The Army Air Corps’ Attack Helicopter Display Team made its season début at RAF Cosford Air Show where the Apache, and Prince Harry, made a huge impact. Gareth Stringer was there to meet them for this exclusive feature.

In case you are reading this and wondering, let’s answer one question right away. Does what happened at Cosford on Sunday 9 June mean that Prince Harry will be making additional appearances elsewhere? Genuinely, no one really knows, and as the Commanding Officer 3 AAC, Lt Col Thomas de la Rue, told me, that is entirely down to the Army’s chain of command and Captain Wales’ availability. Whatever happens though, do not expect it to be announced prior to the event, for obvious reasons.

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It’s the morning of the team’s appearance at Cosford and 99.9% of the people on-site have absolutely no idea that Captain Wales is taking part. The Attack Helicopter Display Team (AHDT) has congregated in the pilot’s enclosure and that alone serves to show just what a team effort this is – pilots (two), commentator, manager, REME (Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers) tech support….  They are all here, and each one plays a crucial role in taking the Apache out to airshows so that the general public can see something of its vast capability.

Fortunately, that is something we should get to see a little more often as we look ahead because, just as Team Manager Major Stewart Pearce was hoping for when he got the Apache solo back up and running in 2011, when the aircraft performed at a mere handful of shows, the team should be in a position to support a few more events along the way.

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“As Operation Herrick begins to wind down in Afghanistan, we should be able to commit a little more time to taking the Apache out to public events, and that is definitely the case this year as we have some extra shows in the calendar,” Stewart tells me, “But we shouldn’t forget that we are still deployed in theatre and that the crews continue to conduct vital work to support our efforts out in Afghanistan.

“I selected this year’s crews for the display and that selection is very much dependant on where they are in their operational cycle. The guys we chose from are from 662 Squadron and just back from Op Herrick, so they are not on pre-deployment training and are therefore available for the whole season.

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“We use frontline pilots, not instructors, and frontline aircraft, so the display has an operational focus too, which is very important.”

Major Pearce himself moves on at the end of the season but Apache fans should take heart that his role as Display Manager will be handed over to his successor at Wattisham, the team’s home’s base, which should bode well for future appearances, as of course does the fact that the display works very well for the Army.

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“There are many reasons why we do this [airshows] and many benefits from making the effort. It is about recruitment, public relations and visibility.

“We know that many people at an airshow won’t have seen the Apache very much before, if at all, so it is excellent that we can bring the aircraft out to them and give them an idea of what it is all about.”

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Then, with a quick change of personnel on the designated interview sofa, Major Pearce gives up his seat so I can talk to the two men who will be doing most of the displaying this season.

SSgt Jamie Boakes will be conducting all the flying from the Apache’s back-seat this year, regardless of who accompanies him as gunner in the front. Jamie joined the Army in 1996 and spent some time on the ground before joining the AAC, first as a Lynx crewman and then as a pilot. He’s been flying the Apache since 2007 and now has more than 1600 hours.

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The ‘other’ gunner, the one who isn’t Capt Wales, is Capt Phil Wilson. Phil reached the Apache almost as quickly as you can these days, joining the Army in 2007 and then moving straight on to his pilot’s course and then the ‘AH’ (as its crews often refer to the Apache) following his training at Sandhurst. He now has 600 hours on the Apache and, just for the record, Cosford was Phil’s first ever visit to an airshow in any capacity!

“Training has gone very well, and we didn’t come up against any real complications,” Jamie tells me. “We can’t do too much that will be different to the AAC Apache displays people that may have seen before, as we always operate according the aircraft’s Release to Service, but we have tried to stitch the manoeuvres together to make a ‘new’ routine.”

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“We are displaying with pyrotechnics at Manston which should be excellent as well, so we’re looking forward to that one.”

“Fundamentally, it’s great to get the aircraft out to the events.” Phil says, “Especially to areas of the country where they don’t really ever get to see it. Most people comment on how big it is when they see it for the first time, and it is only a couple of feet shorter than a Chinook, so I think many assume that it lumbers around and isn’t very manoeuvrable. Hopefully the display dispels that assumption, as the Apache is actually an extremely agile beast and a very capable aircraft.”

