Royal Navy International Air Day, RNAS Yeovilton

Royal Navy International Air Day, RNAS Yeovilton

The annual Air Day at RNAS Yeovilton was rebranded for 2019 as the Royal Navy International Air Day. As such, the event is now the Royal Navy’s sole annual Military Airshow which offers the public to see the work of the senior service and its international partners first hand. Just as in previous years, Air Day brought together one of the most exciting and diverse air displays in UK supported by a very interesting static display and ground exhibition.

Paul Johnson/Flightline UK reports. All photography by the author.

The Royal Navy International Air Day is one of the service’s biggest annual public showcases. Air Day allows the Royal Navy to demonstrate to the public its capabilities plus give a taste of what Navy life is like. Though the Fleet Air Arm and aircraft take centre stage, there are also displays by the other sections of the Navy, Royal Marines, the infamous Field Gun Run and supporting Industry.

It is an exciting time for aviation within the Royal Navy. Its helicopter fleets have been renewed with Wildcat, Merlin HM2 and the new Commando Merlin force. Carrier based Fixed Wing aviation has also returned with the first successful trials of F-35B Lightnings aboard HMS Queen Elizabeth a few months ago with more planned later in the year. This exciting future plus the Fleet Air Arms heritage was reflected widely in both the flying and static displays.

All of the Royal Navy’s current types were on static display with examples of a 736NAS BAE Systems Hawk T1, Leonardo Merlin HC3is and HC4s, Merlin HM2 and Wildcat HMA2 on show. The Commando Helicopter Force and the Army Air Corps also operate the Wildcat AH1 from RNAS Yeovilton too which was also displayed to the public. Thanks to both the Fleet Air Arm Museum and the NavyWings charity there was a superb line-up of heritage aircraft alongside their modern counterparts. Enjoying some fresh air were the Hawker Sea Hawk FGA6, Westland Wasp HAS1 and Westland Sea King HAS5 from the Fleet Air Arm Museum. NavyWings had their own Fairey Swordfish, the Hawker Sea Fury FB11 and de Havilland Sea Vixen FAW2 on show alongside a number of their affiliate aircraft. These include the Westland Whirlwind HAR10 from Historic Helicopters, the Gazelle Squadron with their Westland Gazelle HT3s, Bristol Scout and Stinson Reliant I. Also wheeled out for Air Day were the RNAS Yeovilton based Phantom FG1 and Sea Harrier F/A2.

As ever, other civilian aircraft joined the static displays including a number of aircraft kept at RNAS Yeovilton by based flying clubs and operators. Aircraft of note were the Max-Holste Broussard, the Royal de Havilland Chipmunk T10 WP903 and a varied selection of Taylorcraft Austers. Somewhat unusual static display participants were a pair of Extra 330LX aircraft from the Royal Jordanian Falcons display team.

The Royal Navy’s partnerships with other UK and International Air Arms are always an important part of Air Day. The Royal Air Force participation was perhaps a little light in the static park with just a single example of the Shorts Tucano T1 on show. However, the type has been an important type for both the RAF and Royal Navy since it entered service in the 1990’s preparing trainee pilots for fast jets. The Army Air Corps also supported the show with an AgustaWestland Apache AH1 as did QinetiQ with one of its new Airbus Helicopter H125s.

The international line-up in the static display was one of the most impressive for years with a good selection of ‘heavies’ on show. The United States Air Force’s 315th Airlift Wing has become a firm favourite at Air Days with its Boeing C-17A Globemaster III. 2019 saw a second C-17A on display with a UK debut airshow appearance by an example from the Qatari Emiri Air Force. This aircraft is from the Amiri Flight and wears the attractive colours of Qatar’s national airline. Qatar also had a Lockheed Martin C-130J-30 Hercules II in the static display which made its first Yeovilton appearance last year.

The Lithuanian Air Force’s contribution to Air Day 2018 was one of the highlights of the show and it was wonderful to see them back at Yeovilton in the year they celebrate their own centenary. They added to the collection of transport aircraft with an Alenia C-27J Spartan.

