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Into the Valley...

Highlight of the static - BAE Systems' re-sprayed Hawk ZJ100RAF VALLEY - 60th Anniversary Airshow 18 August

Andrew Bates went west to the far shores of Anglesey.

After an absence of seven years, it was a pleasant surprise to see RAF Valley once again listed in this year's UK airshow calendar. Celebrating 60 years of operations in Anglesey, the show made a welcome return to this region of North Wales, subsequently proving more popular than the organisers dared imagine - more of which later (although this may be partially attributed to the very reasonable admission prices - an adult ticket was only £7.50 in advance).

RAF Valley - a brief history

Officially opened on 13 February 1941, RAF Rhosneigr, as it was initially known, was assigned to No.9 Group, Fighter Command. However, just less than two months later, the station had been re-named RAF Valley. For the next couple of years, a variety of fighter squadrons operated from the airfield, some of which were assigned to night operations. First to reside at Valley were the Hurricanes of 312 (Czech) Squadron. Other units included 219, 615, & 302 (Polish) Squadrons, also equipped with the Hurricane, along with the Beaufighters of 68 Squadron and the Defiants of 456 (RAAF) Squadron.

The airfield saw a complete change of task during 1943, when it became a receiving and despatch centre for some of the vast numbers of USAAF aircraft that would arrive on an almost daily basis from the States. With Valley ideally situated on the West Coast of the UK, this would prove to be Valley's primary function for the remainder of the war.

The immediate post-war years saw the airfield being used temporarily by a handful of units, to the point where it was on a care and maintenance basis, despite being designated as a Master Diversion Airfield. However, 1949 saw the arrival of 20 Squadron, who managed a two year stint with a miscellany of types. This included a short spell of Vampire operations, signifying Valley's first real taste of the jet age.

It was in 1951 that the station became part of Flying Training Command, which saw the commencement of RAF jet training from Valley, and has subsequently proved to be their primary raison d'Ítre for the last 50 years. First unit was 202 Advanced Flying School, which utilised the Vampire FB5 and T11, along with the Meteor T7. This unit was destined to become 7 Flying Training School following a reorganisation in 1954.

As a result of yet another organisational change, which saw 7 FTS transfer to Linton-on-Ouse, 4 FTS was reformed at Valley in 1960, with the Vampire T11 still dominating the flightline. However, two years later, deliveries of the Gnat T1 began to replace the venerable Vampire, whilst the Gnat itself was supplemented by the arrival of both single and two seat Hunters in 1967, the F6 and T7 variants respectively. Finally, in 1976, the first Hawk T1 arrived at Valley, with subsequent deliveries enabling complete replacement of the Gnats and Hunters by 1979.

Valley and 4 FTS were destined to take on an even more significant role in the RAF fast jet training syllabus during the early nineties, when tactical weapons training was added to their repertoire, following the disbandment of the two Tactical Weapons Units. RAF Brawdy and 1 TWU were the first to go, followed a year or so later by RAF Chivenor's 2 TWU. Consequently, the two reserve squadrons (19 & 208) that constitute 4 FTS, can call upon a combined fleet of approximately 60 Hawks. With the aircraft currently being progressed through the fuselage replacement programme, it's highly likely that the Hawk will remain a common sight in the skies above Anglesey for many more years to come.

Quite naturally, examples of the Hawk dominated the static during the show, with one of the two display areas almost entirely devoted to the type, apart from a lone Chipmunk looking slightly out of place. Although the Hawks were a little crowded together, at least some thought had gone into providing a variety of colour schemes, including a pair of 208(R) Squadron machines sporting their newly introduced squadron colours flanking the fuselage roundel, looking very smart on a gloss black background. Also, it was unusual to see one of the 2001 display mounts parked in the static rather than out on the flightline, along with another Reds in the static park? Cut-backs of the future??rarely seen static participant, a Red Arrow. This last mentioned Hawk (XX156) is a relatively new recruit to the Reds fleet, having previously been based at Valley with 4 FTS until early last year.

Providing a subtle change from the familiar profile of an RAF Hawk was the BAE Systems Hawk 102D ZJ100. From a personal point of view, although I've seen this particular aircraft on a number of occasions, the almost ever-changing paint schemes maintain the interest. Previous incarnations have seen a three-tone camouflage, air defence grey (yawn), and a stunning blue scheme. Can hardly wait for the next makeover!

