Leuchars marks RAF 90 in style
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.
There really is only one way in which we can begin this latest edition of our Airfix and Corgi Aerodrome blog and that is by wishing each and every one of our readers a happy VE Day 75th Anniversary. As Government officials drew up plans to replicate Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s declaration of a nationwide public holiday on 8th May 1945 to mark the end of fighting in Europe, they would have definitely had massed celebration in mind and nothing like what will actually be taking place today. Indeed, it could be argued that 8th May 2020 might be equally symbolic for Britain, as this date could potentially see a slight relaxing of the lockdown conditions imposed on the public, as the nation engaged in battle against an enemy of a different kind. We may not be able to look forward to street parties and community celebrations at this time, but as the country has been united in a common purpose reminiscent of the dark days of the Second World War, surely better days and belated celebrations are just around the corner.
Making our own Aerodrome blog tribute to the VE Day 75 commemorations, we will be delving back into our photographic archives for this auspicious occasion, in order to bring our readers something a little special. In the first of a two part feature, we have put together a review blog from the days when Airshows used to be Airshows and individual military bases had a little more latitude when planning their events – they also knew how to arrange something a little bit special for the enthusiast. Our destination for the next two blogs is RAF Leuchars in Bonnie Scotland and the occasion of their magnificent RAF 90th Anniversary Airshow held back in 2008. We will be taking our place amongst the lucky few who secured one of the highly limited ‘Enthusiasts Packages’ offered for the show, one of the most enjoyable occasions in that year’s Airshow calendar.
In this first instalment, we will be looking at the events which took place on arrivals and practice day and how base staff seemed hell bent on ensuring attendees would never forget their Leuchars 2008 experience. Strap yourselves in for an enjoyable few minutes of aviation indulgence, the like of which has unfortunately long since disappeared from the UK Airshow scene.
When Airshows used to be Airshows
The opportunity to get up close to aircraft in operation is one that the enthusiast holds dear and in this regard, the Leuchars Airshow 2008 Enthusiast Package did not disappoint
For those of us who have been well and truly savaged by the Airshow bug over the years, you will know exactly what I mean when I say that there is something really special about attending a good air display. Regardless of your age, if the sun is shining and there is the prospect of seeing some good flying action over the coming hours, it is quite possible to experience excitement levels similar to those we used to know as a child on Christmas Eve. Unfortunately, Mother Nature has proved to be particularly cruel to Airshow goers over the years and when poor weather is combined with the impact of ever tightening event regulations, changes which really do appear to target any activity people derive enjoyment from, most of us would also probably agree that our best Airshow days might well be behind us. Even if this does prove to be the case, at least we still have our memories and hopefully a fine collection of photographs to boot.
I am certain that many Aerodrome readers will still have extremely fond memories of attending the massive annual aviation events such as those held at Mildenhall and Finningley, not to mention the numerous station ‘Open Days’ and ‘Battle of Britain displays’ which were staged at airfields all over the country. Sadly, these events are now just a distant memory of the ‘good old days’, when Airshows attracted visitor numbers that most current shows can only dream of and the size of any event was only limited by the physical size of the airfield and the number of cars that could be crammed onto it. In those days, it was almost futile trying to secure a place on the crowd-line unless you were part of a group, as you would immediately lose your place when you needed your first comfort break, but despite this never-ending sea of humanity and the inability to take pictures without people in them, how I miss going to those magnificent events.
In the final few years of Tornado F.3 service, RAF Leuchars was one of the last havens for this very British jet interceptor
In recent memory, perhaps the Airshow which I remember as the last of the ‘good old days’ shows I was fortunate enough to attend before things definitely changed for the worse was the 2008 Leuchars Airshow, an event which saw me spending four enjoyable days in the Kingdom of Fife, filling my senses with all things aviation. This delightful little airfield is located on the picturesque east coast of Scotland, south of Dundee and close to the famous University town of St Andrews – this must have been quite a cosmopolitan posting for thousands of RAF personnel over the years.
The station itself can trace its heritage back to before the First World War, when the area was the sight of a balloon squadron training camp for the Royal Engineers and was following in later years by primitive aeroplanes using the gentle sands at St Andrews for their flight operations. In more recent times, Leuchars became familiar to most people as one of Britain’s most active fighter stations, with such iconic jet aircraft as Hunters, Javelins, Lightnings, Phantoms, Tornados and finally Eurofighter Typhoons all gracing the tarmac runway at the airfield over the years. Indeed, the station’s location was ideally suited to providing Britain’s northern Quick Reaction Alert air defence support against unwanted Soviet air incursions for many years, with Leuchars jets mounting wide ranging patrols out over the North Sea, or scrambling fighters to investigate detected encroaching aircraft.
A day for the true Aviologist
For the enthusiast, the opportunity to spend some time with your camera on an operational air base is one not to be missed, especially as things tend to change rather quickly in the world of aviation
For this 2008 event, I would only be making my third visit to the airfield, although this time, things were going to be completely different to my previous two trips. On both of my earlier visits to Leuchars, I had travelled the 300 miles from my home in the North West of England through the night, grabbing a few hours sleep en route, with the aim of ensuring I was one of the first cars in the queue for entrance to the airfield in the morning – how we enthusiasts have to suffer for our art! On both of these previous occasions, the irresistible aviation lure was definitely the RAF Phantom squadrons based at Leuchars and the opportunity to take one last look at these magnificent aircraft during the final few months of Spey engined F-4 operations in the UK.
