Leuchars Airshow 2008 revisited
Welcome to this latest edition of Aerodrome and our regular look at the fascinating world of aeroplanes and the historic aviation scene in the UK.
The weekend just past should have seen thousands of enthusiasts heading for the IWM airfield site at Duxford to attend what for many is the traditional Airshow curtain raiser of the year, their May Air Festival. Aviation enthusiasts now know that the 2020 season is going to be completely different to anything we have ever experienced before, with all of the first three months of the season already falling victim to the current national emergency and later events sill under a significant cloud of uncertainty. Indeed, as if to further increase our lack of Airshow torment, even the weather would have been fine for the show – well it would, wouldn’t it!
On occasions such as this, Aerodrome readers have become accustomed to rallying together and looking back at previous shows we have attended, just so we can blow away those lack of Airshow blues. As we informed everyone of our intensions for this latest blog in the previous edition of Aerodrome, it will come as absolutely no surprise that our destination for the second successive blog is RAF Leuchars on the occasion of their 2008 (RAF 90th Anniversary) Airshow. This time, we are going to be looking at the air display itself, but as this did not go entirely to plan, we will be including a couple of the practice displays performed on arrivals day, as well as taking a stroll around the impressive static aircraft park. We can promise an interesting selection of aircraft types, including several which are now no longer in service, so without further ado, let's head off to Fife for pipes, drums and lots of jet engines.
The best laid plans of an Airshow committee
I don’t think that any self-respecting Airshow enthusiast would imagine for one minute that planning events such as these is a simple affair, something that can be knocked together in just a couple of days with a bit of hard graft and a little experience. With the ever increasing impact of rigorous event regulation adding to an already challenging ‘to do list’, there is also the matter of one significant variable that no event committee could ever hope to influence, no matter how effective their event planning credentials – the weather. Despite the fact that due to meticulous planning and months of concerted effort everything may have fallen nicely into place and on the eve of the event, all booked aircraft are available for a spectacular days flying, the weather will often try its level best to wreak havoc with those plans.
Unfortunately, those of us who call ourselves Airshow regulars will have no doubt had plenty of previous experience of attending shows where the weather played a bigger role than any display aircraft could ever hope to do and I am afraid to say that this certainly proved to be the case at RAF Leuchars for their 2008 event. Despite the fact that I had managed to engineer one of the best seats in the house and everything was in place for something of an Airshow classic from an aircraft attendance perspective, running a safe event always has to be the priority and if the weather is too poor, I’m afraid aircraft have to stay on the ground.
For those of us lucky enough to have secured one of the places on the Enthusiasts Package and attended the Friday arrivals and practice day, there could hardly have been a more dramatic contrast in weather conditions. Even though the weather wasn’t exactly spectacular the day prior to the show, the sun did put in regular appearances throughout the day, making it really quite enjoyable, however, the same could not be said of show day – it was truly abysmal. Slate grey skies, extremely low cloud base and regular rain showers proved to be the order of the day, conditions guaranteed to have show organisers with head in hands, lamenting their poor fortune.
The weather proved to be so poor on Saturday that we will be starting this latest review by revisiting some of the Friday arrival highlights, not least because the pictures are a little more appealing. You will still be getting a different perspective on the day, as the images were all taken from the exclusive enthusiasts area at the very western (Guardbridge) end of the runway, adjacent to the display aircraft parking area. Separated from the rest of the crowdline, this area allowed us all an excellent vantage point from which to watch proceedings, but as far as Airshow day was concerned, not even the latest digital cameras and a good spot can make a silk purse out of a poor weather sow’s ear!
