RNAS Yeovilton International Air Day

RNAS Yeovilton International Air Day

RNAS Yeovilton International Air Day celebrated some very significant milestones in naval aviation this year. The overriding theme was a farewell to the Westland Lynx from naval service. Built just a few miles away at Yeovil, the navy Lynx has been a constant presence at Yeovilton but is now being replaced by the Wildcat. 2016 also marks the 75th anniversary of one of the Fleet Air Arm’s most significant moments when Swordfish Torpedo Bombers crippled the German battleship Bismarck.

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

“Transition” has been a buzz word at Yeovilton for the past few years as the Royal Navy builds towards a new age of naval aviation. Gone are the Cold War warriors like Sea Harriers and Sea Kings and in their place has come new generation of helicopters such as the Merlin and Wildcat. The Army Air Corps has also moved in centralising the entire UK Wildcat fleet at the base. Another new shape in the skies over Yeovilton is the Merlin iHC3 which provides the backbone to the Commando Helicopter Force.

Air Day provides RNAS Yeovilton to open its doors to the public to show off the Royal Navy the Fleet Air Arm and their allies plus supporting industry. Like RAF Cosford, there are always impressive hangar displays and other ground attractions such as the infamous “Field Gun Run.” Luckily for the Royal Navy, AIr Day didnt really suffer disruptive weather. It was cool and breezy with the odd shower, but it didn’t disrupt the day at all.

Yeovilton benefits from a sizeable concrete apron which means a sizeable static display can be brought together. The currently Royal Navy provides the focal point to the static display with multiple examples of the Wildcat HMA2, King Air Avenger T1, Merlin HM2, Merlin iHC3, Hawk T1, Tutor T1,  plus the Squirrel HT1 on display. Yeovilton’s latest resident unit, No 1 Regiment Army Air Corps also provided a ground display centred around the Wildcat AH1.

The Fleet Air Arm is incredible proud of its history and this features well in the static display. The beautiful McDonnell Douglas F-4K Phantom FGR1 made its annual Air Day appearance with the Royal Navy Historic Flight’s Sea Fury FB11, Chipmunk T10 and Fairey Swordfish for company. The BAE Systems Heritage Flight’s Avro C19 Anson which just made into onto static display early on Saturday morning marked one of the many types based at Yeovilton during the Second World War. More recent rotary heritage was also a notable part of the static display with the Gazelle Squadron displayed the latest of their sleek Westland Gazelle HT3s which is a type closely associated with Royal Navy flying as they were used by famous displays teams such as Pusser’s Pair and the Sharks. Also making perhaps its final ever Air Day appearance before being absorbed in the excellent Fleet Air Arm museum was the Westland Sea King HC4 ZA298. This airframe is known as “King of the Junglies” as it served with the Royal Navy for 34 years and became a harder veteran of conflict. It has survived all manner of attacks by cannon fire from Argentinian A-4 Skyhawks, small arms fire in Iraq, Bosnia and Kosovo and a near fatal Rocket Propelled Grenade attack in Afghanistan.

The Royal Air Force were just one of a number of visiting air arms to HMS Heron with a totally unmarked Eurofighter Typhoon FGR4 from 1[F] Sqn, a Beechcraft B200 King Air from 45[R] Squadron and a Shorts Tucano T1 from 72[R] Squadron. Nearby Boscombe Down always manage to support Yeovilton is some way and this year one of their Agusta A109E Powers.

It was unusual not to see participation from the German Navy, but there was good support from the German Air Force with a Panavia Tornado IDS and a Transall C-160D. However there was excellent support from other European Navies in the static display. The Polish Navy made a welcome return with the Antonov/PZL An-28B1R Bryza Patrol Aircraft while the French Navy had a  Dassault Falcon 10MER making its traditional Air Day appearance.  A type new to Air Day was the NH Industries NH90NFH from the Royal Netherlands Navy which made a nice contrast to the home team’s Merlin HM2.

It was great to see some foreign fast jets in the static display too. From the Netherlands came a pair of F-16AM/BM Fighting Falcons from 323 Squadron. They were joined by a single Florennes based F-16BM from the Belgian Air Force. The Belgians also sent a Dassault Falcon 20E from Melsbroek to make a very rare airshow appearance outside of its home country.

