Festival of the Sea
Gary Stedman dons his sealegs.
For many years the naval dockyards at both Portsmouth and Plymouth would open their gates to the public over a August bank holiday, their 'Navy Days' open houses being a broadly Royal Navy equivalent to the RAF's old 'at home' shows. Most of the RN ships in port would be open, as well as a few overseas visitors. A Sea Harrier, along with various Fleet Air Arm Helicopters, would usually provide the aviation interest. Our family holidays were usually taken down in Devon/Cornwall years ago and the Plymouth 'Navy Days' were always the highlight. Once nearly cancelled because of the Falklands War, I can still clearly remember the 1982 event. The recently returned ships were understandably closed, many still bearing the scars of a long time spent down south. Of course, they were the lucky ones - five others (and one merchantman) never returned.
The International Festival of the Sea appears to follow the same format as these earlier shows - it's just that everything is on a much bigger scale. Triple the international naval representation, throw in twenty-plus tall ships, blow up the inner basin with a tri-service showpiece, add roving bands, fireworks and a late night concert to what you would expect to see at a airshow and you should have the idea. Four-day festival? You need at least a week! To try and do it in one day, as I did, was going to involve some hard choices. Billed as this year's 'taking defence to the nation' showpiece event, the 2001 Festival of the Sea was the third time the event had been staged. With its origins at Bristol in 1996, moving to Portsmouth last time out in 1998, the event has now achieved real international status.
As the venue is a working naval dockyard, visitors had to be prepared for a fair walk to get round most of the exhibitions. Unlike most airshows it is simply just not possible to head from A to B directly, as you find yourself in a maze of inner basins and dry-docks. Frustrating when the ship, or exhibit you want to visit appears to be so near! Thoughtfully, maps and information booths were at hand to help many confused punters. To visit as many ships as possible, a military style plan of operation is required, as long queues formed to board virtually all the ships very quickly. For obvious reasons, ships' crews are only prepared to allow certain numbers of visitors to board at any one time. A few disgruntled comments have since been heard about the queues to board the more popular ships (HMS Illustrious and the USS Winston S. Churchill in particular). This is nothing new, as just as long a wait could be expected whenever a RN Nuclear fast-attack submarine was open to the public at Plymouth. To be fair, the waiting times shown while queuing to board the Churchill were greatly exaggerated.
When the gates (and ships) open, the place to be, if possible, is already waiting to board HMS Illustrious, the centrepiece of the RN display. This marked my third visit to one of the Navy's three Invincible class CVLs, ironically all to the same one! First port of call (sorry!) is the hangar, filled with interesting demos and stalls, but no aircraft - which are all topside. On the flightdeck could be found at least one example, I believe, of every type (if not model) of aircraft that has, or is likely to, operate from a Invincible class CVL. A Lynx, three models of Sea King, Merlin, Gazelle and of course, both variants of modern-day Harrier could all be found. Furthest forward was a true Falklands veteran, Sea Harrier F/A2 XZ499 - it is one of the oldest surviving airframes, having started life as a FRS1 back in 1981. Now with 801 NAS, the aircraft was credited with one Argentine A-4 when flying with 800 NAS in 1982. Walking aft are the Sea Kings, the HAS-6 and AEW-2 being no strangers to a carrier's flightdeck, along with a troop-carrying HC-4. The Merlin has yet to deploy operationally, 814 NAS being due to carry out the first cruise later this year.
Perched on the stern were types from the RAF and AAC that can also fly from a CVL, the 1 Squadron Harrier GR7 being flanked by a Lynx and Gazelle. 847 NAS operate the Gazelle AH1, alongside Lynx AH7s as the Royal Marine helicopter squadron. While talking to the Lynx pilot, your dim-witted scribe made the embarrassing error in assuming he was with 847 NAS, never noticing his Lynx was a wheeled AH9 (the Marines operate skid equipped AH7s). Worse still, the AH9 is now only flown by the Army Air Corps from a certain East Anglian airfield! Misunderstandings aside, an informative discussion followed. A special mention must go to the superb display from the Illustrious photography section, their beautifully atmospheric images of the ship's aircraft in action were quite breathtaking. By the time these words are read, HMS Illustrious will have departed for a deployment expected to last until the end of the year, including taking part in exercise 'Saif Sareea II' in the Gulf. The ship's usual aircraft complement will be bolstered with a detachment of RAF Harrier GR7s from 4 Squadron, the last of the RAF's three Harrier units to go to sea.
