RNAS Merryfield is a satellite airfield to the Fleet Air Arm base at RNAS Yeovilton. The airfield is a former RAF station, dating from the 1944 when it was used by the USAAF 441st Troop Carrier Group as a base for over 70 C-47 aircraft during Operation Overlord and the subsequent operations in Normandy. Every year the Royal Navy open Merryfield up to the public to provide the local community with a clearer understanding of what goes on at the airfield and why. The event is free of charge and because it takes place on a summer evening it is full of great photographic opportunities. The event in 2015 was well attended with over 2,000 people visiting, including Paul Smith who brings this guest report.

After the Second World War, Merryfield was used by the Royal Air Force, the Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm and the aircraft manufacturer Westland for pilot training and aircraft testing purposes – with Vampire, Meteor, Sea Venom and Westland Wyvern aircraft based there. The airfield then fell into disrepair until 1971, when it was opened again by the Fleet Air Arm as HMS Heron II for rotary wing operational flying training, which remains the main role of the airfield today. The airfield is well used by the Commando Helicopter Force and Small Ship’s Flights flying Sea King HC.4 and Lynx HMA.8 aircraft respectively, together with the recently introduced Wildcat HMA.2 and Merlin HC.3 types.

The 2015 event was well represented with an example of each of these types on the ground. The static line up of aircraft from the Royal Navy included Sea King HC.4 ZE427 of 848 Naval Air Squadron (the last serving Sea King unit of the Commando Helicopter Force) as well as an example of its replacement, Merlin HC.3 (ZJ128) – formerly an RAF aircraft but now serving with 846 NAS, the first Merlin unit in the Commando Helicopter Force. Fixed wing representation by the Royal Navy was in the form of a Grob Tutor from 727 NAS. There was also good support from the local manufacturer and provider of rotary wing aircraft to the Fleet Air Arm, AgustaWestland, who supplied one of their AW159 Wildcat (ZZ401) development aircraft which was the second Wildcat to fly back in 2010, together with an AW109E (G-CDVE) which was a former RAF 32 sqn machine (then using the serial ZR323). The most welcome participant was also from AgustaWestland – one of the Italian Aeronautica Militaire HH-101A Combat Search and Rescue (CSAR) helicopters which is currently on the UK military register as ZR352 while it is flight tested at Westland in Yeovil.

Other attractions included the airfield fire and rescue service who allowed children to climb aboard one of their large crash appliances and sound the siren, and a presentation by the “Royal Navy: Fit for Life” demonstration and both of these were very popular until late into the evening. There were also stalls representing organisations such as the local Air Ambulance, the Black Cats helicopter display team and the Royal Marines Commandos.

With the exception of the Commando Helicopter Force Merlin which was to take part in the flying display, the static display aircraft were opened up to the public for guided tours by the aircrew, with the longest queue throughout the evening being for the Sea King HC.4. The Dorset & Somerset Air Ambulance and Avon & Somerset Police EC135 helicopters were due to be present in the static display, but both were unable to attend as the air ambulance was called to a road traffic accident and the police helicopter had a technical fault.

The flying display started with the Merlin HC.3 and Lynx HMA.8 aircraft which planned to display a demonstration of the types of manoeuvres typically seen as part of the operational training role at the airfield. Unfortunately as the Merlin ran in for the first part of its display, a simulated engine failure, it developed a technical fault which was described by the commentator as a ‘minor emergency in the cockpit’ and immediately landed not to fly again that night. This caused the crew the indignity of being given a lift back to Yeovilton at the end of the evening in the Sea King HC.4, the type which the Merlin HC.3 will be replacing! The Lynx HMA.8 (ZD265) from 815 NAS carried on with a lengthy role demo and demonstrated manoeuvres such as simulated single engine approaches and steep tactical airfield approaches into friendly airfields, where security outside of the fence is not guaranteed. The display from the Lynx was made much more interesting by an engaging commentary from a Lynx flying instructor who described how the various procedures were used during operations on both land and at sea.

Then came a display by the Royal Navy Historic Flight’s de Havilland Chipmunk T.10 WK608, an aircraft which is used to give pilots experience of flying aircraft with piston engines and tailwheels before they move on to the Fairey Swordfish and Hawker Sea Fury aircraft flown by the Royal Navy Historic Flight. The display was flown by Lieutenant Commander Chris Götke, the Commanding Officer of the Historic Flight, who two days later was awarded the Air Force Cross for conspicuous courage and exemplary airmanship under extreme pressure following an accident in at RNAS Culdrose in July 2014 involving the Flight’s Sea Fury T.20, when he safely crash landed the aircraft after losing all power during a display sequence.

The last flying display was given by a Wildcat HMA.2 (ZZ376) of 825 NAS representing the Black Cats helicopter display team. This was the first outing of the Black Cats solo display for 2015 and also the premiere of the solo display in the Wildcat. The display was reassuringly similar to what we have seen before from the Black Cats using their former Lynx mounts and the Wildcat seems (as would be expected) no less maneuverable, putting in a fast paced aerobatic display of wing-overs and rapid spiral climbs.

As always at this annual event, the most anticipated part of the night came just before nine o’clock when the static aircraft departed into the sunset. The venue is unusual in that the public and photographers are allowed to view the departures at close quarters from the edge of the taxiway. The AW109 left first, closely followed by the AW159 Wildcat and both lifted vertically before flying off to the north past the setting sun. The Italian HH101 was next to leave, this time taxiing for the active runway and departed with a steep climb over the airfield. The Sea King HC.4 was last to leave and put on quite a show lifting vertically into a hover, from where it slowly turned 540 degrees and departed off to the north.

It is such a rarity for the public to get so close to operational aircraft, especially so in the beautiful summer evening light. The event was well organised; the entry to the car parks, for instance, was very easy even at the peak time just after the gates opened. The Royal Navy personnel were very welcoming and interested in helping the public to understand their role. The local air cadets who were present are also worth mentioning as they worked very hard to check the area surrounding the static aircraft was free of FOD before the departures. The RNAS Merryfield open evening is a unique event and although it is primarily aimed at the local community, the Navy organisers do welcome anyone who is interested. If you are in the South West and interested in rotary wing military aviation it is well worth the trip.