On Her Majesty's (secret) Service
Golden Jubilee flypast II, Portsmouth Harbour 27 June
Gary Parsons reports on a second flypast in June
Thursday 27 June saw a repeat performance of the earlier Golden Jubilee flypast over London, this time centred over Portsmouth Harbour, where the Queen was viewing a review of the capability of her armed forces. Unlike the flypast of 4 June this one was very much 'behind closed doors', or as much as a flypast could possibly be, as very little advance publicity was given and the event itself was primarily one for the immediate Royal Family to enjoy.
For your eyes only
Just part of a whole day's events that started at 1030Z with a formation flypast by 31 Tucanos of the RAF, creating a visual "E-II-R" much to the delight and surprise of Her Royal Highness, the Golden Jubilee formation provided the closure to intermediate tactical displays and scenarios by ground troops in specially constructed 'sand pits' on Whale Island and naval personnel in the harbour itself. A twenty-minute scenario before the main flypast included helicopter attacks and support, strike missions by Harriers, an air warfare element (including the Sentry) and airlift by C-17 (simulated as it was obviously unable to land). A culmination of two years planning, the £1.5m event was the services' own contribution to the Queen's Jubilee year.
Despite the similarities with the Mall flypast, this was a very different operation in terms of preparation and timing. Over eighteen months preparation and planning had gone into the flypast by the project officer, Wing Commander Bond, who had produced a comprehensive document detailing times and locations for all elements of the formation, including those of the additional Tucanos and the separate Joint Helicopter Force formation that would pass underneath the main jet formation. Because of the tactical displays, each aircraft had been tasked with an individual 'role play' before the main flypast, requiring an initial over-fly of the harbour before forming up into the main formation - but only twenty minutes separated the tactical show and the main flypast! So, unlike the Mall flypast where the formation gathered some hour and a bit before the run-in, the pressure was on to formate, position and prepare for the run-in within a much shorter time.
The Lincolnshire contribution
Air-Scene UK was privileged to be able to fly in one of the key elements of the formation, that of the Sentry AEW1 crewed by 8 Squadron personnel from RAF Waddington.
Captain for the day is Squadron Leader Stu Reid from the Sentry Standards Unit, better known for his weekend work piloting the BBMF Lancaster, and co-pilot is Flt Lt Sandy Gordon from 8 Squadron, an ex-F3 jockey. Sentry tasked today will be ZH103, also known as 'Happy' (each E3 in the RAF is named after one of the seven dwarfs). Callsign for the mission is 'NATO 39', which will change to 'E3D' when in the hold and formation area. Two Tornado F3s from nearby RAF Coningsby will join us over the Solent for the second phase of the flypast.
Two practice flypasts had already been flown in order to fine-tune the procedure, but little has changed from the original plan except for a slight amendment on timing. There is a great deal more to flypast flying than just turning up and 'following the leader' - time is of the essence and accurate navigation the key, ably accomplished by Flt Lt Dave Marshall and GPS. Due to the complexity of this particular flypast (as it comprises of two separate ones within a short space of time) three holding points are available - 'Yankee' to the south of Lyme Bay, 'X-Ray' to the south of Weymouth and the main hold at 'Victor' 40 miles to the south of the Isle of Wight. Weather limitations are strict - cloudbase at least 1,800 ft and visibility 7.2 km.
Take a seat with the E-3D
Weather at Waddington is overcast, but the forecast for the Solent is good. ZH103 is parked on Echo dispersal because of the airshow this weekend, something not normally done as the Sentry isn't ideally suited to the old V-bomber parking areas due to the low-slung CFM engines. Care is taken on taxying to runway 03 not to strike fire hydrants or lights, the groundcrew marshalling 'Happy' as far as the threshold.
After take-off at 1200Z course is set for the south coast, routing by Brize Norton and Lyneham. Cruising at 230 knots and 16,000 ft, contact is swiftly made with the Nimrod that will follow us in the tactical demo and flypast.
This is the easy bit - autopilot engaged, coffee on tap and the banter relaxed. Later, over the Solent at 1,000 ft, the work will become much harder as all flying will be manual, the autopilot too insensitive to allow hands-off, together with inability to automatically control subtle height changes. Terrain-following radar may be suitable for Tornados, but Sentrys aren't designed to go hedge-hopping!
