OuterMarker - aviation reviews and photography
Author: Robin Powney
Photography: Author

For two days in July, Waddington became roughly the size of Oxford as 145,000 people turned out to witness the RAF’s premier air show in what can only be described as stunning weather. In fact, more people turned up at Waddington over the two days than the two days of RIAT at Fairford… this seems to fly in the face of the usual bluster on the internet in the run-up to shows but what it really meant was that traffic was slightly problematic and the A15 basically turned into a scale model of the M25 at rush hour. Two lines of heavy traffic split into four lanes for the tickets which then came back into two and then one – that meant forty-five minutes or so to cover all of about a mile from first parking up on the A15. It’s a little unfair to lay any specific blame for this as clearly the excellent weather would have brought more “last minute” visitors but someone with some degree of control over the coming together of four lanes of traffic might make things a little smoother. Leaving it to courtesy is admirable in theory but asking for trouble in practice.

Still in the shadow of cutbacks in spending, not to mention the complete lack of US attendance given the rather severe sequestration, in the run-up to the show, the participation list looked pretty good. Even better was that most of the participants on said list actually turned up, with the biggest losses being the two Westland Wildcat helicopters of the Royal Navy and Army, an RAF Chinook, and it would have been great to have had a couple more Sea Kings, particularly of the yellow SAR kind turn up knowing that they are essentially on borrowed time before the type is retired from active service. A downside to the 2013 list in contrast to the 2012 show was that there were much more civilian items on the list and these, almost like shows of years past, made the up bulk of the static park. Thankfully though, the static parking was inspired – the military items were split into a large gathering on the Sentry dispersal, with the rest down by the Air Warfare Centre and the civilian padding lined the taxiway between the two.
The Sentry dispersal featured arguably the highlight of the static in the shape of “BOB”, a 101 Squadron VC10 C.1K, still with last year’s 95th anniversary tail artwork. “BOB”, which derives from the XR808 serial number, is one of the original VC10s operated by the RAF and was first operated by 10 Squadron upon reforming in July 1966. Staying with 10 Squadron until they disbanded in 2005, “BOB” moved to 101 Squadron where she remained until flying into well-earned retirement at Bruntingthorpe on July 29th. That leaves three VC10s in service, one of which is the best part of 8,000 miles away at RAF Mount Pleasant in The Falklands, until October, when 101 Squadron become the next Airbus Voyager squadron and that will be it as far as VC10 operations go (although “BOB” may be kept running at Bruntingthrope). It was fantastic to see the smoky old girl one final time at the show and many thanks has to go to 101 Squadron for supporting this appearance.

Roughly half of the home team were also represented in the static – a 8/23/54 Squadron Sentry AEW.1 was parked up by the VC10 C1K, somewhat apt considering the two are basically derivatives of 1950s vintage airliners, whilst an unmarked V(AC) Squadron Sentinel R.1 was parked down at the AWC end. Of the absent half, it’s extremely unlikely 14 Squadron will ever drag one of their elusive Shadow R.1s out in the static and, whilst people don’t understand where XIII and 39 Squadron’s MQ-9 Reapers are operating and what they’re doing, the chance of said UCAV featuring in a static lineup is likely to be between slim and none. The Reaper fleet has been supporting UK and coalition forces in Afghanistan and has been controlled by RAF personnel based at Creech AFB, Nevada since their introduction; however, April 2013 saw the first Waddington-controlled operations and with the draw-down of forces out in Afghanistan and the change in opinions this might bring, we might finally see RAF Reapers at a future show.

