When it comes to travelling to an airshow within the UK, RNAS Culdrose ranks as one of those with the highest potential mileage for most people. However, based on the 2015 event, it also ranks as one of those with the most pleasant visitor experience – both for the general public and the aviation enthusiast with a veritable host of heavy hitters and Royal Navy assets filling the skies for a pleasant day of flying. Ben Montgomery reports from a sunny West Cornwall.
Located just south of Helston on Cornwall’s southern coast, Royal Naval Air Station Culdrose is one of the Royal Navy’s few remaining flying stations and plays host to a multitude of fixed wing and rotary types. Perhaps most famous of the residents are 771 Naval Air Squadron flying the distinctive red and grey Sea King HU.5 in the Search and Rescue role. With over 200 callouts a year and responsibility for the Western Approaches (Cornwall, the Isles of Scilly and out to 200 miles into the Atlantic), 771NAS has literally been the difference between life and death for thousands of people since the unit arrived in 1974. Now, in the twilight months of service before Search and Rescue duties finish transitioning to civilian hands, Air Day 2015 was the final appearance for 771NAS – who provided three different airframes for two separate contributions to the flying display.
Bolstering the Sea King fleet at Culdrose is 849 Naval Air Squadron flying the Sea King ASaC.7 – the Navy’s premier airborne early warning asset. Unlike the Sea King HU.5s, the ASaC.7s have a slightly longer lease of life and are expected to stay in operation until 2018, when the Crowsnest equipped Merlin HM.2 will take over the role.
The AgustaWestland Merlin HM.2 does not have to wait until 2018 to make an appearance at Culdrose though as the unit is the main operating base for the type, with four units (814, 820, 824 and 829 Naval Air Squadrons) already in situ. The Merlin HM.2 is set to be the Royal Navy’s premier large helicopter and, aside from its primary role of anti-submarine warfare, the Merlin is capable of maritime patrol, casualty evacuation, cargo transportation and pretty much any other role the Navy can find for it.
Culdrose still has a fixed wing presence with both Hawk T.1s and Avenger T.1s regularly in the air over the base. The Hawks belong to 736 Naval Air Squadron, well known for their threat simulation and “aggressor” roles in support of the Royal Navy. The Avenger T.1s are the newer addition to the Culdrose fleet. Based on the King Air 350ER, they are operated by 750 Naval Air Squadron to train all Royal Navy Observers – the same role which used to be undertaken by the venerable Jetstream.
As well as examples of all Culdrose’s aircraft in the static park, the Royal Navy rolled out other exhibits for visitors to interact with. Probably the “coolest” of these was the Winching Wessex – mounted on structure within one of the hangars was Wessex HU.5 XT453 which allowed visitors to experience being winched into/out of a Royal Navy helicopter.
In general, Culdrose had more of the feel of a community or family day than an airshow. Even though 20,000 odd visitors were in attendance, the atmosphere was laid back and relaxed. Tickets were only £20 on the gate (£15 in advance) for 6 hours of flying, with programmes just an additional £5. Also of note was the food – it may have been a placebo effect because of the relaxed environment, but the offerings seemed of higher quality and cheaper price than many airshows around the UK (a pastie for £4? – no complaints there).
The static display at Culdrose was minimalist, with the majority of the aircraft on display being residents of the station. Probably the two highlights of the static display were a Tornado GR.4 from IX(B) Squadron at RAF Marham, and a Royal Netherlands Navy NH90 NATO Frigate Helicopter (NFH). The Dutch NH90 was a particularly welcome visitor, with three of the type having been deployed to RNAS Culdrose earlier in the year. Other Royal Navy assets in attendance were a Sea King HC.4 “Junglie” from RNAS Yeovilton (probably making its last Culdrose appearance as the type is phased out in favour of the Merlin HC.3, as part of the continuing upgrades to the UK helicopter fleet), and a Falcon 20 from Cobham Aviation Services. Whilst none of the aircraft were positioned well for photography, the emphasis was again on engagement with the public – and for this the displays were excellent, with aircrew from each type on hand to speak to the public for most of the day.
The airshow was opened by the appropriately registered G-CNWL, a McDonnell Douglas MD902 Explorer of the Cornwall Air Ambulance. Covering much the same region as 771 Naval Air Squadron (Cornwall out to the Isles of Scilly), the Air Ambulance performed a brief routine up and down the display line. More importantly than opening the display, this drew attention to the vital role they perform within the local communities.
Whilst Cosford has the claim to be the last airshow in the UK at which you can see a working Jaguar, Culdrose holds the title for working Sea Harriers. No less than eight were on display for the show, with a collection of four FA.2s and a single T.8 arranged in the static display. The real treat though was a taxi run and mock launch from three further FA.2s at the start of the flying display – the instantly recognisable whine of their Pegasus engines causing suitable interest in the crowd.
