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Weston's whirly-birds

Howard Heeley/Down To Earth Promotions drops in on the International HeliDays Plus, Weston-super-Mare, 26-29 July

Beach babes
Military mites

Organised and run almost wholly by volunteers, the International HeliDays Plus event at Weston-super-Mare has become a regular fixture on the airshow calendar during the last week of July. The four-day event operates from the Beach Lawns in the town and is supported by both the North Somerset Council and the Weston Town Council. The event's traditional seafront location adds a certain 'British' atmosphere to the proceedings and its modest admission fee of just £2 per person helps contribute to an innovative format that helps to raise money for local charities like the Helicopter Museum.

This year's event was not only billed as "The biggest and best public helicopter show in Europe" but also as "Weston-super-Mare's biggest summertime event". The 2007 event was also used to celebrate the hundredth anniversary of the first helicopter flight.

This was your scribe's first visit to a HeliDay event at Weston and whilst I called in on the Saturday en-route to the West Country, the event had started at mid-day on Thursday with a performance by the Red Arrows over Weston Bay. The 'Reds' were followed by other flying displays including a Battle of Britain Memorial Flight Spitfire, the Royal Navy Historic Flight and Black Cats Lynx Helicopter Display Team, the RAF Falcons Parachute Display Team and a Belgian Air Force Sea King undertaking a search and rescue demonstration.

After its display, the Belgian Sea King joined the static park on the Beach Lawns, which was available for public viewing from Friday through to the Sunday. By the time I arrived on the Saturday this had been boosted by no less than two Sikorsky HH-3 F 'Jolly Green Giant' combat search and rescue helicopters from the Italian Air Force, a Sea King and Lynx from the German Navy, the rotary component from the Army Historical Flight and a mix of other military and civil helicopters from the UK and Europe.

Her Majesty and the Museum

Accompanied by the Chairman of the Trustees, Captain Elfan Ap Rees, on 20 July His Royal Highness renewed his acquaintance with a number of helicopter types that he flew in the 1950-1960s, including the sole surviving Queen's Flight Whirlwind HCC12 helicopter, along with several more modern designs representing advances in technology.

The Duke also spent some time discussing some of the restoration projects currently underway before chatting to volunteers, staff and representatives from AgustaWestland, Boeing, Eurocopter and other sponsors who have supported the museum since it officially opened to the public in 1989.

Afterwards, joined by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, the Royal couple inspected a Wessex HCC4 helicopter, also formerly of the Queen's Flight. "The Queen remarked on its excellent condition and recalled that she had nick-named it 'The Washing Machine'. Her Majesty commented that she had forgotten how large it was compared with the S-76 now in Royal Flight service", said Ap Rees. "Her Majesty also asked why we didn't have a Sea King yet in the collection but I explained that most of them were still in service and we hoped to add one in due course."

In his welcome to The Queen and the Duke, Captain Ap Rees said that their visit was especially welcome in this, the centenary year of the first recognised helicopter flight, because the new skills training and education support being introduced at the museum marked the start of a new phase in the collection's development "to encourage younger people to share our enthusiasm". The Duke then unveiled a plaque to mark the opening of the new Conservation and Engineering Hangar.

Providing room for three large helicopters to be restored at the same time, plus display space, the new building will also be used for the hands-on training of future helicopter engineers in conjunction with the City of Bristol College and other training providers. Funding for the facility was primarily raised by the Helicopter Museum and its supporters, although a new Heritage Lottery Fund grant and industry sponsorship will assist with the fitting out.

The Queen and Duke later left the museum to return home in the Sikorsky S-76C of The Queen's Flight, making the visit the first time that three generations of Royal helicopters have been together at the same place and same time.

With a good range of types on display it was slightly sad to reflect on a lower than expected turn out from the home-team's military contingent, with the Royal Air Force static participants being limited to a Griffin and no Royal Navy representation at all, although I understand that a Puma did display on the Thursday - a reflection of the times and operational commitments. Sadly this means that all aspects of our armed forces are currently stretched; be it through overseas operations and deployments, or nationally through the recent flooding across the south of England that was still very evident during my journey south.

Throughout the event helicopter pleasure flights were operating from the beach in front of the Beach Lawns and by Saturday afternoon the local volunteers were well versed in deploying the 'fluid barrier system' that allowed for the safe arrival and departure of a wide assortment of civilian helicopters at the southern end. During my brief spell at the event I managed to escape being too sandblasted by any of the airborne traffic, which I understand is all part of the normal HeliDay experience.

One striking aspect of the Weston HeliDays event is the informal atmosphere that prevails. This was fully exploited by the European contingent, who readily set up their picnic tables and chairs and 'took in the rays', albeit in slightly overcast but generally warm summer conditions at the English seaside. The modest admission fee for this event represents excellent value for money and gives both 'Joe Public' and the aviation enthusiasts alike the chance to get close and personal with some serious rotary hardware.

For this year's HeliDay event even the persuasive powers of Captain Elfan Ap Rees, the Chairman of Trustees for the Helicopter Museum and Event Director had failed to secure a representative helicopter from the Royal Flight for the static park. However a week earlier on Friday 20 July Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II and His Royal Highness The Duke of Edinburgh had been specially invited visitors to the Helicopter Museum in Weston-super-Mare (see sidebar).

Congratulations to everyone involved in the HeliDays and for their excellent progress at the world's largest dedicated rotorcraft collection.

Royal Visit photographs included by the kind permission of and copyright © The Helicopter Museum

 

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