The most eagerly anticipated visitor to the festival was the USS Winston S. Churchill, only commissioned this year and on her first operational cruise. Although only the latest of a large number of 'Arleigh Burke' class Anti-Air Warfare destroyers, she is only the third to be completed to the new flight IIA standard, which deletes some of the anti-ship weaponry in favour of a large, twin helicopter hangar. A single SH-60B Seahawk was embarked, which was available for inspection on the flightdeck. I did make a valiant attempt to photograph the Sea Hawk before the crowds descended upon it, but like most of the small ships helicopters, it was badly positioned for photography. Despite some statements on the aviation grapevine that the other USN ship present (the 'OH Perry' class "Samuel Eliot Morison") was carrying SH-60(s), the frigate is no longer aviation capable, only ever being able to support the now retired SH-2 Seasprite. Following the festival, the Winston S. Churchill will be making goodwill visits to a number of UK ports, and if you get the chance, a visit is highly recommended, as the ship's crew appear to be quite proud of their British connection. You may even avoid a queue!
All of the Royal Navy's Type 42 Destroyers, and a squadron of Type 23 frigates are homeported at Portsmouth. The majority were in port, and in most cases open to the public for boarding. Most of these ships did not have Lynx (or Merlin for the Type 23 frigate) helicopters on board. Although not normally embarked when at Portsmouth, the Navy's problems with Lynx rotor-heads has severely limited the number available for small ship operations. HMS Exeter did have a Lynx HMA8 on display, surrounded by a array of equipment, including Sea Skua SSMs and Stingray ASW torpedoes. Never likely to win a beauty competition, the Lynx HMA8 introduces a new, nose mounted FLIR turret and moves the Seaspray surface search radar to a chin mounted 360-degree radome. Ironically, the original 180-degree radar is still fitted. Lynx helicopters embarked aboard overseas ships included the Aeronavale's Mk 4 on board the Tourville class DD, De Grasse and the Portuguese Mk 95 (named 'Izzi') embarked on the Corte Real, a modern 'Meko 200' class frigate.
A nice change from all the Navy types was Trinity House's sole helicopter, a Bo-105 on board the THV Patricia. Painted in a smart red/grey scheme, the helicopter is on long term lease from Bond Air Services and is utilised in support of lighthouses. The new Dutch amphibian, Rotterdam surprisingly did not have any helicopters embarked, despite a large flight deck and a rather obvious operational need. Other helicopters present were a Spanish Navy SH-70 Sea Hawk on the Navarra (Perry class FFG), a Lynx Mk 88 on the German Emden (Bremen class FFG) and a CH-124 Sea King on the Canadian Halifax (Halifax class FFG).
Another old favourite, the daily 'Basin Battle' bash was staged during the sun-drenched afternoon. Although billed as a combined arms showcase, it's really a excuse for the marines to show off! The scenario involved UK forces rescuing a UN peace-keeping force (not for the first time!) which is soon forgotten when the blanks start flying. With Rigid Raiders circling the inner basin, trying to soak the main stand while waiting their cue, a Nimrod flyby, accompanied by a Tornado and Sea Harrier opened the proceedings. The friendly held 'island' (poetic license, please!) was quickly reinforced by abseiling marines, throwing themselves out of a 3 Regiment AAC Lynx AH9. As the bridgehead was assaulted by pirate hovercraft (complete with 'Jolly Roger'), heavy reinforcements in the form of Chinook, Merlin and Sea King helicopters arrived forcing the circling hovercraft back. A tank landing craft (complete with embarked Warrior IFV) and the defending Royal Marine Rigid Raiders went on the offence, assaulting the enemy held 'island' while the helicopters orbited above. With the island taken, and UN respectability restored (for the fourth time that weekend), the final act is another RN Sea King, playing the part of the casualty evacuation helo. Exciting stuff, and good fun to watch.
Summing up, The Festival of the Sea is a truly enormous event, certainly on a par with RIAT - and presented in an equally professional manner. On all the ships I was able to visit, whatever their nationality, I found the crews both courteous and readily available to speak to the public. The team certainly does work.