RNAS Yeovilton once again opened its doors to the public in July, delivering a full and varied line-up of outstanding quality. Shaun Schofield reports for GAR from his local show.
Aside from RIAT, Yeovilton is comfortably the biggest military show in the UK, with the Royal Navy being a welcome host to eight nations from Europe and beyond, both in the air and on the ground. Indeed, this year’s show saw a continuation of the healthy static park enjoyed in 2015, including the return of the US Air Force and their mighty C-17.
The crew clearly enjoyed their weekend last year, as they brought the same jet back with them to dominate the static park, once again taking the award for best static as they opened the aircraft up and welcomed the public on board for closer inspection. American crews are always some of the most accommodating, and it’s great to see them building a healthy relationship with the show.
For fast jet fans, there was the pleasing sight of three F-16s lined up; two visiting from the Netherlands and a single Belgian two-seater. Incredibly, seeing an F-16 on the ground has become something of a rarity these days, so to get three has to be considered as a fine catch. The same can be said of the ageing Tornado, so it was equally pleasing to see a German example alongside the Vipers.
Further German support was provided by the venerable old Transall, which provided one of the highlights of Friday’s arrival day, performing a low and fast (for a Transall!) pass before landing from a steep Khe-Sahn approach. All rather sporty! Heavier types have often been the Achilles heel of Yeovilton static parks in recent years, so to see this and the C-17, as well as a Polish C295M on the deck, is not to be sniffed at.
Another fine catch was the appearance of the sole Belgian Falcon 20. A rare bird indeed, the type’s retirement from service is imminent, with this likely to be the final chance to see the aircraft at a show outside Belgium. Joining the Belgian Falcon was an example of the smaller Falcon 10 courtesy of the French Navy, in support of the show’s star act – more on that later!
Yeovilton has a good relationship with the Polish armed forces, with participation especially healthy this year. In addition to the aforementioned C295M, the Polish Navy provided an M-28 Bryza to the static park, sporting an attractive special Coastal Command colour scheme in commemoration of the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Atlantic. While the Bryza is a common visitor to Yeovilton, making their first visit to the show were the Turbo Orliks.
Turboprop teams always seem to perform tight and very well flown displays, and the Polish are no exception. Flying seven of the indigenous PZL-130 Orlik trainer, the display features exemplary formation work, one of the finest mirror passes you’re likely to see, and some innovative manoeuvres and breaks, notably the final blooming break, all of which is set to fittingly dramatic music and all contributing to a fine Yeovilton debut for the team indeed.
The Orliks were one of three very different display teams on show. The Jordanian Falcons are regular attendees, returning once more with their brand of high energy, precision aerobatics, whilst the Red Arrows flew their typically polished display. Although I’m not a fan of the ultra-wide formation on arrival, there are some interesting new manoeuvres that have freshened up the routine for this season, particularly the tribute to the Tornado force.
While the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight made their token appearance with a Spitfire and Hurricane, RAF participation was down on previous years. Nonetheless, they did provide one of the most dynamic displays of the day courtesy of the Typhoon. It seems the solo display gets better and better each year, with Flt Lt Mark Long throwing the jet around with plenty of speed and aggression, not to mention thunderous noise! A truly rip-roaring demonstration of fast jet flying.
Further fast jet action was provided by the show’s star turn courtesy of the French Navy. In what has thankfully become something of a regular participant, the Marine Demo made a welcome return to Yeovilton with a pair of the mighty Rafale M, showcasing the aircraft in its various configurations, demonstrating the type’s naval lineage as well as its speed and manoeuvrability. With the Super Etendards stealing the show in 2015, the Rafale was given centre stage this year, and it didn’t disappoint.
After a frankly ridiculous take off where the jets are kept low before going ballistic over the opposite threshold, what ensues is seven minutes of pure fast jet filth. After a couple of formation passes, the jets break off to perform their own routines, taking it in turns to perform low, slow and close dirty passes whilst the other really opens the taps, turning and burning in the background. There’s nothing complicated about it, just two of the finest jets around tearing across the sky. C’est magnifique!
Of course, being held on a Royal Naval air Station, naval aircraft and themes feature prominently, with particular attention being given this year to the Lynx. Having served gallantly for more than 40 years, retirement looms for this stalwart of the Fleet Air Arm, with the transition to the Wildcat expected to be completed in March 2017. As such, 2016 saw the final ever Air Day appearance by the type, a point celebrated by the show opening flypast, whereby a pair of Lynx were joined by a pair of Wildcats in a symbolic passing of the baton.
That was not to be the final send-off however, with a further pair of each type performing later in the day for one last maritime demonstration. Showcasing the roles and tactics adopted by the aircraft through a series of simulations, the demonstration included plenty of explosions and the liberal use of flares that Yeovilton is famed for. A fitting farewell to an old favourite that will be missed greatly in years to come.
