Report and photography by Wayne Bennett
RNAS Yeovilton, also known as HMS Heron, is sited a few miles north of Yeovil, Somerset and is one of two active Fleet Air Arm bases. It is currently home to the Royal Navy Wildcat HMA2 and Army Air Corps Wildcat AH1 helicopters as well as the Royal Navy’s Commando Helicopter Force Merlin HC3/3A/i3/HC4 and Wildcat AH1 helicopters. The annual air day at the base is now the only official Royal Navy air show and is one of the jewels in the crown of the air show calendar, often attracting participants for whom this is their only uk appearance, and this year was no exception. An attendance of 40,000 was expected for the show, despite the potential competition from a certain football match on the same day.
The fantastically hot summer we are enjoying this year was at full strength once again on yet another baking hot airshow day, which makes a very nice change for us here in the UK.
A wide and varied static display allowed us to enjoy many of these unique visitors before the flying had even begun. Notable amongst these visitors was a considerable detachment from the Lithuanian Air Force, making their first visit to the show and bringing with them an Alenia C-27J Spartan, Aero L-39 Albatros and, a highlight for me, a Mil Mi-8 ‘Hip’ search and rescue helicopter.
The visiting CC-130J Hercules of the Royal Canadian Air Force was popular too, with a long queue of people waiting to see inside its open hold which never seemed to get any shorter throughout the day, whilst sat nearby was the impressive bulk of a Boeing C-17A of the USAF 701st Airlift Squadron.
Historic naval aircraft are another strong feature that you only tend to see at Yeovilton and notable amongst these were the diminutive and attractive Hawker Sea Hawk jet fighter, from the 1950’s, and the DH Sea Vixen that replaced it in Fleet Air Arm service from around 1959. The Sea Vixen on display was XP924 (G-CVIX) which famously suffered a landing accident caused by hydraulic failure in May 2017 and the damaged panels were also displayed nearby. The prospects for her eventual repair were a hot topic of conversation between the personnel looking after her and the enthusiastic well wishers in the crowd.
The ‘home team’ opened the show with the Leonardo Wildcat and Westland Sea King ASaC.7. This was almost certainly the final appearance of a UK military operated Sea King at any air show, with the last of the ASaC.7’s being due for replacement within the next 12 months under the Royal Navy’s ‘Crowsnest’ programme. This will see the Leonardo Merlin adopt the airborne early warning mission, having already replaced the Sea King in the ASW role several years ago.
After flying in formation together, both types went on to give individual displays in which the agility of the Wildcat was more than amply demonstrated. The Wildcat was also the first of the the days aircraft to use flares in its display, a feature pretty much unique to this air show in the UK.
The next display item was of unique historical significance. The MiG 15 of the Norwegian Air Force Historic Squadron teamed up with Navy Wings’ Hawker Sea Fury T.20 to commemorate the 1952 shooting down of a MiG 15 over Korea by a Royal Navy Sea Fury from HMS Ocean, flown by Sub-Lieutenant Brian Ellis, aged 21 at the time. This was the only time a Royal Navy piston aircraft has shot down a Jet fighter, and one of the very few in aviation history. Seeing the two together, you can really see why this is such a rare achievement. For decades this victory was wrongly accredited to the flight leader Lieutenant Peter “Hoagy” Carmichael, as he was the senior officer, before research allowed the record to be corrected.
Flight Lieutenant Jim Peterson, of 29 Sqn RAF, then gave his always impressive Typhoon display before the Gazelle team brought the pace of things back down again with a smooth and accomplished demonstration of the a helicopter which was once operated by all three UK services, but now remains in UK service only with the British Army. The relaxed pace didn’t last long however as the first of the days three F-16 displays was next to take to the air. The first of them to display was the Hellenic Air Force ‘Zeus display team, who are regulars on the UK circuit along with the Belgian Air Force F-16, ‘Dark Falcon’, which also displayed here. Much less familiar is the Danish Air Force F-16, which is only doing four shows across Europe this year, and chose Yeovilton for its sole UK appearance of 2018.
Another regular on the UK circuit who never disappoints is Rich Goodwin in his modified, insanely overpowered, Pitts S-2 special. The chuckability that having such a huge engine in a Pitts gives Rich is exploited to the full in one of the most breathtaking displays of aerial agility you will ever see, beginning when he hangs it on the propellor just a few feet high as soon as the wheels leave the ground on take off, and never letting up until he lands.
The Red Bulls Bristol Sycamore, that debuted at Cosford only a few weeks ago, was next on the agenda. Although a sedate display, as anyone who knows aircraft would expect from this type, it is nevertheless a real pleasure to see this venerable British type flying again after a near 50 year absence from our skies. The unique experience, nowadays, of hearing a helicopter that is powered by a radial piston engine (the Alvis Leonides) is also noteworthy.
The Red Arrows followed the Sycamore with a full display, courtesy of the excellent weather, and the blue skies really accentuated their coloured smoke in this display. You would never know of the tribulations the team has endured this year when you watch them in action, which of course, is exactly how they want it. After their display the pilots walked along the crowd line chatting to fans, which was a nice touch.
The agility of the SAAB Gripen multi role fighter was ably demonstrated by the Czech Air Force and this display heralded the start of a section mainly consisting of fast jets, including the aforementioned Danish F-16 and the beautifully liveried Royal Canadian Air Force CF-18 which has been painted to commemorate the 60h anniversary of NORAD.
During this section the Navy Wings Fairey Swordfish 1 W5856 also displayed, including the traditional salute from the rear cockpit
Five aircraft then represented the Aeronavale of the French Navy, two historic and three modern. The historic contingent consisted of a Fouga CM.175 Zephyr, the navalized version of the Fouga Magister, and a Morane Saulnier MS760 Paris, four seat light jet and trainer from the early 1960’s. The Paris is privately owned and operated by the Armor Aero Passion group in France. The Zephyr is the last of its kind flying today and is operated by Association Zephyr 28. The Zephyr’s early deck trials were carried out on Royal Navy ships HMS Eagle and HMS Bulwark in 1959 prior to service entry and both types were making their Yeovilton debut.
The modern contingent was titled the Cocarde formation and this was made up by three current Aeronavale aircraft. Leading the formation was a Dassault Falcon 50M, a Maritime patrol variant of the popular biz jet line and one of 8 currently in service, based at Brittany. The remaining two aircraft were Dassault Rafale M agile combat aircraft, the current mainstay of of the Aeronavale and Armee De l’air, the Rafale was developed in parallel with the Eurofighter Typhoon and their capabilities are broadly comparable with each other, except the Rafale also offers a carrier capability in its M variant as demonstrated here.
One minor disappointment was the unavoidable absence of the promised pair of Spitfires from the Battle of Britain memorial flight which both suffered simultaneous ‘technical difficulties’. This is one of the perils of vintage aeroplanes and it did feel odd that there would be no Spitfire present at a UK military airshow, although the BBMF Dakota stepped up to carry the day.
The finale however soon banished any such thoughts as the home team returned to close the show in spectacular style with a Royal Marines Commandoes role demo involving Hawks, Wildcats, Jungly Merlins and lots of flashes and bangs as a pair of ‘rebel’ vehicles were intercepted and subdued for our entertainment. And entertained we were. Any attempt to avoid the football score and watch it later was rendered pointless by the massive cheer, as loud as any jet, that came from the far side of the airfield, where the game was being shown on a giant screen, when England scored, so it looks like everyone had a fantastic day.