RAF Leuchars International Airshow 2009 Review
Saturday 12th September
After the disappointment of the last year's show hopes were high for the 2009 airshow. With wall-to-wall sunshine drawing in an estimated crowd of 45,000, '558 actually displaying, a selection of classic jets, four foreign fast jet displays - including the much anticipated return of the Polish MiG-29 - not to mention over ten-and-a-half thousand pounds apiece going into the coffers of the RAF Association and the RAF Benevolent Fund, Airshow 2009 could certainly be deemed a success. But with that said there was something lacking, the airshow's soul was absent. To misquote the other Vulcan: "It's Leuchars, Jimmy, but no' as we know it".
takes a look at this year's Battle of Britain at Home Day. Undoubtedly a success, but was it a flawed one? provides additional photography.
Leuchars has for over 60 years been one of the hosts to the RAF's 'Battle of Britain at Home Day' and it is indeed now the last of those hosts. It is also home to the last fighter squadron that has direct lineage from the skies over southern England during the summer of 1940 to the present, 111[F] Squadron operated from RAF Croydon under the umbrella of 11 Group. Given this heritage and the nature of the show it is somewhat surprising that, when opening the show programme, the 'Station Commander's Welcome' had no reference to 'The Few'. In its stead lay a brief description of the present and future of the RAF in Scotland. Whilst it was mentioned that "fighters at RAF Leuchars are on high alert to scramble and intercept intruders in our airspace" the Tornados only got a reference by name in the context of being soon to be replaced by the Typhoon. Whilst it is true that the Station Commander is also the Air Office Scotland and his welcome was true to that remit the omission of the history and purpose of the show is perplexing and perhaps indicative of the show that was to come.
One thing that hadn't changed was the support the show receives from the United States Air Force, once again the static was dominated by one of Barksdale AFB's 93rd Bomber Squadron B-52Hs and KC-135R from the New Hampshire ANG at Pease AFB - a sight which was a relief to many given its diversion en route to the show with a, reportedly, broken altimeter. Alongside these giants was a pair of killers, the forecasted F-15C from Lakenheath actually turned out to be two Eagles with Desert Storm history - one with a SU-22 Fitter claim and the other with the claim on a MiG-23 Flogger and a Mirage F1.
Also in the static and hailing from overseas were a pair of eastern European transporters, sitting opposite each other a Polish CASA C-295M and a Czech An-26. Accompanying the Antonov, in a fashion similar to the previous year, were fellow Republicans in the shape of an L-159 ALCA and a JAS39D Gripen. The Luftwaffe participation was a pleasant surprise, not that they turned up in their advertised Tornado ECR but that the aircraft in which they did so was "Pride of Boelcke" - the specially painted aircraft belonging to JbG31 and marked to celebrate 50 years of that Fighter Bomber Wing. Also German and also sporting special markings was the last operational Atlantic in German Navy service which sat next to its Air Force counterpart.
The most noticeable thing about the static, however, was just how close you could get to the aircraft - the annual issue of the barriers being too close to the aircraft for photography had come back with vengeance (and some), so much so that a 17mm on a full frame camera body was more often than not too much for a simple profile shot. Along some of the line-ups the fenceline would actually snake in near smaller aircraft and then out again when a larger aircraft was present. In fact with some of the aircraft you had to question why they'd bothered putting the fencing around it in the first place as you could quite easily headbutt the pitot probe if you weren't paying attention - although this was apparently less likely than an aircraft piece crashing on you as was the reason for denying the enthusiasts their usual southside access on arrivals day. Whilst there had been some valiant cramming with civilian aircraft the static was still reduced compared to previous years but for some reason it had been decided not to use the extra space that this offered. In the past the static has stretched all the way up to the old control tower and usually with a pair of F3s beyond that serving as a gate for the public arriving from the car parks but this year it was all west of the cross-runway, save for a few civilian examples. So why when there was all this extra space available for aircraft was it all crammed in at one end? That was one of the questions to the Airshow Office that went unanswered.
One of the scheduled returnees, the E-8C J-STARS, was unable to attend due to "real world deployments" - unfortunate but understandable given there are only 17 of these sought after Intelligence Surveillance Reconnaissance platforms in the entire USAF inventory. However, the most noticeable absentees were Leuchars' own F3s with just two aircraft in the static display - ZE200 'HN' outside and, if not for engineering reasons then in a display of ineptitude, ZE734 'JU' as a hangar exhibit. Rumours were abound, that an order had been passed down that no Tornados were to be for public consumption unless they were sporting Tremblers colours and were clean. Too ridiculous to be true it may well sound but Leuchars has form in that department, as those who remember 43[F] Squadrons all black incarnation from 2006 can attest. When asked why there was so little representation from the home team in the static we were told:
"The aim of the Static display was to put on a show with a variety of aircraft within a budget. The Airshow is charged for every RAF aircraft it puts on display, including those based at RAF Leuchars, increasing the number of F3 static aircraft would have reduced the number of other aircraft that we would have been able to show. The reduced fleet of F3s is also a factor for consideration since aircraft were required to fly on the day and maintain their operational commitment."