Adding to the ‘heavies’ was really exciting array of Maritime Patrol Aircraft. The German Navy have supported Air Day and other UK shows very well recently and they brought a Lockheed P-3C Orion for static display. The Royal Canadian Air Force added to the MPA theme with its own version of the P-3, the Lockheed CP-140 Aurora which was a very welcome addition from across the Atlantic. But perhaps the star of the maritime line-up was a Yeovilton debut for the Leonardo P-72A from the Italian Air Force. Based on the ATR-72, the P-72A is a new generation maritime patrol aircraft which has only just entered service. The aircraft provides surveillance capabilities against both surface and underwater targets and can be armed with gun-pods, aerial torpedoes, depth charges and anti-shipping missiles. The type is also used on search and rescue operations.

The Italian Navy also made a very rare UK airshow appearance in the Yeovilton static display with a Piaggio P180M Avanti. It has been a long time since the Italian Navy has participated at a UK show so the appearance of the Avanti was greatly appreciated.

The flying display too was full of international interest. Adding to the collection of European Naval air arms participating at Air Day were the Spanish Navy who sent a pair of McDonnell Douglas EAV-8B+ Harrier IIs to Yeovilton. One aircraft appeared in the static display while the other gave an impressive flying display highlighting the type’s Short Take Off and Vertical Landing (STOVL) abilities. Harriers will forever be associated by Yeovilton which was the main base for the Royal Navy’s fleet of Sea Harriers so seeing and hearing the type back in the Somerset skies was very nostalgic.

The Belgian Air Component had a notable contingent at Air Day. Within the static displays, the air arm was represented by a Sud-Aviation SA316B Alouette III from the Maritime flight based at Koksijde. The Alouette III serves aboard Belgian frigates as well as performing other maritime tasks such as Search and Rescue. In the air, Capt Stephan ‘Vador’ Darte gave a noisy account of the Lockheed Martin F-16AM Fighting Falcon making good use of flares throughout the routine. The main display aircraft is nicknamed ‘Dark Falcon’ and this year carries special tail markings highlighting 40 years of operations with the Belgian Air Force.

The Royal Canadian Air Force were one of the big stars of last year’s Air Day flying programme with the CF-18 Demo Team. Yeovilton achieved something of Canadian coup again this year with a flying appearance by a Lockheed Martin CC-130J Hercules II. Though billed as just flypasts, the Canadian crew demonstrated their aircraft really well with a topside pass plus some steep approaches before landing and showing off the CC-130J’s ability to reverse up the runway.

The Hellenic Air Force also returned to Air Day after a welcome appearance at last year’s event with the ‘Zeus’ F-16C solo display. This year, the ‘Daedalus’ Beechcraft T-6A Texan II solo display made its UK debut. ‘Team Daedalus’ have been on the display circuit for a number of years, but have previously only made one appearance outside of their home country at the Malta International Airshow. The aerobatic display sequence is based on the USAF’s solo T-6A routine with a punchy mix of aerobatics and steep turns highlighting the jet like performance of the modern turboprop trainer. They were rewarded for their efforts with the award for best fixed-wing flying display.

Adding to the aerobatic action were two of the UK favourite civilian acts. Rich Goodwin and his Pitts S-2S Special are a regular sight at Air Day but he never fails to impress always drawing applause from the crowd at the end of his display. Somewhat surprisingly, 2019 was the first time The Blades Aerobatic Team have performed at Yeovilton. The team are incredibly busy this year supporting many of the top UK and European shows as well as the remaining rounds of the Red Bull Air Race. That meant they were down to just three aircraft for their performance at Yeovilton but that didn’t dampen their usual classy display.

A very unusual and entertaining addition to the flying display were the Jet Men from Gravity. Gravity were founded by ex-Royal Marine Richard Browning who has designed and flies the jet suits. He recently flew the his jet suit around the Royal Marine Commando Training Centre in Lympstone and a film of his exploits went viral on social media. He and his colleague performed a close pass along the crowd-line during the afternoon in dramatic fashion.

Historic aircraft of all ages were on show in the flying display. An eye-catching warbird in the flying was the North American AT-6C Texan of Anglian Warbirds flown by Nigel Wilson. There was also a superb selection of classic jets headed by the pair of BAC Strikemaster Mk82a from North Wales Military Aviation Services. The display is flown by Mark Petrie and Ollie Suckling and has proved to be a highly popular addition to the UK circuit. Another award-winning display came from the The Historic Army Aircraft Flight with their unusual combination of fixed-wing and rotary classics. The four-ship of de Havilland Canada Beaver AL1, Taylorcraft Auster AOP9, Agusta/Bell Sioux AH1 and Westland Scout AH1 picked up the award for best Rotary demonstration of Air Day reflecting the superb way the HAAF pilots coordinate their display to show four machines with very different performance.

