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2011 UK Airshows : REVIEW

RNAS Yeovilton International Air Day

RNAS Yeovilton International Air Day 2011 from a very early stage was always going to be one of the highlights of the season. 2011 was supposed to a difficult year for the UK’s military airshows with foreign military participation proving impossible to attract; someone clearly didn’t give Yeovilton’s organisers that script. As well as celebrating the 40th Anniversary of the Westland Lynx of which the naval version is based at the Somerset base, the show included an outstanding array of flying displays from modern military aircraft through to historic and civilian displays. That line-up included UK debut performances by a role demo by French Navy fast jets and a welcome return of Eastern European fast jets to a UK flying display.

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

In many respects, Yeovilton is the perfect airshow. The showground size means it is perfectly manageable in a day for the visitor with lots of interesting exhibitions in the hangars alongside the static aircraft displays and traders. The layout of Yeovilton also means the majority of the flying display aircraft operate from the crowd side of the aircraft allowing visitors to get up close to some of the stunning historic naval types and fast jets as well as seeing them prepared for flight.

Each year, the show takes a theme and this year the show celebrated the 40th Anniversary of the Westland Lynx helicopter. Not only is the type a local product being produced and tested just a few miles away at Westland’s Yeovil base, but Yeovilton is also base to the UK’s Navy Lynx Force with 702NAS and 815NAS. The future of Yeovilton is also heavily involved with the Lynx with the introduction of the new AgustaWestland AW159 Wildcat to military service at the base. A dedicated training facility is being built at Yeovilton for all Wildcat users and the first Army variants of the Wildcat will arrive in the near future.

The static display was dominated by an impressive array of Lynx helicopters, with many historic and notable airframes brought in from the Helicopter Museum. Perhaps most significantly for Yeovilton was the Prototype Navy Lynx, but the Lynx 3 technology demonstrator and the famous world speed record holding G-LYNX were also present. There were a number of Royal Navy cabs included in the line-up including one of HMS Endurance’s special adapted Lynx HAS3 used in Antarctic operations. Foreign operators of the type was sadly few for understandable reasons, but it was good to see a Lynx HAS4 from the French Navy and a Lynx Mk88 from the German Navy.

2011 saw Yeovilton attract some other very rare and interesting types to the static display though Yeovilton’s poor luck with “heavy” types continuing with the early cancellation of a German Navy P-3C Orion. However, the German Air Force did provide one of the show highlights with a rare appearance by a McDonnell Douglas F-4F Phantom II. The Polish Navy also participated with one of their PZL M-28MR Bryza joining the line-up.

As you would expect, there was an impressive line-up of Royal Navy aircraft on show which included a number of preserved Sea Harrier FA2 airframes and a Harrier T8 amongst others.

The flying displays got underway with the first of the displays to pay tribute to the Lynx with a balbo of nine Royal Navy Lynx of various marks. At the centre of the formation was a HAS3 painted up in the deep sea blue the type originally wore when it first entered service with the Royal Navy. Following the flypast was the future shape of small ship helicopter operations in the form of the AW159 Wildcat which went on to give a solo display. This was the airshow debut of the type which gave an impressive, if a slightly gentle routine.

The Lynx 40th theme continued throughout the display. The Royal Navy’s own Black Cats gave an impressive display at their home base before departing off to the Swansea Airshow. Another rare display was a solo Lynx AH7 from the Army Air Corps which included all the aerobatics that the Army variant has become famous for including the dramatic backflip.

But perhaps the best Lynx display of the afternoon came from 815NAS and its “Maritime Display” which was a role demonstration of the diverse roles of the Lynx in theatre complete with pyrotechnics. What really stood out was a duo of Lynx firing off huge volleys of flares towards the end of their routine. Apart from the Lynx displays, Historic Flight and Commando Assault, the only other Royal Navy flying display was the jump by the Royal Navy Raiders Parachute Display Team.

Strangely, away from the traditional Yeovilton displays, there were few Royal Navy displays in the programme, perhaps due to such an impressive line-up of visiting displays. 2011 saw the Royal Air Force return to Yeovilton in some force with solo displays from the King Air, Tucano, Hawk and Tornado GR4 role demonstration team. The Red Arrows also joined in as part of busy weekend for the team taking in displays at Swansea and the British Grand Prix. It is a rare event that the weather is good enough across the UK for the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight to make an appearance at Yeovilton. The flight’s Lancaster B1 made a welcome appearance and was joined for its first few flypasts by the Spitfire IX which was transiting with the Lancaster to Swansea.

