RAF Leuchars Airshow 2008 Review
Saturday 13th September
Making a long awaited return after a runway resurfacing induced absence in 2007 was the Royal Air Force's northernmost airshow held at RAF Leuchars. Expectations were high after the success of the 2006 show, which was both sun-kissed and packed with a variety of aircraft and online ticket sales were up 22%. However, like many other shows this season it would be the weather everyone was talking about afterwards.
reports from a clag-bound fighter station. Additional photography by .
Leuchars hosts the final of three airshows organised by the RAF and in this year of the RAF's 90th Anniversary it had been decided that the show would celebrate this milestone. Furthermore it was intended to be - in the words of Air Commodore Clive Bairsto, Leuchars' Station Commander and Air Officer Scotland - the "…closing event…". This could be seen with the level of RAF participation and former service aircraft due to attend, though both the Air Atlantique Classic Flight and the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight were unable to do so because of the weather.
Taking pride of place in the static park sitting in a cross (or saltire depending on your viewpoint) were four Tornado F3s, representing two active and two recently disbanded squadrons, with tails together and Foxhunters pointed outwards. Rather appropriately, entrance to the showground, for some, was fashioned by walking in between a further two Tornados, a nice touch for the show hosted at the last remaining F3 base.
A taste of Leuchars' future was also available as six Typhoons flew the flag for the four squadrons of Coningsby's "'phoon Force". The 3[F] Sqn delegate showed off the aircrafts' air to ground pedigree with six Paveway II laser guided bombs, two ASRAAMs and a LITENING pod tucked underneath its wings.
With a cloud base so low that a raised hand would virtually penetrate it it is somewhat surprising that the majority of aircraft scheduled for the flying display were able to do so. The aircraft that dared to go up into the Fife sky found the conditions unagreeable and saw their hours of practice reduced to a few passes, glorified circuits and radar talkdowns. Flt Lt Charlie Matthews kicked off proceedings in an 11[F] Sqn steed and did the seemingly impossible by adding even more cloud to the overcast skies during his shortened display. Even later in the day when the clouds cleared somewhat the RAFAT were unable to put on a full display, as valiant as their flying was they were only able to perform the first half of their routine - although deserve praise for doing that in the gloom. The conditions were so bad that even the Royal Navy's Black Cats couldn't display as their usual two-ship, instead having to put up a solitary Lynx - although that solo was the only entire display of the day. The Role Demo too suffered and was reduced to a few Tornado GR4 runs, disappointing, as the demo has always been a favourite at Leuchars.
If it wasn't the weather trying its hardest to scupper the flying display then it was that old chestnut: serviceability. Attempts for a second Typhoon display sadly didn't come through and radio gremlins saw the Caledonian Chipmunks display reduced to the singular.
Not since 1992 had a Vulcan set down on Scottish soil and the attendance of XH558, or more correctly G-VLCN, had certainly drawn in the crowds - in fact despite the weather the crowds were estimated around the 2006 level at 38-40,000 and this was down in no small part to the "Tin Triangle". With that context it was all the more disappointing that she couldn't take to the skies. Her display slot had been pushed back throughout the afternoon in the hope that she could perform until there was no time left. With the cloud base just lower than the minima required for a display she taxied to the 27 threshold to perform a fast taxi, only for it to be announced that the weather was so marginal that they would wait to see if it would clear sufficiently for a display. For five anxious minutes the public, organisers, aircrews and volunteers all stared intently at the Cold War bomber, as if their collective will would propel her into the air. Sadly, it wasn't to be but the crowds were treated to two fast taxi runs in which 558 rotated to take-off attitude and gave them just a hint of that famous Olympus howl.
Following up on the rotary participation of the last show the Czech Air Force sent over a fixed wing contingent for this years show. The specially marked An-26, 2507, chalked another airfield to its tour list and was accompanied by a JAS 39D Gripen and L-159T1 Alca. Other foreign attendees in the static included a pair of Leeuwarden based F-16AMs, one of which was J-876 "Polly Grey" (that in an example of how not to place catering units had an ice cream van park right in front of its nose), and from Germany - a Tornado ECR of the "Flying Monsters" and an F-4F Phantom II from JG71 "Richthofen", although given the number of special schemes in the Luftwaffe at the moment it was perhaps a little disappointing that these aircraft were dressed in their regular attire. Not that it would have mattered in the Phantom's case as it was unphotographable - crammed in like frankfurters in a jar, by the barriers.
The barriers that police the static/public borders are an annual bugbear at Leuchars. Having non-discreet 3-4ft metal fences manning the perimeter of all the static exhibits physically exclude the public and while this should be the case it shouldn't feel like it. The low profile of cones and ropes is a much more inclusive way to engage the crowd with the static.
Undoubtedly the highlight in the static, for the enthusiasts that is, was the E-8C Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System, or J-STARS, making its first appearance in four years to a UK airshow - a real coup, to get a Stateside reconnaissance aircraft, for the Airshow Office. Based on the Boeing 707-300 series airframe this airborne battle management platform had made the long trip from Robins AFB, Georgia to attend the show - originally incorporating an appearance at Leuchars along with an exercise (cancelled a couple of months before the fact) at RAF Waddington. The 116th Air Control Wing, the first wing to comprise of both active-duty and guard airmen under the Total Force Integration concept, are the only unit to operate the J-STARSs, of which there are 17 in service. Whilst the E-8C was originally designed to detect, locate and attack enemy armour, and indeed showed its worth when - during the closing stages of Desert Storm - a development aircraft captured the famous "Mother of all Retreats" as Iraqi forces poured northwards out of Kuwait City, it is capable of performing a variety of roles and missions and the J-STARSs are heavily tasked in support of operations in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Further American support for the airshow was evident with a pair of 493rd FS F-15Cs from RAF Lakenheath and, from further afield, a New Hampshire ANG KC-135R and a regular participant from Louisiana - a B-52H from Barksdale AFB.
With just a few days to go to the show it was announced that the Role Demo would have to make do without its "Magic" and this was still the case the day before. But behind the scenes it was a case of "never say never" and time-off was being sacrificed to give the Scottish crowds their Sentry. Whilst the weather put paid to a Role Demo proper the E-3D was able to materialise out of the murk, towing its own cloud, to carry out a roller. This may not have been exactly what the personnel at Waddington had in mind when they gave up their Saturday off to send their aircraft northwards but the fact that the weather had scunnered so much of the flying display that made this fly through the more special and welcome.
Another last minute RAF participant was the Hercules C3, originally due to be the RAF Falcons drop ship her earlier cancellation had seen that role transferred to another platform. With the K now able to attend and knowing its popularity as an aircraft for the public to walk through, the aircraft was towed into the western end of the static - and popular it was too, judging by the length of queue an hour after it was closed!
As always the Pipes and Drums of RAF Leuchars draw the airshow to a close with the Sunset Ceremony, ably assisted by the roar of two RB199s as a sole F3 darts through the sky. It may be nostalgia, it may be the weather but it felt like there was something missing without a "Firebird" streaking through the final rays of the evening sun.
Thus another show finishes, the weather having had its wicked way with it. The Airshow Office have to be congratulated for returning the show with what would have been a worthy tribute to the Royal Air Force's 90th Anniversary, the flying participants for making the most of the miserable conditions and giving the crowds something to crane their necks skywards for and the static aircrews for picking up the slack and opening up their aircraft to appease the masses.
Anyone for a game of "Hangman"? Is it 2009 yet?