Whilst this answer seems reasonable enough at first glance it doesn't compute given that the last few days running up to the show had seen aircraft that had been due to attend, and as such presumably budgeted for, cancel. These cancellations included the aforementioned J-STARS, a FAF Mirage 2000, a RAF Nimrod and a fly-through from one of Waddington's Sentries. The resulting 'holes' in the static could have easily been filled by Leuchars' F3s using the funds for the cancelled aircraft and this could have been done without impacting the bases operational commitment - there were four F3s, representing four squadrons (25, 43, 56 and 111) already northside in the 'Ark Royal' hangar. This, alongside the sighs of acknowledgement from several base personnel when questioned on the subject, does seem to have lent weight to the rumours, as did the pristine nature of 'Hotel November'. Even giving the benefit of the doubt and subscribing to the argument that fiscal reasons truly where the prime reason for the woeful F3 participation then one has to question the logic of the Airshow Office in having the funds available for three GR4s but only for two of its local fighter cousin - a disappointing oversight at best and one that is in stark contrast to previous shows, 2008 displayed four F3s together (representing the aircraft's past and present squadron ownerships), 2006 saw a Tornado trio representing Leuchars' Wing and both of these years had further F3s scattered in the static.
With the exception of the F3, UK Plc was, however, reasonably well represented with the only no shows being a Chinook, the plastic recruiting monstrosity was in attendance though, and the RAF Harrier, although a Naval Strike Wing example was present - quite possibly in its place. Whilst there was no Wokka in the static display the upturned snout of UKAR's favourite medium-lift support helicopter was as Team Merlin had returned with one of their HC3As. As has been the case for several years the participation of British 'heavies' in the static was absent, a common problem but still an unfortunate one.
Leuchars' flying display had arguably the perfect combination of participants for your average airshow. If you wanted fast jet displays then there was the Dutch and Belgian F-16s, the RAF Typhoon, Czech Gripen not to mention the Polish Fulcrum to tickle your fancy. If classic jets were more your thing then there was a Meteor, Hunter, Jet Provost, Team Viper's Strikemasters, the Royal Navy Historic Flight's gloriously elegant Seahawk, a Venom and a rather large (and loud) Vulcan. If instead you wanted to look at some pretty smoke then the Red Arrows were performing as were the Blades, the wing-walking Team Guinot and the Vulcan and the Fulcrum probably fall back under this category too! Good weather had also meant that, arguably, the most important attendees had made the journey to Leuchars - The Battle of Britain Memorial Flight. It may be easy to overlook the BBMF for those south of the border but visits to Scotland are rare and their participation is frequently denied due to poor weather so that the Lancaster, Spitfire and Hurricane all made it to Fife was a most welcome sight.
The standard of displays was high as is always the case but a few stood out and are worthy of specific comment. The Typhoon display seems to evolve each time you see it and this year's manifestation definitely seemed lower, faster, tighter and louder. Whilst the Fulcrum didn't have the most dynamic display it did have a couple of stand-out moments - namely an exorbitantly smoky missed approach to dirty pass near the end of its display and the start had an equally impressive short take-off that went straight into an aileron roll in the climb. It's not often a civilian aerobatic team will truly surprise you with their display but the Blades did so during their slot. While it's true to say that the Blades are already one of the more dynamic and precise display teams their 'Gatling' manoeuvre notches them up another level , think of the Red Arrows 'Corkscrew' but imagine doing it in a 'U' curving towards and then away from a crowd - now that's some seriously impressive flying!
The crowd gatherer that it is, it would be remiss of me to fail to mention the Vulcan - back at Leuchars after her tantalizing "Will she, won't she?" tease of the previous year. There was no problem with the weather this year and '558 was able to consummate the courtship that had been taking place over the previous year-and-a-bit. As with the Fulcrum, it appeared that the only points of interest in the display lay with the beginning and the end. Watching an aircraft the size of the Vulcan take-off so quickly and go straight into a Chandelle is undeniably impressive and it's hard not to grin like an eejit when the taps are opened and that howl escapes, as it did when the display was finished with the spiral climb, but those points aside the bulk of the display involves a selection of undersides - not the most exciting thing to watch.
In amongst these displays were a couple of special formations, former Leuchars resident Flt Lt Scott Loughran flew the Typhoon with the Red Arrows and later on the Sea Hawk and Skyraider performed a flypast - an appropriate pairing given the aircraft saw service around the same time and in similar roles. Shortly after their joint flypast the RAFAT returned for their display. Now as a long time proponent for crowd rear arrivals the author was pleased to hear that the 'Reds' were to be given dispensation allowing them to overfly the crowd to start their display but by the time the airshow came along had completely forgot about it so when nine red Hawks shot over the crowd streaming red, white and blue smoke there was no small degree of surprise generated - a little bit of the 'theatre' has been recaptured and that's exactly what there needs to be.
