RNAS Culdrose Air Day Report

Thursday 30th July 2015

Traditionally seen as the younger sibling of the RNAS Yeovilton Air Day, RNAS Culdrose hosts one of only a handful of military airshows remaining in the UK and is unique in that it is held during the working week. This year the show promised a wide range of modern military aircraft alongside a quality selection of vintage aircraft, which combined with a north facing crowdline made the event very appealing for aviation enthusiasts.

Peter Reoch travelled to Cornwall to report for UK Airshow Review, all photography by the author.

This year's Air Day for many visitors ticked all the boxes for what a good airshow should include: good weather, a selection of airshow favourites, a friendly venue and some individual flair to make it stand out. The Fleet Air Arm was certainly shown in the best possible light to the 20,000 strong crowd on Thursday, reinforcing the belief that the Royal Navy definitely knows how to excel when it comes to public engagement. Both in the air and on the ground, the order of the day was showcasing the capability of the Royal Navy to the visitors, with a number of interactive ground displays capturing the imagination of everyone who took the time to view them.

In the air, the distinctive set piece for the RNAS Culdrose Air Day is the Balbo, an impressive sight featuring a wide range of Fleet Air Arm types which performed one formation flypast over the airfield, with the helicopters then returning to hover along the runway whilst 'Rule Britannia' was proudly played over the tannoys. Whilst the Balbo may lack the explosive factor of the Commando Assault Finale seen at RNAS Yeovilton it does provide a rare chance to see aircraft types such as the Sea King ASaC7 in the air along with nearly all of the aircraft types operated by the Fleet Air Arm today. The only disappointment was that the Avenger T1, operated by 750 Naval Air Squadron, did not feature in the Balbo as their Jetstream predecessors did.

Air Day 2015 was a sad occasion as it was to be the last appearance by Sea King HU5s, with 771 Naval Air Squadron handing over Search and Rescue duties in January 2016. As well as a threeship formation in the Balbo, the squadron also provided a short SAR role demonstration and had their hangar open for visitors to bid farewell to the red and grey helicopters that have proudly served Cornwall for over 40 years. The helicopter workhorses of the Royal Navy, the Merlin HM2 and Lynx HMA8, both performed solo displays, with Lt Nick Gresswell's performance of the Lynx probably one of the finest routines seen in recent years from the ageing helicopter - starting the display with an autorotation landing is certainly a unique way to capture the crowd's attention! Displaying for the first season using two Wildcat HM2 helicopters, the Black Cats also put on a polished performance.

A unique aspect of the show was the taxi-demonstration of the resident Sea Harriers, used for the training of Royal Navy aircraft handlers on Culdrose's "dummy deck". The iconic whine of a Peagus engine is a sound sorely missed on the UK airshow scene, so the sight and sound of three Sea Harrier FA2s parading along the runway to open proceedings was welcomed by the aviation enthusiasts present.

Quality over quantity was certainly the order of the day when it came to international jets in the flying programme at Culdrose; the highlight being the Frecce Tricolori making their sole UK appearance of 2015, with their MB-339 aircraft sporting a modified paint scheme to celebrate the team's 55th anniversary. With the lack of RAF Typhoon (due to the display team's mid season break), afterburning action came in the shape of the Swiss Hornet and Polish MiG-29. It was no surprise that Captain Julien 'Teddy' Meister won the award for best flying display at the show - his presentation of the F/A-18C Hornet was nothing short of spectacular, often defying the laws of physics and using the Hornet's high Angle of Attack capability to great effect.

Alongside the modern military participants there was also a great array of familiar favourites on display at the show, including a typically polished routine from Tony de Bruyn in his OV-10B Bronco and Rich Goodwin's jaw-dropping aerobatic display in his highly modified Pitts "Muscle Biplane". Making a rare appearance away from their home base at IWM Duxford, The Fighter Collection supplied their FG-1D Corsair and FM2 Wildcat, with Kennet Aviation's stunning Seafire XVII and the RNHF's newly restored Fairey Swordfish I also on display, representing over 70 years of Fleet Air Arm heritage. It was therefore a great shame that the Grumman Avenger and A-1 Skyraider which were listed to participate cancelled at short notice.

A highlight for many enthusiasts present was an appearance by the Sea Vixen, now owned and operated by the Fly Navy Heritage Trust. We must commend whoever made the decision to use 'Foxy Lady' as the finale of the flying display; the warm evening sun glinting off the Sea Vixen's wings as she performed a beautiful sequence of manoeuvres, pulling vapour in the clear blues skies over Cornwall was an absolutely fantastic way to round off a superb day's flying.

One criticism of the show that we feel obliged to make was in relation to the positioning of static aircraft displays. For both the based aircraft and the small number of visiting types, the metal barriers were placed within inches of the airframes making photography incredibly difficult. Whilst we recognise that public engagement with the aircraft is incredibly important, the enthusiast community should always be accommodated where possible and with items such as IX(B) Squadron's centenary marked Tornado GR4, Dutch NH90, Cobham Falcon 20 and Percival Pembroke on display it was disappointing that clutter-free images were impossible to achieve. Perhaps a solution, at least for the Royal Navy aircraft present, could be that two examples of each type could be put on show - one positioned for clear photography and the other used for public tours and cockpit access etc.

Overall, the RNAS Culdrose Air Day could well be one of the best events of 2015, with a well thought out mix of aircraft at a beautifully scenic location. With advanced tickets for the show priced at £15.00 the show also presented fantastic value for money when compared to other events of a similar size, with a fantastic atmosphere provided due to the generous and welcoming nature of all the Royal Navy personnel on the day. With an attendance of 20,000 the organising team at RNAS Culdrose demonstrated that the attendance of the RAF Red Arrows and Avro Vulcan XH558 isn't as vital to creating a successful airshow as is often suggested.