Culdrose Air Day 19 July
Tom Mcghee reports from HMS Seahawk, near Helston in Cornwall. A regular airshow venue in the summer months, its midweek schedule being suitable for the masses of holidaymakers who regularly take advantage of Cornwall's beautiful scenery. The West Country can usually be relied upon to have better weather than the rest of the UK and following a truly awful British summer it didn't really have to try all that hard be an improvement, but Culdrose didn't disappoint and hot sunshine and blue skies welcomed the visitors.
Culdrose is Western Europe's largest military helicopter operating base and is home to many Fleet Air Arm Units operating a variety of aircraft types. The most numerous type currently is the Westland Sea King which is operated in the HU5 variant by 771 NAS in the SAR role. These brightly coloured helicopters are on call 24 hours a day 365 days a year and provide coverage over a 250 mile radius from Culdrose, performing hundreds of missions every year. Mk6 Sea Kings are operated by 814 and 820 NAS in the ASW role and are generally deployed on board HMS Illustrious and HMS Invincible with a primary role of protecting the task group from submarine attack. 814 NAS, "The Flying Tigers", are due to be the first front-line Merlin squadron when it re-equips with the Merlin during 2001. The remaining Sea Kings at Culdrose are the AEW2s of 849 NAS, with a HQ Flt that remains shore-based and 2 Flights (A and B), which embark the carriers as the "eyes-in-the-sky".
The next major type at Culdrose is Westland's Merlin, which is starting to come in to service as a Sea King replacement. 700M NAS is the Merlin Intensive Flying Trials Unit and is responsible for establishing the training foundation and to identify future evaluation. 824 NAS commissioned on 2nd June 2000 as the training squadron for aircrew and engineers who will fly and maintain the Merlin in the operational units.
Fixed wing assets at Culdrose include the Jetstream T2s of 750 NAS which is responsible for training observers for the front line units, training which includes navigation, radio and radar techniques and tactical skills.
Although no longer formally called the Fleet Requirements Air Direction Unit, the name is still widely accepted, and the FRADU Hawks provide the high-speed tasks for the Royal Navy. These aircraft are still owned by the RAF and are only leased by the Navy, being operated by Hunting Aviation and flown and maintained by civilians.
As an airshow venue Culdrose has an advantage over the majority of British airfields by having the crowd line between the sun and runway, thereby avoiding squinting eyes and backlit flying display aircraft. The only foreign aircraft on static this year was a French Navy Lynx from 34F, which was wearing a pleasing disruptive grey camouflage scheme. Helicopters dominated the small static park ranging from resident Sea Kings down to a visiting Squirrel. An RAF Tornado from 14 Sqn was present sporting many mission markings, and amongst the historic types on view were a Hunter and a Wasp. However some rather unusual "aircraft" were present in a hangar, as the Royal Navy operates many unmanned drones for target towing and target practice duties including the Northrop Chukar II and the Italian built Meteor Mirach 100/5.
All in all a small show and a long way to travel, but if you are in the area a good day out is ensured.