Royal Navy International Air Day

Saturday 13th July 2019

The RNAS Yeovilton Air Day, now the "Royal Navy International Air Day" has continued to set itself exceedingly high standards in recent years. With this high bar in place, the newly-christened airshow once again struck out to deliver an increasingly international, varied, and rich airshow that continues to stick to its tradition of allowing the public an up-close look at present-day Royal Navy aviation.

Tom Jones reports from HMS Heron for UK Airshow Review. Photography from the UKAR Staff Team.

Right from the off, it felt very much like the Air Day went from strength to strength throughout the year with consistently golden, if sporadic, participation list updates. The Air Day itself hit the ground running with an item as rare as anything in Europe in the form of the Lithuanian L-39 solo display. Though the item sadly moved onto the cancellation list, the diminutive country has progressively committed more and more to the Air Day and it's positive to see that relationship develop, and long may that continue. As the Air Day approached the participation list began to see the likes of the US Navy F/A-18Es (which sadly cancelled), Canadian C-130 "tac demo" (which was relegated to some tactically-inspired flypasts instead), Italian Navy P.180M and P-72A, both rare as hens' teeth, added to an already strong-on-paper Air Day that included the RIAT-bound EAV-8Bs from the Spanish Navy.

A notable absentee after many years of tremendous support of the Air Day was the current French Navy, who were unable to muster a single participant in the flying or static. It would be unfair to say that the show relied upon, and therefore missed out on this year, the punch of the much-loved Rafale M pairs display, but even with legitimate Bastille Day celebrations being the reason it was a shame that not a single participant was available for the Air Day.

The show wasn't completely lacking a French touch, though. The celebrated Cocardes Marine formation which last year consisted of the world's only airworthy CM.175 Zephyr, and MS.760 Paris, but was joined this year by an incredibly exciting participant, on paper at least, in the form of the Br.1050 Alizé. The actual performance of the Alizé was surprisingly lacking in any real substance or form; a few far away circuits turning away from the crowd, one of which was with the bomb bay doors open, and then landing. A great shame that more was not made of a type that enthusiasts had been clamouring to see since its first post-retirement flight a few years ago.

There was one other historic aircraft that had hooked many an enthusiast when the announcement was made. Historic Helicopters have been putting in some tremendous work to contribute vibrance to what used to be a bit of a stale classic helicopter scene. In 2014 and 2015, those of us who were born too late to see Westland Whirlwinds in active service, who probably were resigned to the fact that we were likely never to see a Whirlwind flying, were delighted to see their bright yellow HAR10 take to the skies and dutifully perform at airshows around the country ever since. Taking things further, and having also probably resigned ourselves to the fact that we would not see a Westland Wessex flying again in UK skies after their retirement not long after the turn of the century, Historic Helicopters flew their beautiful navy blue/day-glo Royal Navy Westland Wessex HU5 earlier in the year. This item is one of the must-see historic aircraft restorations of 2019, and it duly opened the Air Day in fine style in formation with two Westland Wasps, two Wildcats, and a Merlin HM2, showing a nice contrast of past and future Royal Navy assets. Quite unexpectedly, but much to the show's credit, the machine and her owners were afforded some time to show off the beautiful, beautiful aircraft on its own for all to see and hear rather than to simply consign it to a single blink and you miss it show-opener flypast. The first public display of a post-restoration Westland Wessex, something considered by many to be a fantasy five years ago, was one of the star moments of the UK airshow calendar and both Historic Helicopters and the Air Day deserve immense credit in making that happen, and also for parking the machine, along with the Sea Harrier FA2 and F-4K Phantom FG1, in a clutter-free static line up at one end of the showground.