Adding a significant boost to the static display were some much larger aircraft. Supporting the Orliks in the flying display was a Airbus DS CN295M from the Polish Air Force. Howver, it was dwarfed though by the United States Air Force Boeing C-17A Globemaster III from Charleston AFB, another very welcome returnee. The C-17 proved to be one of the major attractions of the static park providing public walkthroughs. The efforts of the USAF crew were recognised by the organisers with the award for best static display.

Air Day flying displays are always opened in style and this year was no different. The Westland Lynx HMA8s of 815 NAS made numerous appearances throughout the day as it was their big farewell, often in company of their replacement, the Wildcat HMA2. Opening the show was a “Diamond Four” formation comprising of a pair of each flying down the crowdline to kick off over fives hours of flying action.

The Martime Lynx and Wildcats from 815 NASreturned much later in the day with the Lynx Wildcat Maritime Force’s ‘Maritime Role Demo.’ This display always highlights the versatility of the small ship helicopter which is often called on for Anti-Piracy, Anti-Shipping, Utility and Search and Rescue roles. This year saw the final Lynx HMA8s of 815 NAS take the leading role in the demo showing all the roles that have made it such a trusted workhorse of the Royal Navy. As ever there were plenty of pyrotechnics and the first public flare launch by the new Wildcat.

815 NAS’s sister unit, 825 NAS,  is home to the Black Cats Helicopter Display Team who have been flying the Wildcat HMA2 for a couple of seasons now. As always, they presented a precise aerial ballet with their two helicopters and remain a crowd favourite. This year sees the team build on the experience of operating the Wildcat with a much more dynamic routine of formation and synchronised flying.

In paying tribute to the Lynx, its predecessor was not overlooked. Terry Martin is starting to bring the Westland Wasp HAS1 back in to the public consciousness with airshow appearances up and down the country and it was great to see a Wasp back at Yeovilton. The Gazelle Squadron made only their second public air display appearance with their pair of Westland Gazelle HT2s, thankfully in somewhat better conditions that their debut at Cosford!

After many years absence, the return of the Fighter Collection to Yeovilton was most welcome. Yeovilton traditionally clashes with their own airshow, Flying Legends, but happily this year did not as the return of Farnborough has mixed up the usual July pattern of events. They sent their wonderful Goodyear FG-1D Corsair flown by Alan Wade for display at Yeovilton marking the impressive record the powerful fighter had with the Fleet Air Arm. Sadly Kennet Aviation’s Supermarine Seafire was not available for Air Day, but the Seafire LFIIIc from Air Leasing made its long waiting Yeovilton debut. Richard Grace put on a fine sequence of aerobatic over the naval base in one of the most beautiful warbirds on the circuit. The line-up of Second World War naval heritage continued with the lovely Fairey Swordfish W5856 which was displayed impeccably by the crew from the Royal Navy Historic Flight. It is an important year for the Swordfish which is marking the 75th Anniversary of the operation to sink the German Battleship Bismarck. While the Bismarck was finally sunk by Royal Navy ships, it was crippled by a daring Swordfish attack. Flying low and slow, the Swordfish were incredibly vunerable to the Bismarck’s guns and defences, but enough damage was done to the Bismarck’s rudder to slow it down allowing the fleet to catch up and attack. Completing the line-up of warbirds, though not strictly fitting in with the naval theme was Boeing B-17G Flying Fortress Sally-B which made an impressive appearance having not appeared at Yeovilton for many, many years.

Classic Jets and Cold War history has become an important part of any Air Day flying display. While the Vulcan is now retired, the de Havilland Sea Vixen FAW2 XP924 continues to be one of the most impressive exponents of the Jet Age. Flown by Simon Hargreaves, a former F-35 project test pilot, the Sea Vixen is a powerful performer. The Sea Vixen displayed helped launch the new “Navy Wings” Charity which will support and promote Naval Aviation Heritage. It brings together an amazing collection of aircraft operated privately and by the Royal Navy Historic Flight that run from before the First World War right up to the Cold War might of the Sea Vixen.

