Having suffered from a string of cancellations and bad luck in recent years, the RNAS Yeovilton Air Day returned to form in formidable style in 2015. Shaun Schofield reports on an outstanding weekend.
It’s fair to say that Yeovilton has suffered more than most other shows when it comes to high-profile cancellations, especially so in 2014. The show has been long overdue a change in fortunes, and with such a promising line-up in the offing, all those attending hoped it would be this year. They were not to be disappointed.
With the exception of the Norwegian Air Force Historical Squadron’s MiG-15, which unfortunately cancelled its début UK appearance at the eleventh hour, all the confirmed aircraft did indeed turn up for show. You know your luck is in when even the NATO E-3A, an aircraft famed for its tendency to cancel, arrives on cue for its static appearance, much to everyone’s surprise!
The Sentry was one of a number of star items in arguably the finest static displays at an Air Day for many years, boasting further foreign participation from France, Belgium, Norway, Czech Republic, Germany, Poland and the US. It was especially pleasing to see American participation return to Air Day courtesy of a pair of the hugely popular A-10 Warthogs and a C-17, which received the best static display award. Naturally, the static also included a whole host of current and historic Fleet Air Arm aircraft and an extensive range of types depicting the history of AgustaWestland to celebrate the company’s centenary year.
The latter formed one of the show’s themes, with the bulk of the celebrations taking place on the ground with a whole host of helicopters, from the early Sioux and Whirlwind, right through to the latest types rolling off the production line just down the road in Yeovil, including the impressive HH-101 Caesar and AW149 earmarked for the Italian Air Force.
In the air, this theme was represented by a new and unique type. Making its début at a UK military show, the tiltrotor AW609 was one of the more unusual types on show, demonstrating its full performance envelope during its demonstration, arriving at high speed before transitioning into the hover to give the audience a closer look at this curious machine.
The second of the show’s two themes celebrated the 75th anniversary of RNAS Yeovilton itself. Commissioned in 1940, the airfield has provided a home for a range of types that have served with the Fleet Air Arm over the years, many of which were included in the flying programme. One such example was Kennet Aviation’s stunning Seafire XVII, making its return to Air Day after a five-year absence, and given the honours of opening the show in the capable hands of Lt Cdr Chris Götke.
The Seafire was supplemented by two aircraft seldom seen away from their home at Old Warden; the Shuttleworth Collection’s Sea Hurricane and BAE System’s Avro XIX Anson, one of the unsung types operated by the FAA. The former was especially relevant to the theme as Sea Hurricanes were one of the first types to be based at Yeovilton, and pilot ‘Dodge’ Bailey flew a graceful routine in this most beautiful of aircraft.
Of course, no Air Day would be complete without participation by the resident Royal Navy Historic Flight. Having endured a torrid few years with aircraft serviceability, there was doubt if they would be able to fly anything at this show at all. Fortunately, after a lot of hard work leading up to the show, the flight was able to display its Swordfish Mk 1, its first public demonstration in 12 years. It’s hugely encouraging for the flight to be able to display such a classic airframe, and hopefully represents a change in fortune.
Arguably even more eagerly anticipated than the Swordfish was the return to Air Day of the mighty Sea Vixen. Now also residing at the base, Foxy Lady has been absent from the flying for four years, but returned in true style in 2015. In the capable hands of Simon Hargreaves, the Vixen was flown through a powerful yet graceful routine, showing off the photogenic lines and excellent performance of the jet. Like the Swordfish, its attendance comes off the back of a lot of hard work and dedication by the operating team to get her back where it belongs; fingers crossed it’s a sign of things to come.
The Vixen’s solo display was not its only appearance at Air Day, as it lead a very special, one-off formation of ‘V’ jets. Flanked by the two Vampires of the Norwegian Air Force Historical Squadron, with Vulcan XH558 bringing up the rear, the formation flew two passes along the crowdline in what was a unique flypast, celebrating British aviation heritage and earning themselves the award for best fixed wing display in the process.
The Vampires had earlier displayed a pleasantly gentle pair routine, representing another of the types to have been previously based at Yeovilton, while the Vulcan returned later in the afternoon to perform its own solo, providing plenty of noise, howls and impressively steep wingovers in what was a pretty punchy routine that also included the popping of the aircraft drag chute on landing. It certainly seems that as the season wears on and ‘558’s retirement draws nearer, the crews are keen to go out with a flourish.
The Vulcan’s popularity is perhaps only rivalled by the Red Arrows, who returned to Yeovilton after an absence in 2014 with their typically precise display. The Reds were joined by their RAF counterparts, the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight, who displayed a pair of Spitfires, and the Chinook, which once again amazed with its frankly ridiculous routine, highlighting the immense power and agility of the aircraft. One can never get bored with the nose down quick stop!
Deservedly, the Chinook walked away with the award for best rotary display, but it did face stiff competition from an unlikely source. Making a rare appearance away from its base at North Weald was UH-1 G-HUEY, another surprisingly agile rotary type that was flown low and close to the crowd and with plenty of blade slap to boot. Huey displays are rare these days – a real shame when they can be flown with as much gusto as this.
Further civilian participation came courtesy of two very different aerobatic types. Making their Air Day debut were the Czech Mates, or at least half of them, as Simon Wilson flew a solo Zlin 526 through a gentle routine. It was in stark contrast to Rich Goodwin’s outrageous display in his modified Pitts S-2S. Rich’s routine has earned plenty of praise over the last two years, and it really is a phenomenal sequence of manoeuvres, with barely any respite from the moment he takes off until he touches down. Fantastic stuff!
