Gary Parsons reports from an overcast Yeovilton at its annual Air Day on 18 September
Weather was the word at Yeovilton this year - whether anything would turn up on the Friday, given the appalling weather conditions. It wasn't the frequent showers that were the problem, but the cloudbase that sometimes ventured down to a few feet above the runway, combined with a fierce cross-wind gusting to gale force on occasion. Supposedly the remnants of the hurricanes that have been pulverising the Caribbean and Florida, the south-west was particularly bad this weekend, just as Leuchars had been the weekend before, of course.
Many visiting aircraft failed to make it, but not for the lack of trying - the French Navy Lynx got as far as the south coast before turning back, and Chris Hudson's Gnat only made it a few yards out of North Weald before belly-landing in a field, fortunately without injury to the pilot or major damage to the aircraft. With so many aircraft failing to turn up, the static park looked very thin indeed with vast gaps between those that did manage to find the airfield - not what was planned at all. Combined with the dank drizzle that enveloped the airfield late Friday, the planned photocall was a dismal affair with few venturing out to wander the empty acres of concrete - a great shame for the organisers, who deserved better.
One aspect that was appreciated by many enthusiasts was the dragging out and plonking in the static park of many of the base's resident aircraft, with literally dozens of Lynxes on show. A number-cruncher's delight, it was a valiant attempt to fill the vast acres of empty concrete, something that other airshows have failed to do when the chips are down.
Relatively unscathed was the flying display, although the Battle of Britain Flight and the Aerostars were casualties of the weather (in a theoretical sense). Yeovilton always provides an opportunity to see things not usually at other airshows, this year such as the commando assault demonstration and first opportunity of the year to see the Royal Navy Historic Flight's Seahawk in action after several years off the airshow circuit (see sidebar). A real casualty on the day was a radio-controlled A-10 during the flying programme's lunch break, the ten-foot wingspan model losing control and plummeting to the ground, much to the dismay of its controller - back to the shed, we imagine!
RAF participation was limited, with a truncated display by the Tornado F3 due to a faulty afterburner, no BBMF and the usual high-energy routine from the Chinook. But, making their first appearance for a few years were the Red Arrows, team leader Spike Jepson making one of his last appearances before handing over to the new 'Red One' Dicky Patounas on 27 September. For once the Reds got the worst of the weather on Saturday, a short shower falling right in the middle of their routine, but it didn't detract from the precise flying that impressed many of the Sea Harrier pilots in the watching crowd. No doubt we'll soon see a Navy pilot join the team once Joint Force Harrier is fully up to speed at Cottesmore. A formation of Navy Hawks was also on offer, a three-ship from FRADU at Culdrose performing a short routine. Maybe they should call themselves the Black Arrows? What, it's been used already?
Talking of Shars, the pre-airshow publicity hinted at a flypast of no less than eight Sea Harriers, but on the day this was reduced by half to a four-ship of two FA2s and two T8s. An opportunity missed for sure, as next year will definitely be the last fling for the venerable Sea Harrier and it is unlikely 801 Squadron will be able to muster enough aircraft for a mass formation - let's hope that they decide to go out in style. It was left to Jason Flintham (left) to perform his solo display in 'Admiral's Barge' ZH809 for perhaps the last time at Yeovilton, assuming 801 Squadron don't take 899's flagship through to disbandment. If any Sea Harrier should be saved for a museum from those left, this is it.
More Sea Harriers participated in the tac-demo at the end of the show, launching from the ski-jump and carrying a representative payload of weaponry. Airfield attacks were made in company with a pair of Harrier GR7s from Cottesmore, illustrating the Joint Force Harrier concept that is now to be cut short when the Shars are retired in 2006. While 'jointery' will still continue in spirit at Cottesmore on the Harrier GR7A and GR9, many Sea Harrier pilots joined the Navy to be a fighter pilot and are unhappy at converting to be a 'mud-mover' - consequently there may not be as many Navy pilots moving to Rutland as was first thought.
Conspicuous by its absence was the Navy's newest aircraft, the Merlin HM1. No sign of any in the static or the flying, it was a remarkable omission and one that doesn't send a good message on the reliability of the type. Beset by problems since its introduction, no doubt 'operational commitments' would be the excuse for the no-show but the type's recent grounding must have more to due with it, we think. It was also disappointing to see the Red Bull Sea Vixen take to the static park early Saturday morning rather than the flightline, but this had more to do with budgets than problems, we were led to believe.
Despite the disjointed flying display and lengthy gaps, Yeovilton still has much to offer the airshow circuit with its tac-demo and unusual types. But, with three years of thin static parks it needs to try harder in attracting a more diverse range of aircraft as those that did make it have been seen regularly before. With the imminent departure of the Sea Harrier one of its major crowd-pulling attractions will disappear, leaving a large void to plug.