Building on the success of a superb show in 2014, the RNAS Culdrose Air Day delivered one of the finest and most eclectic line ups of the year. Shaun Schofield reports from sunny Cornwall.
That’s right, sunny! The weather always plays a crucial part in any airshow, but never more so than at Culdrose. Its proximity to the often unforgiving Atlantic has seen plenty of shows decimated by some horrendous weather over the years; I can remember the 2004 show only too well, when dense fog ruled out all flying.
Fortunately, this year had no such issues, with blue skies and fluffy cumulus clouds prevailing throughout much of the day, before the clouds dissipated during the final few hours of flying. This fine weather, coupled with a delightful backdrop of Cornish countryside and North-facing crowdline, makes Culdrose one of the finest airshow venues in the country.
Such fine weather had a direct impact on attendance, with hordes of people descending on this corner of Cornwall for family day out. Indeed, a quick cross section of the audience reveals the vast majority to be holidaymakers, with only a handful of the regular airshow goers in attendance, no doubt due to the remote location.
Naturally, the showground reflects this, with plenty of non-aviation orientated activities available to entertain the masses when they wanted a break from the flying. Conversely, as ever, several hangars, including, for the first time, 771 Naval Air Squadron, were opened up for public viewing, with ground displays providing an insight into the workings of the station and the Royal Navy as a whole.
Culdrose is not famed for an extensive array of static aircraft, a trend that continued this year. Naturally, the bulk of the aircraft on the ground were of naval providence, with several of the resident types on show, as well as those based at RNAS Yeovilton. There were a couple of gems to be found however, most notably the IX(B) Squadron anniversary Tornado GR4, and a very smart Dutch NH90.
Whilst the static might have been a little understated, the flying programme was anything but. There was truly something for everyone, with a vast array of aerobatic displays, classic jets and historic warbirds complimenting the modern Fleet Air Arm and, most pleasingly of all, a healthy foreign contingent featuring some of Europe’s big hitters.
Topping the bill were the sublime Frecce Tricolori in what was their sole UK appearance this year. The Italians last attended a Culdrose Air Day at the aforementioned 2004 show, when they didn’t so much as remove the covers from their canopies due to the weather. There were no such problems this year, with the enthusiastic audience treated to what is understandably regarded as one of the finest aerobatic teams in the world.
Complimented by their even more enthusiastic commentator, the team show real flair and panache in their quintessentially Italian routine, demonstrating a unique blend of formation flying, breaks and crossovers that you don’t see performed by any other team, as well the solo’s famous crazy flight and the evocative final pass, painting an enormous Italian flag across the Cornish sky to Pavarotti’s operatic classic ‘Nessun Dorma.’
In recent years, Culdrose has struggled to obtain much in the way of foreign flying participation, so one would be forgiven for settling for the Frecce, being such an impressive coup for the show. Huge credit must therefore be given to the organisers for securing not one but two further acts from the continent, and two of the finest fast jet displays around, no less.
After sending a static example in 2014, the Polish Air Force returned to Culdrose with a MiG-29 Fulcrum for the flying. Having deservedly received rave reviews after an outstanding performance at the Royal international Air Tattoo, the MiG did much the same again, commencing with an outrageously low take -off before pulling up into a mighty square loop.
That set the tone for another fine and wonderfully smoky display of fast jet flying, showing off the MiG’s superb manouvreability- made all the more impressive by its lack of fly-by-wire controls- and its fine lines, with a series of ‘photo’ passes against a brilliant blue sky. There was even a chance to see the famous tailslide, something the cloud at RIAT obscured, as the jet climbed into a large patch of blue before cutting the engines and falling back on itself.
As fantastic as the MiG was, and it really was, it was arguably outdone by another fast jet heavyweight in the shape of the Swiss F/A-18C. Having also been restricted by the low cloud at its Cosford appearance earlier in the summer, the Hornet was thoroughly let off the leash in the cloudless skies of Culdrose, delivering an aggressive and fantastically noisy display.
