On a beautiful early summer’s evening, Naval Air Station Merryfield once again opened its doors for its annual open evening. Shaun Schofield made the short journey up the road for GAR.
Each year, Merryfield hosts a laid back and low-key event; a small, free show aimed at providing an insight into the role of the airfield as a thank-you to the local residents whose day-to-day activities are potentially disrupted by the Royal Navy. The event features a short flying display, as well as a small static line-up, enabling members of the public to get up close and personal with the aircraft and their crews.
Merryfield’s primary role is to provide a key training area for the various naval helicopter squadrons, enabling the Maritime and Commando Helicopter Forces to conduct their intensive training regimes away from their busy home base at Yeovilton, where the mix of rotary and fixed operations is less than ideal for their required training. As such, Merryfield regularly plays host to Lynx and Sea King, and in more recent years, Wildcat and Merlin.
The format of the event is broadly the same from year to year, whereby examples of the above helicopter types run through a series of typical training routines. These include such regimes as downwind and single engine landings, engine out auto-rotations and tactical climbs and descents, the sort of regimes that can be performed in safety at a quiet, remote airfield such as Merryfield. These demonstrations are generally followed by a Black Cats display, with occasional contributions courtesy of the Royal Navy Historic Flight (RNHF).
The Commando Helicopter Force is currently undergoing a transitional period, winding down the Junglie Sea King fleet as the Commando Merlin is introduced in ever increasing numbers. This was reflected at the open evening – the Sea King taking its place in the static line up, whilst the Merlin was given its public debut.
Unfortunately, the healthy-sized audience was to be given only a brief glimpse of the Fleet Air Arm’s latest helicopter as, during its run in for its demonstration, the aircraft suffered a technical problem and was forced to abort. All rather ironic as the Merlin was due to show off emergency procedures!
As such, it was left to a Lynx HMA8 of 815 Squadron to solely demonstrate the aforementioned training procedures. This was followed by Lt Cdr Chris Gӧtke in the RNHF’s Chipmunk, flying a flawless display of graceful aerobatics. A far cry from the Sea Fury we have become accustomed to seeing Goaty tear around in, but impressive all the same.
Closing the short flying display were the Royal Navy Black Cats. The team are flying a pair of Wildcats this season, but as they did not achieve their Public Display Authorisation until after the event, the team demonstrated a single aircraft at Merryfield. It’s the first time a Wildcat solo has been flown in public, ably showing off the aircraft’s speed and agility. A fine taster for the pairs display later this season.
It’s not just the Royal Navy that utilises Merryfield. AgustaWestland regularly drop in whilst testing their new aircraft, and as such, frequently display some of their aircraft at the open evenings. What turns up is the luck of the draw, but this event saw a bumper contribution, with the Company A109 and Wildcat test airframe in attendance.
The real star of the show, however, was the HH-101 Caesar, a real brute of a helicopter that looked suitably menacing in its overall matte black paint scheme. Its popularity with enthusiasts and general public alike was obvious, with large crowds gathered in and around the aircraft from the moment it shut down until its departure.
One of the endearing features of these open evenings is the chance to see and photograph the aircraft in soft, golden light as the event draws to a close and the sun begins to set. Of course, conditions have to be just right for this, and fortunately this year they were, with perfectly clear skies paving the way for a stunning sunset.
This was particularly appropriate with regards to the Junglie on show; with retirement looming for this workhorse of the Royal Navy, this was the last time the aircraft would be present at the event. After the AgustaWestland aircraft had departed in turn, the scene was set for the Junglie to literally fly off into the sunset, bringing the event to an end.
It was all very poetic, a suitably fitting end to another entertaining and enjoyable evening at Merryfield, an excellent little taster for the Royal Navy’s showcase events at Yeovilton and Culdrose next month.