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FLEETLANDS - 60th Anniversary Open Day,  20 May

Andrew Bates reports: Held on a sunny Saturday afternoon, the Defence Aviation Repair Agency (DARA) opened its gates to the public as part of the Fleetlands 60th Anniversary celebrations. So, for anyone with an interest in military helicopters, this provided the ideal opportunity to view at first hand the activities of this tri-service maintenance, repair, and storage facility.    

The organisers were probably surprised by the interest shown in this event, as the car park was full before the gates had opened, a long queue of people waiting patiently for 12:30 to arrive. Consequently, all the subsequent arrivals had to be parked on the grass verges surrounding the facility. Whilst in the queue, the eager anticipation of all the enthusiasts present was easily discernible, with everyone asking the same question; "Will all the hangars be open?" Much to everyone's delight, especially those that had travelled far, the answer to this question was "yes".

Once through the gates, it was evident that virtually the whole site was accessible to visitors. Not only were all helicopter storage and rework hangars open, but for those technically minded amongst us, it was possible to view the engine bays, if such things as Lycoming T-55s or Rolls Royce Gems were of interest.

Within the various hangars an assortment of UK military helicopters was to be found, in varying stages of maintenance, such as RAF Chinooks, RN Sea Kings & Lynx (the latter being conversions to HMA8 status), and AAC Lynx. For the serious spotter, great care was required within the AAC Lynx hangar, as the mischievous workforce at Fleetlands had maintained their tradition of confusing enthusiasts, by altering some serial numbers with a crafty application of black masking tape. Apparently, this has been a source of great amusement for some time, with aviation societies in particular being targeted during organised base tours. It must be extremely embarrassing upon returning from Fleetlands to find you've managed to log a Tornado or Jaguar. Fortunately, your scribe has not been caught out by this ruse…….yet!

Apart from maintenance and rework, Fleetlands is also used for storage, and accordingly a large number of stored airframes could be found in 'B' shop hangar, such as AAC Gazelles, RN Sea Kings and Lynx, and RAF Wessex. Meanwhile, over in 'F' shop, apart from the Sea Kings on rework, there was a selection of apprentice training airframes comprising a Lynx, three Gazelles, and four immaculate Wasps.

It was a great shame, given the nice weather, that some of the stored and ground instructional airframes had not been parked outside for photography. The only static as such comprised of two ex-32 Squadron Gazelle HCC4s XW855 and XZ935, which had been removed from the storage hangar for the day. However, there were other items of interest to be found around the site; apart from the pristine gate guardian Wessex HU5 XT480, the resident Fleetlands Museum had Sea Vixen FAW1 XJ481 on display, though the cockpit cover remained on, despite the sunshine.

Meanwhile, behind 'J' shop, Wessex HU5 XT466/XV had been specially set up on jacks, about ten feet off the ground, to allow youngsters the opportunity to experience the rescue hoist in action. From a personal point of view, it was interesting to see this particular example again. This ex-847 Squadron airframe had, surprisingly, spent a number of years at Cosford as 8921M for ground instruction with Nr 2 SoTT. When it disappeared in the mid-nineties, it was assumed to have been scrapped. However, prior to its re-appearance at Fleetlands, it had apparently also seen some use with the nearby Air Engineering & Survival School at HMS Sultan, illustrating the continued usefulness of an airframe long after retirement from flying duties.

Planned or otherwise, visitors were given an additional demonstration of airframe delivery by road when RN 846 Squadron Sea King HC4 ZD478/VX arrived through the gates on the back of a low loader. This new addition to the inventory was necessitated by reported gearbox failure whilst operating over France, proving that it was business as usual, despite the open day being in full swing.

Midway through the afternoon there was a short flying display, which lasted about 45 minutes. Although there is no runway at Fleetlands, the display line was set at the small heliport situated at the rear of the facility. Despite this display line being decidedly short in comparison to most airshow venues, the background more than compensated for this small arena, with the audience looking out across the Solent, looking quite picturesque in the sunshine.

Following a few overflights by Chipmunk T10 WP795/G-BVZZ from nearby Lee-on Solent, and a mass flypast of Yaks, the display proper commenced with the Rolls Royce owned Spitfire PRXIX PS853/G-RRGN. As the fighter performed for the crowds, the magnificent sound of the Griffon engine reverberated between the closely spaced hangars, giving an even greater impression of speed and power.

Next on the bill was privately owned Provost T1 XF597/G-BKFW, a rarely seen airshow performer, closely followed by AACHF Beaver AL1 XP820. The latter aircraft was making a rare appearance on its own, without the usual accompaniment of Auster, Scout or Skeeter. Then the Hampshire Police got in on the act, as they demonstrated their airborne observation and patrol skills with their Islander, again operating from Lee-on-Solent.

A Yak-50 from the previous flypast then returned for an aerobatic display, before the finale which befell the home team with freshly re-furbished Sea King HU5 XV651/599. This display was most impressive by virtue of the fact that the small arena necessitated the large helicopter performing literally right in front of the crowds, which was well received by the appreciative audience.

Once the flying was over, and all the hangars had been visited, the majority of enthusiasts were soon making their way out of the gate. However, for all the locals who had turned up for a family day out, there were plenty of stalls and ground attractions to keep the kids happy. Although it was a shame that some of the stored airframes remained inside for the day, the opportunity to view all the resident helicopters was greatly appreciated by many, with the various levels of maintenance attracting much interest. For a paltry admission charge of 2, most spotters would surely have been satisfied with logging about 65 military helicopters in an afternoon, providing they could also spot black masking tape!


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