Royal Navy International Air Day

Prose & Photography: Robert Griffiths

The Royal Navy of England hath ever been its greatest defence and ornament; it is its ancient and natural strength, - the floating bulwark of our island. - William Blackstone



The Royal Navy has always been a major part of British identity since the defeat of the Spanish Armada, before aviation was even a blip on the horizon. It was only natural that aviation would have an impact on Naval tactics, and eventually become an extended arm of the Royal Navy. With Her Majesty’s Naval Base’s Clyde, Portsmouth and Devonport holding the fleet of surface vessels and submarines, there are two Royal Naval Air Stations that hold the aircraft of the Fleet Air Arm, Culdrose and Yeovilton. Every year RNAS Yeovilton holds it’s Royal Navy International Air Day in July, and for many it is a must see for many reasons. Most go purely for the grand finale which has some spectacular pyrotechnics, beautifully choreographed flying that just wows the crowd from the outset. Speaking of pyrotechnics, Royal International Air Day is one of the few places left one can witness the deployment of flares from a number of participants to the show, from Wildcats to the Belgian Air Force ‘Dark Falcon’. Full Disc Aviation was lucky enough to cover the show this year and we thank the organisers for the invite to this amazing show at the heart of the Fleet Air Arm.

One of the major highlights at this years show was the participation of the Spanish Navy with their AV-8B Harrier IIs, the first time in many a year the station hosted a flying Harrier, with the Royal Air Force and Royal Navy Joint Harrier Force retiring in 2010. This wasn’t the only highlight, with many other rare and exotic aircraft gracing both flying and static displays from a Qatari C17 Globemaster in its beautiful livery to a recently returned-to-air Westland Wessex HU5. With five hours of aerial displays, it would feature the most up-to-date aircraft of air forces and naval arms from far and wide, and also pay homage to days’ gone in the history of naval aviation. 

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Arriving early to the base, we were quickly ushered into the on-base parking, which is not only convenient but really useful if you take a lot of kit to these kind of shows (I tried packing light, but sometimes it’s just not possible!). Parking directly in front of the Press Enclosure, it was a short wait until the 0900 opening and registration. A very polite and warm welcome from the team would be a good indication of how the rest of the day would go. As the flying display didn’t start for a number of hours this gave me the opportunity to explore the vast array of static aircraft, educational presentations and stalls at the show. With both old and new aircraft there was plenty on the ground to inspire and grab the attention of show goers. From the Italian Air Force (Aeronautica Militare) ATR P-72A Maritime Patrol aircraft to the classic lines of the Supermarine Swift there was no shortage of old and new. Crews manned their static aircraft willing and able to instill information and a close look at their beloved aircraft. I finally walked to the display aircraft area, looking for the Spanish Harriers which was pretty obvious by the sheer number of people surrounding their stall selling Harrier merchandise. Speaking to the Display pilot, ‘Tou’, I was able to take some photos of him before releasing some of my coinage on some memorabilia. Working my way back to the Press Enclosure it was time to switch lens and prepare for the aerial display that was about to occupy every single person at the show.

Starting off with a rather sedate measure for the show was a look at the heritage of Fleet Air Arm helicopters contrasted with the new. A formation of Navy liveried helicopters; Westland Wessex and Westland Wasps preceded the newer and far more advanced Leonardo Helicopters, a Merlin and two Wildcats. As these passed, the Wessex would break off and circle back before beginning it’s rather spirited display for a wonderful look at this recently restored airframe. The next act took me a bit by surprise, unable to hear any warning given by the announcer, I had to scramble to pan with a brand new F-35B coming in for a fast pass. On its second, it proceeded to show its VTOL capability before gradually moving up and returning home at RAF Marham.

There were many displays after this including the rarely seen historical French Navy team, consisting of Morane-Saulnier MS.760 Paris, Fouga CM.175 Zephyr (a navalised version of the Fouga Magister) and an extremely rare Breguet 1050 Alize. It would then be the turn of some solo acts from T6 Havard, RCAF C-130J demo and the magnificent demo from the Army Air Corps Apache. 

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But the star of the show, and one probably all british aviation buffs were waiting for, something that hadn't been seen on the air show circuit since 2010, the AV-8B Harrier II of the Spanish Navy. This display was eagerly awaited since it was announced, and the very distinct pitch of the engine filled the air once again, the shape everyone longed to see again was airbourne over Yeovilton, probably the first time since the Fleet Air Arm retired its FA.2 Sea Harriers and joined the Joint Harrier Force with the RAF in 2006. The display was fantastic, with plenty to photograph from high speed passes to ultra slow flyby/hover. What was surprising was the extended hover that seemed to surpass anything I remember seeing by the RAF or RN at airshows past. Coming into land at the end of his display the iconic whine on shut down echoed out along the airfield, and a large round of applause was heard the length and breadth of the crowd line, proving the Harrier still has a huge fan base in the UK. 

Other solo displays throughout the day included the final year of an RAF Tucano display, the ever popular Dark Falcon display (with flares!) from Vador himself, Rich Goodwin’s high energy display in his Pitts S2, RAF Typhoon display from Jim Peterson, a spritely display by a T. MK.20 Sea Fury and a first display from the Hellenic Air Force’s Daedalus display in their T6 Texan II. 

If anyone has been to Yeovilton International Air Day before they will already know about the grand finale, and it doesn’t matter how many times your see it, each is different and the anticipation always increases. For those of you who don’t know the show, each one has a grand finale from the Royal Navy, Fleet Air Arm and the Royal Marines. The scenario is the usual bad guys attacking the airfield and it is the job of all three branches to send them packing.

The scenario starts off with some dodgy looking characters storming on to the airfield in front of the crowd. Next up Royal Marine ground forces head them off to find out who they are which erupts into a fire fight and a call for reinforcements. Next comes the helicopter insertion, this year using three Wildcats and four Royal Marine Commando Merlin helicopters in close formation. What commences is essentially how the forces gain the upper hand in a fire fight, moving toward the enemy in small teams while covering one another. Further troop insertions continue from either landing or fast roping from the hover from both Merlins and Wildcats before extra firepower and supplies comes in. Different from previous years for me was the use of an artillery piece, and quite a lot of Royal Marines on the ground in front of us. Oh, and not forgetting the appearance of three ‘jet men’ from the British Aeronautical Innovation Company, Gravity Industries. If you haven’t heard of them, go check them out because its very Iron Man-like and awesome! Pyrotechnics for the Naval Hawk flypasts, blank firing from the Royal Marines including their artillery makes everything pretty loud with lots going on. Inevitably the bad guys lose, mostly thanks to the efforts from Jet Man (honest!), and everyone and everything lines up crowd centre for the final piece of pyro and the climax of a day-long show. A wall of fire signals the end followed by a reverse climb by the helicopters before bowing to the crowd and exiting. Again, it never fails to bring applause from the crowd. But alas, it is a sad time as this puts an end to the one-day show and one must wait a year for the excitement from RNAS Yeovilton and its Royal Navy International Air Day, it’s now time to pack up and go onto the next.

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Full Disc Aviation and myself would like to extend our thanks to the Media Team at Royal Navy International Air Day were happy to help with any questions. Their courtesy, love for the show and helpful manner really puts you at ease to get the most out of the show. Looking forward to next year and what will be in store!