Changing of the Guard. The Typhoon was already scheduled to be taking over RAF Leuchars QRA duties from the Tornado F.3 in just a few short years and this example was photographed in front of one of the base’s hangar doors which was definitely in need of a lick of paint
We begin this second review in earnest by looking at the aircraft which was undoubtedly the headline attraction at this RAF 90th Anniversary Airshow, a huge and distinctive Cold War bomber which had only returned to airworthy condition late the previous way – Avro Vulcan B.2 XH558. Scheduled to be the first time a Vulcan had displayed at Leuchars for sixteen years, this was the first display season the aircraft had been operated outside of Royal Air Force control by the ‘Vulcan to the Sky’ trust and as such, the Scottish public had turned up in their droves to witness the spectacle.
The Vulcan flew in during the early afternoon on Friday and as this would clearly be a significant occasion for the entire VTS team, there was quite an official welcoming committee awaiting the aircraft’s historic arrival. Luckily for enthusiasts in our dedicated area, the Vulcan taxied up to our end of the airfield and was parked right in front of us. It was quite humbling to be so close to the celebrations which greeted her arrival, as the ground crew excitedly went about their business of checking the aircraft, before taking the opportunity for some official ‘team arrival’ photographs just for the record. Her attendance at Scotland’s largest annual Airshow was as memorable for the team as it was for the public and the significance of the occasion was certainly not lost on us.
Once the aircraft had been prepared for her overnight stay and the crew whisked off to attend the first of what must have been many official engagements, the Vulcan was towed across the runway and to the far side of the airfield, occupying a position on one of the cross taxiways, a position it would maintain until early on show day itself.
As the undoubted star of the show, many people will have purchased tickets for the show specifically to catch a glimpse of the Vulcan, the first time it had performed at a Leuchars show for 16 years. It was also a significant occasion for members of the Vulcan to the Sky team
Despite the best efforts of the ground crew in preparing their beloved aircraft, the weather would prove to be so poor on Saturday that it would preclude the Vulcan from taking part in the flying display, despite her star billing and the huge expectations of the crowd. Desperate not to send the crowds home completely disappointed, the crew did take the Vulcan up and down the length of the runway, including one particularly spirited run where the aircraft’s nose wheel left the runway, but unfortunately, that was it. Although this was clearly a huge disappointment for everyone on the airfield, the Vulcan team did their level best to give everyone a look at their famous aeroplane, even if it was on the ground.
One aircraft type which was very well represented at Leuchars was the RAF’s main advanced training jet at that time and one which is now approaching 45 years in service, the British Aerospace Hawk. With examples in both the static display and the flying display, the first Hawks the crowd got to see in the air during show day itself were the aircraft operated by a perennial Airshow favourite and some of the most famous display aircraft in the world, the 10 Hawks (one spare) of the Red Arrows. Their arrival coincided with yet another heavy rain shower and as they backtracked up the runway, everyone wondered if we would have the chance to see them display during the afternoon’s entertainment. As they were unusually parked parallel to the crowdline at the far end of the runway, affording everyone at that end of the airfield a fantastic view, thousands of people would later watch with some fascination as the ‘Blues’ prepared the aircraft for display and the arrival their pilots, all underneath angry skies.
Airshow regulars will know only too well that it takes more than a bit of bad weather to stop the Red Arrows from thrilling the crowds, but Leuchars 2008 must have been some of the worst conditions they had faced that year. Whilst these intrepid aviators did manage to take to the air during the afternoon, the conditions had closed in once more and the team were forced to perform their flattest of flat displays, only managing a handful of passes before finally admitting defeat. This was all after one particularly reluctant Hawk decided to inform the attendant ‘Blues’ that it was very much a fair weather display aircraft and had no intention of taking off in such filthy conditions – it went on to suffer the public ignominy of being manhandled from the crowdline right in front of thousands of damp and disappointed spectators.
