…Are the best plans laid - so it was with this year's Leuchars Airshow, held on 10 September, as Gary Parsons reports. All photography by the author.
As the remnants of Hurricane Katrina dispersed over the North Atlantic, her influence was to be felt across this side of the ocean with depressions and low pressures affecting much of the UK, accompanied by rain and leaden skies. Sandwiched between periods of fine weather, the arrivals and show days were cold, wet and desperately dark, disrupting the rehearsals and transits of visiting aircraft.
As the airshow was celebrating its own 60th anniversary, as well as that of the end of the Second World War, plans had been made for a series of unusual formations throughout the show afternoon, contrasting 'old and new' themes such as Typhoon and Spitfire, Dakota and Hercules, Tornado and Lancaster. Saturday's torrential downpours in the south of England prevented the Battle of Britain Flight making the journey north, who would have provided the 'old' content for each formation - suddenly the Display Director, Wing Commander Colin McDermott, had an hour's gap to fill with the loss of the formations and the individual displays by the BBMF, so with the sporting agreement of pilot Squadron Leader Matt Elliott the Typhoon flew a second, even tighter and more dynamic display than his first, and the airshow had the unusual distinction of finishing some twenty minutes ahead of schedule. Gaps were inevitable given the disruption to the programme, but it was only the last hour that it was particularly noticeable.
In addition to the mixed formations, Leuchars once again planned a tactical demonstration and airfield attack, an example of a Composite Air Operation (COMAO), despite it falling victim to the weather last year. Happily this year's routine went ahead without hitch, providing a highly entertaining and dynamic display featuring the base's two front-line fighter squadrons and Tornado GR4s from RAF Lossiemouth. Beginning with a singleton Hawk acting as a Defence Counter Air (DCA) defending the airfield, it was intercepted by two Tornado F3s and a 'dogfight' ensued (within the confines of the low cloudbase). The GR4s then swept in for the airfield attack with accompanying pyrotechnics, chased by a further two F3s providing fighter cover, while a single Chinook from 18 Squadron deployed a handful of troops to seize the airfield. An excellent demonstration of what the Royal Air Force in Scotland is all about, the station should be congratulated in making the effort, something that had been noticeably lacking in past years. The aircrew certainly enjoyed putting a show on for the public, emphasised by the Station Commander Air Commodore Julian Stinton, himself a former Tornado F3 pilot - "We do it because we want to do it!"
This role demonstration harks back to the days when each RAF station would hold its own open day, normally closest to 15 September to celebrate 'Battle of Britain Day'. Leuchars is the last station to do this, and has recently dropped the 'International' tag from its title, suggesting a move back to its roots as a 'Battle of Britain Airshow'. International air forces are still represented, but it is clear invites are no longer taken up with such readiness, despite the Airshow Office's best endeavours. "We would love the Norwegians to come, given their close association from the war" remarked Keith Wardlaw, the Station's Corporate Communications Officer, "but even though they're only an hour away, they deem it too expensive." Shrinking defence budgets around the world are biting hard, and foreign air forces were thinly represented in the static park compared to ten years ago. One nation to contrast with this was America, who continues to support Leuchars well - alongside the Stateside B-52H and KC-135R were no less than four F-15Cs from the 493rd Fighter Squadron at Lakenheath and a MH-53M from Mildenhall.
The flying programme was, as one would expect, heavily packed with the displays the RAF had to offer, led by the previously mentioned Typhoon. Missing was the Fleet Air Arm - the Black Cats' unfortunate incident at the previous weekend's Biggin Hill Airshow left Lynxes in short supply, and the Sea Harrier duo cancelled without any clear reason, denying Leuchars its last chance of seeing this classic fighter. The weather put paid to any chance the RAF Falcons had of jumping, and the Sea King HAR3 was busy elsewhere with the storms hitting further south.
Leading a small, but significant (given the non-appearance of the BBMF) historic element was the Scandinavian Historic Flight's A-26 Invader and P-51D Mustang, normally based in Norway - where the Norwegian Air Force failed, sixty-year old aircraft triumphed! Anders Saether, the President of the SHF, himself flew P-51D 'Old Crow'. Another well-known name was Rod Dean, flying Historic Flying Ltd's Spitfire SM845 with great panache - many may have thought that the Typhoon/Spitfire formation could have been flown with Rod, but special clearances are required for MoD and civilian aircraft to operate together, and there simply wasn't time to make the arrangements. Completing the civilian line-up was the Delta Jets team, led by ex-Red Arrow Andy Cubin in the 'Yellowjacks'-painted Gnat. Ably assisted by Brian Cornes in 'Foxy Lady' and Steve Hicks in the 'Blue Diamonds' Hunter, this was a celebration of former jet aerobatic display teams that has rarely been seen before!
Leuchars has laid claim to many 'firsts' throughout the years, and again made its mark with the first international appearance of the Irish Air Corps' four-ship PC-9M team, recently formed at Baldonnel. A successor to the former Magister-equipped 'Silver Swallows', the team has yet to find a name, but will surely feature at many airshows in the future. Its routine was heavily restricted by the low cloudbase, but will no doubt develop over the next few years.
So, Leuchars continues to develop in this post-9/11 world, a reminder to which was emphasised this year by the two USAF 'heavies' both sporting 'Let's Roll' nose-art. A small, but significant change was the re-positioning of the fast-jet static line nearer the main aircraft park, away from the fairground that was the bane of many photographers, although some complained the barriers were now too close - there's an old saying "You can't please all of the people all of the time". The international flavour may be waning, but the Airshow team's efforts to diversify and try new things should be applauded, and a return to a good old RAF 'At Home' event is something that becomes ever more relevant in times of defence cuts and contraction. Sunday's glorious sunshine did add weight to the argument this should become a two-day event - an increase in visitor numbers, despite the poor weather, shows there is a healthy public interest in aviation north of the Border. Next year's show is scheduled for Saturday 9 September; let's hope those best laid plans finally come to fruition.