RAF Leuchars Airshow 2006 Review
Sunday 9th September
Falling on the second weekend of September, RAF Leuchars once again played host to its Battle of Britain At Home Day, the last of its type in the UK, and the only RAF Airshow to specifically pay tribute to those who fought on the ground and in the skies above Britain during the Summer of 1940. This year's show also celebrated the 90th Anniversaries of two of the Leuchars Wing's Tornado F3 Squadrons – 43[F] and 56[R].
reports from the RAF's Northern-most Fighter Station. Additional photography from and .
After several years of disappointing weather, Leuchars Airshow had been long overdue a sunny weekend, and for once, the indiscriminate weather gods delivered clear blue skies and soaring temperatures. Coupled with this was an enviable participation list, giving this year's show the potential for being a classic.
RAF Leuchars had for years been at the forefront of the Cold War, defending the United Kingdom against marauding Soviet bombers which almost daily tested our Air Defence Region. Now, fifteen years after the end of the Cold War, Leuchars was to play host to four different aircraft types which formed part of the former Warsaw Pact's once mighty arsenal. Now fully embraced into NATO, the Czech Air Force sent a Mil Mi-24V "Hind" from 231 Sqn for flying display, accompanied on the long trip from its base in Prerov, by a Mil Mi-17 "Hip" from 232 Sqn for static display. Not only was this the first visit to Leuchars Airshow by the Czech Air Force, it was also the first visit of these helicopter types to Scotland.
The other two Soviet-built aircraft types to make the trip to Scotland were operated by the Polish Air Force. Coming from the 1st Tactical Squadron at its base in Minsk Mazowiecki, was a single MiG-29 "Fulcrum" for flying display, and in support, an Antonov An-26 "Curl", which was to be found on static display.
Both Polish and Czechoslovakian personnel fought alongside their British counterparts in the Battle of Britain, with the Czechs having some 84 pilots officially recognised as having fought, and the Poles, who provided the largest foreign contribution with 129 pilots. Just how vital this input to the Battle of Britain was, can be seen from the fact that the squadron with the highest number of claims for aircraft destroyed was 303 Squadron, a Polish unit. With this historical context in mind it was a great sight to see these aircraft arriving at the show.
The RAF was well represented in the flying display programme, with the majority of the RAF's "First Eleven" taking part, including solo routines from Chinook HC2, Sea King HAR3, Tornado GR4, Hawk T1, Tucano T1, Grob Tutor, Harrier GR7 and Typhoon F2. For the second year running, Typhoon display pilot, Sqn Ldr Matt Elliot, gave the audience a taste of Leuchars' future, putting on two displays, one in the two-seat T1 variant, and the other in the single seat F2, both of which were served up with a generous helping of reheat and lashings of vapour. It's all too easy to pay less attention to the displays by the RAF trainers but in doing that you'd be missing some of the more "fun" RAF displays. The Tucano once again put on a fine display of precision flying with the odd stall turn thrown in for good measure, whilst Flight Lieutenant Chris Knight showed that there's a lot more than elementary flying training that can be done in the Grob Tutor, with a display including flick rolls that wouldn't look out of place in competition flying. Unfortunately the RAF Merlin HC3 display team had to cancel due to operational commitments, as did both the planned Hercules, which meant no RAF Falcons Parachute Team or Tactical Demonstration.
Capt Artur Kalko wowed the crowd in his MiG-29 "Fulcrum" flying a display that showcased the power and agility of his Cold War Era steed. Using very little runway, the Fulcrum was airborne and proceeded straight into a vertical climb, starting a display with vapour and noise aplenty. What made the display all the more impressive is the fact that the MiG-29 is not a fly-by-wire aircraft, with no computer between Kalko and the jet. It was a display of true airmanship and was to be enjoyed for a second time later in the day.
Much had been made of 43[F] and 56[R] Squadrons' 90th Anniversaries throughout the year, and their histories were well represented at the Airshow, with stunning displays by Rod Dean in Historic Flying Limited's Spitfire FR XVIII, Air Atlantique's Meteor and Vampire and a smart Hunter T8B from Exeter-based Hunter Flying Club. The current mount of both squadrons is of course the Tornado F3, and what better way for the "Fighting Cocks" and the "Firebirds" to publicly celebrate their historic year than to perform a traditional "Diamond Nine" flypast. After an exhilarating departure by ten jets (nine plus a "whip" aircraft), including a rarely seen three-ship simultaneous take-off, the aircraft performed two passes in a "Diamond Nine" formation to the theme from "Braveheart", before returning to buzz the airfield. The sight and sound of the launch, flypast and recovery of the aircraft that took part in both squadrons' own personal celebration was something to be savoured, and was a unique highlight to RAF Leuchars Airshow.
Once again Leuchars saw excellent support from the United States Air Force which sent, for the fifth year running, a B-52H from the 93rd BS/AFRC, Barksdale AFB, a KC-135R from the 157th ARW/New Hampshire ANG based at Pease AFB as well as a KC-10A from the 78th ARS/514th AMW, also from the AFRC, based at McGuire AFB. As an interesting aside, the two tanker particpants supported the B-52 for its trip across the pond. In addition to the Stateside participants USAFE sent pairs both of F-15C Eagles and F-15E Strike Eagles, all of which hailed from the 48th Fighter Wing at RAF Lakenheath. With the exception of the Royal International Air Tattoo you would be hard pushed to find a European Airshow with better participation from Uncle Sam – something that the team at RAF Leuchars should rightly be proud of. The German Air Force also continued its strong support of the Airshow with an example each of Tornado ECR, C-160D Transall and an increasingly-rare F-4F Phantom for static display.
