Back with a bang!
Gary Parsons reviews this year's Leuchars International Airshow, held on 9 September. Photography by the author and Mike Kerr
Earlier this year, the promise was that Leuchars would be one of the highlights of the airshow calendar - the reality was it was perhaps the highlight, with glorious weather and a display line-up second only to RIAT. With fast jets a-plenty and a mammoth input from the home-based squadrons, it was easily the airshow team's finest offering since 2000 and brought much praise from enthusiasts and general public alike - the anticipation had been such that the Enthusiasts' enclosure sold out several weeks before, for the first time.
Building on 2005's excellent tactical demonstration, this year had Tornado F3s simulating strafing runs with Lossiemouth-based Tornado GR4s running in at low-level to accompanying pyrotechnics and 'big bangs', plus a Chinook providing ground support to a handful of troops. Hugely entertaining, it was an excellent example of what has been missing from military airshows in recent years, and shows what can be done when the will is there. Adding to the station input was a diamond-nine formation of Tornado F3s earlier in the day, the Leuchars pilots emulating the Red Arrows in fine style with two precision passes for the large crowd. It's not just the formation that impressed and entertained - it was also the stream of Tornados on take-off, the constant thunder and subsequent three-ship formations in the circuit to land, that thrilled the crowd. With fourteen airframes launched during the air display, Leuchars as a whole - the base commander, the squadrons and pilots, the airshow team, should all be applauded for the efforts put into this year's contribution, as it made for a unique and special event, despite the lack of a 'proper' display F3 on the airshow circuit.
An additional item arranged at short notice was a flypast by a Kinloss-based Nimrod MR2 to commemorate the crew of XV230 who perished in Afghanistan less than two weeks before. The crowd, Leuchars' biggest yet, fell silent as the Nimrod, appropriately XV231, flew past to the strains of Elgar's composition of the same name playing over the public address system.
Adding spice to the flying displays was good splattering of international acts, headed by the Polish Air Force MiG-29 Fulcrum, Belgian and Dutch Air Forces F-16s and the Czech Air Force Mil-24 Hind. It was the MiG's only UK appearance this year, and not just once, but twice! Cancellation of the RAF's Hercules and Merlin displays left two vacant slots, one filled by a second display by Captain Atrur Kalko in the MiG and the other by Sqn Ldr Matt Elliott in the Typhoon. Many enthusiasts were secretly pleased, as they'd rather see two MiG-29 and two Typhoon displays any day of the week! Matt flew the two-seat T1 in the morning and the single-seat F2 in the afternoon, replicating the twin displays he did last year in much poorer weather - he should be congratulated for his eternal willingness to entertain the crowds so readily!
Dropping the speed was the Danish Air Force's 'Baby Blue' team of four T-17 Supporters, perhaps the most unsuitable aircraft for a display team ever devised! Woefully underpowered, the team's display was mercifully short but spirited enough to be enjoyable while waiting for the next afterburners to be lit. Anyone brave enough to cross the North Sea in a T-17 deserves a round of applause!
Contrasting with the RAF's energetic Chinook display was the Czech Hind, all poise and menacing aggression. It was hoped that the blue 'special' as seen at RIAT would be attending, but the plain camouflage version on show was just as welcome to many who prefer their military types to be 'true to service'. An Agusta A109BA from the Belgian Armed Services also gave a vigorous display, another less-than-usual type for a UK flying display.
Engine gremlins prevented the BBMF's Spitfire displaying, leaving it to the Lancaster and Hurricane (LF363) to perform, and other drop-outs from the scheduled flying display with the previously mentioned Hercules and Merlin were a Dutch AB412, Belgian Sea King and the Irish Air Corps PC-9 display team, illustrating just what an even better airshow had been planned. Throughout the day new commentator Sqn Ldr Andy Pawsey (who has taken over the helm from Roger Hoefling) did a sterling job with just the right balance of information and banter, adding to the refreshing air of change that one could feel instilled within the airshow.
On the ground the Americans were back in force with a B-52H, KC-10A, KC-135R and a brace of Eagles from Lakenheath. Other highlights were a Hellenic Air Force Mirage 2000, Irish Air Corps PC-9M and an old favourite becoming ever more scarce, a Luftwaffe F-4F. Sure there could have been more RAF aircraft, but 'overstretch' has been the theme throughout the year and consequently there was no TriStar, VC-10, C-17, Hercules or Jaguar on the airfield.
Leuchars 2006 was the modern military airshow at its best - diverse, dynamic and exciting, but I guess we must mention the two negatives - first, the perennial traffic problems exiting the airfield from the northern car parks, and secondly that there will be no airshow next year due to runway re-surfacing. Airshow Manager Alison Mackenzie promises that they will be "Back with a bang" in 2008, so one can hope for more Tornados, Typhoons and pyrotechnics - just take the train or the excellent park and ride, leave the car behind!