Making their only UK appearance of 2015, and the first at Culdrose for 11 years were the Italian Air Force Frecce Tricolori display team. Complete with their characteristically flamboyant commentator, the team were the only military jet team in attendance at Culdrose but would have been a highlight in their own right even if the Red Arrows had been in attendance. Their display as always had most of the crowd on their feet, with favourites such as the “Crazy Fly” still as crazy as ever! One particularly nice human element at the end of the Frecce display was one of the pilots having to rush home to Italy to attend the birth of his child – our best wishes to the family, and hopefully he made it back in time!
The Air Day gave an appropriate nod to the history of the Fleet Air Arm, with six warbirds from the Second World War period displaying over the course of the event. Normally the Royal Navy Historic Flight would have attended with their Sea Fury, but it is still being repaired after a crash landing at the 2014 Culdrose Air Day. On a happier note, this did leave the stage clear for the newly restored Swordfish Mk.1 W5856, which took to the skies again in 2015 after a lengthy restoration. This Swordfish joins the more commonly seen Mk.II LS326 and will no doubt now be seen at airshows up and down the country.
At the other end of the performance spectrum from the slow and leisurely Swordfish was the Kennet Aviation Seafire – itself also relatively recently returned to flight after a landing mishap in 2011. Flown by John Beattie the display, whilst not great for photographers, showed the performance of the type well, and the cream colours looked beautiful against the rich blue afternoon skies.
The other examples of world war two era aircraft to display were the Corsair and Wildcat from The Fighter Collection at Duxford, the Hangar 11 Collection’s P-40 and Kennet Aviation’s Harvard – the latter pair being displayed by Peter Teichmann and Chris Gotke respectively. A slightly worrying moment occurred for the Wildcat, being caught in a particularly strong gust of the prevailing on-crowd wind whilst taxiing down the runway. Happily all was fine, and the show was able to continue.
Culdrose’s showpiece is its Balbo formation of locally assigned aircraft. For 2015, this was appropriately spearheaded by three Sea King HU.5s of 771NAS, followed by a single Sea King ASaC.7, three Merlin HM.2s and – visiting from RNAS Yeovilton – two Wildcat HMA.2s and a single Lynx HMA8. Having taken off to form up and hold before the Gnat team displayed, the formation performed a single run past the crowd (timed to coincide with two Hawks from 736NAS running over at high speed) before the rotary assets hovered over the runway in a salute.
As one would expect from a predominantly rotary air station, Culdrose attracted a good variety of helicopter displays – with four Royal Navy types joined by the Royal Air Force Chinook HC.4 display and the Cornwall Air Ambulance which had opened the display.
The Royal Navy Black Cats team displayed with their pair of Wildcat HMA.2s – having completed the swap to the new airframe for the 2015 season after displaying a mixed pair of Lynx HMA.8 and Wildcat HMA.2. Culdrose will also have been one of the last opportunities to see the Lynx HMA.8 in action, as the Royal Navy Lynx solo was also present providing a solid reminder of the manoeuvrability of the type. Particularly impressive was the opening to the display, with an autorotation down towards the crowd.
Culdrose assets provided the final two Royal Navy helicopter displays, with the Merlin HM.2 solo display and a Search and Rescue Role Demonstration from 771NAS and the Sea King HU.5. The Merlin HM.2 is, externally, almost indistinguishable to the HM.1 however internally it is a new machine, with a completely revamped mission suite from Lockheed Martin bringing the aircraft to the forefront of technology.
The display from 771NAS was in much the same format as most Search and Rescue displays, with the Sea King performing a winch recovery of a “survivor” on the ground. To add context to their display, 771NAS employed a flatbed truck to simulate a boat drifting on the ocean. This required the aircrew not only to hold position over a small fixed target, but to continue doing so whilst the target was moving – most impressive!
The sole display from the Royal Air Force was the consistently impressive Chinook Display Team. Flown by 27 Squadron, it was pleasing to see the 18(B) Squadron Centenary aircraft (ZA712) being used for the display. The colours of this design really helped the aircraft stand out from the deep blue skies, and the crew worked hard to create that familiar blade slap distinctive to the Chinook.
Culdrose drew heavily on the support of the UK’s vibrant civilian aerobatic teams – with participation from Wildcat Aerobatics, The Blades, The RV8tors, Breitling Wing Walkers and Rich Goodwin’s Muscle Biplane. All of these lighter displays suited the Culdrose venue and atmosphere, and really went down well with the crowd – especially Rich Goodwin and the Muscle Biplane, whose sporty takeoff left many in the crowd in disbelief, a feeling which only continued as the display progressed.