Highlight of the static display for many enthusiasts was the first Hellenic Air Force aircraft to appear at Leuchars Airshow, in the form of a two-seat Mirage 2000BG, boosting the number of foreign nations that have attended over the years to a very respectable 22.
Other static highlights included pairs both of Danish and Norwegian F-16s, and further Danish Air Force participation in the form of a pair of AS550C-2 Fennec helicopters. The Irish Air Corps were again represented at the show with a single PC-9M from the Flying Training School at Baldonnel. RAF assets on static display were noticeably thin. Other than local Tornado F3s, just five frontline RAF aircraft were to be found on static display – indicative of the enormous strain currently being placed on the RAF's frontline assets. That said, there were Tornados aplenty and it was nice to see that a Tornado from each of the Leuchars Wing's three squadrons had been nicely placed together, even more so as the 56[R] example was the 90th Anniversary special "Firebird".
One of the most poignant moments of the show occurred a little after 13.00, as RAF Leuchars paid tribute to the 14 British Servicemen who tragically lost their lives when their Nimrod MR2 crashed whilst on operational duty in Afghanistan. Approaching from the East, crewed by 120 Squadron and piloted by the Kinloss Station Commander, Group Captain Chris Birks, a single Nimrod MR2 flew down the display line gently rocking its wings, as fittingly, Elgar's own "Nimrod" echoed mournfully and defiantly across the airfield. As the Nimrod passed, a one-minute silence was observed as a mark of respect, completing a moving tribute that brought a tear to many an eye.
Lunchtime saw the flying display take on a more sedate pace with the UK debut of the Royal Danish Air Force's "Baby Blues" display team in their four Saab T-17 Supporters. Local talent was also on show by virtue of Prestwick-based Caledonian Chipmunks in a finely choreographed routine, and one of the furthest travelled UK participants came in the shape of the Royal Navy Historic Flight's lovely Sea Fury. The tranquility was shattered however, when the Red Arrows took centre stage. For the second year under the command of Wing Commander Dicky Patounas, this was, quite remarkably, their 4000th display. As per usual it was a display of flying excellence, enthralling the audience while demonstrating the skill and training of the RAF.
Every year since its reintroduction in 2004, the Tactical Demonstration at Leuchars has gone from strength to strength. This year's scenario took the form of an Urgent Close Air Support mission in which a British patrol was ambushed by a larger force. The patrol, heavily outnumbered, put out a request for immediate air support and an unseen E-3D Sentry vectored in a pair of 111[F] Squadron Tornado F3s to sweep the area of enemy fighters and to clear the way for the strike package, comprising of four Tornado GR4s from 617 Squadron. The two F3s ended up in a dogfight, with plenty of turning and burning over the airfield, with the enemy fighters (also played by F3s), which they then "destroyed". The crowd was then treated to the sight of F3s performing strafing runs in support of the ground troops, which, complete with the sound effects for the aircraft's 27mm Mauser Cannon, brought an added realism to the manoeuvre and a smile to the face. With the airspace in friendly hands, it was then the GR4s turn to show-off, and the four aircraft roared in from the East at high speed, with some impressive pyrotechnic displays on the ground simulating their bomb drops. Even above the "thunder" of passing aircraft and the "crump" of explosives, the "oohs" and the "aahs" of the crowd were clearly audible. With the enemy force severely crippled the British patrol were then safely extracted by a Chinook HC2. Hopefully this feature of the show will continue to grow as it is an extremely popular way of showing the public just what the RAF is really made of. Perhaps we may even see the return of the air-to-air refuelling demo – we can but hope.
The "Tac Demo" would normally be a tough act for any display to follow, so it was just as well that this aircraft was one of the most eagerly anticipated aircraft ever to appear at a Leuchars Airshow. Speeding in from the sea, with the theme from ‘The Terminator" as its fanfare, came the Czech Air Force Hind. I had two choices : stay and watch or flee to the hills in fear for my life. I chose the former, but only just, and am glad I did so, as despite its reputation as an unmanoeuvrable beast, for the next ten minutes the imposing bulk of the flying tank climbed, dived and performed banks that seemed impossible for an aircraft of its size.
Arguably the most important participant at Leuchars Airshow was the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight, making a welcome return after a couple years of weather-induced absence. Despite the full attendance of Dakota, Hurricane, Lancaster and Spitfire, the latter was not able to take part in the display itself due to last-minute engine problems. This did not affect the Memorial Flight's performance, as the Lancaster and Hurricane flew their aerial ballet in clear blue skies – the drone of the Merlin engines movingly accompanied by Samuel Barber's Adagio for Strings. Lest We Forget.
The end of the show saw the RAF's last Tornado F3 display crew – Sqn Ldr "Dicko" Moyes and Flt Lt "Gaz" Littlechild reunited in the air once more as part of Leuchars traditional sunset ceremony. The trademark fast pass with a dip of the wing followed by a climb to the heavens hailed the end to a fantastic day.
This year's show was a huge sucess with indications of record crowds. Despite cancellations that potentially left considerable gaps in the flying display it is a credit to the team at Leuchars that these gaps were plugged and the flying display gelled smoothly from act to act. The heavy participation from the "home team" was a superb sight, seeing no fewer than 14 different F3 airframes taking to the skies throughout the day. The static display was in general well set out, but could be improved by using "cones and ropes" à la RIAT instead of great big dirty metal barriers which were placed extremely close to the majority of aircraft. Yes, a minor gripe, vastly outweighed by what was a fantastic airshow that will long be remembered up there with the best of them.
Unfortunately there will be no Leuchars Airshow next year due to runway resurfacing but "The RAF's Premier Airshow" will return in 2008. Haste ye back.