But the stars of the historic line-up were once again the combination of French classic types that form Cocardes Marine. Sadly this year the modern day French Navy were absent, but nevertheless an impressive formation display was put on by the Fouga CM175 Zéphyr, Morane-Saulnier MS760 Paris and the Breguet Br.1040 Alizé. The latter was making its UK debut as a civilian operated ‘warbird’ and its appearance at Yeovilton was warmly welcomed by enthusiasts even if its display was a little distant. The Alizé is an unusual looking aircraft designed for the carrier-borne anti-submarine warfare role with the French Navy. It first flew in 1956 but wasn’t retired until 2000. It is powered by a Rolls-Royce Dart turboprop engine and the example at Yeovilton is the last airworthy Alizé.

Many of the Royal Air Force’s displays were on hand at Air Day with the Red Arrows headlining the event and supported by the Eurofighter Typhoon FGR4, Shorts Tucano T1 and the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight with the Avro Lancaster B1, Hawker Hurricane IIc and Supermarine Spitfire PRXIX. The Army Air Corps’ Attack Helicopter Display Team also gave one of the many role demonstrations of the day with the Apache AH1.

However, it was the Royal Navy that were the focus of the flying with a selection of displays covering the past, present and future of naval flying. Air Day was opened by a flypast covering rotary air power past and present with Historic Helicopters Westland Wessex HU5 leading the two Westland Wasp HAS1s from Terry Martin and Chris Marsden, a Leonardo Merlin HM2 plus a pair of Leonardo Wildcat HMA2s. The Wessex is the latest airworthy classic to emerge from the Historic Helicopters workshops at Chard and is resplendent in its RN Search and Rescue scheme. The airframe served the Royal Navy in both the SAR role and also as part of the Commando Helicopter Force so is closely associated with Yeovilton. It is currently the only airworthy Wessex in the UK and Yeovilton marked the aircraft first public display appearance. As well as leading the flypast, the Wessex also gave a short solo display before joining the NavyWings static line-up. The NavyWings Historic Flight also took part in the flying display with the Hawker Sea Fury T20. The big piston fighter was beautifully flown through a flowing sequence of aerobatics by Lt Cdr Chris Gotke.

The arrival of the HMS Queen Elizabeth and Prince of Wales aircraft carriers marks the return of a carrier strike ability for the Royal Navy. 2019 saw the first Air Day appearance by the Lockheed Martin F-35B Lightning which will fly from the carriers. A single example of the Short Take-off and Vertical Landing jet gave a short role demonstration with a high speed turn, a pass showing the weapons bay before a slow pass and hover at crowd centre.

The Black Cats Helicopter Display Team has returned to the display circuit in 2019 with a solo display from the Leonardo Wildcat HMA2. The team is drawn from 825NAS based at RNAS Yeovilton and is led by Lt Chris Rebbeck who gave a dramatic performance highlight the agility of the helicopter. More Wildcat action came in the Maritime Role Demonstration which saw a pair of the type fly with a 824NAS Leonardo Merlin HM2 from RNAS Culdrose. The Merlin demonstrated its search and rescue abilities while the Wildcats showed off their ability to insert Royal Marines on to small boats or on to the battlefield. They closed their routine with a spectacular flare release against the dark clouds.

The traditional highlight and climax of Air Day is the Commando Assault. This year, the Assault saw the first public flying demonstrations of the Leonardo Merlin HC4. These re-worked aircraft have been modified for the Commando Helicopter Force’s requirements with folding rotors, a folding tailboom plus upgraded glass cockpits and a defensive aid suite. Two HC4s were used in the demo alongside two older HC3i variants. Joining the ‘Junglies’ were a Wildcat AH1 from 847NAS, two Wildcat HMA2s and two BAE Systems Hawk T1s from 736NAS. The ‘assault’ depicted an operation against a hostile force with close air support from the Hawks while the helicopters brought in Royal Marines and equipment to overwhelm the enemy.

Supported by pyrotechnics and flares, here is nothing else quite like the Commando Assault on the display circuit and it is an incredible spectacle that really shows off the Royal Navy and Royal Marines at their very best. The same could also be said of the whole of Air Day which this year had a winning combination of showmanship and exciting rare participants on display. Few other shows in 2019 will be able to boast the number of debuts that Air Day which all made for a highly enjoyable day with the Royal Navy.