USS Dwight D Eisenhower)
One of the two Rafale M aircraft displaying was painted in an Artic Tiger scheme – complete with red eyes dominating the jets wings – for the recent NATO Tiger Meet held at their home base of Landivisiau – a huge contrast to the other jet wearing its standard grey scheme. The aircraft took to the skies in a tight formation with the ‘burners plugged in, and with the best weather of the day, produced a breathtaking role demonstration. In laymans terms, the two jets ripped up the Somerset skies with a series of tail chases and close formation passes in various clean and dirty configurations. The Artic Tiger Rafale M looked stunning against the deep blue skies and the pilot seemed to take advantage of the suns position by performing a series of high-g pull-ups – the sun lighting up the tiger scheme beautifully. As the grey jet landed the ‘tiger’ flew another three passes to ensure everyone was sat grinning by the time he had landed. A truly exceptional set piece of flying that richly deserved the crowd’s applause. You had to feel sorry for the RAF Typhoon waiting to to display next!
Even though RNAS Yeovilton International Airday 2017 was missing its legendary Commando Assault demo, it still had the wow factor, mainly in part down to the French Navy Rafale demo, which simply grabbed everyone’s attention and provided one of the best displays seen in many years! The loss of some star aircraft, notably the Sea Vixen, Atlantique, Sea Fury and a full RAF BBMF display didn’t detract from a mixed and varied flying program. The static display seemed somewhat lighter than in previous years, in particular the northern taxiway area traditionally served by Fleet Air Arm aircraft, but the quality of what was on show was not to be grumbled at with a number of rare and photogenic aircraft well positioned. The organisers, volunteers and military personnel who gave up their weekend to ensure the public had a fun filled day have to be applauded; it was a truly inspiring family day out and great PR for the Senior Service.