RNAS Yeovilton International Air Day

Saturday 8th July 2017

The Royal Navy is entering an exciting period of its history, with two supercarriers coming online in the next few years and a brand new fixed-wing fleet to complement them, and the Senior Service is keen to increase recruitment in advance of this. Now reduced to just one airshow a year, the Navy’s flagship event was forced to announce in the months leading up to the show weekend that the Commando Assault Finale, one of the country’s most exhilarating airshow set pieces, would not take place in 2017 due to fleet unavailability, and with a paucity of home team assets in the air it was largely down to the international acts to carry the show.

Sam Wise hoisted the mainsail to report for UK Airshow Review. Additional photography by the UKAR Staff Team.

Before the show itself, RNAS Yeovilton holds an arrivals day, taking place inside one of the enclosures of the showground. For a number of years this event has been mired by a few controversies: aircraft not even coming close to the enclosure for photography, late opening and early closing, star items arriving outside of the opening hours. Sadly, it was business as usual this year too. While scheduling is what it is, and it's at the discretion of visiting air arms to send their aircraft when they see fit, it’s little wonder that those who attend will feel shortchanged by relatively early closing times, as it increases the likelihood of arrivals taking place outside of opening hours. Likewise acts arriving and not coming close to the gathered enthusiasts - the French Navy Lynx HAS4, undoubtedly one of the stars of the static and making its first appearance at a UK show for many years, simply went off at the cross-runway, some distance from the photographers, denying them the opportunity to catch this rarity in the air. Yeovilton arrivals days are rapidly becoming a waste of money, unfortunately, be it through an unwillingness of the organisers or overly restrictive regulations.

Perhaps most concerning of all was the lack of hydration facilities in the enclosure on a baking hot July day. It was reported that there was no access to a water bowser in the enclosure, and while there was a drinks vendor present they did not accept cards, leaving some without water for five or more hours. Preparation is essential but even those who brought a good amount of water had seen it off early on due to the heat; it is nothing short of unacceptable, dangerous, in fact, to not provide adequate water access to a paying public on a hot day and this must be addressed by next year’s event.

It’s worth getting straight to the crux of 2017’s Air Day, and that is the shockingly bad turnout from the home team including the absence of by far its biggest pulling power, the explosive Commando Assault Finale. At their own air station the Royal Navy could only muster a mere three (yes, three!) aircraft in the air: a pair of Wildcats and a Merlin HM2. At a stretch, you could also count the Raiders parachute team, in a borrowed Skyvan. The given reason by the show’s Facebook page in the weeks before the show was that with the fleet of Merlin HC3s (the Commando Junglies) all in for upgrade to HC4 standard, there simply weren’t enough airframes to put on the set piece. However, the Commando Helicopter Force did have a number of their Merlins & Wildcats deployed on Exercise Nordic Bound to Norway, during the Air Day period... make of that what you will!

The organisers promise that this year is a blip and the Finale will return in 2018, and for their sake we have to hope that this is the case. It is a truly powerful act that leaves no one wanting more, and it would be a true loss to the scene if it did not return. With the Navy Wings associated aircraft such as the Sea Fury and Sea Vixen all out of action in some way to boot, the Navy contribution to their own show really was nothing short of an embarassment.

To contrast, the RAF were able to put more aircraft in the air than their more senior service, a feat which will undoubtedly leave a few smirks on faces. Basing themselves at the station for the show were the Red Arrows, and in complete contrast with their much-derided display at the RAF Cosford Air Show, they put on as polished a display as we’re used to, and in fact seemed a fair bit closer and lower than perhaps was the case last year; a new addition and quite impressive too is the moving of the “goose” crossing to crowd centre. A nice addition to the static was the 72 Squadron centenary marked Tucano T1, in Spitfire colours.

Star of the Air Force's contribution though, and raising of many lumps in throats in the assembled crowd, was Avro Lancaster PA474, making its first appearances this weekend after two-and-a-half years or so away from the public. It’s easy to take something like the Lancaster for granted, making as it does so many appearances throughout the year, but when it goes for a while (and in quite abrupt circumstances), that first sight of the four-engined bomber on the horizon makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end, and that first pass...the noise! Genuine emotion struck you as Flt Lt Tim Dunlop took the aeroplane for a few flypasts before disappearing again. A short appearance, supremely emotional and so very, very welcome.

