Air Show Report : RAF Leuchars Airshow 2011
Royal Air Force Leuchars, home of RAF 6 Squadron, held its annual airshow on September 10. RAF Leuchars Airshow regular Des Brennan provides his report of the 2011 event and questions the show's future in light of the UK defence reforms and airshow trends.
RAF Leuchars Airshow : Is the End in Sight Or Is It Already Passed?
The future of the Leuchars Airshow seems very much in doubt which makes it rather regrettable that, Leuchars Airshow 2011 on Saturday 10th. September was somewhat low-key compared with previous events
although still interesting and enjoyable.
The organisers and all involved did very well in presenting a balanced air and ground display despite both resource limitations and the weather conditions on the day. Therefore, any seemingly adverse comments that follow are not aimed at the organisation and organisers of the show itself but instead question the apparent prevailing corporate attitude towards such events in general. It was noticeable that far fewer metal crowd barriers were in use this year whether for cost-cutting reasons or in response to feedback and that from post-show media and internet coverage a modified traffic plan had eased traffic problems after the event.
The Strategic Defence and Security Review of October 2010 seemed to leave RAF Leuchars untouched until in a typically British Government and Ministry of Defence manner unattributed and emphatically denied media leaks
suggested this might not be the case.
What had been initially reported as a choice between Lossiemouth and Marham remaining the main Tornado GR.4 operating base had expanded to decide whether Lossiemiouth (located roughly one hundred miles north on the Moray Firth coast about midway between Aberdeen and Inverness) or Leuchars would remain open with the Eurofighter Typhoon. Eventually in July 2011 it was announced that in the best strategic defence and security interests of the country operations at Leuchars would end around 2013, the Army would take over and the based Typhoons would transfer to Lossiemouth.
Successive governments have assured critics that Typhoon is not a 'Cold War relic' but in a time of global terrorism the air defence of northern Britain is
re-locating away from its major population centres to a Cold War posture twenty years too late and rarely exercised when at its height.
However, this decision by then Minister of Defence Dr. Liam Fox and his many advisors not only settled any doubts regarding the future for Leuchars but ensured that Airshow 2011 would go ahead.
Uncertainty over this had been exacerbated by a series of widespread military spending cuts and the unexpected added demands of 'Operation Ellamy' over Libya.
Any of these had impacted on the event and their obvious cumulative effects were compounded by the weather over the show weekend as the remnants of an Atlantic Hurricane dissipated over Britain. This brought heavy rain, low cloud and poor visibility during both arrivals on Friday and the show on Saturday. Despite intermittent improvements these conditions generally disrupted proceedings, prevented some participants from attending and led to the already shortened flying display being curtailed further until conditions improved around noon.
The Leuchars event stems from 'Battle of Britain At Home Days' held across the UK every September to mark that campaign as well as letting the tax-payer see the modern Royal Air Force in action.
With very few years missed Leuchars has hosted one annually since 1947 and for some time has been the last operational station to do so albeit with a steadily decreasing RAF input.
Britain is undeniably no longer the 'air-minded' nation it was when the 'At Home Days' started and in these celebrity obsessed days the 'Vulcan or Red Arrows effect' is what attracts crowds especially when the latter's recent fatal crash brings the added questionable attraction of a mawkish opportunity for populist public grief.
Strip away the hype and the briefest of glances around the airfield highlights the absence of any large multi-engine RAF participants in the static display while closer examination does likewise for smaller types. Flying participation concentrated mainly on designated team and solo aerobatic displays rather than demonstrating the full width and potential of the service.
It can be argued that increased operational demands reduce aircraft availability but a counter argument could suggest that there are still Operational Conversion Units and ongoing squadron training missions which were at one time the mainstay of RAF airshow participation.
Much is made of the Leuchars Airshow being a standalone event for funding participation but in reality it cannot be anything but inextricably linked to the wishes and will of the Royal Air Force. This surely raises the issue of whether the RAF as an institution genuinely sees its day-today achievements and professionalism accurately portrayed to the society from whom it recruits and receives funding by a false celebrity-based impression of smoke and glossy colours?