Tornado GR.4s were in short supply in the static with the only one being one of 617 Squadron’s Dambusters commemorative special tail jets parked next to Vulcan XH558 at the top of the taxiway. A few more were originally on the list but, sadly, cancelled. However, a number of Typhoons did make it to Waddington, including the first ever airshow appearance by one of 41(R) Test & Evaluation Squadron’s new FGR.4 steeds. That’s new as in “new to the squadron” rather than off the production line as they inherited the 17(R) Squadron jets following their disbandment on 12th April. Based at Coningsby but an arm of Waddington’s Air Warfare Centre, 41(R) Squadron are the RAF’s Fast Jet and Weapons OEU, charged with developing the latest gadgets, tactics, weapons and avionics so, bearing mind that the Typhoon is fully operational and, indeed, combat proven, it makes a degree of sense in disbanding the Typhoon OEU and re-deploying the aircraft.
This also explains why, 17(R) Squadron jets were absent. Another Coningsby resident unit, 3(F) Squadron, provided one of their jets for the weekend whilst another was provided by 6 Squadron up at Leuchars. Sadly, 1(F) Squadron made a last-minute cancellation. Had the 1(F) Squadron jet made it, all it needed, taking the 29(R) Squadron jet in the flying display and ignoring the obvious logistics issues with a Mount Pleasant-based 1435 Flight jet, was XI(F) Squadron and it’d have been the full set of RAF units. Hopefully, the full line-up of Typhoon units can be realised at the 2014 show. Hawks from 100 Squadron just up the road at Leeming and 208(R) Squadron over in Anglesey at Valley rounded out the RAF’s fast jet contingent.
Other RAF assets lurking in the static were a 45(R) Squadron Beech 200 King Air, 115(R) Squadron Tutor T.1, both of which hail from Cranwell, and a Griffin HT.1 of 60(R) Squadron / Defence Helicopter Flying School from Shawbury. Though 27 Squadron were amongst the cancellations, so no RAF Chinook, helicopters were not exactly rare. The biggest contributor was the Royal Navy who sent a handful of their Culdrose-based rotary winged assets up to Lincolnshire for a weekend of sunbathing – the SAR Sea Kings are essentially on borrowed time so it was great to see one of the inimitable grey & red HU.5s from 771 NAS in addition to the radome-equipped ASaC.7 of 849NAS and an 814NAS Merlin HM.1. Incidentally, 2013 is also “Royal Navy SAR60” as it’s the 60th anniversary of Royal Navy Search and Rescue which was born out of extensive flooding in East Anglia and the Netherlands in very early 1953 – twelve Dragonfly HR.1 / HR.3s from 705NAS at RNAS Gosport assisted in helping to save more than 840 people. Non Nobis Solum (Not Unto Us Alone), indeed.
One of 700W NAS’s new Wildcats was due to feature in the static but, like the AAC Wildcat in the flying display, it was ‘retasked’ and never arrived. Arguably making up for the absence of the Wildcat, 750NAS made their air show debut with their latest mount, an Avenger T.1. About as close to a Shadow R.1 as you’ll get at a show, the Avenger is a derivative of the King Air 350 and replaces the Jetstream T.2 in the observer trainer role. That’s observer as in observing what a suite of sensors are telling you, not as in observing the world go past the windows. The pilot gets the observer to where they need to be to best employ the numerous combat systems of, say, a Merlin and then observe the Sting Ray torpedo clatter into the hull of whatever it is that needs to be put on the sea bed. An Islander AL.1 of 651 Squadron was the sole, on the ground anyway, representative of the Army Air Corps.
An interesting participant was a QinetiQ RJ100 from Boscombe Down, wearing a particularly smart whilst still extremely “corporate”, ETPS scheme with “LTPA” prominently displayed on the forward fuselage (LTPA: Long Term Partnering Agreement and is a 25-year agreement with the MoD for test & evaluation and training support) . It was due to have been joined by other stablemates at QinetiQ, such as a Tucano, but at least, in their 70th anniversary year, they managed to support the RAF’s premier show in some form or other. SAAB were quite big supporters of the 2012 show and 2013 proved to be no different – the company had sent examples of the 340 AEW&C, the 340MSA and the 2000 MPA “Swordfish”, much like 2012 to be quite honest. The cynic might say their attendance is due in no small part to the requirement for a new Maritime Patrol Aircraft for the UK after the Nimrod MR2s were retired and the MRA4 chopped up for tin cans. Another “past visitor” but absolutely no less interesting or popular for being so is a C-130H Hercules of al-Quwwat ak-Jawwiya al-Jaza’iriya (that’s Algerian Air Force to you and me) from 2 ETTL, based at Boufarik. Hopefully, what with the repeated appearance of the Algerians, there may be a time in the future when MiG-25s, Su-30s or MiG-29s will sit next to the Hercules. Should that ever happen, the 145,000 visitors will seem like a day out at a village fete.

Back to the subject of helicopters, the Dutch proved, again, to be great supporters of the show by sending over a 298 Squadron CH-47D Chinook from Gilze-Rijen and, though it was due to feature in the flying display, a 303 Squadron AB.412SP from Leeuwarden ended up in the static due to problems with the winch. A Belgian Air Component A109BA of 1 Wing at Beauvechain rounded out the military rotary winged contingent. Arrivals was quite reminiscent of ACMI deployments of yore as the Belgians turned up with no less than four F-16 Vipers – the demo team with the demo jet and a spare for the flying and a pair of 349 Squadron jets for static. One was in fairly standard trim whilst the other featured a pleasing special tail for the 70th anniversary (in 2012) of 349 Squadron which was formed as an RAF squadron in November 1942 - the code featured in the scheme is of one of their first Spitfire LF.IXes which they received in February 1944. It was obviously appreciated by many as it was the winner of the first prize in the static category.