The BBMF’s naval equivalent, the Royal Navy Historic Flight was naturally out in force. It was great to see the Fairey Swordfish finally make it into the air at Yeovilton Air Day after many years absence following restoration while the Sea Fury T20 that is currently operated by the RNHF also make it’s Yeovilton debut before both aircraft departed for Duxford.

Another welcome historic returnee was DS Aviation’s De Havilland Sea Vixen. While its solo appearance would have been good enough for many, it’s flypasts with Avro Vulcan XH558 were the icing on the cake for many. Vulcan XH558 was making its third successive visit to the Navy base and it’s appearances remain as popular as ever.

Yet more classic jet action came in the form of Team Viper flying a quartet of Hawker Hunters. For many years Yeovilton reverberated to the sound of Hunters with many of the FRADU examples based here. It was therefore highly appropriate that two of Team Viper’s aircraft are from Royal Navy background with a Hunter GA11 and a Hunter PR11 (the oldest airworthy Hawker Hunter) taking part. Sadly their fifth aircraft was unable to take part following some engine problems discovered during their appearance at Waddington the week before.

As ever, variety is at the core of a Yeovilton Air Day with some exciting civilian performers taking part on the show. Guy Westgate made a welcome return to Yeovilton with his new MDM-1 Fox Glider performing some impossible aerobatics, both off tow and on-tow behind the Piper Pawnee flown by Paul Moslin.

Flying Circus also came to town with Brendan O’Brien performing some crazy flying and his dare-devil trailer top landing routine in some tricky gusty conditions which definitely caught the eyes of the spectators. Peter Teichman also appeared later in the afternoon with his P-51D Mustang.

However, for many the highlights of the flying display were some of the best military display acts from across Europe and further afield. The opening fast jet display of the day was the Belgian Air Component F-16AM Fighting Falcon solo flown by Micheal ‘Mitch’ Buelen, now in his third and final season as display pilot. I think Mitch’s display is the best of the European F-16 displays with some smooth flowing flying showing the outstanding agility of the popular multi-role fighter. Sadly Mitch’s counterpart from the Netherlands was forced to pull out following the massive defence cuts imposed by their government.

However, the Royal Netherlands Air Force was able to provide their stunning AH-64D Apache “aerobatic display.” Their Apache appears in stunning patriotic special colour scheme of black, silver and orange which shows up beautifully, particularly when the aircraft fires flares during the routine’s loops! Further eastern delight came in the form of the Royal Jordanian Falcons who were starting their UK tour at Air Day.

The Polish Air Force MiG-29UB Fulcrum solo display however was the first of the outstanding military contributions to the Yeovilton flying display. The aircraft appeared alongside a ‘spare” single seat example and was the first MiG-29 display at a UK show for a few years. Poor weather on rehearsals day meant it was unable to validate it’s display to the flying control committee. That meant that for many early risers at Yeovilton they got an extra performance by the Russian fighter which put on a smoky, noisy and powerful routine around the Somerset skies.

The other absolute star turn was a ‘role demonstration’ from the French Navy with a pair comprising of Dassault Super Etendard and Dassault Rafale M. While it was not a full aerobatic sequence, it was a stunning display highlighting the differing roles of both aircraft. The Super Etendard’s appearance was particularly welcome with the aircraft entering the final phase of its service with the French Navy. The Rafale M however was nothing short of spectacular; it’s fast passes and tight max rate turns were quite simply awe-inspiring.

As ever, the finale to the Air Day was the Commando Assault starring the Sea King HC4s and Lynx AH7 of the Commando Helicopter Force, the Lynx HMA8/HAS3 of 815NAS and the Hawk T1s all based at Yeoviton. Complete with some epic pyrotechnics this is without doubt the best “set piece” demonstration at any UK and long may it continue.

Yeovilton International Air Day was without doubt one of the very best airshows of 2011, perhaps even the last decade. Nothing else has come close to providing such all-round entertainment and a great friendly atmosphere; particularly in terms of military airshows. Fly Navy!

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