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Run 'Em Up! - RAF Waddington International Airshow 2011
Author: Robin Powney
Photography: Author
Thunderbirds Thunderbirds

As the RAF’s largest show and, undoubtedly, one of the largest visitor attractions held in Lincolnshire, it makes you wonder just what was going through the minds of the “specialist” traffic management contractors when it came to working through a plan for the weekend of 2nd/3rd of July near a little place by the name of RAF Waddington. What we do know is that whatever it was, it wasn’t traffic management. The traffic problems for the park and view during Thursday and Friday should have given someone, somewhere, an idea as to what might crop up. It would seem that it apparently didn’t and tales were told of people arriving in the near vicinity of the airfield at 9am yet not actually getting into the carpark until nearly lunchtime. Continents have been known to have shifted faster than that. Being there somewhat earlier than 9am, it was quite easy to see traffic was simply not moving on the A15 for significant periods of time. Not exactly a good start to proceedings for a large number of people although nearly 150,000 did make it inside during the course of the two days. Thankfully, the traffic management people had nothing, whatsoever, to do with the meat of the airshow itself.

Strictly from an enthusiasts point of view, even before the gates had opened, it wasn’t going to be a vintage year – not only had the UK Government’s defence cuts started to bite, global cuts to defence expenditure would also have a major effect, not only on what could attend but, even if it could, was there even sufficient budget to allow it to. For instance, as late as a few days before the show, 51 Squadron effectively said goodbye to the Nimrod R.1 as the last flight, except for delivery elsewhere, was conducted on the exact same day The Thunderbirds arrived. It would have been good to have seen Nimrod R.1s present at the show in a more ‘official’ capacity but it just wasn’t going to be. The cynic may go as far as suggesting Whitehall wouldn’t have wanted the Nimrod R.1s of 51 Squadron to have made a final bow in front of so many people.

Vulcan B.2s F-16AM Fighting Falcon
Extra 300, Royal Jordanian Falcons The Blades
Nimrod R.1 Nimrod R.1
Sentinel R.1 RC-135V Rivet Joint

The end of Nimrod R.1 operations and operational commitments for the Sentinels of V(AC) Squadron would mean the usual station flypast was reduced to simply one of the Sentrys yet someone had the terrific idea of wheeling the last two Nimrod R.1s out into the static display alongside an example of the equally sneaky Sentinel R.1. It might be a long time before someone signs off on allowing either of the other two elements of Waddington’s ISR force into the air at the show, nevermind the static, though. Still, at some point in the future, we will hopefully get to see the Shadow R.1 and MQ-9B Reapers making an appearance. An interesting participant in the flying display, somewhat related to the station flypast, was what will be the eventual replacement for the Nimrod R.1s – an RC-135V Rivet Joint, crewed by both USAF and RAF personnel, made a fairly high flypast. Yes, it was high; yes, it could have been much more photographer friendly; but it was undeniably an interesting addition to the show. The RAF should take delivery of their first RC-135W “Air Seeker” in 2014 but it does seem quite bizarre that the replacement for the somewhat aging Nimrod R.1s will be 1964 vintage KC-135Rs which will have been taken from desert storage and converted into RC-135Ws by L3 Communications. It would be good to see the Air Seeker in some capacity or other at Waddington in three years’ time.

As briefly alluded to, the static wasn’t a vintage year but in all honesty, it wasn’t too bad. Perhaps the highlight was a Belgian F-16AM Fighting Falcon from 31 Smaldeel at Kleine-Brogel AB in a rather stunning tiger scheme although the contributions from the Germans, Italians and Dutch were more than welcome. Up on the Sentry dispersal, two Luftwaffe JG74 Typhoons from Neuburg were parked alongside two AMI 12 Gr Typhoons from Gioia del Colle which were themselves alongside two 29(R) Squadron Typhoon T.3s from just down the road at RAF Coningsby. Though toting a load of four drill Paveways does wonders for aesthetics, the German scheme, almost blue in colour, seems much neater. It would have been a master stroke if the Spanish, Austrians and Saudis could have been persuaded to send one or two of their Typhoons too! Dominating Sentry dispersal was a RNlAF 334 Sqn KDC-10 and Thunderbird 15. Thunderbird 15 hadn’t come from some underground lair at Tracy Island, it was a USAF 7th AS C-17A all the way from McChord AFB and was one of two such support aircraft for The Thunderbirds (the other hailing from Dover AFB’s 3rd AS). Two C-17s supported the team’s European tour and whilst one stayed for the show, the other spent time at Mildenhall and came back on Sunday morning to enable the team to fly onto the final leg of the tour in Belgium.

Typhoon T.3 Typhoon lineup
Thunderbird 15
Tornado GR.4 Griffin HT.1
Andover C.1 Alpha Jet E

Rounding out the static on the Sentry dispersal, military wise, were a Squirrel HT.1 and its larger Griffin HT.1 stablemate from the Defence Helicopter Flying School over at RAF Shawbury, a Yeovilton-based 815NAS / HQ Flight Lynx HMA.8SRU, a 230 Sqn Puma HC.1, the Fairey Swordfish II of the Royal Navy’s Historic Flight, also from Yeovilton, and a Polish Navy M-28 Bryza-1R of 30.elMW. The Auster owners club annual Lincolnshire meet was thankfully ‘cancelled’ and elsewhere in the static, courtesy of the MoD, you could have found two Tornado GR.4s - in almost polar opposite markings. One was an almost naked XV(R) Squadron jet whilst the other was the terrific 41(R) Sqn 95th anniversary special, complete with its impressively painted tail – a single 100 Sqn Hawk T.1A, 849NAS Sea King ASaC.7, an Apache AH.1 and the rather stunning Empire Test Pilots School Andover C.1. Foreign participants also found in the static included two RNlAF 131 (EMVO) Sqn PC-7s from Woensdrecht and an AdA EAC00.315 Alpha Jet E from Tours.