Aggressive is the word, with some outrageously tight turning and pitching as pilot ‘Teddy’ Meister put the jet through its paces, creating liberal amounts of vapour in the process. The unlimited ceiling also enabled the Hornet to perform its stunning pirouette manoeuvres, unique to the Swiss display, with Teddy twice putting the jet into a flat spin off the top of a looping manoeuvre. It was a truly rip-roaring routine, with barely a quiet moment, even during the slow speed, high alpha pass, and fully deserving of the award for best display.
All very good stuff, but the jet action did not stop there. A healthy contingent of classic jets flew in from North Weald during the morning of the show, namely a Hunter T7 and the Gnat Display Team, the latter making their Culdrose debut. Having not been mentioned in the pre-show build up, the Hunter was a pleasant surprise, and, in the safe hands of Chris Heames, flew a neat and tidy display befitting of the type’s graceful lines.
It was a busy afternoon for Chris, having earlier flown the Yellowjacks example in the Gnat’s display, alongside Kevin Whyman and Mark Fitzgerald in a routine as elegant as the Gnat itself. Tragically, the Red Arrows schemed Gnat was involved in a fatal incident just two days later at Oulton Park, resulting in the loss of Kevin’s life. A tragic day for aviation; GAR offers its sincere condolences to the team, and friends and family of Kevin.
The best of the classics was saved for the end however, as the glorious Sea Vixen was given the honour of closing the show. I waxed lyrical about how good this display is in my Yeovilton Air Day review, but it truly is, with Simon Hargreaves showing off the jet’s stunning lines to the absolute maximum, and providing a taste of the Foxy’s superb performance, without ever pushing her too close to the limit. With the weather at its best of the day, there was no more fitting way to close the show.
Naturally, naval aviation featured heavily throughout the display, with some of the finest examples of historic Fleet Air Arm types included. Of course, the RNHF Swordfish fits this category as well as any, with Lt Simon Wilson demonstrating something of the type’s slow speed, high manouvreability that made it such an effective platform for torpedo bombing. It’s seemingly rare to see the Stringbag in sunshine, so it was a real treat to be able to see the old girl looking so resplendent in the sun in her new colours.
Kennet Aviation was out in force, with John Beattie taking up their sublime Seafire XVII in a quaint, if a little distant display. Presumably John beat Lt Cdr Chris Gotke in a game of rock paper scissors or similar over whom got to fly the Seafire, with Goaty having recently converted to the type. Not to be left out however, he did display Kennet’s T-6 Texan in an elegant, flowing routine, returning to the skies over Culdrose for the first time since he suffered an engine failure in the Sea Fury last year.
Chris also spent some time in the commentary box, offering excellent history and insight into some of the historic aircraft performing. The same was true of Lt Simon Wilson and Lt Dave Fleming, who complimented lead commentator George Bacon admirably. The group combined to provide an interesting and informative commentary throughout the day.
Joining the Texan for an initial flypast was The Fighter Collection (TFC)’s delightful Wildcat. In the capable hands of Carl Schofield, the tubby little cat was subsequently put through its paces with plenty of vim and vigour, its Twin Wasp engine sounding absolutely wonderful. The Wildcat was joined by its TFC stablemate, the Corsair, with Alan Wade flying a similarly punchy routine. It’s great to see TFC spreading their wings and venturing away from Duxford, especially at a naval show where these aircraft have added pertinence. For those of us with a penchant for naval aircraft, this was a real treat, and one that will hopefully be repeated in the future.
Of course, no Culdrose show would be complete without the station flypast, with this year’s Balbo consisting of a trio of resident 771 NAS Sea Kings, three Merlin HM2s and a sole Sea King ASaC7, as well as a Lynx and Wildcat pair from Yeovilton. As the formation approached from the South, an additional pair of 736 NAS Hawks flew over the top, before the helicopters flew a circuit and lined up along the runway, turning to the face their crowd in acknowledgement of their appreciation.