Hawks on parade. No UK Airshow is complete without an appearance from the Red Arrows, especially when everyone knows they will attempt to display in all but the most inclement of conditions. They were joined by a fine selection of other Hawks representing the RAF in this 90th Anniversary year
Other Hawks spotted at Leuchars over the weekend were XX325, that year’s RAF Display aircraft from No.208 Squadron at RAF Valley, wearing striking RAF 90th Anniversary markings (this aircraft would later be one used by the Red Arrows) and XX285, which was resplendent in No.100 Squadron 90th Anniversary markings. The static aircraft park also included an aircraft which proved incredibly popular at this time, Hawk T.1 XX184 which was painted in a stunning representation of a 1938 Spitfire scheme. Representing No.19 Squadron, again from RAF Valley, this squadron had the honour of being the first to be equipped with the Spitfire in 1938 and to mark this association with Britain’s most famous fighter, the paint shop at Valley made this rather distinctive tribute. For many, this is still fondly remembered as one of the most attractive scheme ever to appear on an RAF Hawk.
Here is a final selection of images taken at Leuchars during their 2008 show, some from arrivals on Friday and some during the miserable conditions during the show itself. The dark skies did make for some fine afterburner pictures!
A meander amongst the static display aircraft
Again including images which were taken at the end of arrivals day, in addition to one or two taken during show day itself, this next selection feature some of the aircraft secured to star in what was a really quite impressive static display and included aircraft from the RAF, Royal Navy and Army Air Corps, as well as representatives from European air arms and the US Air Force. There was a strong showing from the home based Tornado F.3 Squadrons, which included an attractively arranged display featuring a trio of aircraft of Nos 43, 56 and 111 Squadrons, two of which benefitted from spectacular special tail artwork.
Over the years, there has been one aircraft which received more enthusiast attention at RAF Leuchars shows than any other, one which has become synonymous with the operation of this particular aircraft type from this famous Northern QRA station. McDonnell Douglas Phantom FG.1 XV582 ‘Black Mike’ is regarded as one of the most distinctive RAF jets of the post war years and one which could always be relied upon to command a healthy crowd of admirers during Airshow day. Phantom XV582 made its first flight in early 1969 and was delivered to the Royal Air Force in May of the same year. In a service career which would span almost 23 years, XV582 spent time in the colours of Nos 43 and 111 fighter Squadron’s, as well as with No.228 OCU – indeed, the aircraft would earn the notoriety of being the only FG.1 variant to serve with an Operational Conversion Unit and the first airframe to exceed 5000 flying hours.
Phantom ‘Black Mike’ preparing to meet her adoring public and a couple of shots of her at the end of the show during knockdown
An aircraft which regularly appeared to be in the aviation headlines, XV582 was also used in the record breaking ‘Lands’ End to John O’Groats Run’ on 1st April 1988, when the aircraft covered the 590 mile distance in just 46 minutes and 44 seconds, posting an impressive average speed of over 757 mph. The fateful decision which ensured McDonnell Douglas Phantom FG.1 XV582 would go on to become one of the most famous jet powered aircraft to see RAF service occurred in the late 1980s, when she was selected as the aviation canvas for a striking squadron commemoration for the Leuchars based No.111 ‘Treble One’ Squadron. Intended as a high-profile static tribute to the illustrious history of this famous Royal Air Force Squadron and specifically to mark the period when the squadron operated large formations of both Hawker Hunters (The Black Arrows) and later, English Electric Lightnings during Britain’s classic jet era, XV582 was given a striking gloss black paint scheme and further embellished with the famous yellow squadron markings of No.111 Sqn. ‘The Tremblers’.
Historically, this airframe was selected for this role at random and specifically because its extensive service life determined that she had been categorised as a limited fatigue life remaining Phantom, with the original intention being that this striking tribute would only be a short-term arrangement for the squadron’s commemorative event. Despite this, it is not difficult to see how the sight of this beautifully presented black Phantom was to be the cause of so much interest, not only amongst aviation enthusiasts, but also amongst serving RAF personnel. McDonnell Douglas Phantom FG.1 XV582 was now not only one of the most distinctive individual aircraft ever to see RAF service, but one everybody with the opportunity to do so wanted to fly.