The Viper didn’t walk the first prize as providing stern competition was the Czech Air Force with a JAS-39C Gripen of 211.tl and L-159T1 of 212.tl, both units calling Cáslav home. Both jets featured stunning artwork, with the Gripen taking tiger schemes a step further with its Picasso-esque tail. Good job most people were wearing sunglasses! Second prize in the static category didn’t go to either of the Czech jets and went, instead, to the Huey Display Team’s OH-6A Loach which was accompanied by its UH-1H stable mate at the Huey Display Team. You have to hand it to the team though, they do look seriously good. You could quite easily picture them on a pad or two foot above treetop height somewhere in southern Vietnam during the 1970s. Although a M-28 Bryza is a common inclusion in a Waddington static display, they have usually been of the Polish Air Force variety and been nose-to-tail grey. For 2013, the Polish Navy sent along an M-28B1R of 30.elMW at Cewice. Also hidden in amongst the static display were some big trucks of 2 Mechanical Transport Squadron and when I mean big, I mean huge. The kind of trucks than can carry other trucks on their trailers.
Opening the lengthy display were the now standard Station Flypasts from a 8/23/54 Squadron Sentry AEW.1 and a V(AC) Squadron Sentinel R.1 complete with special anniversary tail art to celebrate their 100th anniversary. It also featured a little later on in a flypast with the Red Arrows after going off to conduct a mission. The government, through the Strategic Defence and Security Review (that’s the work of genius that got rid of the Nimrod MRA.4 after spending £3B+ on them and Harrier GR.9s before finding out they would have been useful in Libya), originally intended to retire the Sentinel following the drawdown of forces in Afghanistan yet a pivotal role over Libya in Operation Ellamy and re-proving their usefulness over Mali supporting French forces looks like it has forced a rethink so hopefully they’ll be around for a while longer.
Unusually, three F-16 displays were on the timetable – the Dutch and Belgians are quite regular attendees whilst the third, however, was a somewhat less frequent visitor in the shape of the Turk Hava Kuvvetleri’s (Turkish Air Force) SOLOTÜRK. Having never previously seen the SOLOTÜRK display, I’d personally always thought it was quite tight between the Dutch and Belgian Viper teams in terms of who was the best in Europe. Not anymore. In my humble opinion, the best F-16 display in Europe features a rather stunning black and gold Eagle paint job and comes from 141 Filo at Akinci AB near Ankara. Yes, the Dutch and Belgians are good, very good, but the overall SOLOTÜRK display is better. Not only does the jet look amazing, especially so in the brilliant weather, the commentator has a touch of Turkish Stars about him, being more than a little enthusiastic. The jet itself will play a small part in elevating the team above the Dutch and Belgians as, whilst they are chucking F-16AM Block 20 MLUs about, the Turks are tearing the place up in a Block 40 C-model. Thanks to the GE F110-GE-129 engine, the Block 40 has more than 20% extra “go” with the ‘burner lit than the Pratt & Whitney F100-PW-200 equipped Block 20 and this goes some way to making the F-16C a little sprightlier than the usual Euro Vipers.
Display duties for 2013 for the Typhoon, following 6 Squadron at the helm through 2012, have returned to RAF Coningsby’s 29(R) Squadron and though Flt Lt Jamie Norris’ display featured an unmarked jet, it is one impressive display with a fair degree of noise and general “presence”. It would be nice, at some point in future, to see a permanently assigned display jet that can, like F.3s of days gone by, be given a good going over in the paint shop. Also hailing from Coningsby was the ever popular Battle of Britain Memorial Flight in full Lancaster, Spitfire & Hurricane trim. Without the hard work of the BBMF engineers who spent all night working on a hydraulic issue, the Lancaster wouldn’t have made it and thus the poignant flypast of PA474 with the second of 617 Squadron’s specially marked Tornado GR.4s, to mark the 70th anniversary of the Dambuster raid, would never have happened. Thanks guys! As far as popular goes, it’s impossible to top the crowd halting abilities of the Red Arrows who once again impressed with a typically excellent half hour slot. A display that gets pretty close is, of course, XH558 and this year was no different. Good weather + Vulcan XH558 = success. Sadly, however, flying hours are getting thinner on the ground and without major investment and engineering work, this year may well have been the last for XH558.
Showing just what a class act the Chinook display team is they won the flying display award which the Koreans pipped them to last year. The display never gets boring, irrespective of the number of times it’s seen, and could be watched all day. The Chinook HC.2 is not a small machine so for it to be flung about like an Extra 300 and to do some of the stuff it does is mind boggling. It is, quite simply, one of the finest displays of recent times and justifies the award. The Merlin is another fine airshow performer and though the well regarded RAF display has long since gone, the Royal Navy are still in the game with one seriously impressive display of large helicopter agility. It’s no Chinook display but it gets reasonably close. 824NAS provided the display and were showing off their new toy, the HM.2 variant.