Constant course checks are relayed by the Nav to the pilot, and soon it is time to descend to 5,000 ft and the Yankee hold and change call-sign to 'E-3D'. We are early, so time is lost by orbiting for a few minutes before moving on to X-Ray and contact with other aircraft. All flying is measured on timings - there is an air-air frequency available to talk to other aircraft but no controllers are marshalling the aircraft, everyone needs to be in the proper place at the correct time. A delay of five seconds is the margin before the need to drop out of the formation, as if gaps get too short between aircraft wake turbulence becomes a real hazard. Visual Flight Rules (VFR) apply when down at formation height, but on the exit Boscombe Down will be co-ordinating the dispersal of the formations.
Just before the X-Ray hold the Canberra is seen a few miles to the east - we will perform the first tactical flypast just after the Canberra makes a photo-run. Arriving at X-Ray within two seconds of the specified time, course is then set for the Victor hold and we descend down to the flypast height of 1,000 ft, crossing many ships and ferries, some of who 'stoke the boilers' for an instant and belch black smoke as we speed over at 280 knots. More usual to seeing helicopters at this height, we must make quite a spectacle for the surprised passengers. It gets very bumpy as height is lost, and taking notes becomes impossible - not to mention drinking any coffee! Not that Stu has coffee on his mind, as controlling speed and height is the priority, as well as searching ahead for aircraft, both expected and unexpected. We see the VC-10, TriStar and C-17 in the distance, each of which will run-in before our singleton pass. The TriStar is easy to spot, but the similarly sized C-17 is much more difficult due to its grey camouflage.
A turn north over Bembridge heralds the start of the run-in for the first flypast - Dave constantly checks position, Stu checks speed and Sandy height using the RadAlt (Radar Altimeter). We see the Canberra swoop across the harbour and almost instantly HMS Ark Royal appears, right in front and slipping under the nose. The Queen is on Ark Royal for this element of the afternoon - not that we can tell, of course! We are one second early - Stu seems happy with that!
A tight turn to port over the M27 takes us towards Southampton and the Needles. Here we drop even further to 500 ft and skirt around the western side of the Isle of Wight back to Victor, where we are to rendezvous with the two Tornado F3s from Coningsby. In one of the F3s is Coningsby's Station Commander, so no mistakes will be tolerated today! Only a few minutes are available to re-establish visual contact with the TriStar and company, and during this time the C-17 has 'cut the corner' over the Needles to now lead the formation - we are to join behind the VC-10, reversing positions from the Mall flypast.
The waves of the English Channel flash past underneath us, the bumps getting bigger - my head thumps against the side window more than once! Then the F3s signal they are on the wing - I can just see them by leaning forwards and looking back. The chase is on to catch the VC-10 - he is about four miles ahead and himself trying to catch the TriStar. Speed is increased to nearly 300 knots and height regained to 1,000 ft. The ride smoothes out for an instant before becoming turbulent again - this time it's wake turbulence from the formation ahead, even the C-17 at some eight miles in front affects the Sentry. Again the corners are cut in the racetrack holding pattern to make up distance - time isn't the factor at the moment but spacing is. Sandy uses the weather radar to confirm the specified two-mile spacing is achieved.
No sooner is the formation set the C-17 straightens out beyond Bembridge and starts the 'home run'. Once again Portsmouth appears on the horizon, course timings are constantly checked and the Ark Royal slips under the nose. Down below at 500 ft the helicopter formation drifts below us, all timed to coincide over the Ark at 1404Z. Again, we are within a few seconds, this time in the hands of the formation leader Wing Commander Brecht in the C-17.
A turn to port signals the split of the formation, the first three elements heading back to Brize Norton as we head off just to the north of the Oxfordshire airfield. Back through the Lichfield corridor at 11,000 ft, the banter again becomes more relaxed on reflection of a job well done. Half-way home the Red Arrows overtake us low on the starboard side - they performed without Concorde today, as it was a military only affair.
Arrival at Waddington is slightly delayed by a fuel-critical Frecce Tricolori team, but approval is given for a formation flypast at 1,000 ft down the runway with the F3s for the benefit of the airshow press party. Turn and approach to land on runway 03, the crosswinds are strong today and care is needed not to scrape an engine - the Sentry has a five-degree tolerance and crosswinds can severely eat into that margin. We're down, and backtrack to Echo dispersal and a waiting TV crew.
The mood is good, the flypast went well and it's smiles all round. It was a privilege to fly with such a professional crew who made the timing look like clockwork. There's certainly a lot more to flypasts than just flying straight and level for a bit!
Thanks to Dale Donovan of Strike Command, RAF Waddington CRO Jacqui Wheeler and Sqn Ldr Stu Reid for making this report possible.