RNAS Yeovilton Air Day, 21 September
Gary Parsons hits the high seas of Somerset for the return of Yeovilton's annual airshow.
It was a welcome return for Yeovilton's Air Day, last held in July 2000 before the realities of economics bit. That show failed to produce a reasonable return on investment, so the plug was pulled in 2001 and a business plan formulated for 2002 in an effort to ensure that the cost of staging the event were recouped.
As before in 2000, the organisation was contracted to a civilian events company, AHA Ltd, with the military input being the obtaining of aircraft and supply of volunteers for various sundry tasks. Whether it's the way to go with such events is open to debate, but this year's show was at least blessed with some fine weather, encouraging a good crowd of some 30,000 to attend, despite the high entry cost of £20 per adult. Yes, kids were free, but these near-RIAT prices are difficult to justify unless the flying and static display content is top-notch - the result was mixed, with an excellent flying programme stretching from 11:00 to 17:30, but the static park was sparse at best and contained little to excite the hardened enthusiast (who, at the end of the day, is more likely to pay such high entrance fees than the 'ordinary' family). Granted the unique sight of a factory-fresh Malaysian Lynx was a definite plus, but much of the rest of the parked aircraft was run-of-the-mill, with too few Sea Harriers on display.
So let's concentrate on the good news - the flying. A varied display with a primarily naval theme, it contained many 'duo displays' (Sea Harriers, Lynx, Wasps) and culminated in the station's customary airfield assault demonstration, including Commando Sea Kings, Marine Corps Lynx and Gazelle, plus JHC Chinooks from the RAF. Always impressive, numbers were down on previous years and pyrotechnics were missing, but it managed to convey the message that Britain's armed forces are ready and willing when needed.
A bonus was the inclusion of an airfield attack by fast jets detached on exercise at St Mawgan - Harriers, Jaguars and a lone Belgian Air Force F-16 beating up the aerodrome in fine style, but again without the flashes and bangs that would have really wowed the crowd.
Naval aviation was ably represented, right from the First World War and the Royal Naval Air Squadrons' SE-5as to the present day's Merlin HM3, through Swordfish, Vampire, Venom, Sea Harrier and, of course, that lovely Sea Vixen. Giving his all in the beast was Brian Grant, who competed with the RAF's Tornado F3 for noisiest performer of the day. One casualty was Mike Hayes's Jaguar GR3 which went 'tech' just before its display slot, but otherwise a full programme was achieved on what was a warm and sunny afternoon - one of the best of the year, ironically, given the show's change of date from mid-July. Missing was any official military display team, but the FRADU Hawk foursome seen at RIAT and led by ex-Red Arrow Brian Hoskins made a valiant attempt to fill the void.
So, what of the future? It depends on the financial outcome of this year's event - break-even and we will see a show in 2003 (already pencilled in for 20 September). But, it raises higher issues as to the reasons for staging an airshow - should the Navy provide a vehicle for the taxpayer to see where his money is going, or should it be purely entertainment value and be marketed along with such events as the British Grand Prix and the Open? When does the military make the step from being guardian of the state to entertainer to the public? Should civilian companies be getting involved to such a degree - the ugly word 'profit' is suddenly thrown into the public consciousness. We don't know the answers, but can only look at the hard facts such as cost and content, where Yeovilton struggled to get the balance quite right - we'd recommend a family ticket, priced at £25, would encourage a lot more people to attend what was a fine airshow and enable them, the taxpayer, to see where some of their hard-earned cash goes.