Royal Air Force
Back to the show itself based on the theme From Airship to Typhoon : 100 Years of Military Aviation from North-East Fife to which was added Defending the Skies Past, Present and Future which were both fulfilled to some extent despite the circumstances already described.
Included in the flying display were the solo Hawk and Tucano display aircraft from the RAF with the former in its special display scheme while the latter was in standard training colours
although the special scheme was flying again in the Netherlands just over a week later.
A pair of XV(Reserve) Squadron Tornado GR.4 flew their Role Demo from and to their home at Lossiemouth and even without the noise and fury of their take-off and landing provided a spectacular demonstration of their daily Afghanistan close-air support tasking with simulated SAMs, strafing runs and explosions.
As always the Royal Air Force Aerobatic Team - The Red Arrows - flew a professional and polished display with only eight aircraft following the death of Flt. Lt. John Egging a few weeks earlier. Sadly, though typical of the media induced grief-fests that have become normal daily fare in modern Britain, much was said about the team arriving in a silence in which a pin could be heard drop (over the noise of ten Adour engines, fun-fair and countless burger and ice-cream van generators) which came over as tawdry rather than respectful. One television commentator seemingly at a loss to say something suitably funereal intoned that the standard trainer black coloured 100 Squadron Hawk which has flown as a support aircraft for much of the 2011 season had been painted specially to commemorate the loss just as the camera focused on the white Skull and crossbones tail markings taking his faux solemnity even further into parody.
Weather problems precluded the RAF Falcons Parachute Display Team and the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight from attending which with the rare absence of a civilian owned Spitfire or Hurricane meant that this Battle of Britain event has possibly passed away forever without either of its key participants present. Although not part of the flying display an HS125 CC.2 from 32 (The Royal) Squadron was available for the Chief of the Air Staff Sir Steven Dalton arriving mid-morning and departing mid-afternoon.
Local participation was much greater than sometimes seen when Leuchars was home to three Tornado F.3 squadrons.
Just before the Tornado GR.4 Role Demo four Typhoon FGR.4 from 6 Squadron had made spectacular short-take offs into the vertical after passing perhaps only a third of the crowdline. While rather reminiscent of Lightning displays from long ago that particular aircraft took most of the runway to get airborne and wheels retracted before standing on its tail. Perhaps if we should ever enjoy such a multiple Typhoon display again their rotation points could be staggered along the runway to allow more to see its phenomenal performance at close range.
Two Typhoon later returned individually in very loose formation flypasts with a single Tornado GR.4 from the Role Demo pair as an 'Operation Ellamy' tribute. The show was closed in the traditional Sunset Ceremony with a three Typhoon formation approaching from seaward as the fourth followed at high-speed and low-level, climbing vertically when passing the saluting base just as the station flag was lowered to the sounds of a bagpipe lament.
Leuchars presence was even greater on the ground with six 6 Squadron Typhoon FGR.4 on display along with a Grob Tutor from the East of Scotland University Air Squadron and former 111 squadron Phantom FG.1 'Black Mike' still resplendent in its all black colour scheme and for once not being used for 'in the cockpit' photos.
The only other RAF fixed-wing static displays came from 208(R) Squadron with a pair of Hawks one of which was in 2011 display markings, two 45(R) Squadron King Airs being the non-flying King Air Display Team and finally a Tornado GR.4 from XV(R) Squadron said to be a last minute addition but most welcome in the 'One Million Flying Hours' markings.
Almost a full set of RAF rotary-wing types attended with a Chinook HC.2 wearing a specially marked tail, Merlin, Puma, Griffin and Squirrel, all of which were open to the public and proved very popular. Completing the UK military presence was a Royal Navy Sea King HU.5 from HMS Gannet Search and Rescue Flight on SAR standby adjacent to the static display creating a link with Leuchars earliest days with the Royal Naval Air Service.
