2009 Articles

NOV 05 2009
From Black Cat to Wildcat - Lt Dave Lilly RN

Having got so used to seeing Lt Dave Lilly in his dark blue Black Cats aircrew coveralls, it’s something of a shock to see him wearing green when he meets GAR outside the 702NAS (Naval Air Squadron) building at RNAS Yeovilton. It’s a sharp reminder, if one were needed, that military display pilots like Dave volunteer for such duties and have a normal working week to complete before heading off to visit airshows.

Dave joined 702NAS three years ago, fresh from a QHI (Qualified Helicopter Instructor) course at RAF Shawbury and, in line with squadron policy, spent the next twelve months proving himself and building experience before being allowed to apply for a position on the Black Cats.

“Once I had passed all my exams I applied to join the team and my name was put in to the hat for the 2008 display season with three other applicants. Fortunately I was chosen and joined as Black 2 with team leader Lt Cdr Al Read.

“For a Lynx pilot, flying with the Black Cats is probably the best flying you can get. For the duration of each display you are taking the aircraft to the limits of where it can go, with another Lynx close-by doing exactly the same thing. It’s a great test of your ability as a pilot.”

The Black Cats came in to being in 2004 following a successful debut the previous year displaying as The Lynx Pair, a season which saw the team awarded the Steadman Sword as Best British Participant at RIAT 2003. The team’s success prompted the Royal Navy and AgustaWestland to throw additional weight behind the project and The Black Cats were born, remaining one of our most popular display acts ever since.

But if you’ve never done it before, where do you start? As anyone who has seen the team display will testify, the Black Cats fly a very tight and complex series of manoeuvres. That can’t be easy when you’re the new guy on the team.

“I was quite fortunate that when I was selected to for the team I had previously held a clearance to fly solo displays off the back of ships and at families days and such like,” says Dave.

“When I did the work-up for that authorisation my instructor was Al Read, so the way I flew my displays was similar to Al’s anyway as a result of his training. Five years later I am back here at Yeovilton, been accepted for the Black Cats and Al is the team leader.

“That was a great help as Al knew how I flew and he trusted me, which actually accounts for the first six flights of the Black Cats’ training. You have to be able to trust each other implicitly and know that you’re not going to hit one another basically.”

Unlike fixed wing formations which, in certain circumstances, can actually get away with touching and then backing off, rotary aircraft don’t have any such luxury.

“We fly spaced at a distant of one rotor-span which is about fifteen to twenty feet and we’ve got blades which rotate at around 500mph so, if we touch one another, well, there won’t be a whole left at the end of it!

“Just like a fixed-wing formation we use reference points, we have about two or three, that we use to stay in the right place and if it looks and feels right then it usually is.

“We start with basic manoeuvres such as hovering together and generally acclimatising to flying in formation and what voice commands we will use. Then, back in 2008, Al and I locked ourselves in a room with a board to decide how we wanted the display to look.”

Assuming the sections of the routine comply with the capabilities of the aircraft’s ‘Release to Service’ documentation, Dave confirms that the team has a free rein when it comes to putting the whole show together, the next stage of which is breaking it down into blocks.

“We’ll go out and practise say, the first four manoeuvres. Come back, work out what’s good, what’s bad and then go and practise again. Then we’ll follow the same process for the next section until we’re ready to go and try the whole display in one go.”

Dave explains that what tends to happen is that they’ll often return to the drawing board after flying just the first four manoeuvres.

“What looks good on paper doesn’t always work in the air as you need to take so many factors in to account – the effect of wind, whether we’ll be flying a Mk.3 and a Mk.8 aircraft and so on. We usually need to tweak everything to get it right but after about twenty hours of flying we reach a stage where it looks okay.”

Once the team is practising the full display every single training flight is filmed by a cameraman positioned at datum, the team normally completing a full practice before landing, verbally debriefing by radio, taking off and flying another full show. Only then will they land, shut-down and head straight in to a room with a screen to sit and watch the recorded practices.

“This process begins in January and will usually conclude in April when the Admiral visits to sign-off the Black Cats display and also the two solos. It’s a lengthy period of training, as you can see, and of course everything that we do for the team is interspersed with our normal instructing, night-flying and so on; it’s important to remember that.

“At Southend in 2008, my first weekend away with the team, I flew a solo display as the weather was awful and Al thought I should do it for the experience. I also did my first live dispatch of Royal Marines that weekend; to a twenty foot rib, in sea state three and in front of 65,000 people. I was wondering what on earth I’d signed-up for!”

Dave assumed the role of Team Manager in 2008 and, as well as flying 47 displays for around three million people, took on-board responsibility for the engineers, promotional trailer, cars, sponsorship and public relations, so it was a busy debut year but a great learning experience and preparation for Dave’s term as Team Leader in 2009, the Royal Navy’s ‘Fly Navy 100’ year.

First though Dave attended a RN Staff Course, beginning the Monday after his final display of the 2008 season, returning to Yeovilton in January where Lt AJ Thompson had already been selected as Black 2 and had done some work-up by way of preparation with outgoing leader Al Read.

