2011 UK Airshows

SEP 21 2011
Airshows >> UK: RAF Leuchars Air Show 2011 - Review

It's been a torrid 12 months for the Royal Air Force and, in particular, those units and personnel in Scotland who have had to contend with a seemingly unending sequence of bad news. The cancellation of the Nimrod MR fleet and subsequent closure of RAF Kinloss, the loss of one of Lossiemouth's Tornado GR.4 squadrons and the news that RAF Leuchars had been slated to close within the next four to five years have all contributed to unrest and uncertainty at the RAF's three flying stations located in Scotland. Given the disbandment of the three based Tornado F.3 squadrons, the subsequent reduction in manpower and the work up to Typhoon operations whilst maintaining QRA(N) it would be fair to say that we were lucky to be seeing a 2011 Leuchars Air Show at all.

It was therefore with an open mind and a degree of trepidation that I headed north for the RAF's sole remaining 'Battle of Britain Airshow', additionally badged as commemorating a 'Celebration of 100 years of aviation from North East Fife'. I wanted to see for myself what impact these events may have had on the event and how Leuchars handled the challenge of preparing for the 2011 show.

The aviation enthusiast forums had been full of speculation and comment as to the future of the Leuchars event and many were highly critical at what was seen in their eyes as one of the weakest Leuchars line ups for many a year. The retirement of the Tornado F.3 from RAF service removed yet another iconic aircraft from the RAF inventory and meant that Fife now reverberated to the sound of the Eurofighter Typhoon's EJ200 power plant, as opposed to that of the Tornado's RB199, as 6 Squadron continued to work up on the FGR.4 and T.3 versions of this impressive combat aircraft. However, whilst many mourned the passing of the F.3, many people were eagerly looking forward to a close up look at the RAF's newest combat aircraft now resident in Scotland.

Friday morning saw most of Fife shrouded in low cloud and rain, playing havoc with the arrivals of some of the scheduled participants. A pair of Lakenheath F-15E Strike Eagles had arrived early morning whilst The Blades, Breitling Wingwalkers, Battle of Britain Memorial Flight, RAF Falcons and the Red Arrows were all affected by conditions in Jersey and Guernsey. The Wingwalkers, Falcons and BBMF eventually scrubbed, depleting an already thin Leuchars flying line up, whilst the Plane Sailing PBY Catalina had arrived earlier in the week following a display appearance at Portrush, Northern Ireland.

Other welcome arrivals had included the Royal Norwegian Air Force Historic Squadron Vampire pair and a 133 ARS/157th ARW, New Hampshire ANG KC-135R - a Leuchars 'regular' - which was a welcome addition to bolster the static park. Sitting alongside the KC-135 was a privately owned Bombardier Global Express corporate jet which appeared somewhat out of place on a ramp normally occupied by sleek, grey combat aircraft.

As the day progressed the weather gradually improved allowing the pace of movements to sporadically quicken; a burst of early afternoon activity saw the arrival of a pair of RAF Beechcraft King Airs for static, Czech AF CASA 295M supporting the single JAS-39C Gripen and a very welcome and rare Rygge-based Royal Norwegian Air Force Falcon 20ECM.

Later afternoon arrivals comprised the Patrouille de France along with supporting C-160R Transall, Ramstein based 37th Airlift Squadron C-130J-30 Hercules, '1,000,000 Flying Hours' marked Tornado GR.4 from Lossiemouth, 100 Squadron Hawk T.1A, '30th Anniversary' marked Chinook HC.2 from 18 Squadron, 28/78 Squadron Merlin HC.3, 33/230 Squadron Puma HC.1 and the DHFS pair of Griffin and Squirrel as well as a cross section of civil and general aviation types including a relatively rare ex-Spanish AF CASA Jungmann and Neil McCarthy in the Newcastle Jet Provost Group's T.3A.

Based aircraft being prepared for static display included a total of six (yes, six) Typhoons from 6 Squadron and what may well prove to be the curtain call of well known Phantom FG.1 'Black Mike'.