It wasn’t the just RAF who managed to match the Navy’s airborne contribution to the show, and in reality it was the strength of the foreign support that made the show a success. The Czech Air Force managed to put three aircraft in the flying display, a pyro-filled L-159 ALCA pairs routine and a superb Gripen solo display, a great demonstration of energy management and speed. A third ALCA was to be found in the static, in the markings of a wartime Spitfire that commemorates the Czechoslovak squadrons that flew for the RAF in the Battle of Britain. The aircraft looks superb, but only once the flash and roundels have the white parts filled in on the ground - it is illegal for the aircraft to fly with them on as it counts as foreign military markings! Credit must go to the USAF’s 315th Airlift Wing for making an appearance at the Air Day for the third year in a row, albeit without their popular mini-Globemaster this year - the Americans evidently enjoy what their seagoing hosts offer!

The Royal Danish Air Force and Navy made unique contributions to the Air Day in the guise of F-16s and Lynx Mk90Bs respectively, neither of which are making any further UK appearances. The Lynxes, both in that stunning blue colour and one given a special paintjob as well, were both true gems of the static display - rare enough as they are and wonderful to look at, the Danish Lynxes only have a few months left in service before they are fully replaced by MH-60R Seahawks. It was fantastic to see one of Westland Helicopters’ finest machines represented so strongly in its homeland, however, it was very disappointing as an enthusiast and photographer to see how the Danish Lynxes were placed.

When you have a rare-as-hens-teeth item like that with only a few months left in service, and it's been done up in a smart scheme to commemorate that, why place it in the middle of a row making a side-on shot impossible from outside of the barriers? The issue of barrier placing is brought up annually in our reviews of Air Day, and our plea remains the same - give the aircraft some room to breathe! Surely it is fair to say items such as the Danish Lynx were massive attractions for enthusiasts, but not necessarily the casual Air Day visitors, so their positioning should have been done with photography in mind. Another minor annoyance relating to the static park was the location of the single advertised Merlin HC4. It was announced with the point made that the helicopter is the latest and most up-to-date piece of technology for the Navy but the majority of visitors there had no access to it since it was placed (quite literally) in the corner of the showground inside the VIP enclosure, perhaps 15-20 metres from the fence. A little unfair to advertise its presence while restricting access to just the privileged few.

The Danish Viper in the flying display was on track to provide the best performance of the show: a truly raw, powerful and noisy display that seemed to have no breathing space whatsoever and looked like the machine never went below 5G at any point. It was a brilliant demonstration of fast jet flying, but the French Navy were not to be beaten. Only a month after hosting the NATO Tiger Meet, Flottille 11F sent two Rafale Ms to RNAS Yeovilton for the fourth year in a row, including the stunning Arctic Tiger airframe. Last year’s display was superb, immensely memorable but on the short side. The demonstration this year was nothing short of legendary. If a display is rated by the amount of time spent grinning like a madman then the Rafales score no less than an unconditional 10 out of 10 because they put on a show that just did not leave anything out. Formation zoom climbs! Topside sneak passes behind a dirty pass! Touch and goes halfway down the runway! Dogfighting! The routine was simply organised chaos of the best, noisiest, punchiest kind, never leaving the front of the crowd, showing all manner of configurations and combinations. And all of this for what seems to be their only display anywhere this year. Such a demonstration of fast jet ability just could not be topped and it will live long in the memory of all those that were there. You had to feel sorry for the RAF Typhoon Display pilot, sat at the runway hold, watching the Tiger Rafale do missed approaches and touch-and-goes long after the second jet had landed...

At face value, the 2017 edition of the show was great. The flying programme in particular was chock full of quality - even the classic element featured top-notch gems such as the returning Norwegian MiG-15UTI display and the unique Westland Whirlwind HAR10 in its first display season. Both of Martin Baker’s ejection seat testing Gloster Meteor jets featured in the static for the first time at any show in years. Rare international items that won’t be seen elsewhere in the UK prove that the RNAS Yeovilton International Air Day definitely has the reach and pulling power to keep it marked on any enthusiast’s calendar, playing on the strong naval ties that it has formed especially. But it should be a huge embarrassment to the Navy how little they were able to supply this year and we can only hope that this year marks a blip with a return to form in 2018, and if we’re lucky it’ll be back with a vengeance - as good and elegant a closing to the show as the Patrouille Suisse were, they couldn't provide anything like the rollercoaster ride that the Commando Assault can to send you home with. 2017 was a show of great quality, but a qualified success.