In total contrast to the thunderous Vixen was the Norwegian Air Force Historical Squadron’s Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-15UTi. The MiG is a much more nimble and quieter performer and despite flying through perhaps the worst weather of the afternoon put on a very elegant routine. The Bronco Demo Team are becoming quite a regular sight at British Airshows this year and made their Yeovilton debut this year with the North American OV-10B Bronco. Tony be Bruyn always puts on a superb demonstration of the Bronco which is one of the most distinctive shapes in the sky.

Tony’s company also operated Shorts SC7 Skyvans which are often used in support of UK military parachute training. At Yeovilton one of his Skyvan’s provided the platform for the Royal Navy Raiders Parachute Display who jumped in during the quieter lunchtime period.

Rich Goodwin has become a Yeovilton favourite with his remarkable Pitts S-2S Special. Many may think a Pitts Special too small to display at a big military airshow, but the eye-catching and patriotic paint scheme plus Rich’s ability to completely defy the rules of aerodynamics means everyone’s head is looking up to the sky throughout his sequence.

While it is the Royal Navy’s airshow, the Royal Air Force always contributes some major highlights to the flying. The Red Arrows are always important participants for Air Day and were supported by the impressive Eurofighter Typhoon FGR4 and Battle of Britain Memorial Flight Supermarine Spitfire XVI and Hawker Hurricane IIc. The Army Air Corps also took part in the flying display with the Attack Helicopter Display Team providing an explosive account of the WAH-64D Apache AH1.

Foreign military participation in the flying display was a little more limited this year. The Polish Air Force have appeared at Yeovilton before, but 2016 saw the Air Day debut of Team Orlik. Flying seven PZL PZL-130TC-II Orlik advanced trainers, the team always impress with some great formation flying and some exciting work from their solos.

However, it was once again the French Navy which stole the show displaying a pair of Dassault Rafale M carrier based fighters. The Rafale is truly one of the best airshow performers of any fast jet whether flown by the French Air Force or Navy. The French Air Force display the Rafale as a solo jet in a very complex aerobatic routine. In comparison the Navy tend not to fly complex aerobatic sequence instead opting to show the outright power of their front line multi-role fighter with a pair of aircraft flying a role demonstration. Their display included some very impressive slow flying showing how the Rafale operates from the deck of aircraft carriers. The speed and the agility was also shown off to great effect provided with seven minutes or so of constant jet noise!  The crowds certainly loved the demonstration going by the social media reaction and the show’s Flying Control Committee must have really enjoyed it too awarding the pair with the award for “Best Fixed Wing Flying Display.”

The climax of any Air Day is the “Junglie Assault.” This year saw a new sequence for the assault which highlighted the new AgustaWestland Merlin iHC3s working alongside two Wildcats AH1s and an Apache AH1. Fast air was represented by a  Hawk T1 from 736 NAS. The Merlin iHC3 is an interim standard for the Royal Navy. Newer HC4 versions should start arriving at Yeovilton in the near future. These are re-manufactured aircraft featuring a number of enhancements for naval flying including folding rotors and tail-booms amongst the upgrades. The finale is always a triumph of showmanship with constant action in the air and on the ground which always brings Air Day to close in spectacular fashion. While it is always entertaining, it also provides a very real reminder of the operations that the Royal Navy and Royal Marine are involved with, and that they are no just operating over the sea. Like the Maritime Demo, the finale included a debut flare launch, this time from  a pair of Merlin iHC3s. The crews from the Commando Helicopter Force were the final award winners at Air Day being awarded “Best Rotary-winged Flying Display” by the Flying Control Committee.

2016 was another superb Air Day at Yeovilton. It has been a difficult year for organisers to secure military participation from both overseas and home air arms for a number of reasons and this was reflected particularly in Yeovilton’s static displays which did seem a little down on previous years. However, the flying display was again a first class affair despite also suffering a few late cancellations. There are few airshows in the UK than can match Yeovilton for variety or indeed sheer entertainment. Yeovilton always seems to do things slightly differently to provide an incredible insight into the work of the Royal Navy, and particularly the Fleet Air Arm. Fly Navy!