2009 Articles

OCT 23 2009
RAF Shawbury - Fly Navy 100 photocall

It was entirely due to the invention of Mark Harris and Mark Vickers at RAF Shawbury that we found ourselves at the station for the Fly Navy 100 photocall, joining 120 other media, enthusiasts and photographers to see the majority of the Balbo for the last time in this special year for the Fleet Air Arm.

Balbo is a term used to describe any large formation of aircraft and is actually named after Italian fascist Italo Balbo who, in the 1930s, led a series of record-breaking flights that used large aircraft formations for the purpose of promoting aviation in Italy.

During the Battle of Britain, Balbo was the term used for Trafford Leigh-Mallory and Douglas Bader’s ‘Big Wings’ and these days is most commonly associated with the formation seen annually at the ‘Flying Legends’ airshow at Duxford, itself of course a former Battle of Britain RAF station and wartime home to one of the Big Wings. The Big Wing tactics saw RAF fighter squadrons joining together to meet the massed ranks of German raiders with large formations of their own.

This would be the fifth time that the senior service had gathered together to celebrate their centenary in this way and followed similar events at Greenwich, RNAS Yeovilton and over two days at Fairford for the Royal International Air Tattoo; all of which have been reported on right here at Global Aviation Resource.

One thing typified all the previous events and that was poor weather for, RIAT on Saturday aside, it had been a mixed bag for each flypast with Yeovilton’s Air Day fairing the worst as the horrendously low cloud precluded any fast jet participation whatsoever. A pleasant surprise therefore when we arrived at RAF Shawbury in warm sunshine, by October’s standards anyway, and no threat of similarly grotty conditions this time round.

RAF Shawbury was the perfect location for hosting those participating in the flypast, the bulk of which were rotary aircraft. With the station home to the Defence Helicopter Flying School (DHFS), the helicopters were able to perform rotors running refuels on arrival before parking-up in preparation for the event. The vast majority of airframes arrived on the Friday morning as we were being taken in to the base, and the helos were joined by some of the ‘lighter’ fixed wing aircraft as well as a Chipmunk and the Kennet Seafire.

An ‘enclosure’ had been prepared for those attending the photocall at the base of Shawbury’s air traffic control tower, immediately adjacent to a number of Sea King and Lynx helicopters and a short bus ride away from the four Merlins parked on a nearby dispersal. The fixed-wing elements, four Jetstreams, four Fireflies, four Tutors, sole Chipmunk and the Seafire were parked alongside the station’s Visiting Aircraft Section (VAS) on the opposite side of the runway, again within reach by the buses provided.

Once assembled, buses began taking attendees for a whistle-stop tour of these areas to allow them to photograph the aircraft though for our group, stuck by the tower, it became apparent that the buses were not returning particularly quickly and we were left somewhat stranded. Mark Harris quickly realised this and we were given permission to walk around the nearby helicopters without waiting for the buses to return.

This actually turned in to a most relaxing way of doing things as, bathed in lovely sunshine and unencumbered by barriers or ropes, we were given the chance to photograph the visitors at our leisure, and didn't actually jump on one of the buses (they came back eventually!) to see the Merlins or fixed-wing visitors. The Sea Kings looked resplendent lined-up along the taxi-way with the highlight being the dark blue (Navy blue presumably!) specially marked 40th anniversary airframe. This most venerable of rotary beasts was represented by a variety of different marks including the Junglie HC.4 version as well as the sub-hunting ASaC.7 and HU.5SAR (Search and Rescue).

Lynx helicopters were also well represented with not only the Royal Navy but also the Royal Marines who contributed a camouflaged AH.7. The remainder were HAS Mk3 and Mk8 variants, and it was especially nice to see one of Black Cats marked airframes which have been in deep maintenance this season and conspicuous by their absence from the display circuit.

The sight of aircrew arriving following their mass briefing and a quick lunch signalled that it was time for us to return to our custom-made enclosure to prepare for the departure, and it wasn’t too long before the comparative peace that had settled over the airfield was broken by the sound of helicopters starting-up. The Merlins were first to move and hover-taxied from their dispersal to our left down the length of the runway to take up their positions at the head of what would become an impressive Balbo. The Sea Kings were next with the first aircraft flying low and slow in front of the assembled crowd to join the back of the line-up.

It was a shame therefore that the remainder of the rotary elements, both Sea Kings and Lynx, flew directly from our right before swinging round in to position at the end of an ever-increasing queue of hovering helicopters. It was undoubtedly a spectacular sight but a little disappointing that we didn’t get to see all of the participants bathed in sunshine by virtue of the route they had taken. With the rotary Balbo complete, the lengthy snake finally made its move and slowly but surely lifted out and away from the airfield, tracking west and then north towards its Merseyside destination.

Engines were now running on the opposite side of the station and the Chipmunk was the first mover, followed by the pair of Tutors, four Fireflies and four Jetstreams. Unfortunately none of these aircraft decided to cross the runway and taxi past our enclosure, choosing instead to back-track and use the hammerhead to turn and line-up for departure. This would have been a real treat for those in attendance and perhaps meant the event a good one rather than a brilliant one. John Beattie saved the day however as, to the delight of everyone in the enclosure, the Seafire did taxi past with John waving enthusiastically to the sound of camera shutters clicking away.

As these fixed-wing elements departed in to the distance we could see the two Cobham Falcon 20 aircraft in a rather high pattern overhead and they were joined a few minutes later by a pair of Harriers representing the Naval Strike Wing at RAF Cottesmore. Despite being willed down to a lower level by the attendant photographers they remained in a lofty circuit for around fifteen minutes until a pair of RN Hawks from Yeovilton arrived to complete the fast jet element. Two or three circuits later they had arranged themselves in to the correct formation and departed to catch up with the rest of the Balbo for the flypast over HMS Illustrious.

It’s been a busy year commemorating the Fly Navy 100 and reports suggest that this final event was enthusiastically received by a large crowd in Liverpool, including HRH Prince Andrew, himself a former RN helicopter pilot. The well-catalogued year-long serviceability issues which hit the Royal Navy Historic Flight and the unavailability of the Sea Vixen for this final event were a blow which fortunately didn’t take all the gloss off the celebrations, and the Royal Navy should be applauded for taking these events to so many people across the country.

In these days of defence cuts, overstretch and rumour upon rumour surrounding the future of the Fleet Air Arm and their new aircraft carriers, the Fly Navy 100 commemoration has been a more than welcome reminder of the flexibility and diversity of naval air power. GAR won’t be there to cover it but we can only hope that the FAA is still serving the country just as ably when it celebrates the Fly Navy 200.

Deprecated: mysql_connect(): The mysql extension is deprecated and will be removed in the future: use mysqli or PDO instead in /var/sites/g/globalaviationresource.com/public_html/comments/displaycomments.php on line 8

Global Aviation Resource's photographic and written work is subject to copyright and may not be reproduced or distributed in any form without express written permission.

If you would like to discuss using any of our imagery or feature content please contact us.