The remaining static display, whilst well spaced, was frankly a little disappointing. There were a couple of gems on display for the enthusiasts. - an Irish Air Corps SA.365 Dauphin from No.3 Support Wing at Baldonnel was one highlight, along with one of the newly introduced QinetiQ (ex-DERA) Alpha Jets. Seeing an Alpha Jet in GAF lizard camouflage, complete with red and blue roundels and UK serial, certainly takes some getting used to! However, apart from a Tornado F3 from 56(R) Squadron, there was a dearth of RAF frontline hardware in the static, although the support helicopter role was well represented by the Chinook, Puma, and Merlin.

International participation was also a little sparse. Apart from the Irish contingent, (who also brought along an SF260 Warrior), the only other foreign representation came from Germany, with the Luftwaffe sending a UH-ID, Tornado and Transall for the static display.

As the afternoon's flying display beckoned, the weather decided to take a hand in proceedings. Admittedly, the forecast had predicted showers for the afternoon, but when the first shower arrived, it pretty much stayed for the remainder of the day. Whilst it was not particularly heavy, the persistence was enough to dampen the spirits of the most hardy individual. Regrettably, your scribe followed his instincts; 'when the going gets tough, the tough hide in the display hangar'. Either I'm getting old or memories of a soaking at Binbrook '87 still remain, or both! Consequently, the flying was subsequently viewed from the hangar, along with many more like minded souls.

Normally in the flyingDespite the weather, the cloudbase was not too low, so the flying programme continued regardless. The Tornado GR1 display was very impressive, with the reheat glowing nicely against the grey clouds, whilst the Hunter/Gnat combination from Kemble performed an especially welcome and fitting display to help celebrate 60 years of RAF Valley. However, it was the home team who perhaps temporarily stole the limelight from the Red Arrows. Using eighteen carefully positioned Hawks, 4 FTS managed to fly a formation flypast in the shape of the number 60, despite the inclement weather.

As the rain continued to fall, annoyance and dismay turned to stark realisation that perhaps an early exit was called for. After a slow trudge back to the car, a last sandwich, and cameras safely stowed away, the engine was started ready for the three-hour drive home. The time was 15:15, but this was just the beginning of the nightmare to follow. Despite the poor weather, the cars had continued to Figure 60 in Hawks. Picture by Damien Burkestream onto the airfield well into the afternoon. Consequently, many of the earlier visitors had probably reached the same conclusion as myself that an early departure was the best option. So, after moving approximately 100 yards, I came to a halt, then waited, and waited……….. To cut a very long story short, I drove out of the gate at RAF Valley at 19:05 - nearly four hours just to get off the airfield! Regrettably, from the point of view of a regular airshow attendee over the past seventeen years, this proved to be the worst airshow traffic I've ever encountered. This is no exaggeration, and for many people in the queue, the frustration was soon readily apparent, judging by the multitude of blaring car horns. Alas, all to no avail.

Wet? Well,...Picture by Damien BurkeWhilst waiting patiently (well almost) to go home, I tuned in to one of the local radio stations to help pass the time. Here, they were broadcasting various tales of woe from listeners who had apparently queued for up to five hours to get in to the show at Valley, only to be turned away at the gate because the airfield was full. So, it seems I was actually one of the lucky ones!! It later transpired that the organisers were anticipating a maximum of 35,000 people attending, but on the day, over 50,000 people passed through the gates. So, although the show would have been a great success in terms of money raised for charity, it was a real shame that many people attending would have returned home with soured memories of what would have normally been a great day out.

It gives this reviewer no pleasure at all to criticise any aspect of a show, as I am only too well aware of all the hard work and effort, not to mention expense, that goes into organising an airshow in these budget conscious times. However, the traffic management really did prove to be a major problem, and whilst any future events planned at Valley would undoubtedly be welcomed in this airshow starved region of the country, it is hoped that some serious thought be given to a workable solution. Perhaps a park and ride scheme could be introduced. Whatever happens, hopefully it won't be another seven year wait before the next show.

Damien Burke provides another account of the show - it seems his experiences were very similar to Andrew's!

...Unless it's rainingArriving early - as is sensible - entry to the airfield was quick. It took quite a while to actually get parked as two lines of traffic were filtered right to the other side of the airfield and parked up on the grass. A ludicrous number of signs dotted the airfield - turn your mobile phones off, don't smoke, don't stay with your car, don't expect the Eurofighter to turn up...(actually, I made that last one up). Unfortunately for many others who didn't make an early start, the result was up to three hours of queuing across Anglesey topped off with being told the airfield was full - even for those with advance tickets. Oops...