The Wildcat team were polished as ever with their two Pitts S-2Bs and were the team chosen to display first, flown by Al Coutts and Willie Cruickshank. Particularly impressive was the mirror pass, which seemed pleasingly close to the crowd and very well executed – as was the final topside pass (the wave to the crowd from the cockpit was a nice touch, and was definitely noticed).
Displaying for the first time at Culdrose was Tony de Bruyn in his OV-10 Bronco. Resplendent in the markings of a German Air Force aircraft complete with high visibility day-glo orange, the Bronco is a sprightly performer, and was easily able to stay within the short crowdline for the majority of the routine.
For lovers of an adrenalin rush, which normally means most of the crowd, Culdrose had secured two current front line jets. As the Royal Navy has no fast jet assets until the F-35 Lightning II becomes operational, and the Royal Air Force Typhoon was stood down for a mid season break, afterburner action for the day was provided courtesy of overseas participation from Poland and Switzerland.
Poland’s MiG-29 had displayed at the Royal International Air Tattoo earlier in July and had also been expected to display at the RAF Cosford Airshow (where the Swiss F/A-18C was also present), but fleet-wide engine issues prevented this from occurring. Happily the weather and conditions at Culdrose were perfect, with two Fulcrums attending alongside a CASA CN295 support aircraft. The CN295 was placed on static display for the show and had huge crowd interest, with Polish personnel talking to the public for most of the day.
With the MiG-29 having been on static display only in 2014, 2015 marked its display debut at Culdrose. Flown by Captain Adrian Rojek, the Fulcrum was well displayed even on a smaller crowd line such as Culdrose. This particular MiG-29 is marked (as all the Polish fleet are) in remembrance of a Polish Air Force pilot. Fulcrum 114 commemorates Major Eugeniusz Horbaczewski, Poland’s third highest scoring ace of World War Two with 16.5 confirmed kills.
Displaying later in the afternoon was the Swiss Air Force F/A-18C Hornet, flown by Captain Julien “Teddy” Meister who returns as the Swiss Solo Hornet pilot having been appointed to the role for the 2014 season. Culdrose marks the second UK appearance of the Hornet, but the weather could not have been more different to the grey clag which blanketed Cosford Airshow in June. With unrestricted visibility and plenty of moisture in the humid sea air causing some impressive vortices to form on the Hornet’s large Leading Edge Root Extensions (LERX), Captain Meister’s display was certainly worthy of the award of overall best flying demonstration.
Providing the classic jet warbird element to the afternoon were a trio of aircraft types with the first two hailing from the impressive stable at North Weald. The Gnat Display Team flew three of their diminutive Gnat T.1 trainers in a very polished routine, making good use of the weather to show off their machines. It is with great sadness that we later learned of the loss of Kevin Whyman in one of the Gnats just a few days later and we echo the sentiments of those others who have already paid tribute to him. Our thoughts continue to be with his family and friends.
Also from North Weald was the second of the trio of classic jets – Hunter T.7 WV372 in the hands of Chris Heames. Whilst this Hunter is now marked as a Royal Air Force aircraft, it does have naval heritage. The Fleet Requirements and Air Direction Unit (FRADU) took on the aircraft in 1984 when it was transferred to the Royal Navy, and flew it until 1993 (with a three year down period for maintenance between 1987-1990). WV372 ended its days at Culdrose as a ground instructional airframe in much the same role as the Sea Harriers are now used making it very appropriate to see this airframe back in Cornwall.
There was probably no more fitting way to end at Culdrose, the station training naval personnel for future fast jet flight deck operations, than with the world’s only airworthy example of one of the Royal Navy’s previous fast jets, and the third of the classic jet trio to display at the show. De Havilland Sea Vixen FAW.2 XP924, now in the midst of its first display season since transferring to the Fly Navy Heritage Trust in September 2014 had flown down from RNAS Yeovilton to close the Air Day proceedings at Culdrose.
Opening with a fast pass from the South, the Sea Vixen display gave the crowd a good sense of both the speed and power of this important historic aircraft, as well as an indication of the naval heritage which stands behind it with a gear down, flaps down, breaks down pass simulating a trap onto one of the Fleet Air Arm’s aircraft carriers.
On reflection, the most common feelings aimed at the RNAS Culdrose Air Day after the 2015 show were a sense of quiet satisfaction. This was an airshow that delivered all the big hitters, with a solid performance from the civilian world and from the home team but at the same time managed to retain some of that friendlier atmosphere more akin to the small shows like Old Warden. Compliments must certainly be rendered to the Royal Navy, for there is not much more they could have done to showcase themselves to an expectant, and ultimately satisfied public.