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This year’s full display requires visibility to be at least 3.7km with a cloud base of no less than 2000ft and wind no more than 20kts. It begins with the Apache holding, rather menacingly, at crowd centre, entering immediately in to a rapid descent from 2000ft to 300ft. What follows is a gut-wrenching series of wing-overs and pedal turns which truly demonstrates the Apache’s manoeuvrability and flexibility over the battlefield.

Especially eye-catching this season is the 90° up 90° down, with the addition of a 90° twist at the end, and also the brilliant series of low level steep turns, performed at 100ft and 80kts. The sideways pirouettes, as ever, provide an excellent opportunity for photographs as the Apache traverses along the crowdline.

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Interestingly, and reinforcing the ‘operational focus’ comment that Major Pearce made earlier, this is not the first extended period of time that Jamie and Phil have spent flying together, as they worked as a crew for six months on Phil’s first ever operational deployment to Afghanistan.

“We cover a lot on our pre-deployment training,” says Jamie, “so that we’ve experienced everything, in a simulated sense, and know exactly what our job is once we reach theatre, but being crewed with a more experience operator when you first get there is still very important.”

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“It’s absolutely critical,” agrees Phil, “he kept me on the straight and narrow and ensured I didn’t stray out of the lanes!”

“It’s still quite a steep learning curve and one that really ramps up as things develop on the ground,” adds Jamie, “The back seat is commonly referred to as the ‘capacity seat’ and we’re constantly helping the front-seater to try and make sure they are getting the most out the systems available to them.”

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It is an exercise in crew-cooperation that can also be applied to displaying the Apache for the general public, as Phil explains:

“I’ve got all the notes, the speeds and the entry gate heights for manoeuvres, and in many ways it is a reversal of the roles we fulfil on Op Herrick. During the display I’m the one sitting in the capacity seat and ultimately it is my responsibility to look for those look important things like our position relative to the crowd-line and anything that needs dealing with in the cockpit so that Jamie can concentrate on the flying and complete the display safely.”

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RAF Cosford Air Show also saw the Apache play an important and realistic part in the MERT (Medical Emergency Response Team) Demonstration which also featured ground troops, medics, a Chinook and a C-130 Hercules. MERT has been a hugely significant facility for our forces in Afghanistan and Apache is a vital cog in the wheel.

Jamie – “MERT is an outstanding, British, capability, there’s not much else to say really. We have a fantastic relationship with everyone involved, especially the Chinook Force, and we sit there at height, covering everyone, and if necessary, make some noise. There is no doubt that MERT has been responsible for saving many lives and I’m proud of our part in that.

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“It’s great that the crowd here at Cosford will get to see a small example of MERT in action to give them an idea of how it all works.”

Finally, what of the Apache itself? It’s been deployed in Afghanistan since 2007 and has surely now matured in to one of our most important assets – one which brought a whole new capability to the British armed forces.

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Phil – “I think you’re right there, we really hadn’t had anything like it before and although we learned from the Americans and applied that to our own requirements, I think the Army has taken the Apache and learned a great deal for itself, through experience in theatre.

“We’re in a situation now where the troops on the ground know exactly how to employ it and the best way to employ it, and that in turn helps us to use the aircraft to the best of its ability. It’s constantly improving, too.”

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With Jamie and Phil departing for the pilot’s briefing, I am joined once more by Major Stewart Pearce, and ask him the same question regarding the AH and its current status…

“Prior to Afghanistan I don’t think anyone in the AAC would have envisioned us being at this stage now, we are probably years ahead of the initial vision for Apache. We really have come on leaps and bounds with the aircraft and I think that is testament to the AAC as well as to the Apache itself.”

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You can see the AHDT in action for yourself this season at the South East Air Show (Manston), RAF Waddington, RIAT, Dunsfold, CarFest South and IWM Duxford (October).

Huge thanks to Lt Col Thomas de la Rue, Major Stewart Pearce, SSgt Jamie Boakes and Capt Phil Wilson.