Delta Jets duo in the murkSetting up on the crowdline, the absence of any visible commentary speakers was noted with approval. Until it was realised they weren't hidden, they just weren't there! Only a tiny stretch had any speakers, so communication between organisers and crowd was practically non-existent. The action kicked off with a mass Hawk take-off, and they soon came back in fine style, spelling out '60' in the sky. 2001 was RAF Valley's 60th birthday, and coincidentally also the 80th birthday of No.4 Flying Training School - and the 25th anniversary of the introduction of the Hawk to RAF service! Such a collection of anniversaries was the major reason for there being a show at Valley, the bi-annual shows having disappeared into history with the contractorisation of the station. With civilian contractors running everything from ATC to airfield cleaning, the days of running an airshow on the cheap using service personnel only are long-gone at Valley. Now a swathe of civilians need to be paid - and paid weekend rates - for the airshow to go ahead.

With the 60 flypast had come the rain. A light misting at first, it soon ramped up until it was steady drizzle. Despite the weather, Eddie Todd's brightly coloured Jet Provost took to the skies. He put on a superb Eddie Todd, flying sq....performance - I've never seen a JP display anything like it. At times he seemed to be hovering, and surely tested the boundaries of the JP's low-speed flight regime! Similarly precise control was demonstrated in the very different display of the Kia Cars aerobatic stunt team - that Cub pilot really wrings every bit of drama out of his landing-on-a-moving-trailer routine!

Valley under siegeOne thing about wet airshows is that you can at least be assured of some good spray when the Harrier is on, and we weren't disappointed. Taking off in a cloud of steam, and finishing his display in another one, the 20(R) Squadron display ship was excellent as ever. By now though the wet weather and cold were getting to the crowd, and plenty of people were leaving - that is, those that weren't queuing for the toilets. And my, what a queue...almost as long as the one on the road outside. Somebody miscalculated badly, and toilet provision was adequate for a few thousand people at most, not the 50,000 that turned up.

Back to the flying though, and a quick round-up of the notable acts...the Reds were as precise as always, but limited to their flat show by the low cloudbase. Warbird attendance was impressive given the weather, with two Spitfires and a Mustang, a Beech 17, the Blenheim and Lysander taking to the air. Sadly the far more modern Sea Vixen and Typhoon both cancelled because of the weather. Nuff said!

On the jet warbird front, we were treated to a superb display from Peter Helier's Hunter F6 (thankfully much closer to the crowd than at previous outings this year), Delta's Gnat and Hunter pair, a Vampire (nice display but rather distant) and de Havilland's yellow Venom, back in the air after its mishap at Biggin earlier in the year.

Pierce Brosnan...notFor the noisier side of things, the RAF provided the aforementioned Hawks, Reds and Harrier, plus Jaguar, Tornado, Nimrod and a Hawk airfield attack. Providing more explosions was the James Bond double act of BMW and L-39 - with a rather wet Bond double driving around being buzzed by the L-39 while explosions were set off in the background. Nicely done.

While a yellow Sea King took to the air, it didn't display, and it soon became apparent that that was it - no more flying, just more and more rain. And then, the traffic nightmare... I'd been keeping an eye on one Land Rover that had been trying to leave since about 15:00, and by 17:00 it had only just moved out of sight. While I did a run round the static on the off-chance there was anything worth taking a photo of given the poor light, I spotted the same Landrover leaving the airfield - at 18:30! Anyway, not fancying a multi-hour queuing session, when I got back to my car I used every trick in the book to exit the airfield (perhaps I should buy up www.damiens-airshow-departure-tricks.com), and a mere 45 minutes later was enjoying a nice meal in a pub about ten miles away. For most, though, it was a nightmare crawl out of the airfield as the organisation once again failed to live up to expectations.

Vapour-tasticOverall, this was a seriously disappointing show. Lesser mortals left early, such was their disappointment, but having spent wads of cash on B&Bs and petrol, I was damned if I was going to leave even one minute before the show finished! If Valley are going to bring back the show as a regular one, they really need to get toilet provision and traffic sorted out, because it was without a doubt the worst I've ever seen on these two counts. Thankfully what flying there was (and there was more than at RIAT last year which had better weather, so well done for that) was pretty good, particularly that first JP display. Admission was also reasonable. So, nothing more to say - must try harder chaps!

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