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Fly Navy!

Nick Heeley & Howard Heeley, Down To Earth Promotions, report on the RNAS Culdrose Air Day, held on 1 August 2007. Pictures by the authors and Peter Mitrovich

The 2007 Air Day at Royal Naval Air Station (RNAS) Culdrose was billed as a very special event as it marked the sixtieth anniversary of flying activity at the southern end of Cornwall. So, in this very special year and with the future of its annual air display again rumoured to be in doubt, this ever expanding base and its personnel went out of their way to pull in the visitors. What a job they did!

Whilst from an enthusiast's perspective the serviceability issues of some of the planned participants may have slightly curtailed the flying display and reduced the size of the static park, the excellent weather and great regional publicity certainly pulled in the visitors, the consequence being that some of the record 20,000 visitors struggled to get through jammed local roads for up to three hours. However, once on base everyone was treated to the hospitality and spectacle that have become synonymous with Naval Air Displays throughout the country.

Culdrose choppers
'If only' dept.

RNAS Culdrose is one of the Royal Navy's largest training bases and is also one of the largest helicopter bases in Europe, with up to 45,000 aircraft movements each year. It has three major roles: the principal role is "To meet the operational requirements of the Fleet Air Arm's front line squadrons", to support the RN's Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) and Airborne Early Warning (AEW) helicopter squadrons in meeting their operational requirements. Secondly, RNAS Culdrose has "To provide 24 hour, 365 days-a-year military and civilian search and rescue for the South West region", provided by the Sea King helicopters of the search and rescue squadron and their duty crews. Thirdly, most members of the Fleet Air Arm will, at some time in their career, train or serve at RNAS Culdrose as the base has the responsibility "To train aircrew and other aviation specialists for the Royal Navy". This includes the Operational and Advanced Flying Training of helicopter pilots, observers, air-crewmen, in subjects as diverse as search and rescue, weather forecasting and aircraft handling.

To meet these challenging roles RNAS Culdrose has a large number of resident Squadrons and also many operating and exercising all over the world. Recent and current deployments include the Middle East, the Caribbean, the Mediterranean, West Africa and the eastern seaboard of the USA. The 60th Anniversary Souvenir Brochure provided a detailed review of these squadrons and here is a brief synopsis:

700M Naval Air Squadron

During the last year 700M Naval Air Squadron with its Merlin helicopters has seen a change from its trials and evaluation role into a front line squadron. This included a five month deployment on HMS Ocean as part of an 'Atlantic Patrol Task' - not only did this include participating in a major drugs seizure in the Caribbean but it also demonstrated the EH101 to the American government at the Pentagon.

729 Naval Air Squadron

729 Naval Air Squadron provides 'realistic threat simulations' for the RN using the Mirach Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) - these UAVs are used to simulate 'air-to-surface' and 'air-to-air' combat profiles form both seaborne and land based platforms.

750 Naval Air Squadron

RN Observer training is provided by 750 Naval Air Squadron, which is the Royal Navy Observer School. The Squadron is staffed by both service and civilian personnel who fly and service its Jetstream aircraft. Skills taught include airborne navigation, airmanship, crew resource management, meteorology, radio and radar techniques and basic tactical skills.

771 Naval Air Squadron

The search and rescue role (SAR) of RNAS Culdrose is undertaken by 771 Naval Air Squadron and its light grey and day-glo painted Sea Kings are a familiar sight over the West Country. Its primary role is to provide military and civilian SAR cover operating at up to two hundred nautical miles out of Culdrose. Since the 2006 Air Day the Squadron has undertaken over two hundred rescue missions and was awarded the honour of leading the Falklands 25th Commemorative Flypast over London earlier this year.

814 Naval Air Squadron

Back in 2001 814 Naval Air Squadron was the first front line squadron to equip with the Merlin Mk1, undertaking 'deep water' submarine patrol operations. Recent operations have been onboard HMS Illustrious and Royal Fleet Auxiliary (RFA) Fort Victoria, in both the Mediterranean and the Gulf of Yemen. In addition, joint operations have taken place off the western coast of India with the Indian Navy.

820 Naval Air Squadron

Royal Marine support work has been on the agenda for 820 Naval Air Squadron during the last twelve months during exercises of West Africa. This helped demonstrate the ship to shore troop landing capability of the Merlin. Recently it has operated from RFA Fort George during NATO Exercises to re-train in the ASW role. Whilst in the UK the Squadron has supported various RN recruiting campaigns.

824 Naval Air Squadron

824 Naval Air Squadron provides student aircrews with advanced and operational flying training on the Merlin in the Anti Submarine and Anti Surface Warfare roles. The squadron is the largest in the Fleet Air Arm and boasts over three hundred personnel - courses are provided for pilots, observers and aircrewmen.

