RAF Leuchars International Airshow Report

Saturday 10th September 2011

The Royal Air Force in Scotland has taken a real hit over the last couple of years with the loss of the Nimrod fleet and subsequently RAF Kinloss, the retirement of a squadron of Tornado GR4s at Lossiemouth and the recent announcement that RAF Leuchars will close - its aircraft destined for Moray's remaining military airfield and estate being taken over by the Army. The uncertainty over Leuchars' future and timetable for its drawdown meant there was much speculation as to the future of the airshow and whether this year's celebration of the centenary of aviation from North East Fife would prove to be its swansong.

Andrew Dickie reports from a rather barren RAF Leuchars.

Undoubtedly the most debated topic in the run up to the show was the participation or rather the lack of it in the static display. UK Plc. was represented with just 19 aircraft, of which seven were Leuchars based, and that includes the Royal Navy Sea King which turned up on the day and sat out of reach to the public adjacent the flying aircraft park. In fact HMS Gannet's SAR cab was the only participant from the three services that wasn't Royal Air Force, a pretty poor effort at what is the forces' largest piece of engagement in Scotland.

Foreign attendance in the static was equally depressing and if it wasn't for the United States Air Force then the static display would have been as near as a write-off as makes no difference. The much anticipated LC-130 from the New York Air National Guard, easily the star of the show for the enthusiasts, failed to materialise however Leuchars was still supported with a pair of Lakenheath F-15E Strike Eagles, a Ramstien C-130J and perennial attendee New Hampshire ANG with their KC-135. The remaining pair of non-native aircraft on the ground was a Czech Air Force CASA C-295M that was acting as support for the flying display Gripen and the newly promoted highlight; a Dassault Falcon 20ECM, one of only three Falcons in the Royal Norwegian Air Force and looking sleek in its matte black colour scheme.

Alongside the above was a proportionally large amount of general aviation types, in all fairness not noticeably more than in previous years but more evident this year by the lack of military or warbird participants. Leuchars is no stranger to private jets and indeed hosts them throughout the year whilst the golf is on but it's indicative of a poor show when they have to resort to 'stealing' a Dundee-bound Global Express in an attempt to salvage the static. Perhaps an extra £15,000 would have been helpful?

Cones and rope were more of a feature this year which helped make the static more photogenic - an improvement that should be applauded. However, these barriers were still too close to the aircraft and the layout of the static in general was poor, with the exception of the RAF helicopter line-up. Most aircraft appeared to have been simply pushed to the outside of the pan or left where they shut down. "Black Mike" for the first time in years was in the static proper and not out as a 'sit-in cockpit' and yet was crammed in a corner. It looked as if no thought had been placed into how the aircraft were presented and the fact that they were out on display was simply enough. With six Typhoons viewable to the public why couldn't some of them have been given pride of place in the centre of the static? Instead, one aircraft was situated on the periphery of the ASP and another two Typhoons were residing on the boundary of the flying aircraft park, although the dummy LGB rounds sitting in front of that pair was a nice touch.

It was not all doom and gloom, however, as Leuchars boasted a respectable flying display with two national display teams and three foreign fast-jet solos. Scandinavian historic flights were swapped this year and the Vampire pair of the RNoAF Historic Flight provided the classic jet action. The F-16s of the Royal Netherlands Air Force and Belgian Air Component put on their usual polished routines, "Hitec" doing so with - quite literally - added flare (sic), and the fast jet trio was topped-off with a JAS-39C Gripen. Czech participation is always welcome at Leuchars, with the show's Battle of Britain heritage, so it was unfortunate that the SAAB was sent up in the rain and cloud for a display that was promptly curtailed by the weather - unfortunate and arguably unnecessary as clearer skies were only minutes away. Also suffering at the hands of the weather were the Noggie Vampires who whilst not the most dynamic two-ship did make for a beautiful sight and sound as they put on a graceful display despite the dreich conditions.

