NARRATIVE BY GRAHAM BRIGHT & IMAGES BY MARK ROURKE/CHRIS WHEELER
RNAS Yeovilton – International Air Day 2017
Royal Naval Air Station (RNAS) Yeovilton held its annual International Air Day on Saturday 8th July 2017. Always one of the highlights of the European Air Show calendar it provides a good mix of fast jet, helicopter and propeller action to delight the enthusiast as well as the local service and civilian families. Bases operated by the Royal Navy are given ship names as well as a base name and RNAS Yeovilton is no exception. Also known as HMS Heron it is one of 2 active Fleet Air Arm flying stations in the United Kingdom, the other being RNAS Culdrose (HMS Seahawk).
Situated close to the town of Yeovil in Somerset, Yeovilton is a multi-role air station that is home to the Agusta Westland (now Leornado) AW159 Wildcat HMA2 (Helicopter, Maritime Attack), operated by 815 and 825 Naval Air Squadrons (NAS), and the Agusta Westland EH101 Merlin HC3/3A (Helicopter, Cargo) operated by the Commando Helicopter Force (CHF) with 845 and 846 NAS. As well as the Fleet Air Arm units Yeovilton is also home to the Army Air Corps’s 1 Regiment that is comprised of 652, 659 and 661 Squadrons operating the Wildcat AH1 (Army, Helicopter) in the battlefield support role.
RNAS Yeovilton can trace its history back to World War Two (WW II) when in 1939 the Admiralty Air Division commandeered the land and began the construction of the site; it initially operated with grass runways until the completion of the first concrete one in 1941. Used for a combination of training and in preparation for embarkation aboard the Aircraft Carriers, Yeovilton was a very busy base and attracted attention from the German Luftwaffe on a number of occasions. At the end of WW II the base became a centre for demobilization of those naval personnel that were not needed for further operations; the airfield was also expanded in anticipation of a prolonged peace time role and the runway(s) were further extended between 1952 and 1957. In 1952 it was designated as the shore base for the Fleet Air Arm’s all weather fighters and examples of those aircraft appeared in this year’s static display area.
The de Havilland Sea Venom was developed from the Venom NF2 (Night Fighter) and was used by the Fleet Air Arm (FAA) as an all-weather interceptor. The modifications for carrier operations included folding wings, a (retracting) tail hook, and strengthened long-stroke undercarriage. The example in the static park, serial number WW138, is an FAW21 (Fighter, All-Weather). One of 167 that were built, the type served with distinction on Operation Musketeer in Egypt, and elsewhere in the middle East until it’s replacement in front line service during 1959, the type did continue with second line FAA squadrons until finally withdrawn from service in 1970.
The replacement for the Sea Venom was the de Havilland Sea Vixen that completed its maiden flight in 1951. Not without initial problems, including the loss of the prototype, the aircraft was subject to modifications and flew again in 1954, the Royal Navy placed an initial order for 110 aircraft in 1955 and the type was designated as FAW1. The aircraft was further developed and upgraded to FAW2 standard with the FAA taking delivery of 29 new build examples along with 67 modified FAW1’s. The static example, serial number XP924 (registration G-CVIX) is the last airworthy Sea Vixen, an FAW2 it is displayed in the markings of 899 NAS from HMS Eagle, code letter E. This aircraft first flew in 1963 and was delivered to 899 NAS the same year, it continued in service until 1971 before transfer to the Royal Aircraft Establishment (RAE) and finally to Flight Refuelling Limited in 1977. Flight refuelling converted the aircraft for unmanned flying, and the designation was changed to D3 (Drone).
XP924 spent a number of years on the airshow circuit and from 2003 could be seen in the markings of the sponsors Red Bull, the aircraft returned to Yeovilton and the colours of 899 Sqn in September 2014. As a footnote XP924 was damaged in a landing at Yeovilton during 2017 and was not able to appear in this year’s flying programme, a situation that should be remedied for the 2018 season. The Sea Vixen was replaced by an American built aircraft in the shape of the McDonnell Douglas F4K Phantom.