Her new found popularity dictated that although initially only intended for static display duties, the aircraft would continue to be flown for a time, resplendent in this beautiful scheme, not only serving to mark the history of its parent squadron, but also the service career of the British Phantom force. As the aircraft retained its ‘M for Mike’ code, it was not long before she attracted the rather predictable ‘Black Mike’ tag, a name which immediately identifies this aircraft and one which marks XV582 as arguably the most famous of Britain’s Phantoms. Indeed, even in retirement, ‘Black Mike’ has continued to be considered something of a British aviation icon, the star of many an Airshow static display, in addition to several specially arranged photo shoot events, even if these are now far away from her former Leuchars home.
Here is a further selection of images featuring aircraft which took their place in the impressive static display, including several we saw arriving at the airfield in our previous review and some of the popular international attendees.
One of the memorable features of a Leuchars Airshow and one which has to be placed firmly in the ‘Once experienced, never forgotten’ category is the way the station brings their fantastic shows to a close – their ‘Sunset Ceremony’. With officials and local dignitaries all gathered at the western end of the airfield, in the vicinity of the old control tower, the haunting lament of a lone piper drifts across the airfield and is a distinctly Scottish and rather emotive way to end an Airshow, one which has a real charm all of its own. As the bagpipes fell silent, the sound was replaced by the music of a different kind, that of a Rolls Royce Griffon engine, as Supermarine Spitfire SM845 FR.XVIIIe was handed the honour of performing this traditional display.
In this 90th Anniversary year of the Royal Air Force, it seemed somehow fitting that an example of Britain’s most famous fighting aeroplane should fill this important display slot, even though the weather continued to prove to be absolutely no respecter of genuine aviation pedigree. Despite the best efforts of experienced display pilot Rod Dean, the display appeared to be one of many to fall victim to the challenging flying conditions and after just a couple of passes, the Spitfire was brought in for a rather steeply approached landing, as he was clearly keen to get his historic aviation charge back safely on the ground and back to its parking spot.
With the Spitfire back on the ground, it was time for the show finale and an aircraft which had been loitering ominously at the end of the runway throughout the Spitfire’s display, one which was very much from the ‘home team’. The last display of this weather affected day was performed by Panavia Tornado F.3 ZE969/FH representing No.III Squadron and ably illustrating why this was still such a potent long range interceptor at that time. Once again, even though the Tornado attempted to treat the now thinning crowd to a full display, much of it would be performed in the low cloud which really did appear to stretch down to the runway itself. With the aircraft painted in a scheme which almost perfectly mirrored that of the sky in which it was displaying, it was even difficult spotting the aircraft as it approached the airfield for its landing and the realisation that the show was finally over for another year. Allowing everyone the opportunity to head back to their cars and put the heater on, I am certain that many will have sought the comfort of a wee dram or two to blow away the memories of another Airshow almost ruined by the great British weather – it was something of an ordeal.
There is no doubt that Leuchars Airshow 2008 was an event of mixed emotions for me personally. The excitement of finally securing one of the elusive and highly limited Enthusiast Package tickets and a spectacular arrivals day was in direct contrast to the almost total washout of Airshow day itself. As we all made our way back home, or to our temporary accommodation for the night, we would all have been left lamenting what might have been, but for many, there would be one overriding sentiment – we would all be back next year hoping for better weather. For me, I still had my favourite UK Airshow venue and a bit of rain was never going to change that!
I am afraid that is all we have for you in this latest edition of Aerodrome, but we will be back as usual in two weeks’ time with more aviation related content for your enjoyment. If you would like to send us a selection of your own pictures, or suggest an aviation related subject you would like to see covered in a future edition, please use our email@example.com address, where we will be delighted to hear from you.
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The next edition of Aerodrome is due to be published on Friday 5th June, where we look forward to bringing you even more interesting aviation related features.
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