One of the things most missed about the traditional armed forces "at home" days was the genuine feel of said air arm, be they the Royal Air Force, Army Air Corps, or Royal Navy, throwing open its doors and saying to the public "come on, look in, let's show you what we do". It's something that can't be replicated at airshows taking place at civilian venues. With the death of the "at home" days for the most part, RNAS Yeovilton remains one of the only places to actually enter an operational military airfield. The feel of this is evident from the start; this year there were more Merlins and Wildcats than one could shake a camera at. Lines of Merlins, both HC3/3Ais and newly upgraded HC4s, and Wildcats in their Army AH1 and Royal Navy HMA2 guises, and in various configurations and states of repair, could be found showing almost all aspects of the day-to-day operations of the base and, importantly, people of all professions and ranks were scattered around and only too happy to talk about their roles and disciplines. The feel of an air station pulling out entire fleets of helicopters and equipment, rather than a token one or two, cannot be underestimated. The immediate year-on-year charm of the air day at Yeovilton is, ultimately, the inescapable feeling that the Royal Navy can't wait to show off their wares and explain what they do to the general public.

The aforementioned Royal Navy and Army Air Corps Wildcats, Navy Merlins, and P.180M and P-72A were joined in the static park by a semi-regular German Navy P-3C and a much rarer Canadian CP-140. For the transports, Qatar's contingent of C-130J and, without much competition, the world's most attractive C-17 were joined by a Lithuanian C-27J. Also found on the showground amongst other welcome participants was a Belgian Navy Alouette III, a machine with not long left in the world. One of the largest and most persistent bug-bears of Yeoviltons of yester-year is the (at times ridiculous) positioning of metal barriers around static aircraft, severely limiting photography and generating a feeling of exclusivity. This year, the organising team appeared to have attempted to rectify this. True, the metal barriers remain, but there was clearly an intention to break-up the usual formula and so the barriers were not a constant wall of metal bars but rather broken up by tape tied between each section of barrier allowing considerable space between each barrier section. As well as making the aircraft (and crews) feel more welcoming and inclusive, it did wonders for photography. The new system is by no means perfect and the metal barriers do still remain so it would be premature to call the situation solved, but it's a strong step in the right direction, and for that attitude alone, credit is due.

The flying display itself was good and full of its own moments, but maybe very slightly shy of being stellar. For the most part it rested on the usual mix of Rich Goodwin's excellent Pitts S-2S routine, Navy Wings' Sea Fury, a few international acts, including a UK debut by the Hellenic Air Force T-6 Texan display team "Daedalus" in the UK and a smattering of unique Royal Navy displays such as a maritime role demo featuring Wildcats, a RNAS Culdrose-based Merlin HM2 display, and of course the always-thrilling Commando Assault finale. Star items, though, of course, was the solo Spanish Navy EAV-8B, which then performed as part of a two-ship the following weekend at RIAT. The display itself was probably what would have been largely unremarkable if we had seen it through the lens of an airshow-goer of the early naughties, but it didn't matter. It was a Harrier. Flying in UK skies. At an airshow that's actually worth bothering with (unlike Farnborough). It was wonderful to see the type back at RNAS Yeovilton, a location with which the scream of a Pegasus engine is so familiar over the years. A nice touch was also to see the RAF's F-35B Lightning that day, a type with which Yeovilton will be very familiar in years to come, which won more hearts and minds with some quite impressive passes and a spot of hovering which allowed the audience to compare and contrast the new with the old.

The final really interesting item that was on the flying list that day was the enigmatically listed "Jet Man", a former Royal Marine reservist, who has built and operates his own jetpack(s). An interesting participant, for sure, though slightly off-kilter for the Air Day's usual message, but it's precisely this sort of thing that will have grabbed and maybe inspired many a pre-teenage mind in the crowd. The "display" itself was a bit of a "much of a muchness"; one there-and-back pass along the crowd, and a small appearance later in the Commando Assault finale, and conducted at such a low height that many in the crowd several rows back might have just glimpsed rather than seen the "Jet Man".

The show itself was, once again, another successful iteration of the Somerset event. It packed a varied and diverse (and on-message) static display into an area, showed that it had listened to criticisms from previous events, and treated the crowd to a flying display that, whilst not necessarily "vintage", was high quality nevertheless, complete with a return to the full fat Commando Assault demos we have been hoping for for some time.