RNAS YEOVILTON AIR DAY, 20 SEPTEMBER
Roger Cook and Andrew Bates wave ahoy from a sunny Somerset.
Photography by Roger Cook/Pynelea Photo Bureau and Mike Kerr
Welcome aboard HMS Heron, better known as Royal Naval Air Station Yeovilton, for the Air Day 2003. Although many old favourites turn up for this display, Yeovilton manages to make this air show their very own with very much a salty, nautical flavour for the event.
The show celebrated aircraft carrier operations and aircraft of the Royal Navy, both historic and present day, including a brief glimpse into the future for the Fleet Air Arm, courtesy of the Harrier GR7 - planned successor to the Sea Harrier FA2. With assistance from a number of privately owned historic aircraft of naval origin, such as Hellcat, Corsair, Sea Vixen and Wasp, along with their modern day equivalents, you could almost imagine the heave of the deck and the smell of the sea air! In fact the weather even attempted to authenticate the nautical theme with a blanket of fog over most of Somerset during the morning. Very apt, but most unwelcome. Fortunately, this had burnt off by mid-morning, leaving the airfield bathed in some beautiful autumnal sunshine for the remainder of the day.
In marked contrast to the excellent flying display, from an enthusiast's point of view it has to be said that the static aircraft park was sparse in comparison to previous shows. Admittedly, it is perhaps unfair to pass judgement based on past events, especially when the purse strings of today are so much tighter for many air arms. However, the problem is that one of your scribes has been a regular Air Day attendee since the mid eighties, and it is very difficult getting used to the sight of so much empty Yeovilton concrete. Over the years the static park has been filled with a variety of exotica to delight enthusiasts - who could ever forget the US Navy 'invasion' of 1996? This has generally been accompanied by a vast selection of UK hardware, usually dominated by the sharp end of the Fleet Air Arm, the Sea Harrier. This time, unfortunately, not only were foreign visitors thinly spread, but the Royal Navy contribution to the static was also a bit on the lean side. There was only one Sea Harrier on display, along with a Harrier T8, both from 899 Squadron. With the 'Shar' fast heading towards premature retirement, it was surprising not to see at least one example from each of the operational squadrons, 800 and 801. Equally surprising was just the one variant of Sea King on show, whilst the omission of the Merlin literally left a gaping void in the static park.
The planned photocall on the Friday evening went a little pear shaped because of the late arrivals of some of the aircraft, but there were still some gems to be found on this 'Treasure Island'. Despite the slimmed static display, there were still a number of airframes that commanded the attentions of the photographers. It was also nice to see the Martin Baker Meteor T7 WA638 in its new all black colour scheme, and the Dutch CH-47D Chinook (D-663 from 298 Squadron) looked particularly appealing in the sunshine, parked alongside its AH-64DN Apache stablemate (it would have been nice to see an AAC example, but it's obviously a long way from Yeovil to Yeovilton!) Other highlights included a very polished RDAF CL604 Challenger C-172 from Vaerlose, Polish Navy M-28 Bryza 1R, SHAPE UH-60A Blackhawk and a pair of German Navy Lynxes (83+19 and 83+21 from MFG3). In fact, the Lynx proved to be the most dominant aircraft type on display, as the two German examples were parked in a separate Lynx static, along with half a dozen Royal Navy machines and an Aeronavale Lynx 808, although this was recalled back to France during the show once the crew were prised away from the bar! If that was not enough, Lynx aficionados were in for a further treat. In light of the above comments regarding the thin static park, the show organisers most certainly redeemed themselves in the eyes of many enthusiasts by the simple action of keeping some of the Lynx hangars open for public inspection. This was an inspired and popular move with both Joe Public and enthusiast alike, who were especially appreciative. During previous shows, such hangars have remained firmly shut, which has proved most frustrating amongst the 'spotter' fraternity, especially as any aircraft checklists have usually included details of all airframes on site, hangared or otherwise. Hopefully, this trend may continue for future shows and thus avoid a much-quoted spotter's phrase; " ..my last Lynx is locked up in hangar 6!? Oh, b******s!!!!!!!"
Old favourites in the flying programme included Boeing B-17 'Sally B' from Duxford, the Belgian Air Force F-16, a Dutch PC-7 and the AAC Historic Flight. The flying programme was well supported by the RAF, with contributions from a 42(R) Squadron Nimrod, 15(R) Squadron Tornado GR4, 1 FTS Tucano, 208(R) Squadron Hawk and 20(R) Squadron Harrier GR7. The RAF Harrier contingent was especially prominent, as it was to feature in a special flypast to signify the past, present and future of the Fleet Air Arm. This uniquely saw Harrier GR7 and Sea Harrier FA2 flying side by side in formation with the Hellcat.
There were other interesting formations, including three Shars with two Harrier GR7s, reflecting on things to come with the Yeovilton FAA Squadrons merging with the units at Wittering and Cottesmore. The German Navy Tornado with a special MFG2 Anniversary colour scheme ('90 Jahre Marineflieger') really livened up the afternoon with a scorching display and, always interesting to watch are the two De Havilland boomers, the Sea Vixen G-CVIX and Vampire T11 WZ507.
The nautical flavour came from the displays by the four FRADU 'Seahawks', the solo SHAR, the Lynx pair and the Swordfish from the Historic Flight, but this was reinforced by a demonstration of submarine searching by a Merlin ZH852 from 824 Squadron, Culdrose, supported by a pair of Lynx, one Mk3 and one Mk8, while a Nimrod XV245 flew overhead on patrol.
In true Yeovilton style, the best was definitely saved for last, with the show culminating in the traditional commando helicopter assault, unmatched by any other air show in the UK. With a Sea King AEW proving the eyes above the battlefield and a Lynx and Gazelle acting as FACs, this finale was as impressive as ever. Sea Kings perpetually offloaded men and machinery, Sea Harriers 'softened' up the airfield, and an RAF Chinook helped the airlift task, to the accompaniment of plenty of smoke and noise. All very impressive, but no doubt about the outcome with victory over the enemy who obviously came from some obscure Middle Eastern territory! The airshow season just wouldn't be complete without this spectacle - long may the tradition continue! Congratulations must go to the Air Show organisers for a very entertaining show with some imaginative formations and set pieces - the event just needs a more interesting static park to be really first-rate.
With thanks to AHA Events Ltd and Petty Officers Ian Maltman & Darren Clark.