“The biggest change we made this year was adding the crowd-rear arrival. We’re the only helicopter team that is authorised to do this and the only one that can do so as a solo aircraft too. It took a lot of work with the CAA to achieve this but they were very helpful and I worked with Al to go through the process of getting it signed-off.

“The crowd-rear arrival opened up some new options for us and we introduced a new 270 degree wingover to the left, but basically retained all the elements of the display that we know people enjoy - including The Swingboat as we are still the only team to fly in close formation while going backwards!”

Dave readily admits that the team sometimes has to fight to get people’s attention at displays with a rotary show lacking the noise, speed and impact of its fast jet equivalent. But two helicopters going backwards at 50 mph in formation certainly catches the eye, and, while 2009 has been a strong season for the team, he will also be taking time to work with the 2010 Black Cats, both of whom are new to the job.

“What we do is a bit different and we do things that other people don’t do so yes, it went very well for us this season.

“Even though I’ll be leaving the Squadron I’ll actually still be available to 702 as an instructor so I will mentor the new team members (Confirmed as Lt Becky Frater and Lt Chris Chambers) for three or four months ahead of the 2010 season. I’ll help them design the display and learn to work together before gradually taking a back seat and letting them get on with it.”

As we’ve highlighted with a number of military display acts this season they have a crucial job to do engaging with the public on the ground as well as flying displays in the air, it’s something The Black Cats seem to have truly embraced and Dave is unsurprisingly proud of the work they have carried out on behalf of the Royal Navy.

“It’s something like an 80 – 20 split and by that I mean that only 20% of your impact is from what you see in the air, the rest is meeting people on the ground, handing out posters, meeting the kids and such like. Our target audience is the people who don’t know what we do and we need them to come away impressed with what we do and knowing a little more about the Royal Navy.”

What of the AgustaWestland Lynx itself I ask? It’s been a long-standing mount for the Royal Navy, Royal Marines and the Army Air Corps and is still serving all three services well, while it would also appear to be an ideal display aircraft.

“The Mk.3 is a particularly good display vehicle being light, agile, fast and quite powerful, though there are some limitations with reference to tail rotor control.

The Mk.8 on the other hand has better tail rotor control but is a little heavier and slower to accelerate, although you probably wouldn’t notice the difference even if you were watching the two together quite closely.

The key to most display aircraft is obviously playing to its strengths and for the Lynx that’s speed, agility, the noise (from the gearbox) and one or two other elements such as the castoring system which allows us to land-on and rotate through 360 degrees, that’s quite unusual.”

As promised then a look in to the future, not just for Dave himself but also for the Lynx. I write this on the day that the new August Westland Wildcat, formerly the Future Lynx, is due to make its maiden flight and Dave Lilly will be playing an important role in the new helicopter’s entry in to active service with the Royal Navy.

“At the end of this year I’ll be moving to 700W NAS, the Wildcat Fielding Squadron, which will be responsible for operational evaluation and conversion training.

“We won’t probably see our first aircraft for a year or two, other than going to Westland’s at Yeovil to fly in the back with the test pilots, but I’ll be writing the conversion course documentation, working on the Wildcat’s tactical usage, conducting operational trials and eventually teaching the conversion course itself. That’s the next five years of my life mapped out!

“If you were to stand back and look at the Wildcat you would say ‘that’s a Lynx’, but we have a totally new airframe, the new T800 engines which are in the Mk.9A, glass cockpit, upgraded avionics and radar; everything has been improved and it is a huge leap in capability. We’ll be able to go faster, further and see more while we’re doing it, it’s going to be fantastic.”

Does this mean that we’ve seen the end of Dave Lilly on the airshow circuit then?

“Well, I could go on the odd Black Cats weekend as one of the crew – I can go and see what they’re up to! Seriously though it would be nice to go without too much responsibility and to just let Becky run the team; it’s very demanding and I’ll be available for the first couple if she wants me to go, but how she runs it will be up to her. I’m also looking forward to spending some weekends at home with the family though to be honest.”

How about coming back as a solo Wildcat display?

“You never know! Our prime objective is clearly to get the aircraft in to front-line service and operational but, if there is a requirement from the Royal Navy or from industry then I’ll be in the right job and at the right time, so never say never. It would certainly be nice to be the first Wildcat display pilot, but we’ll see.”

So, finally, has he already passed on any words of wisdom to next year’s crew?

“The only three words they need to remember are ‘always on show’. No matter where you are or what you’re doing, when you leave the Squadron on a Friday until the time you come back on Monday you are always on show. Everyone knows who you are whether it is in the hotel, at the display venue or walking around the town, and you can’t ever forget that.

“For me though, it’s been a blast. I loved it, and I’m sure they will too.”

Leaving the briefing room where we had sat down for this interview so that Dave could take us out to see the Lynx close-up, we met the Boss of 702NAS and one half of next year’s Black Cats en route. The squadron is unashamedly proud of its display team and for me that is reflected in the way I have seen them engage so enthusiastically with the general public. While I am absolutely sure that Dave Lilly will mentor the 2010 team extremely well, the challenge of following in his footsteps will be a tough one for the new incumbents – but we look forward to seeing them on the road next year.

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