South Atlantic spinners
Mick Britton and Gary Parsons review the first of Duxford's 2007 airshows. Photography by the authors, Jack Parsons and Bob Franklin
The theme of Duxford's May airshow, held on Sunday 20th, was the 25th Anniversary of the Falklands War and it succeeded in bringing together a representative collection of aircraft types that took part in the conflict, although inevitably it meant a dominance of helicopters - the absence of many fixed-wing types, particularly a Harrier, was strongly felt.
Mainly due to the fact that the Harrier force is very stretched this year due to the continuing Harrier commitment to Operation Herrick in Afghanistan, combined with the need to convert the pilots who will form 801 NAS, hence the RAF decided that any displays this season is one commitment too many. However, whilst in these circumstances such a decision is understandable, it hard to believe that an aircraft could not have been spared for static display at such an important commemorative event! Surely an aircraft could have been flown in on the Friday and picked up on the Monday - after all, Wittering and Cottesmore are barely forty-five minutes drive away! It would seem the 'can-do' attitude that made the Falklands campaign a success has been lost in today's armed forces of 'Great' Britain.
The airshow's date was quite appropriate - on 19 May 1982 a Sea King HC4 from 846 NAS transferring SAS troops from HMS Hermes to HMS Intrepid ditched in the ocean after a birdstrike. Eight survivors, including the two pilots, were picked up but the aircraft turned over and sunk immediately. Twenty-one men did not survive including nineteen members of the Special Forces, some of whom had taken part in the Pebble Island raid and the landings on South Georgia. This accident represented the single greatest loss of life for the Special Forces since the Second World War.
Two days later on 21 May 1982 the first British landings on East Falkland took place, supported by eleven Sea King HC4s from 846 NAS and five Wessex HU5s from 845 NAS. The prime role of the larger helicopters was the landing, and moving forward, of Rapier missile systems, fuel, artillery and ammunition. Wasp and Lynx helicopters patrolled the coastal inlets, near to San Carlos, looking for concealed Argentine vessels. Two Royal Marines Gazelle AH1s, XX402 and XX411, were shot down while escorting the Sea Kings by small arms fire from retreating Argentine troops, and a third, XX412, was badly damaged.
A genuine Falklands veteran opened the show in the shape of ex-Argentine Air Force Bell UH-1H G-HUEY, recently restored to flying condition by Kennet Aviation at North Weald. Formerly AE-413 with the Fuerza Aérea Argentina and before that 73-22077 with the US Army, it was sold to Argentina in March 1973 under the US Military Assistance Program (MAP). Its crew during the Falklands war was pilot Francisco Alexander Ramirez, co-pilot Carlos Oscar Corsini and Artilleryman Sergio Gustavo Gudino, all from Ca Helic Asal 'B' of the Batallon de Aviacion de Combate 601.
AE-413 was captured at Fitzroy on 18 June 1982 and was used by the British for a short while in the hands of Squadron Leader R Tierney. It was loaded onto the freighter 'Tor Caledonia' in July 1982 and taken to Felixstowe, from where it was moved around the country to several airshows as an exhibit of the recent conflict. It finally settled as a war trophy at RAF Odiham, where a restoration project was considered. Restored to flight by 1986 as G-HUEY and operated by the RAF Benevolent Fund, it made an appearance in the 007 movie 'The Living Daylights' and appeared at several airshows until 1992 when it was sold and relocated to Cranfield. A later sale to the Bournemouth Aviation Museum was made in 1999 where it stayed until acquired by Argonauts Holding Ltd in 2005 and its latest restoration by Kennet Aviation.
The first hour of the flying display consisted exclusively of Falklands types, meaning a succession of helicopter displays from all three services; the Army Air Corps' Blue Eagles, the Navy's Black Cats Lynx Team (following an impressive display by a Sea King HC4 from 846 NAS carrying a Land Rover as an underslung load - certainly a first for Duxford) with the RAF Chinook rounding off this part of the flying programme in its own inimitable style. A number Chinooks were bound for the Falklands aboard the cargo vessel Atlantic Conveyor, unfortunately all but one of the Chinooks were lost in the sinking of the ship by enemy action. The lone surviving Chinook HC1, ZA718 'Bravo November', performed vital and dangerous tasks for several weeks until more Chinooks arrived in mid-June, and still serves at the front-line today in Afghanistan. One aviation magazine voted the Chinook as last year's best RAF display, and it has to be said that this year's crew, led by pilot Flt Lt Dave Traill from 18 Squadron, seems intent on repeating that accolade.
With Air Atlantique's Canberra the only fixed-wing type to appear in this early part of the show, the strong helicopter content was too much for some tastes and expressions of relief were audible when four of the warbirds, Duxford's staple fare, taxied out, the Hawker Sea Fury leading a trio of Grumman Cats of the Wild-, Hell- and Bear- varieties.
The maritime theme was continued later on with only the second public appearance of the recently restored Hawker Nimrod, today in the hands of Dave Evans, which had made its display debut at last October's airshow - thus, the flying programme succeeded in covering almost the entire history of naval aviation in a manner that would have befitted a dedicated Navy airshow like Yeovilton. The RAF participation was rather low-key in comparison with only a plain-looking Hawk flown by 2007 display pilot Flt Lt Mike Child, Tucano (wearing a colourful tricolour sash over its sombre black training livery this season) and the BBMF featuring in addition to the Chinook. Credit to 1 FTS from Linton-on-Ouse, home of the Tucano, for sending along both their newly painted display aircraft with 72(R) Squadron's equally colourful 90th anniversary aircraft (decked out in red and blue sash) acting as the spare. The observant enthusiast who also keeps tabs on the restoration projects in the hangars may have noticed that the Fighter Collection's Gladiator has also recently had 72 Squadron markings applied, thus on this occasion it was possible to see to past and present 72 Squadron aircraft in relatively close proximity. At the show's conclusion, instead of the of the usual warbird 'balbo' there was a swarm of helicopters, all of those that had appeared earlier lining up facing the crowd line in a salute to those who failed to return from the South Atlantic.
Overall this was a very fitting commemoration of the Falklands Anniversary, but the content of the flying programme could have been better balanced with the helicopters' displays split between the opening and closing sections. Most telling of all was the RAF's low-key contribution, the lack of a fast and noisy afterburning jet depriving the airshow of some much-needed 'punch' - the air force is going to come in for some strong public criticism for failing to produce a Harrier display for the first year ever!