Gary Stedman drops in at Wattisham's recent open day. Pictures by the author, Gavin Mills, Roger Cook and Gareth Perkins
For the first time in many years, 23 July saw Wattisham airfield open its gates to the public for a small, but well organised open day, hosted by 3 Regiment, Army Air Corps. Advertised only locally, and with entry believed to be by a limited number of advance tickets priced at a mere pittance, the open day provided a relaxed atmosphere for both enthusiasts and inquisitive locals to view the unit's new 'piece of kit' - the Apache.
There's little doubt the open day was intended as a response to a certain amount of scaremongering that has appeared in the local press concerning the introduction of the Apache to the Suffolk skies, much of which seemed to ignore the fact that Wattisham has been a operational AAC airfield for over ten years prior to the arrival of the Apache - you can't help wondering what kind of reaction a four-ship of F-4s charging out of Wattisham would generate nowadays! In recent months the Army has taken quite a proactive approach with the Apache and the local media, reassuring the local community at every opportunity that the aircraft is far quieter than the Lynxes that it will largely replace.
With the spotlight on the Apache, it was good to see the type present in some strength, made all the more remarkable considering 662 Squadron (the first to convert) had only received six of its eight aircraft prior to the open day. All six were on show - three displayed in the hangar (alongside a 9 Regiment example), one on the main apron, and two on the flightline. It's clear considerable effort had gone into presenting the aircraft in as many varied and interesting ways as possible. On the apron, the Apache was shown alongside its array of weaponry and support equipment, yet in the hangar, a 9 Regiment airframe out of 7 Battalion, REME was shown stripped, undergoing a 300 hours check. Another was in the - as yet unflown - four ferry tank configuration. To the surprise of many (and a few in uniform as well!), visitors were allowed access to the cockpit of a Apache, previously very much off-limits to the general public.
Although very much a 'in-house' event, a few other types were scattered about. Usually tucked away in the old 74 Squadron HAS complex, Suffolk Police's EC135 had made the trip from 'North side' to the main apron and made a good photo opportunity alongside the visiting East Anglian air ambulance. Another themed pairing, and a far rarer one at that, was the combination of Caroline Grace's Spitfire ML407 alongside the real 'hush-hush' resident at Wattisham in recent months - the Messerschmitt Me-109E-3 1342 that Hawker Restorations has been gradually rebuilding from the remains of an airframe that crashed near Calais in 1940! Originally intended to conduct its post restoration test flights from Wattisham early in the year, before being shipped to the US, it looks as if problems with the original Damiler-Benz DB 601A has led to the aircraft's UK registration being allowed to lapse and the probability it will only fly once it reaches the US - but we can still hope!
A proper flying display was never going to be possible, so 3 Regiment took the opportunity to showcase much of their ground based support equipment and demonstrate a 'hot' refuelling at a FARP, involving all three helicopter types on strength, following which a combined land-air assault upon an enemy position was shown, along with the usual pyrotechnics. The Red Devils and the Lynx solo from the Blue Eagles were the other acts present.
Plaudits must go to 3 Regiment for taking the time out from their schedule to organise a modest, but thoroughly enjoyable day out. By all accounts, the open day was a huge success, with a large turnout, which did seem to catch the traffic planning and catering out slightly, but that really would be nit-picking. Now that 3 Regiment has taken the plunge, and have shown that, once again, Wattisham can host a successful public open day, perhaps with the addition of 4 Regiment and 22 Squadron's B Flight, RAF a more ambitious event could be hosted next year?
Current planning has 3 Regiment converting two of its three squadrons to Apache by year's end, the remaining squadron acquiring the upgraded battlefield Lynx in due course, with 4 Regiment following the same pattern next year. If completed, Wattisham would be home to four Apache squadrons with a total of thirty-two aircraft. This may now all change, with the possibility of 4 Regiment leaving (Yeovilton has been mentioned as a possible destination), and remaining with the Lynx, but replaced by 9 Regiment coming down from Dishforth, with the Yorkshire base closing. It does seem however, that Wattisham is secure for the foreseeable future.