Set pieces are very much Yeovilton’s specialty, with the pièce de résistance being its famous Commando Assault. With the retirement of the classic Junglie Sea King in March, this year’s edition was something of a new look routine, with the Junglie role now fully passed on to the Merlin force. While the Sea King will always be a firm favourite amongst Yeovilton regulars, the future is in safe hands with the Merlin, which is not only a far more capable aircraft, but is a far more imposing helicopter that brings real presence to the demonstration.
In total, six Merlins participated in the assault, delivering troops and underslung loads in an attempt to rid the airfield of enemy soldiers and rescue captive hostages. A little imagination is of course required, but, with the assistance of the Army Air Corps, courtesy of a pair of Wildcats and a single Apache, as well as a 736 NAS Hawk providing close air support, the home team prevailed. Ground vehicles, multiple explosions and a mighty salvo of flares from two of the Merlins – a first for Air Day – all combined to present a terrific spectacle; one of the true jewels in the crown of the UK airshow scene.
It was a busy day for the Apache crew, who had earlier presented their own individual role demonstration, laced with yet more pyrotechnics. Whilst the routine has lost some of its impact compared to 2015’s pairs display, it nevertheless educates and informs the audience of the role the Apache undertakes and how it goes about implementing them in a pretty spectacular manner.
As ever, naval historics were prominent in the display, with a healthy contingent supplied by the locally-based operators, the Royal Navy Historic Flight (RNHF) and Fly Navy Heritage Trust (FNHT). The show provided the launch for the new Navy Wings initiative, whose mission it is to continue to preserve naval aviation heritage by displaying the aircraft of the aforementioned organistations, as well as other operators of relevant types.
One such operator is Terry Martin, who brought along his delightful little Wasp helicopter for its first appearance in a Yeovilton flying display for many years. The RNHF continue to have serviceability issues with many of its aircraft, but Swordfish I W5856 continues to fly the flag – literally – for the Fleet Air Arm, after several years spent out of action. No aircraft epitomises the philosophy of the RNHF and Navy Wings more so than the Stringbag, and it’s always a pleasure witness this historic aircraft purring across the sky.
Of course, the flagship for Navy Wings is the stunning Sea Vixen, and Cdr Simon Hargreaves once again produced an exemplary display that shows the lines of this classic naval fighter off to its absolute best. In what has been a difficult year for classic jet operators, its serves as a true testament to the determination and will of the FNHT to keep this magnificent aircraft displaying to the public. Indeed, there’s a certain degree of irony that the Sea Vixen has enjoyed its fullest season for many a year, whilst many more established classic jets fall by the wayside.
That said, one of the more exotic classic jets on the circuit joined the Vixen in the flying programme. After an 11th hour cancellation in 2015, the Norwegian Air Force Historical Squadron’s pretty little MiG-15 finally made it to Yeovilton. Sadly displaying during one of the few rain showers to hit the airfield, the jet was flown through a series of graceful, albeit rather distant, sweeping passes.
Piston engined warbirds were far from short supply, with two of the finest examples in the country making rare appearances in the South West. Air Leasing’s Seafire LF.IIIc has to be one of, if not the, most attractive looking warbirds in the country, with Richard Grace flying an equally attractive display befitting of the type’s beautiful lines in what was its first visit to Yeovilton.
Returning to Yeovilton for the first time in many years was The Fighter Collection’s Corsair. In a contrast to the Seafire’s grace, the Corsair produced a typically powerful routine, putting that huge Double Wasp engine to good use with a series of seemingly effortless vertical manoeuvres. Joining the Corsair from Duxford was B-17G ‘Sally B’ in what was another long-awaited return to Air Day. I often feel she is a little underrated at bigger shows, a huge shame given her role as a flying memorial to US airmen and the significance of what she represents.
The calibre of civilian acts on display was truly first rate, a point made right off the bat as Rich Goodwin performed the first formal display of the day in his Muscle Biplane. Flying what is effectively a Pitts Special on steroids, Rich’s frankly insane routine of high energy, unlimited aerobatics never fails to impress – a highly entertaining and attention grabbing display to kick things off with.
Tony de Bruyn brought his quirky Bronco to Yeovilton for the first time, showcasing the type’s excellent handling characteristics that bely its unusual appearance, whilst another debutant act were the excellent Gazelle Squadron. Recalling memories of The Sharks’ displays of old, the Squadron’s pair of Gazelles performed a well-choreographed and delightfully photogenic display.
From the diminutive Pitts to the mighty Rafale, securing such a wealth of quality military and civilian aircraft is becoming tougher than ever for organisers, who deserve plenty of praise for once again putting on a fantastic show for enthusiasts and the general public alike. The Royal Navy are always excellent hosts, and the efforts they put into making the event not just an airshow, but a true spectacle, are abundantly evident through their magnificent set pieces to create arguably the most entertaining show on the calendar. Long may it continue!