The F4K was taken from the United States Navy (USN) F4J model and was redesigned to incorporate the Rolls Royce Spey engines instead of the General Electric J79 used in the USN aircraft. Designated FG1 (Fighter, Ground Attack) in FAA service the first examples arrived at Yeovilton in 1968. The first unit to fly the aircraft in service was 892 NAS that was commissioned in March 1969. It was originally envisaged that the FAA would have a requirement for more than 140 Phantom’s to serve on 4 aircraft carriers, however cuts to defence spending reduced that to 50 examples when the 2 new build carriers were cancelled. The total was further reduced to 28 examples when it was decided that HMS Eagle would not be modified to accept the Phantom leaving HMS Ark Royal as the only ship capable of operating the type. The remaining aircraft were transferred to the Royal Air Force (RAF) for shore based air defence duties at RAF Leuchars in Scotland. HMS Ark Royal was withdrawn from service in 1978 and the remaining FAA aircraft were also transferred to the RAF. The aircraft on display, serial number XV586, has been a resident at Yeovilton since its return from RAF Leuchars in May 2012. Resplendent in the colours of 892 NAS the tail code of R designates its operating carrier as HMS Ark Royal.
RNAS Yeovilton then became the host station for the next generation of Naval fast jet aviation with the arrival of the British Aerospace (Bae) Sea Harrier FRS1 (Fighter, Reconnaissance, Strike) in 1979. Flying from HMS Hermes (800 NAS) and HMS Invincible (801 NAS) the Sea Harrier was at the spearhead of operations during the Falkland’s conflict with Argentina in 1982. The primary role was fleet air defence and in that capacity accounted for 20 Argentine aircraft shot down for no loss. The Harrier force during that conflict was made up of 28 Sea Harriers and 14 RAF Harrier GR3 (Ground Attack, Reconnaissance), the Sea Harrier had a secondary ground attack role to supplement the RAF force. In 1984 the type was given approval for upgrade to FA2 (Fighter, Attack), and 29 FRS1’s were contracted for that work in 1988. In 1990 18 new build FA2’s were ordered, and this was supplemented by 4 further aircraft in 1994. The Sea Harrier continued in service until 2006 and served on operations between 1992-1995 during the Yugoslav wars as part of the International task force on Operation deny Flight and Deliberate Force, and again in 1999 as part of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) operation, Allied Force. The static display example is serial number ZH800 and is displayed in the markings of 801 NAS, it carries the number ZH801 coded 001 to represent an aircraft operated by that squadron.
The static display also showcased examples of retired FAA aircraft including the Hawker Sea Fury, Westland Wasp, Westland Gazelle, Westland Lynx and Westland Wessex as well as current types from both Yeovilton and Culdrose. Making the journey from RNAS Culdrose in Cornwall were examples of aircraft from their current inventory.
The Bae Hawk T1 (Trainer) is used by 736 NAS in the maritime aggressor role performing simulated airborne interceptions and ship attacks, the Hawk entered service with the RAF in 1976 for advanced flying and weapons training, and while it has now been replaced by the upgraded T2 variants it remains in service with the FAA and the RAF in the aggressor role, and as the aircraft flown by the RAF aerobatic display team the Red Arrows.
The Westland Sea King ASaC7 (Airborne Surveillance and Control) is the last of the type to be operated by either the FAA or the RAF. Optimised for airborne early warning 849 NAS flies the Sea King as the Navy’s eye in the sky on fleet defence duty and can be identified by the Searchwater radar on its starboard (right) side. The type is due to continue in service until 2018 when it will be replaced by a version of the Merlin fitted with the Crowsnest radar system.
The Agusta-Westland Merlin HM2 (Helicopter, Maritime) is flown by 820 and 824 NAS in the anti-submarine helicopter role. The HM2 has been upgraded from the original HM1 version that first entered service with the FAA in 2000. The upgrades include the incorporation of touch screen cockpit displays, new radar and sonar systems, and enhanced data links that enable a better interface with other Royal Navy assets. The aircraft has a secondary role for transport, search and rescue, and casualty evacuation.
The Beechcraft Avenger T1 (Trainer) is flown by 750 NAS and is based on the King Air 350ER utility aircraft. Its role is to train observers for the Merlin and Wildcat force, and this is carried out as part of the United Kingdom Military Flying Training System (UKMFTS), in partnership with Ascent Flight Training.
The flying display was varied and dynamic, precision formation manoeuvres were highlighted by the RAF Red Arrows flying the BAe Hawk T1, the Patrouille Suisse with the Northrop F5E Tiger II, and the Royal Jordanian Falcons flying the Extra EA300L.
The Red Arrows formed in 1965 flying the Folland Gnat T1, which was then the RAF fast jet training aircraft. Initially with 7 aircraft the team was increased to 9 in 1968 when “Diamond Nine” became the team’s trademark formation. The Gnat was replaced by the Hawk for the 1980 season and the team have now completed more than 4800 displays in 57 countries around the world.
The Patrouille Suisse are the longest running formation team to operate fighter aircraft, formed in 1964 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the formation of the Swiss air force the team originally flew the Hawker Hunter F58, and transitioned to the F5E Tiger in 1995.