Elsewhere on the Friday it was encouraging to see an Interactive Zone established in one of the hangars with a 'Youth Day' in progress focussing on attracting tomorrow's Typhoon pilot or engineer - a strategy aimed at underpinning one of the key aims of the airshow: "To increase the public's understanding of the RAF: its roles, capabilities and its people". These hangar displays contained the familiar 'plastic' Chinook and Hawk alongside cut-away engines, Grob Viking glider and Harrier T.4 cockpit section in use by the Air Training Corps.

Outside, a 6 Squadron Typhoon FGR.4 was available for close up inspection with a selection of air and ground crew present to field the inevitable wide range of questions from inquisitive youngsters.

Saturday dawned and it was immediately apparent that the sun cream wasn't going to be needed! As was the case in 2010, low cloud and the threat of rain was looking ominous for the display, however, bright patches to the south created an air of optimism in some quarters. That said, Leuchars can be a tricky venue for the photographer if the sun shines so it really is a case of being stuck between a rock and a hard place when it comes to the weather; blue skies and the sun in your face or overcast and dull with not much light to illuminate the subject. It really can test the photographer but perversely it can also result in some unique conditions and photographic opportunities.

That morning also gave the first opportunity to have a good look at the static park. The area allocated for this was drastically reduced from previous years and consisted of the main ASP area from just east of the old control tower along to the cross runway intersection. Frustratingly for the photographer the mixture of metal barriers and cones and ropes was placed far too close to the aircraft to allow for decent photography (unless a wide angle lens was part of your equipment) and the placement of aircraft was rather haphazard with a number of missed opportunities in the opinion of this author at least.

Whilst good to see a selection of based Typhoons available for public inspection, it was disappointing (and surprising) that the '1,000,000 hours' Tornado GR.4 and a Typhoon weren't displayed together to illustrate the role that these two aircraft are playing in the two high profile operations in which the RAF is currently involved, OP ELLAMY and OP HERRICK. Add the Chinook and Merlin to the mix and there could have been a relevant static 'diorama' that showed some key operational participants side by side while also reinforcing the RAF's corporate identity.

Another 'own goal' was the notable absence of any of the RAF's current 'Battle of Britain' squadrons; where were 3(F), 17(R), 19(R), 29(R), 32, 41(R), 54(R), 56(R) and 72(R)? Nine squadrons that could have been represented by the presence of seven aircraft and that would additionally have been used to tell the ELLAMY and HERRICK 'story'. Admittedly 32 Sqn was represented by the 125 transporting the Chief of the Air Staff, however, the rest were notable by their absence...... very poor for THE RAF's sole Battle of Britain Airshow.

Without wanting to seemingly focus wholly on the negative aspects of the event it would be remiss to comment on what appeared to many enthusiasts as a real oversight. Leuchars is probably the only RAF station where a 'time line' representing previous resident aircraft types could be put together for the static display, given some of the aircraft available on site. Imagine a line of RAF fighters, past and present, that had served at Leuchars and place them along the eastern taxiway - Typhoon (based), Tornado F.3 (QinetiQ), Phantom (Black Mike), Lightning (ex-111 Sqn, gate), Hunter and Meteor ……. add the other easily available types that had served, Tiger Moth, Chipmunk, Bulldog, Tutor and without that much effort there could have been a real RAF Leuchars tale to tell in the 100th year of aviation in Fife.

Elsewhere within the static the first appearance at a UK airshow by a Czech Air Force CASA 295M saw the transport pushed to the back of the static area alongside what, to many, was the star - the Norwegian Falcon 20ECM. Sadly, closely placed cones and ice cream vans prevented many from capturing a decent image of these infrequent visitors to the UK airshow scene.

On top of the old control tower commentator Andy Pawsey was braving the weather and doing a sterling job on the PA system keeping the spectators informed of amendments to the day's programme and also passing on weather updates as and when they were received.