You'd be forgiven for thinking otherwise but Leuchars was relatively unscathed by cancellations due to the weather, the Catalina arrived several days in advance and the only flying display participants that were unable to attend were the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight and the Breitling Wingwalkers. The loss of the BBMF is all too regular and always unfortunate, particularly so with this show's purpose as a Battle of Britain at Home Day, however, with the Blades, the RV8tors and a Pitts Special all in the flying there wasn't so much of a Wingwalker-shaped hole to plug. Indeed there may even be an argument as to the need for so many smoke-blowing civvies in the first place; especially when a pair of RAF solos - the Tutor and the King Air -were absent at what is an RAF airshow.

Some six years have passed since the Patrouille de France last visited Leuchars and their return was a welcome one. As well as an enjoyable watch, the break to land complete with Derry turns is a fancy touch, the commentary that accompanied the "hair-o-batics" provided much amusement and presented the opportunity to don a mock French accent and quote Monty Python for the immature, author included. But of course the PdF was not the display team that the crowds had travelled to see.

Just three weeks after the loss of Flt Lt Jon Egging the Royal Air Force Aerobatic Team were displaying in Fife, a credit to themselves and a tribute to their fallen colleague. The Red Arrows and their commentary had the audience's undivided attention for the duration, the focus keener than usual. Part way during the display came the point when "Eggman" would normally be introduced by Red 10 and on his cue the formation was allowed to pass without word. As the Reds approached the crowd some lowered their cameras to pay respect, some raised them to do the same by recording the moment and the airfield fell completely silent; not even the traders or the funfair could be heard, a pin drop would have been deafening. It really was an unusual moment as the sound of eight Adours grew and the Hawks flew past, the perfection and symmetry of their formations gone - a visual representation that all was not as it should.

Four Typhoons of 6 Squadron made up the home team component of the flying display, all four taking to the air in an instant with performance take-offs that saw them become rapidly disappearing burners by the time they were at crowd centre. A hugely impressive sight and sound that could have only been improved by staggering the climbouts down the runway to give the entire crowd a chance to be awe-struck by these machines going 'ballistic'. Equally impressive was that just 30 seconds after the last aircraft had taken off the two GR4s of "Alien flight" were haulin' ass over the airfield to carry out their Role Demo, the value of having a couple of noisy aircraft and explosions was evident at the end of the display from the applause.

An Operation ELLAMY flypast followed, highlighting the work of both Typhoon and Tornado over the skies of Libya, and while it was a good idea it seemed a bit ad hoc - a loose GR4/FGR4 pair running West-East followed by the same in reverse from a second duo. With six aircraft up at the same time incorporating them all into a mass flypast would have provided a bit more spectacle to the penultimate act of the show and given the crowds a better look at the 'RAF in Scotland'.

The Sunset Ceremony closed the show in its typically fragmented fashion. By its nature it requires dead time in the flying for the ground portion to take place so a ten minute lull was broken by a tight (Op ELLAMY flypast take note!) 'Vic' of Canopeners coming in from the sea followed by a sole example that did likewise until reaching the other end where it pulled vertical and rocketed heavenwards in a display of thrust-to-weight ratio that the F3s could only have wished for. With the crowds now departing and the barriers around the static aircraft being dismantled, the four Typhoons returned a further ten minutes later.

As alluded to in the introduction of this review, there was much discussion in the run up of the show as to whether it would survive after this year. Fortunately for the Scottish public it will continue, in the near-term at least, as Chief of the Air Staff Air Chief Marshall Sir Stephen Dalton guaranteed its future for the next three years. Perhaps during his walk around what little there was of the static he realised that this was no way to allow the show to be remembered; a centenary year with virtually no representation of the fact, despite a large number of applicable aircraft being available in the UK, and a Battle of Britain at Home Day with no Battle of Britain squadrons attending! One can only hope that next year's show is able to use its raison d'être to pull in the participants and return to the form that RAF Leuchars Battle of Britain at Home Day deserves.