Thirty HM.1s will go through the the £750M+ Merlin Capability Sustainment Plus programme (MCSP) which sees new mission systems, cockpit upgrades and new capabilities added to the Blue Kestrel radar to, help the Merlin become, in the words of Lockheed Martin “a major contributor to control of the littoral underwater and above water battlespace and provide wider utility in other roles and scenarios including Operations Other Than War” (OOTW). The first front line squadron, 820NAS, will get their first HM.2s in September 2013, with the HM.2s first embarkation (on RFA Argus) following in November and the first operational deployment, on a Type 23 (Duke-class) frigate coming in 2014.

The “Black Cats” of 702NAS are familiar in the Waddington skies but this year sees the display drop to a single Lynx HMA.8SRU as the Lynx community deals with the workload that transition to the Wildcat brings. Even as a solo display item, it’s still a decent display and shows off how nimble and agile the little Lynx can be. Another solo helicopter display came from the Army Air Corps and the Apache AH.1 of the Attack Helicopter Display Team. As was pointed out by the commentary team, Prince Harry was not in the cockpit at Waddington. The display included various manoeuvres that you can well imagine being used operationally in Afghanistan and wasn’t an exercise in trying to fly the rotors off the thing. The same can’t be said of Mikael ‘Mika’ Brageot in his Xtreme Air XA41. Quite how Mikael did what he did and managed to step out of the cockpit and walk away let alone land it in one piece is a mystery. The XA41, stressed for ±10g and capable of 450°/sec rolls, must be hewn from unobtanium and magicalloy with a healthy quantity of voodoo. The gaudy Breitling paintjob doesn’t do any harm either and at least with the black belly, you know which way up the thing is. The Blades, also in aerobatic light aircraft, are good as a team but their individual manoeuvres aren’t in the same league as those by Mika.
In what seemed to be a weekend out for the Czechs at Caslav, joining the L-159 and Gripen and their squadron mates in the static were the L-159 and Gripen in the flying display. The L-159 display has elements of both trainer and fast jet types in its routine but seems to extend perhaps a couple of minutes too long. Whilst the Dutch Viper got ten minutes and the Typhoon got eight minutes (admittedly without the take-off and landing), the L-159 got twelve minutes. Making a much better impact was the Gripen with a fine display of power and agility but given the lightweight nature of the aircraft, if it was anything but nimble, SAAB would have some interesting explaining to do.
The attendance of the Swedish Air Force Historic Flight with their immaculate trio of AJS 37 Viggen, J 29F Tunnan and SK 60 was an undoubted highlight. Things nearly went disastrously pear-shaped on Saturday as it was announced the Tunnan and then the Viggen had “gone tech”. A spot of magic later and both were taxiing for their display (albeit in a new order) after the SK 60, not before a number of people left though. The SK 60, as a type, isn’t a particular stranger to Waddington and I’d rate the Austrian display higher than the SwAFHF display. The Tunnan is a strange beast and is best described as looking like a large beer keg with wings. It doesn’t, however, fly like one and it put on an extremely impressive display with a fair degree of noise. However, for noise and sheer presence, the best of the bunch was the mighty Viggen. It’s been a long time since one of SAAB’s finest converters of fuel to noise has been seen over here, but it was, simply, awesome. Forgiving the fogginess of time, the display seemed to be very similar to those proper Swedish AF displays of old, complete with the extremely short “throw out the anchor” landing and reverse down the runway trick.

On one of just a handful of UK appearances in their 60th anniversary year, the Patrouille de France arrived to close the show on Saturday evening. For a start, they can always be relied upon to turn the A15 a funky shade of purple with thick dyed smoke and thankfully the wind took the stuff away from the crowd line. It doubtless goes without saying but their displays rarely seem to stray from near perfection and this year was no different. The 60th anniversary is not exactly as clear as it may seem at first as a team formed all the way back in 1931 on Morane-Saulnier MS 230s yet it wasn’t until 1953, whilst flying F-84G Thunderjets and displaying in Algiers, that the commentator, Jacques Noetinger, called them the Patrouille de France. So, as the PdF, they are 60 years old. As an aerobatic team, they’re 82 years old.

Food and drink was the usual air show fare, at usual air show prices so nothing out of the ordinary but a “healthy” burger meal at a slightly more upmarket burger van was stumbled upon. “Healthy” means that as long as you paid with pound coins you would be absolutely guaranteed to lose weight on each and every one. As near as makes little difference £12 for a burger, chips and drink. Yes, £12! Twelve pounds worth of burger and chips from any kind of fast food vendor should come in a wheelbarrow. Thankfully plenty of comparatively normally priced fast food outlets (not to mention the vitally important supply of drink to help deal with the oppressive heat) were available.
It’s fair to say that the air show team, whilst not quite outdoing 2012, got pretty close and can hold their heads up proudly with a job well done. With rumours floating about with regard to runway closures, let’s hope 2014 sees the air show team put together another great show.
The author would like to thank Flt Lt Odille Carpe, Lindsey Askin and 14 Squadron, without which this article wouldn't have been possible.