It was a poignant event for 771 NAS in particular, as it is the final Air Day before their Sea Kings are retired. It will be a sad day when the familiar red and grey cabs disappear from the Cornish skies for good; they’ve been an important fixture for decades now, a point underlined during the show as one aircraft disappeared to the North of the airfield after a shout, returning later in the day.
It was therefore thoroughly appropriate for the squadron to provide one final search and rescue demonstration of how the aircraft and their crews have been saving lives for so long. In a unique twist to the standard demonstration, a lorry representing a stricken ship slowly made its way along the runway, the Sea King following it all the way as the two ‘sailors’ were winched to safety, showcasing the coordination and teamwork required by the crews to perform a swift, safe rescue.
Further solo helicopter action came courtesy of a resident Merlin and a Yeovilton-based Lynx. It’s always a treat to see a Merlin display, especially when flown such aplomb in what is a large aircraft, but the Lynx was especially good. Time is short for this long-standing servant of the Fleet Air Arm as the Wildcat – two of which were flown by the Royal Navy Black Cats – comes online, and it seems they want to go out in style, flying an exciting and aggressive routine that exhibited the supreme agility and nimbleness of the Lynx.
The Royal Air Force were also keen to get in on the act, providing the stand out rotary display of the day courtesy of the supreme Chinook. One never tires of seeing this leviathan of a helicopter being thrown around the sky with consummate ease, all the while its mighty rotor blades torturing the air into submission to produce its distinctive ‘wokka wokka.’ As an added bonus, Culdrose saw the first public display of the 18(B) Squadron centenary cab in its striking special scheme, adding a welcome splash of colour to the proceedings.
As well as the flying squadrons, Culdrose is also home to the Royal Navy School of Flight Deck Operations. Students are taught the art of aircraft handling on a carrier deck on the station’s dummy deck, utilising a number of retired Sea Harriers. As in 2014, three of these Shars were given a public run out, the familiar whine of their Pegasus engines ringing out as the trio taxyed up and down the runway, giving onlookers a tantalising look at these wonderful and much missed jets. Nowhere else in the UK can you see live Sea Harriers; these taxy demonstrations represent a true feather in Culdrose’s cap.
Further warbird action came courtesy of Culdrose stalwart, Peter Tecichman. Having long supported the show, often with his Mustang, Peter returned this year with his P-40 Kittyhawk, flying his beautiful example of this classic Curtiss fighter in his usual, smooth style, full of big sweeping turns and pleasing topside passes.
A newcomer to Culdrose Air Day was Tony de Bruyn, who displayed his charismatic Bronco. Having made several static appearances at UK shows over the last few years, it’s great to see Tony display his rather unusual but thoroughly interesting aircraft at more and more shows. Its ungainly looks, especially when on the ground, defy its nimble performance and high agility; it’s a fantastic airshow performer.
Further Culdrose regulars were in attendance, bringing their own distinct brands of aerobatics to the proceedings. Crowd favourites the Breitling Wingwalkers, the RV8tors and the Blades are precisely the type of act that appeal to the holidaymakers in the audience, and certainly bought plenty of oohs and ahhs from the enthralled audience, the younger members especially.
An aerobatic classic, the Pitts Special has seen something of a renaissance in recent years, and two very different acts displaying the type were on show at Culdrose. The Wildcats display team flew an impressive pairs routine, featuring some very tight formation manoeuvres and some thrilling crossovers that drew yet more gasps from the crowd, whilst at the other end of the crazy scale, Rich Goodwin returned once again with his modified Pitts S2S, powering the ‘Muscle Biplane’ through his outrageous routine of aggressive aerobatics.
Whilst Culdrose has played second fiddle to the larger navy show at Yeovilton over the years, 2015 saw Air Day truly competing with its sister event, blending together a superb range of high quality aircraft and displays to rival any show this year. The sun was truly shining on Culdrose this year, and long may that continue.