Overseas participation was again limited but nonetheless welcome.
After a gap of several years the Patrouille de France returned with an impeccable display delivered with their usual French flair and supported by an amazingly variegated Transall.
Other participation came from regular supporters, a Czech Air Force JAS 39C Gripen performing in the worst weather of the day and the specially marked solo display F-16 MLU from both Belgian and Dutch air forces with the latter dispensing flares.
Had the planned KC-10 not been reassigned at short notice and New York ANG LC-130 not held up by technical and weather problems the United States Air Force would have had more fixed wing visitors than the UK military. Meanwhile by size alone their New Hampshire ANG KC-135R, Ramstein based C-130J and two Lakenheath F-15E physically dominated the ramp.
The Czech presence was reduced on past years but provided a much appreciated first appearance by an EADS-CASA C-295M and returning after a very long gap an eye-catchingly sinister Norwegian Falcon-20 ECM was my particular favourite.
Vintage displays were provided by the Royal Norwegian Air Force Vampire pair and operating from its current home at the former RAF Finningley Vulcan to the Skies Avro Vulcan B.2
(now basking under the title Spirit of Great Britain) demonstrated the value of the charitable donations that keep its ageing technology in the air.
The Airshow themes were highlighted by Plain Sailing's Catalina commemorating both Leuchars' Second World War Coastal Command past and Norwegian operations with the type from the River Tay nearby at Woodhaven while an SE5a replica linked both historical and air defence aspects from an earlier era.
Privately owned Jet Provost and CASA 131 (licence built Bücker Jungmann) in the static display completed the vintage and warbird line-up.
Purely civilian participation came from a former Leuchars Tornado F.3 pilot flying his Pitts Special, The Blades and their four Extra 300s and the RV8tors with their pair of Vans RV-8.
Following its debut last year FlyBe which operates scheduled services from nearby Dundee again provided a Saab 340 for static display alongside the growing line-up of kit-builds, flying club trainers and other light aircraft with a local connection. This was boosted by one of the many regular Biz-Jet that use both Leuchars and Dundee, a US registered Global Challenger, and should military participation continue to dwindle perhaps the organisers might consider inducing more of these frequent and often colourful visitors to boost the static display.
And there we have Leuchars Airshow 2011, a little leaner than previously but nonetheless an interesting and varied show despite the clouds of uncertainties that prevailed for most of the preceding year. Yet like the literal weather on the day of the show those figurative clouds never fully cleared and are building up again with doubts over Airshow 2012. In a television interview during the event the Chief of the Air Staff stated that the show was safe until at least Leuchars was handed over to the Army with the proviso 'as best as we can tell at the moment'. Two weeks later RAF News-The Voice of the Royal Air Force reporting on the event stated 'Air Force Chiefs have yet to confirm if this year's event will be the last to be staged'. Members of the UK Government have echoed these apparent contradictions with the Scottish Secretary welcoming the events continuance while the Armed Forces Minister stated there has neither discussion of nor decision made on the matter.
Losing Leuchars as a venue would effectively deprive Scotland of its only international airshow location. Lossiemouth will become the country's sole operational military airfield but is neither well placed geographically nor has the population base to support a similarly sized event. Other recent airshow locations at Perth and East Fortune lack the runways and infrastructure to do so. It is twenty years since Prestwick hosted such an event and perhaps twice as long for Edinburgh with both airports having greatly expanded and for the latter especially traffic increasing dramatically since then. Options are limited and Leuchars, whose runway will apparently remain operational after the Army takes over, remains the only logical choice for an airfield based event as opposed to yet another 'Seaside Show' dependant on both real and plastic 'Red Arrows'.
This returns us to the issue of how the Royal Air Force as an institution wishes to relate to the public whom it serves and who sustain it raising a final question...
Is the end in sight for the Leuchars Airshow or has it already passed?
Report and photos by Des Brennan ( view portfolio )