It was clear to most that some tweaking of the flying programme was required to accommodate the Breitling, BBMF and RAF Falcons cancellations and so the flying commenced with a range of radio controlled models being skillfully displayed by members of the Scottish Aeromodeller's Association. Unfortunately one of the models (a Vampire) was lost during the display following a terminal structural failure of the right wing and crashed on the south side of the runway.

The 'real' flying commenced with ex-Tornado F.3 pilot Richard Pargeter displaying his Pitts S-1S Special; Richard's display has been enhanced for 2011 with the addition of a smoke system allowing the audience an improved visualisation of the Pitts display and it certainly contrasts with his day job. Richard was followed by the RV8Tors, a pair of Vans RV-8s skillfully displayed by pilots Alister Kay and Andy Hill. This was the first time I had seen this display and I was impressed by a smooth, flowing and tight sequence flown in low cloud and drizzle with an accompanying on-crowd wind; not the best of conditions but they certainly held the audience's attention.

The Plane Sailing Catalina G-PBYA provided an unusual airborne shape and one not regularly seen in the Fife skies, although conditions were possibly more suited to her amphibian capabilities than most other aircraft present at Leuchars. Following completion of the display the 'Cat' was thoughtfully positioned at crowd centre to allow a closer look at this veteran aircraft, and after a short while the public was afforded controlled access in small groups; a rare opportunity for people to have an up close and personal look at the inside of this wonderful old machine - well done Plane Sailing.

Continuing the 'warbird' theme was Neil Geddes in his Royal Aircraft Factory SE5a replica; full marks to Neil for braving the elements but I can't help thinking that this type of display is more attractive when accompanied by additional aircraft of a similar ilk as presented by the likes of the Great War Display Team, as it does tend to get somewhat lost even along the relatively compact Leuchars display line.

Whatever your stance may be regarding the Vulcan, the aircraft always brings about a noticeable buzz within the airshow audience, and Leuchars 2011 was no different as XH558 ran in from the east for her first display since appearing at the Sunderland airshow in July. A spate of technical issues and weather cancellations meant that August was a barren month for VTTS and it must have been a good feeling to have the aircraft back on the circuit and displaying in the hands of Phill O'Dell along with Martin Withers and Barry Masefield. The characteristic 'Vulcan howl' brought a shiver to the spine but the low cloud base and weather conditions did not really allow the crew to show off Roy Chadwick's classic design to best effect.

Joining the Vulcan in the classic jets category was a pair of de Havilland Vampires, an FB.Mk.6 and a T.Mk.55, from the Royal Norwegian Air Force Historic Squadron. This pair of classics flew a beautifully sedate and graceful display in the most atrocious weather of the day and yet still appeared to be glued together; such a pity that the audience were understandably focussing on seeking shelter from the rain rather than witnessing a display of skilful flying. Had they displayed 15 minutes or so later then they would have benefitted from the quickly clearing weather blowing in from the south. Frustratingly, given the relative scarcity of aircraft on the ground both of these lovely little jets were tucked away on the north side operational areas away from public gaze and cameras.

Display team wise, Leuchars was blessed with three; The Blades, the Patrouille de France and the emotional return of the Red Arrows as an 'eight ship' following the tragic events of the Bournemouth airshow.

The Blades, led by Myles Garland and comprising a team made up of ex-Red Arrows pilots naturally ensures you will witness a high quality display of exciting and precision flying with 2011 being one of the best seasons that I have witnessed throughout their six year existence.

The Patrouille, led by Commandant Cédric Tranchon, fly with a typical Gallic flair and it was interesting to compare the French and British displays. Also apparent was the close bond that exists between aviators, and teams in particular; the warmth exuded by both the Patrouille commentator and Red 10, Sqn Ldr Graeme Bagnall, was noteworthy. The latter delivered a measured but clearly emotional commentary on the team's display at Leuchars which acknowledged the flypast given by the Patrouille at the funeral of Red 4, Flt Lt Jon Egging, and this elicited a moment of silence and reflection during one of the team's formation passes. On completion of the Reds' display the sight of the French pilots applauding them from their cockpits was testament indeed to the close links between these two teams.

