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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.

Cloudchasers #2
Sea Harrier
Sea Harrier
Commando assault - Sea King
Commando assault - Sea King & Lynx
Commando assault - Harrier GR7s
Commando assault - Sea King & Chinook
Commando assault - Sea Kings
Commando assault - Sea King AEW
Sparse static
800 NAS Sea Harrier
German Navy Lynx
Sea Harriers
Nimrod - largest aircraft at the show

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.

Cloudchasers #1
Belgian AF F-16AM
Belgian AF F-16AM
Tornado F3
Fox Moth
RAF Chinook
Crumpled A-10...
RN Black Cats
Red Arrows
Red solo
Sea Fury
Sea Hawk
Turbulent team
P-51 Mustang
Rolls-Royce Spitfire
Sea Harriers
Sea Harrier
Sea Harrier

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.

Sea Hawk re-appears
Sea Hawk WV908 was built at Baginton, Coventry in 1954 as an FGA4, and was assembled at Bitteswell. It served with 807 & 898 Naval Air Squadrons, embarked on HMS ARK ROYAL and HMS BULWARK, and ashore at Brawdy. It was converted to FGA6 standard at Fleetlands in the late fifties and flew with 806 Squadron until 1960, after which it was retired to second-line flying training duties with 738 Squadron at Lossiemouth (HMS Fulmar). In 1962 the aircraft was placed in storage at RNAY Belfast, and then loaned to the RAF Apprentices' school at RAF Halton for use as a systems trainer. Royal Naval Air Station Culdrose then acquired WV908, restoring it to flying standard in 1976 and transferring the aircraft to the RN Historic Flight in 1982. After a few years on-and-off the airshow circuit a major restoration was undertaken in 1996 at British Aerospace's works at Dunsfold Surrey, which suffered a few setbacks along the way, including the discovery of corrosion in the aircraft's Rolls-Royce Nene powerplant.
WV908 made its first post-restoration flight on 23 October 1996 and was handed back to the RNHF on 1 November. In July 1997 the RNHF maintenance team discovered a major crack in the central jet pipe, causing several panels to warp. Although a serious problem that could have led to permanent grounding of the aircraft, the RNHF decided to repair the damage, and employed BAe to undertake repairs in 1998. The re-build has been lengthy due to a shortage of funds but was substantially complete by the spring of 2004, although a problem with the seat harness prevented its airshow re-appearance until Yeovilton's own Air Day.
Jason Flintham at the controls of the solo Sea Harrier FA2

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!

Sea Fury bounces back

Making a welcome return to the skies for the first time in three years was Sea Fury VR930. Built at Kingston-on-Thames in Surrey, with final assembly being carried out at Langley in Bucks, it first flew on 23 February 1948, and was delivered to the Royal Navy at RNAS Culham in March 1948, serving with 802 Squadron. After a mishap in December 1948 it was held in reserve at various Aircraft Holding Units and underwent a major (Category 4) repair at RNARY Donibristle, before returning to front line service in August 1953 with 801 Squadron. Put up for disposal in January 1963, VR930 had flown a total of almost 1,280 hours during her active service.
After several years as a gate guardian at RAF Colerne, VR930 was taken to BAe's Brough Works for restoration to flying standard in 1993. After seven and a major mechanical failure during ground testing in 1998, the aircraft was test-flown on 1 March 2001, and rejoined the RNHF. VR930 has been 'adopted' by the city of Sunderland and it now wears the city's coat of arms on its starboard side. Sadly a major engine problem in August 2001 made VR930 a short-lived star of the airshow circuit, but hopefully all the problems are now in the past as Saturday's display by Commander Paul Stone showed. Progress on the repair to VR930's Bristol Centaurus engine was delayed by the requirement to carry out work to rectify some corrosion found on the engine's connecting rod assembly, involving a special process that could only be done at the Defence Aircraft Repair Agency (DARA) St Athan, and DARA Fleetlands.

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 Boom! Pyros a-plentySea 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 Hectic heli actionalso 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.


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