Andrew Beaumont reports from another weather battered show of 2008, this time at Leuchars on 13 September. Pictures by the author, mainly taken on arrivals day
After a highly successful event in 2006, the RAF Leuchars airshow took a break during 2007 so the airfield could undergo some major changes in readiness for Typhoon. With this absence, there were worries about the future of the RAF's largest and only public event in Scotland - fortunately for us, the airshow returned in 2008 to continue the RAF's ninetieth year celebrations, but not everything went to planů
This year's show was billed as the final curtain act for the RAF's anniversary celebrations with a considerable amount of RAF support given to the Leuchars team, including over fifteen different types of operational aircraft in attendance. On top of the large RAF participation, a vast array of civilian operated 'warbirds' were secured to give the airshow audience a visual history of the RAF.
Unfortunately the airshow was hampered significantly by the weather, a story that has rung true throughout the main part of the 2008 airshow season. It was evident from arriving on base at eight in the morning that this show was going to be difficult to get off the ground - pun intended. Even with the difficult weather, great efforts were made to salvage as much as possible.
The scheduled flying display was delayed by some margin, but proceedings finally got under way late morning during a small break in the weather. First up was Flt Lt Charlie Matthews in his 11 Squadron marked Typhoon F2; as expected, the display was impressive and if anything, the weather helped emphasise the superb manoeuvrability of the Typhoon and its cloud making abilities!
Additional displays were preformed by an Army Air Corps AH-64 Apache and the Royal Navy's Black Cats display team flying the Lynx Mk8, although only one of the Lynx pair flew due to the weather conditions. Only one of the two foreign participants braved the conditions with the Royal Netherlands Air Force (KLu) F-16 display team putting in a sterling effort.
The airshow team at Leuchars pride themselves in celebrating the station's rich history and the close ties to those nations who contributed so much during the dark days of the Second World War. This year was no exception - a great deal of effort was made to secure display acts with a connection to RAF Leuchars and the home squadrons, 43(F) and 111(F). Acts such as the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight, Air Atlantique Classic Flight's Meteor and Vampire, Hunters from Hunter Aviation and a Spitfire Mk19 to name a few. Unfortunately, with the weather playing havoc all around the country and not just in Fife, some of these acts were unable to make the journey north to Leuchars, most notably the BBMF and the Air Atlantique Classic Flight.
Continuing with the flying display, the RAF's Role Demonstration took to the stage but was dramatically cut down for obvious reasons. Two Tornado GR4s were sent up to make some noise and although only consisting of fast passes down the display axis, one can only imagine the workload for the aircrews and Leuchars air traffic control in setting up each and every pass through the murk. As well as the Role Demo GR4s, an E-3D Sentry from RAF Waddington made an appearance, even though it was announced prior to the show that the aircraft would be unable to attend. Against all the odds, a large number of staff at RAF Waddington sacrificed their weekend to get their aircraft to the show. They flew hundreds of miles north to be greeted with the terrible conditions which could only have been immensely frustrating. Despite the weather, the Sentry made a dramatic entrance appearing out of the cloud for a touch and go and showing off its own cloud making abilities, before departing back to Waddington. A wonderful sight and much praise has to go out to the crew and all those at RAF Waddington for making the effort.
As part of the RAF's ninetieth anniversary celebrations, Leuchars was to host the first and only Scottish display of the most talked about airshow act since her return to flight in October 2007: Avro Vulcan XH558, operated by the Vulcan to the Sky Trust. This extremely popular aircraft has been dogged with problems throughout its restoration but even through adversity, it finally made its return to the UK airshow circuit earlier in the year at the RAF Waddington airshow. Still without a major sponsor and only through the kind generosity of the British public, the Vulcan was to make her first appearance at RAF Leuchars in over fifteen years.