That it offers the only opportunity to see F3s participating in an airshow flying display is undoubtedly Leuchars' ace up the sleeve. Whilst no one was expecting the mass launches of previous years hope was still held for a strong show courtesy of the Tremblers. Under the guise of a QRA launch a sole Tornado - a pair was planned but it and the two spares went unserviceable -taxied out from the 111[F] HAS site to the end of the runway, lit the reheat and roared down the runway. Later on the F3 would return to the Braveheart theme for a flypast leading a pair of FRA Da20s in a (very) loose 'V', who had - in the scenario - suffered a comms mishap. So that was the Tornado role demonstration, no bringing in the Falcon to land and then opening the throttle at the last second to do a missed approach as the Da20 lands, no beat-up of the airfield, no zoom climb, just a take-off and a high flypast - disappointing doesn't come close. Whilst a 'shout' saw the HMS Gannet Sea King depart to the west to the east those looking above Rere's Wood could see the Tornado and Spitfire forming up for a formation flypast, a flypast that would never happen. Instead Rolls-Royce's Spitfire performed its display and then, bang on 1700, finished off the airshow with a victory roll for the Sunset Ceremony. The Tornado would finish off its part in the airshow by simply coming in, unannounced, to land - it wasn't even afforded a run-and-break. When asked on the apparent shunning of the F3 the response was:
"The F3 was scheduled to play a larger part, including a flypast with the Spitfire but this was curtailed because of the live scramble of the Search and Rescue helicopter. The Airshow flying programme is 6 hours long, we do not extend it on advice from the Police and other agencies in order to avoid greater traffic congestion and to allow a flow through the southern perimeter track. The southern perimeter track cannot be used whilst the display is underway as it is on the 'live side of the crowd line, the safety of the public is my primary responsibility. Without use of the southern route the traffic congestion would have been even worse."
However, it does appear that the desire to show off the Tornado just simply wasn't there. This was the penultimate Leuchars Airshow for the F3 but given the current climate and the decisions made affecting squadrons with aircraft in their twilight there is a distinct possibility that this would be its final one. The Sunset Ceremony has traditionally been the preserve of the F3 and whilst it is difficult to argue against the poignancy of having a Spitfire performing it, had there really been the desire to include the Tornado in the show they could have. The victory roll could have been changed for the flypast that had been scheduled earlier. Or the Spitfire display could have been replaced by the joint flypast. Or the show could simply have been allowed to overrun - after all it was only a flypast not long enough to gain a mention in the programme! That the powers that be decided that starting traffic alleviation a matter of minutes earlier was a higher priority than displaying their own was a shame. It feels as if some people now think the aircraft is an embarrassment and its inclusion in the airshow was only because being the base's aircraft it had to be. The fact that the Typhoon flew with the Red Arrows is a case in point, why wasn't it the Tornado in that spot? Is it that the F3 is history and the Typhoon in the shiny new future? It certainly felt that way.
Feeling equally shunned were those on the enthusiast package, the corporate manslaughter legislation was used as the reason for denying them their traditional southside enclosure during the arrivals - an identical enclosure was placed northside, opposite the former southside enclosure, for those who wanted to add examples to their aircraft recognition silhouettes collection, as one enthusiast commented. Had there only been arrivals then southside access would have been considered but as there were practice displays scattered through the day this wasn't possible, although there was a period of some three hours that saw purely arrivals that the enthusiasts could have been transported round for. At least at that end you could see - if you squinted hard enough - every aircraft, those in the main "enthusiast cage" had the Vulcan parked in front of them which severely restricted visibility of any aircraft that were actually sent in front of the enclosure. Despite the lazy tempo of arrivals having an aircraft taxi past the enthusiast enclosure was a relatively rare event, many simply turned off at the cross runway or came all the way down to the end of the runway only to backtrack up it again - this was particularly infuriating in the case of the F-15Cs as the route to their parking slot was less distance from the end of the runway and there was a clear route to the said slot from where they were. This point was raised and acknowledged with the result being in the future ATC will "where it is possible and safe to do so, manage taxi patterns to allow the best view for enthusiasts".
The NATO Tiger Meet at Kleine Brogel was a much busier event yet they actively went out of their way to ensure all participating aircraft taxied past the enthusiasts so hopefully this situation will be remedied for next year as it's certainly a solvable problem. The cherry on the 'Disappointment Pie' was the Friday evening ramp walk, the chance to photograph the static without those horrid barriers infringing on every image. For some reason the walk started earlier than previous years and no sooner had everyone walked across than a pair of GR4s turned up looking for their parking spaces, in one fell stroke the ramp walk was canned and the enthusiasts were left to grab whatever they could as they were herded back to their pen. The team on the enthusiasts' package were fantastic hosts and no fault can be found from them but this year it just didn't live up to its advertised, or indeed previous, "photo opportunities", "superior viewing area" or "ramp walks".
So that was the 2009 Battle of Britain at Home Day, an excellent airshow just not a 'Leuchars Airshow'. Next year sees the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Britain, with any luck this will see the same foreign participation that Leuchars has been blessed with recently return and if people are on top of their game maybe even a little bit of Duxford will come to Scotand. Rather worryingly the show has only provisionally had a date for next year, the 11th September, and categorical assurance that there would be a show in 2010 was not given. The RAF has existed for more than nine decades and of all that time it is those few months in 1940 that are, arguably, its proudest moment and most worthy of remembrance. That the annual celebration of those acts be cancelled would be a national disgrace.