As well as healthy foreign participation on the ground, Air Day 2015 saw plenty of overseas flying participation too. Supplementing the Red Arrows, the two national display teams of Jordan and Spain brought their own brand of formation aerobatics. The Royal Jordanian Falcons are no strangers to Yeovilton, and once again flew their typically polished routine, returning this year to their full complement of four aircraft.
Less common are the Patrulla Aguila and their seven C101 Aviojets. Although not everyone’s cup of tea, the team flew a tidy routine, composed of interesting formations and a range of unique manoeuvres; it’s not every day you see a jet perform a full loop inverted, and their formation landing is mightily impressive. If there was to be one criticism, they do take their time repositioning, but they were an enjoyable and welcome addition to the show nonetheless, and it’s great to see Spanish participation at a UK airshow in any capacity.
Foreign fast jets were a little sparse this year, at least in a solo capacity, with the Czech Republic sending its L-159 ALCA solo. Despite its diminutive size, the ALCA packs quite a punch, with plenty of noise coming from its relatively small engine, powering the jet through an innovative sequence of manoeuvres, including plenty of gut wrenching negative-G turns and pushovers, all combining to produce a very enjoyable routine.
For most attending, there was no disputing the star act. Since their début in 2011, enthusiasts have yearned for the Aeronavale to return with their powerful role demonstration. This year saw those hopes come to fruition in style, with the French sending three examples each of the venerable Super Etendard Modernise, and the outstanding Rafale M, with two of each earmarked for the display.
After a series of noisy, and in the Rafale’s case, extravagant take-offs, the display commenced with a four-ship flypast, tailhooks extended, before the Rafales powered away, leaving centre stage to the Etendards. The pair proceeded to perform a series of imaginative opposition and formation manoeuvres, showing of the unique lines of this lovely old jet, which was in all likelihood making its final appearance at a UK show before its retirement.
If the Etendards were the grace, the Rafales were certainly the power, with each jet in turn flying a series of aggressive figure-eights, complete with plenty of afterburner. If there was to be any criticism, the jets were displaying at a fair old distance from the crowd, but the fact is this is a blockbuster of an airshow act, and a real highlight of the 2015 season as a whole, and not just the show.
The final fast jet act came courtesy of the RAF Typhoon solo display. These solos have steadily improved over the past two or three years, but this year, Flt Lt Jonny Dowen has taken the display to another level. It’s non-stop action from the moment Jonny launches the jet into the air, laced with aggressive rolls, turns and loops, and with the afterburners seemingly plugged in constantly, there is little let up in the noise. The aircraft just doesn’t shut up! Finally, the Typhoon is competing with the very best of European fast jet displays.
Being Yeovilton, rotary action is high on the agenda, with several high quality displays in attendance, including both the Royal Navy and Army Air Corps’ display teams. The Black Cats have fully converted to the Wildcat this year, flying a two-ship for the first time. While the new mount doesn’t quite have the agility of the old Lynx, the precise manoeuvres and impressive crossovers remain, and I’m sure in time the routine will become a little more punchy.
The AAC Apache pair have impressed in previous shows, and the same quality was maintained at Yeovilton. The routine, coupled with the excellent commentary, provides an informative insight into the roles and techniques adopted by the Apache when on operations, while the use of pyros add that little bit of Hollywood that punters love in a display.
Further Wildcat participation came courtesy of the first of the two big Royal Navy set pieces, with a pair taking part in the maritime role demonstration alongside a pair of Lynx. As ever, the demo offers an insight into how the Navy utilises these helicopters in operations, in this case, rescuing a hostage from pirates. As ever, liberal use of pyrotechnics and flares were included to add realism and perspective to what the aircraft were demonstrating.
Of course, no Yeovilton show would be complete without the Commando Assault finale, and this year’s was one of the most impressive in recent times, with no less than 15 aircraft participating in total. Two more Lynx and Wildcat were included in a busy day for the maritime force, whilst the two Apaches also returned after their earlier demo. A single Hawk of 736 NAS provided the sole fixed wing asset, but the real stars were the Sea Kings and Merlins of the Commando Helicopter Force.
Four of each took part, in what was something of a passing of the baton, as the old makes way for the new. With their retirement scheduled for March, the venerable old Sea King was taking part in its 36th and final Air Day. It will be a sad day when the Junglie finally goes, but the CHF’s future looks to be in safe hands with the new Merlins, at least if the finale is anything to go by. The aircraft have real presence, something made evident during the four ship’s intimidating show of force during the assault, the aircraft running in fast and low.
The finale was another 30-minute spectacular, with almost non-stop rotary action as one type made way for another, complimented superbly by the informative and enthusiastic commentary, troops and ground vehicles, and of course, further explosions and a massive flare burst by a pair of Sea Kings. As is customary, once the battle had been won, all the participating aircraft and personnel lined up and faced the crowd as a mighty wall of fire was detonated behind. It’s a truly fantastic set piece, unique to Yeovilton and one that sets it apart from other shows.
With arguably the best line up for a single-day airshow this year, and record crowd numbers, there’s no doubting that Yeovilton Air Day 2015 was a roaring success. Few shows can compare with the variety and sheer spectacle on show; it was an absolute blast, literally!