Going back to the flying display, we might as well get the ‘star item’ out of the way. Whilst not on a par with the best of the European teams, The Thunderbirds are always a pleasure to watch by virtue of the fact that they, like their US Navy colleagues in The Blue Angels, fly front-line fast jet combat aircraft. Yes, teams like the Red Arrows are technically better at the actual job of large formation team flying but a tight fourship of F-16Cs (now in Block 50 guise) is a seriously impressive sight and sound. One aspect of the show that doesn’t really travel across the Atlantic all that well is the extremely patriotic commentary – at a US show, with the atmosphere of a US crowd, it could be considered reasonable and to some extent adds to the spectacle. It doesn’t, however, quite fit at a European show. As is standard for them, they basically commandeered the Waddington airspace for the duration of their show but, curiously, they also insisted that the southern car park was to be empty of people. Quite exactly what this achieved when, in the US, the team overfly crowds for fun, goodness only knows.

Thunderbirds Thunderbirds
Tornado GR.4 Tornado GR.4
Red Arrows Hawk T.1
The Reds were, as you’d expect, as popular as they’ve always proven to be and yet again put on a pretty much flawless display. Equally as popular was the appearance of XH558, the mighty Vulcan B.2, but the display is still extremely tame. Tame, however, cannot possibly be used to describe the superb Tornado role demonstration. Two Tornado GR.4s, provided by and flown by Lossiemouth’s XV(R) Sqn, basically ripped holes in the Waddington sky (and grass!) and it is undeniably an item that isn’t to be missed. Dare I say it, it’s even a better spectacle than the single ship display that the Tornado GR4 was good at. Single ship military displays, however, were taken care of by the Tutor, Tucano, King Air, Hawk, Chinook, Apache and Merlin. For 2011, the Hawk display is flown by the RAF’s first female solo display pilot, Flt Lt Juliette ‘Jules’ Fleming – who has previously flown Tornado GR.4s out of Kandahar, including logging nearly 100 hours as part of an entirely female GR.4 crew – and it’s as good a display as you’ll see for the Hawk.

Making very few appearances in 2011, both the Chinook HC.2 (complete with 30th anniversary markings) and Apache AH.1 performed quite dramatic displays and we can only hope that 2012 onwards sees these two making more appearances assuming, of course, it won’t impact on the support provided by both types to our servicemen and women out in harm’s way in Afghanistan. The Royal Navy chucked their hat into the ring with the popular Black Cats Lynx duo plus a solo display from an 824NAS Merlin HM.1. Arguably not quite at the level of the 28(AC) Sqn display of previous years, it was still an impressive display from such a large helicopter.

Chinook HC.2 Apache AH.1
Black Cats
Merlin HM.1
F-16AM Fighting Falcon F-16AM Fighting Falcon
RNoAFHS Vampire RNoAFHS Vampire

Belgium provided one final solo display in the shape of their F-16AM Fighting Falcon albeit wearing a slightly modified version of the instantly recognisable Vortex scheme (to celebrate sixty-five years of the Belgian Air Force). As you’d expect, 349 Sqn’s Michel ‘Mitch’ Beulen flew another top-notch high-quality display and even with the grey backdrop, the Viper looked stunning. Team Viper and their five Hunters were a pleasure to watch as were the Royal Norwegian Air Force Historic Squadron’s Venom duo even though they weren’t exactly stressing the airframes. The flying display also permitted a “chalk and cheese” comparison between two teams flying the same aircraft – the Extra 300. One was the Royal Jordanian Falcons whilst the other was the Blades; hands down, the Blades won. No question. One team seems to try to fly the wings off the things (which would take some doing in an Extra 300!) whilst the other seems to prefer the sauntering about approach.

On the subject of slightly enthusiastic flying, Tony de Bruyn in the fantastic OV-10B Bronco deserves a hearty pat on the back for such an entertaining display. Developed in the 1960s by North American Rockwell for counter-insurgency operations, light attack and observation, the OV-10’s primary mission was as an airborne forward air controller in the Vietnam War though the OV-10B was built as a target tug for the Luftwaffe in the late ‘60s. Back in February, Boeing even said, due to strong international interest, that they would develop the OV-10X as a light attack and armed recon (LAAR) platform, irrespective of how the USAF’s LAAR requirement pans out. Not bad for something first mooted in the early 60s.

RNoAFHS Vampires
RNoAFHS Vampires
OV-10B Bronco OV-10B Bronco
KDC-10 Vulcan B.2 XH558
Apache AH.1 C-17A Globemaster III

From a “Joe Public” point-of-view, it’s a fantastic day out and a great show, a conclusion supported by the almost 150,000 visitors to this years show. Though not exactly a pocket money experience, it is tough to argue with the value provided. For the enthusiast, however, the days of F-15I Ra’ams have yet to be matched, let alone, bettered but surely we have to hope for the continued success of the show in order for the airshow team to once again bring us more demanding punters the more ‘exciting’ participants. Fingers crossed that 2012 brings us a step closer to that and that the traffic woes won’t come back into the fray.

Waddington will hold the 2012 show over the weekend of 1st & 2nd of July 2012.
The author would like to thank Flt Lt Darren Scales, the RAF Waddington media team and 51 Sqn.