XH558 was scheduled to perform a flying display during the afternoon but was delayed in the hope of a break in the weather that would allow her to fly. After the Red Arrows performed a few formation passes, the Vulcan sat at the end of the runway waiting for a "yes" or "no" from the display director. Alas, the cloud base was still too low to allow the Vulcan to display safely, therefore two fast taxi runs were performed for the crowd instead.
Although the flying display was limited, there were at least some interesting aircraft to look at in the static display with many of the crew available to have a chat. A problem that has been raised many times before is the positioning of the static aircraft and the use of the metal fencing around the displays. Leuchars is not a small airfield but the aircraft, particularly on the main taxiway, were packed closely together for no obvious reason. With the static displays shrinking year on year due to budget cuts and operational commitments I am sure the Leuchars team could use the space they have much more wisely. The aircraft along the main taxiway could have been spread out a lot more, which would certainly help the photographers but also allow the average airshow attendee the chance to look around the aircraft properly.
If you thought that having the aircraft closely packed together was bad enough, the use of the metal barriers around the static display just added to the frustration. For example, a well thought out display of four of the home based Tornado F3s were parked tails together facing outwards but with the metal barriers sat under the noses of the aircraft limiting any real chance of getting a decent photograph. On top of that, blue bins and a small tent were placed in front of the metal barriers too. Granted the barriers are there for a reason but a bit of thought could make their use a lot less topical!
Foreign static participation included a rare treat from the USAF in the form of an E-8C Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System (J-STARS). This airborne battle management platform from the 116th Air Combat Wing located at Robins AFB, Georgia, made its first UK airshow appearance in four years. Accompanying the J-STARS in the static display were a B-52H from Barksdale AFB, Louisiana, a New Hampshire Air National Guard KC-135R and finally two F-15Cs from the 493rd Fighter Squadron, based more locally at RAF Lakenheath.
Following on from their 2006 visit, the Czech Air Force came to RAF Leuchars with their newest mount, the JAS 39C Gripen, with support from the specially marked An-26 and an L-159 ALCA. Other regular supporters at the show were the German Air Force with a Tornado ECR from Lechfeld's 322 Squadron 'Flying Monsters' and an F4-F Phantom II from JG71 based at Wittmund.
The RAF had a wide range of aircraft on static with a C-130K Hercules arriving early in the morning to be positioned at the edge of the static display. A number of Typhoons from the various squadrons at RAF Coningsby arrived including a 3(F) Squadron jet carrying a large amount of ordnance. RAF Lossiemouth and Marham based Tornado GR4s, two Harrier GR9s from 1(F) Squadron and a Kinloss based Nimrod were also in attendance. The RAF's rotary element was also well represented with the new Merlin HC3A from 78 Squadron, a Puma from 230 Squadron and a Griffin and Squirrel from RAF Shawbury. Two Chinooks from RAF Odiham were also secured at very late notice thanks to Joint Helicopter Command and special thanks go out to the crew for a spectacular departure on the Monday after the show!
Even with the weather, the sheer number of people at the show was staggering, with attendance figures being quoted as close to the 2006 level. Also, on the strength of the 2006 show this year's enthusiast package was sold out by mid-April. This exclusive package is a real treat to the airshow enthusiast with up close and personal viewing of the show from a private viewing area; the package also includes access to the airfield for Friday arrivals. The popularity of the package is credit to the RAF staff who work extremely hard to pull everything together and their hospitality is second to none. There is no doubt that this package is one of the best on offer from any UK airshow.
The 2008 Leuchars airshow was officially closed with the traditional sunset ceremony performed by the Pipes and Drums of RAF Leuchars with a single Tornado F3 conducting its trademark fast flyby, thus marking an end to a disappointing season. One can only hope that a trend is not developing and that the 2009 season can bounce back.
Special mention has to go out to the RAF Leuchars airshow team for a valued effort in bringing the show back after the 2007 absence. Also special thanks to the efforts of all the RAF and foreign air force personnel at the airshow for using their initiative to help make the show more enjoyable by allowing access to their aircraft.