RAF Benson Families Day 2009 Review
Thursday 26th August
This year has seen the traditional Royal Air Force Families Day under attack from ill-informed reports in the red-top press. Notably the News of the World, under the headline "Operation Joyrides: Fury as kids go on Chinook fun flights", chose to criticise July's event at RAF Odiham, querying the wisdom of "scarce" helicopters being in the UK rather than in Afghanistan. Of course anyone who stops and thinks would realise that no air force will ever deploy its full fleet of a type at any one time. Maintenance and training are just two reasons why there will always be examples of certain types on UK RAF stations, and RAF Benson is certainly no exception, being home to the Merlins and Pumas of 28, 33 and 78 Squadrons.
reports from sunny Oxfordshire. Additional photography by
It was with two days prior notice that I was invited to Benson to provide commentary on this year's Families Day, an event blessed with terrific, if rather windy conditions.
A wonderful array of civilian aircraft flew in to join military types such as the AgustaWestland Apache AH1 and British Aerospace Dominie T1 to provide a varied static which would be the envy of many small-to-medium public airshows. The Army Air Corps provided a pair of aircraft from their Historic Flight, namely Aerospatiale Sud Alouette AH2 XR379 and Auster AOP9 XR244. Fellow commentator Melvyn Hiscock brought in his splendid 1939 Rearwin Cloudster G-EVLE (which he describes as being painted a loud "RED" rather than merely "red"), one of a fine selection of vintage light aircraft types including Piper PA-22 G-BUVA dating from 1953, and a 1944-vintage Piper Cub G-AGIV.
The flying programme itself was varied with plenty to enjoy. This was a busy day for the Red Arrows, with no fewer than three public displays, so the RAFAT were limited to a single smoke-on flypast. The Reds being the Reds however, this was no straight-and-level flyby, the team giving a lovely curved "dogleg" pass along the crowdline.
Arguably the highlight of the afternoon was the "home team" and a role demonstration by a pair of Aerospatiale Puma HC.1s, assisted by a brace of AgustaWestland Merlin HC.3s. The demo centred around an airfield invasion by a group of terrorists-cum-hippies, with the helicopters saving the day, despite coming under small-arms fire from the "hostiles". The demo featured some impressive fast-roping from those aboard the Pumas, and was a great insight into what the based units at Benson get involved with when on deployment. Team Merlin's Gareth Attridge provided a lively commentary on the demo, which not only described what was happening, but served as "lonely hearts" advertising for the singles involved in the performance!
Barnstorming is always well-received at airshows, and Captain Neville's Flying Circus were on hand at Benson to give a terrific display of the art of limbo-flying, flour-bombing and balloon-bursting. Led by Dennis Neville in de Havilland Chipmunk G-ALWB, an interesting machine in her own right, being the very first civilian "Chippy" to roll off the DH production line in 1950. Dennis's wife Tricia Dear Neville rather trumped her husband in the balloon-bursting competition, flying the terrific Thruxton Jackaroo G-ANZT, a touring conversion of the de Havilland Tiger Moth dating back to the mid-1950s. The third machine involved was another Tiger Moth variant - the world's sole airworthy de Havilland Queen Bee G-BLUZ flown by John Flynn. The Queen Bees didn't tend to survive for long - they were originally built and flown as practice gunnery targets in World War II!
Speaking of the Second World War, the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight provided a full three-ship display. Joining Avro Lancaster PA474 were stunning silver Supermarine Spitfire LFIXe MK356 and Hawker Hurricane PZ865 "The Night Reaper".
The modern RAF was represented by Flt Lt Matt Barker's solo display in the 208 Squadron BAE Systems Hawk T1 from RAF Valley, and Flt Lt Dave Deighton, Sqn Ldr Morris Oxford and Sgt Mark Gamson crewed the always impressive Boeing Vertol Chinook HC2 which closed the display, after a trademark slick display from the Extra 300s of The Blades.
A couple of "bonus items" threatened to steal the show, making impromptu flypasts, notably Peter Vacher's Hurricane I R4118/G-HUPW and from nearby Chalgrove, Martin-Baker's simply beautiful Gloster Meteor T7 WA638.
The Families Day is a tradition it would be a tragedy for the Royal Air Force to dispense with, especially if it were merely to appease the sensationalist press. From looking at the happy faces of the families, especially the children, and notably of invited locals sometimes inconvenienced by the low and late flying of the Benson aircraft, the purpose these days serve should never be forgotten, nor underestimated.