Another of the RAF's dedicated display assets was the 1 FTS Tucano T.Mk.1 flown by Flt Lt Dan Hayes. Unfortunately the specially marked display aircraft could not be brought along to Leuchars, so Dan displayed a standard marked example and continually revised his display to cater for the rapidly changing conditions, that he later described as "awful", encountered through his short display slot.

The Czech Gripen meanwhile got airborne in the same atrocious weather as the Norwegian Vampire pair only this time the worsening conditions resulted in a truncated sequence and a return to terra firma after only a few minutes during which the most visible aspect of the aircraft was a single glowing afterburner - such a shame given the improving weather that was only a matter of minutes away.

The two remaining solo fast jet items were the Belgian and Dutch F-16s flown by Michel 'Mitch' Beulen and Tobias 'Hitec' Schutte respectively. Again unfavourable conditions proved less than ideal for these two high energy displays but at least the weather saw the flares used by 'Hitec' make a huge visual impact against the grey skies. Flares aside I must say that, for me, 'Mitch' won the day with a varied and powerful display of the F-16 in less than ideal conditions.

The final acts of the Leuchars 2011 Air Show were provided by the RAF fast jet community; four Typhoon FGR.4s from 6 Squadron, based at RAF Leuchars got rapidly airborne from the eastern end of the airfield demonstrating the awesome power that this aircraft possesses. A short take off roll followed by a 'Lightningesque' vertical climb was certainly impressive but I can't help thinking that keeping the jets low and rotating vertically at crowd centre would have afforded a greater proportion of the crowd a better view of this piece of action.

The Tornado GR.4 Role Demo that followed delivered its usual combination of noise and power with the pair of GR.4s simulating the close air support role with a variety of representative attack profiles and associated 'show of force' flypasts, although it was a close run thing as to whether the display or the hugely entertaining commentary actually stole the show!

Following the role demo there was a very long gap in proceedings and quite a few spectators nearby were packing up thinking that the show was over. However, after a short while the OP ELLAMY tribute took place with a 6 Squadron Typhoon accompanying each of the Role Demo GR.4s as they ran in as a pair from first the western and then eastern ends of the airfield; the show finally ending with three Typhoons running in from the east in a 'V' formation with the fourth following behind and climbing vertically on full reheat to mark the traditional Leuchars 'Sunset Ceremony'.

In conclusion, Leuchars 2011 certainly fell short of expectations. It was still a decent show, but does not bear comparison with many past events and I heard a few questioning the £40.00 cost of entrance and on-base parking. Always a very well attended event that benefits from its location between Dundee and Edinburgh with Glasgow to the west, it will always attract the crowds due to the lack of a major airshow activity elsewhere in Scotland. Weather-wise the event has suffered recently as has a large proportion of the 2011 UK display scene from north to south throughout the year.

The men and women of RAF Leuchars work hard to stage the airshow year in, year out whilst contending with the demands that life in a contracting military brings; however, with a little thought and will, this event could be so much better. Whilst acknowledging that participation is a thorny issue for some, there is not much an organiser can do but to go through the invitation process and seek participation wherever they can, but why not concentrate on displaying the RAF first and foremost and doing it well?

I am firmly of the opinion that the RAF could do better at what is its remaining Battle of Britain Airshow and its only airshow in Scotland. The introduction of the Interactive Zone and Youth Day on the Friday was a positive step toward concentrating on showing off our RAF to the public. Develop the engagement, continue to bring the public onside and encourage tomorrow's airmen and women to serve their country. If there is to be a Leuchars 2012 Air Show then present the Service better on the ground, consolidate the assets and show the united face of the RAF. Tell the story of what the Service is doing around the world NOW and introduce a modicum of showmanship whilst commemorating what those in the past have sacrificed for the nation.

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