829 Naval Air Squadron

829 Naval Air Squadron provides autonomous Merlin Flights to operate off the RN's Type 23 Frigates; HMS Lancaster, HMS Monmouth, HMS Westminster, HMS Northumberland, HMS Richmond and HMS Somerset. In this role the squadron has been deployed and exercised in the Mediterranean, the Middle East, Africa, Australia and the Caribbean during the last twelve months.

849 Naval Air Squadron

Until 2006 the RN's Airborne Surveillance and Control (AsaC) force comprised of one unit, 849 Naval Air Squadron, which operated with two separate flights (A and B Flight). The Flights were recognised as independent squadrons in 2006, when 854 and 857 NAS were re-commissioned. 849 Naval Air Squadron now has a training role for new observers and for converting experienced aircrew onto the Sea King Mk7.

854 Naval Air Squadron

854 Naval Air Squadron was 'A' Flight - 'The Aardvarks' and is now part of the 'Carrier Air Group' and has been involved in developing the tactical application of the Sea King. This has involved both land based and seaborne operations and it is currently embarked on HMS Ocean.

857 Naval Air Squadron

857 Naval Air Squadron was 'B' Flight - 'The Bees' and it has been involved in joint operations with the British Army and RAF. These operations have involved guiding Apache helicopters onto land targets and training exercises at RAF Leuchars with Harriers, Jaguars, Tornados and E-3D Sentry aircraft. American deployments have involved working with the US Navy and US Marine Corps.

School of Flight Deck Operations

The School of Flight Deck Operations provides training in the skills of aircraft handling before recruits go to sea. The skills taught include airfield crash rescue, fire fighting and aircraft movements. Aviation courses are also conducted for the RN, Army and RAF to train personnel for a variety of different flight deck situations encountered onboard aircraft carriers, frigates, destroyers and RFAs.

Most of the Culdrose units participated in the Air Day, either through being displayed in the static park or through participating in the flying display. In the static park there was the usual international contingent, with a particularly good turn out from France in the shape of the Atlantique II from Flotille 21, a Super Frelon from Flotille 32 and a Lynx from Flotille 34. Other European nations represented were Belgium, the Netherlands, Ireland, Germany and Portugal (if you count the Chipmunk in Portuguese markings!).

The RAF representation felt thin on the ground, but the RN turned out a significant number of base airframes, which was particularly pleasing, perhaps the highlight being the clutch of Sea Harriers from the School of Flight Deck Operations, which actually taxied over on the Tuesday preview day.

It was also pleasing to see that in the best RN traditions some of the hangar-based airframe displays had been retained, including winching demonstrations from an 'elevated' Wessex 5 and undercarriage retraction demonstrations with a 'jacked-up' Jetstream. All credit to those involved due to the amount of paperwork involved - Risk Assessments and Method Statements had been required to put everything into place.

The civilian warbird operators were out in force with several of their airframes being conveniently parked on the edge of the static park, to allow for their participation in the morning and afternoon flying displays. These were alongside a contingent of Army Air Corp helicopters and the Army Historic Flight. The Seafire holds a special place in the affections of Culdrose as the base started out as Naval Fighter School back in 1947. Other types familiar to the base included the Corsair, Anson and Tiger Moth; but, going even further back in the history of naval aviation were the Sopwith Pup and Sopwith Triplane, which along with their adversary Fokker Triplane were also welcome additions.

The air display's official sponsor was Lockheed Martin UK who had a major presence on the base - it acts as a prime contractor and systems integrator for the Merlin helicopter fleet at Culdrose, working alongside AugustaWestlands. They worked in partnership with the RN to develop the Culdrose Merlin Training Facility and are now about to embark on a Merlin Capability Service Programme (MCSP).

The Merlin was originally introduced in the ASW role, but the MCSP will be implemented to upgrade the Merlin fleet to Mk2 standard. This involves enhancing the front and rear cockpit communications and providing greater co-ordination between the radar and sonar operators. The upgraded Mk2 variant, due to come on line in the next five years, will provide a more flexible operating platform and will also give the Merlin a true multi-mission role in a variety of tasks, including drug intradiction work, intelligence gathering and the transportation of under-slung cargos.

Prior to the Air Day there had been some media reports referring to the Typhoon being converted to operate from the two new recently-named aircraft carriers HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales. So, because of Lockheed Martin's involvement with the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF), the question was asked "Is there any truth in the rumours about the Typhoon conversions?" Lockheed Martin's representative's response was perhaps what might be expected, in that he did not see that this was a likely proposition, stressing that the JSF was really more than just an aircraft. He indicated that through a new visor-mounted Head Up Display (HUD) each JSF and its pilot would "Act as a node in the wider battle-space". In this role they would provide links to other aircraft and UAVs, which would enable them to be used as 'slaves' to the JSF for reconnaissance purposes and target evaluation/selection. It was also pointed out that the recently commissioned carrier designs currently have no provision for catapults or arrestor gear and to add these would be a major change to their design.