The Royal Jordanian Falcons have been on the air show circuit for over 40 years and spend each summer in Europe demonstrating a combination of close formation and solo flying, the signature final manoeuvre is the explosive Hashemite Break. The Extra EA300L is a German built unlimited aerobatic aircraft that can climb at 3000 feet per minute, and roll at 400 degrees per second. G force limits of +/-10 make this an impressive display to watch.
Fast jet displays were provided by the RAF with the Eurofighter Typhoon FGR4, the Belgian Air Component and the Royal Danish Air Force flying the General Dynamics F16AM Fighting Falcon, plus the Czech Air Force with the SAAB JAS39C Gripen, and the Aero L159 Alca. The highlight of the fast jet displays was that given by the Aeronavale which is the naval air arm from the French Navy. Flying two Dassault Rafale M (Maritime) aircraft, the role demonstration covered the full operating envelope of a modern day combat fighter. One of the aircraft, serial number 36, was specially marked in an all over snow tiger scheme having recently participated in the 2017 Tiger Meet at Landivisiau in North Western France. Both aircraft are operated by 11 Flotille, a unit that has seen action against Islamic State in Syria flying from the Aircraft Carrier Charles de Gaulle.
For the helicopter enthusiast displays were given by the 60 year old vintage Westland Whirlwind HAR10. Serial number XJ729 is the only remaining flying example and made its air day debut at this show. Also displaying were the Wildcat and Merlin from the FAA, and the Agusta Westland Apache AH1 (Army, Helicopter) from the Army Air Corps (AAC). The Apache as used by the AAC is a licence built version of the Boeing AH64D Apache Longbow and was produced at the Westland Helicopter factory at Yeovil. Capable of shipboard as well and land based operations the Apache forms an integral part of the United Kingdom Combined Helicopter Force and in 2011 served in the NATO intervention in Syria operating from HMS Ocean.
Special mention should also go to aircraft marked to commemorate those who had served in WWII with examples in the static display of a Czech Air Force L159 Alca, a Polish Navy PZL M28B1R Bryza, and a Shorts Tucano T1 of the RAF. Examples of the first jet aircraft to fly could be found in the static and flying displays, in the static park Martin-Baker Ltd sent two Gloster Meteor T7 aircraft that have been modified to test ejector seats from the Company’s Chalgrove airfield. The Meteor T7 was the first jet trainer to enter service with the RAF and 28 examples were also used by the FAA serving with 728 & 759 NAS as well as various station flights.
In the flying display the Norwegian Air Force historical squadron demonstrated the Polish built SB Lim2A which was the licence built version of the Soviet Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG 15UTI. Demonstrated in the colours of the aircraft flown by Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, “Red 18” is one of over 18,000 examples of the type produced and remains a cold war icon that saw combat over Korea in the 1950’s. Finally to the future of naval aviation with the FAA, the latest shipborne asset the Wildcat HMA2 was present in the static park and demonstrated its unique strike and support role in the flying arena. Designed to meet the Navy’s need for Anti-Submarine, Anti-Ship and ship protection warfare as well as casualty evacuation the Wildcat provides a capability leap from the Westland Lynx HMA8 that it replaced.
The Commando Helicopter Force (CHF) has now taken over the Merlin HC3/3A fleet from the RAF with units moving from RAF Benson to Yeovilton. The aircraft have been modified to the interim iHC3/3A standard for Navy use pending a full upgrade to the HC4/4A model. The HC4 was displayed by Leornado Helicopters from Yeovil, serial number ZJ127 has had folding rotors and tail section fitted to aid shipborne storage as well as an upgrade to avionics and digital cockpit systems the same as the HM2 version.
The future of the Navy fast jet force could be found in the static park with a full scale mock-up of the Lockheed Martin F35 Lightning II. 809 NAS will be the first FAA squadron to form on the type utilising the F35B version, ground and air crews are currently completing a training programme in the United States. The F35 will be based at RAF Marham in Norfolk, and will serve on the Navy’s two new aircraft carriers HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Price of Wales when they enter service.
The annual air day at RNAS Yeovilton is always a great day out with hangar displays and demonstrations to augment the aircraft present in the static park and flying programme. In addition visitors can visit the FAA museum that is on the site, the museum has examples of aircraft that detail the history of naval aviation and combat operations. Sadly this year the role demonstration that normally marks the end of the flying display was not scheduled, for me this demonstration is the highlight of any air show in Europe and I hope that the Navy reverse that decision in time for the 2018 event.