One final subject briefly touched on was the harmonisation of SAR helicopter provision, which is due to come into effect across the whole of the UK in 2012 - Lockheed Martin UK will be bidding for the contract, which could involve the use of the Merlin helicopters. Sadly, this may put into question the future of units like 771 Naval Air Squadron at Culdrose.

Even though there seemed to be less aircraft participating in this year's flying display, Culdrose was still an air display worth seeing. Perhaps the reduced participation was due to the change of date as previously participants at RIAT may have stayed on for the Air Day, usually held a few days after this major event.

However, the home team gave a good showing, kicking off the morning display with their Sea King helicopters with 'Fast Roping Royal Marines' and 771 NAS demonstrating the Search and Rescue role it carries out during some two hundred missions per year. After these, the Army Historic Flight's classic helicopters were coupled with a detailed commentary by one of the team members. Displays by a Tiger Moth and a Royal Navy Chipmunk then closed this section of the programme.

The second section after lunch, started with the 'Balbo' - a mass flypast of aircraft. No less than twenty-one aircraft took part in this, which was a beautiful sight in the sky, filled with many helicopters and some planes too. Most aircraft then broke off to land, but some remained airborne to carry out their individual displays, including the 'Mercury Pair' of Jetstreams, followed by the Culdrose display team the 'Black Seahawks' (Martin Stoner, Warren Ward, Neil Buckland and Harry Wilhelm) and the Falcon 20s of FR Aviation (Spike Jepson, John Danning, Rick Offord and Steve Wells) - all who won the Award for Best Display at RIAT 2007.

An RAF Chinook demonstrated its capabilities, giving an almost acrobatic display, matched later on by the Navy's own impressive Merlin helicopter display. Things then went back in time with a series of co-ordinated displays and dogfights by a Sopwith Pup, Sopwith Triplane and a Fokker Triplane, all of which landed on the grass directly in front of the main crowd.

The recently restored Seafire and a Corsair later graced the skies in a longer than planned display due to a cancellation from one of the aircraft that was due to fly with them, a problem that seemed to occur at other points during the day. However, it was good to see these classic aircraft, as it was to see the Anson, which took to the skies afterwards.

The 'Raspberry Ripple' Hunter then gave an ear-piercing display as this remarkable aircraft always does and its landing was very striking when it deployed its brake chute. The Lynxes from the Black Cats weren't quite as loud though, but their carefully co-ordinated display both in the air and on the ground was very impressive. Loudest of all was the Dutch Air Force F-16AM, providing the 'heavy metal' element of the afternoon, complete with a battery of flares.

After the Air Day, there were several reports in the local press about the traffic problems people encountered in trying to access the event. What was particularly impressive was the attitude and response to the situation by the organisers - initially it is reported that they sent people out into the queues to distribute water to the people that were waiting, followed by a reduction in entry prices for those who had been waiting and when it got to 15:00 they stopped charging for people to come onto the base.

Despite its size, the range of operations it undertakes and the important services that it provides RNAS Culdrose is perhaps somewhat overlooked by the Ministry of Defence (MoD) - everyone is very proud of the history of the base, summed up by one phrase "We have a strong past, with sixty years of Fly Navy being represented here today!" Equally these same people also have a passionate belief that RNAS Culdrose has a strong future with a vital duty to perform in the ever-changing Royal Navy.

If anyone from the MoD reads this article then we urge you to allow RNAS Culdrose to host more air displays, they are a credit to the British Armed Forces. Fly Navy!

Many thanks to Emma Relton, Sally Hillier and all the members of the RNAS Culdrose Public Relations Office for an excellent press facility and for helping us put this article together; also to everyone at Culdrose for a great 60th Anniversary Air Day. During the early afternoon we felt that one small, perhaps insignificant event in the Press Enclosure summed up the excellent attitude of all the personnel stationed at RNAS Culdrose during a fantastic Air Day. In the heat of the day an old lady wandered into the enclosure and sat down on one of several empty seats. Accompanied by her middle aged son she looked very much in need of a rest. They were quickly approached by one of the sailors on duty and advised that the enclosure was only for invited guests. Having explained her need to sit down, the sailor responded by picking up one of the other empty chairs, he took it just outside the enclosure and then carefully helped the lady to her new seat. Well done that man, what a brilliant common-sense approach to what might in other circumstances have been an officious confrontation.


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