My third visit to this beautiful part of Scotland would be something special and there would be none of the hard slog of driving through the night and grabbing a few minutes shuteye crunched up in a layby at the side of a forest road this time – this time, I would be doing things in style. Spending four days almost in sight of the airfield, I had booked into a nearby static caravan site, where not only did I have a comfortable base for the coming few days, but I also had the opportunity to sample the local hospitality in the site clubhouse, something which genuinely proved just as memorable as the Airshow. Significantly, my ‘Special’ ticket meant I would be spending two full days at RAF Leuchars, Airshow day itself and arrivals/practice the previous day. Everything appeared to be set up perfectly, what could possibly go wrong?
The reason I was so confident that this was going to be such a memorable third visit to Leuchars was the fact that I had managed to secure one of the highly limited and much sought after ‘Enthusiast Package’ tickets for the event. Something the Airshow team had been offering the enthusiast for some time, taking your place amongst this fortunate gathering more or less guaranteed the ticket holder a unique aviation experience and were therefore extremely difficult to come by. Having failed to secure a ticket on several previous occasions, a gap year for the show in 2007 to allow runway resurfacing work to take place, encouraged me to try again and this time I was successful. At last, I was going to find out what all the Leuchars Airshow ‘Enthusiast Package’ fuss was all about.
The excitement of a day spent with aeroplanes and aeroplane people means that getting out of bed early is never a problem and even before first light, the car was packed and I was off on my short transit to the airfield. Once the obligatory security checks had been completed and attendees had been parked ‘on base’, our muster point was to be the old Lightning ‘Q shed’ at the very western end of the airfield, where we were to receive a comprehensive safety briefing and guidance on what we could look forward to over the next two days. The briefing ended with the arrival of more bacon rolls than I had ever seen in my life and a veritable army of service personnel all dedicated to ensuring our enjoyment of what was clearly a very well organised operation. Did I forget to mention that the ticket price also included a sit-down lunch in an impressive marquee on both days, in addition to refreshments and snacks being available at all times – now this is what I call doing an Airshow in style. At the end of the day though, the only thing that really mattered was the aircraft action.
Once released from the briefing and fortified with breakfast, we were free to set up our position for the day within a fenced area of grass at the western end of the runway, with aircraft movements occurring right in front of us. The landing direction of aircraft would obviously be dependent on the prevailing wind, but certainly at that time in the morning, it appeared as if the aircraft would be landing towards us and either passing to our left to take a slot on the display aircraft hardstanding, or if it was one of the operational home based Tornado F.3 fighters (which were still providing QRA cover), turning in the opposite direction off the runway and heading towards the HAS area to the south of the airfield. Even before we had seen the first aircraft movement of the day take place, the real benefit of the ‘Enthusiast Package’ had revealed itself – we could be taken to other appealing locations around the airfield.
Left in the company of aeroplanes
During the morning briefing, it was confirmed that whilst adhering to airfield safety procedures at all times and with a number of exceptions, attendees could request to be transported to other locations around the airfield and within reason, all requests would be considered. This also included the possibility of visiting the HAS complex on the southside of the airfield and even a designated area at the side of the runway, from where we could photograph aircraft landings and practice displays. Fellow enthusiasts who were obviously Leuchars ‘package’ regulars looked at each other and smiled knowingly and whilst I was still sorting myself out and getting my camera gear together, they had already formed several long queues for the shuttle vehicles which had started to arrive. With lots of people to transport and only a handful of Ford Galaxy sized vehicles available, we were clearly in for quite a wait.
Of all the appealing options available to us, the one I was most keen to experience was the area of grass on the southside of runway 26 threshold, an area which offered unprecedented access to landing and taxying aircraft and was surely a vantage point from where I could take some memorable pictures. Unfortunately, time spent at any one of the wider airfield locations was restricted and you therefore had to choose your timings wisely – there would be no point being in a choice spot if no aircraft movements were taking place at that time.
Driven to our location in small groups, we had to travel light, with just our jackets and small camera bags able to fit in the car and clutching a high visibility jacket which had to be worn at all times. With our designated area clearly marked out, we were told in no uncertain terms that if anyone strayed from this area, all groups would immediately be returned to main enthusiast reception, with the culprit running the risk of having his ticket revoked and being escorted off the airfield. Obviously, there was absolutely no chance of that happening, as tripod’s would have been used as a lethal weapon if anyone had even thought about it!
You can almost smell the burnt jet fuel in this image. For a few precious minutes, we were allowed to take up a position right at the end of the runway on Friday arrivals day at the 2008 Leuchars Airshow
With position secured, camera in hand and the sound of jet engines in the distance, everything was set for the perfect few hours spent in the company of aeroplanes, one of the most enjoyable pleasures in life. There was just one problem – where was the sun? The day had been forecast fine, however, things were looking decidedly grey and there was the distinct threat of a shower or two in the air – surely Mother Nature would not be cruel enough to intervene at this late stage.
With the fact that aircraft were landing in both directions only serving to highlight the changeable nature of the conditions, the action immediately started to heat up and it was not long before we realised just how good a position we had been afforded. If the aircraft approached our 26 end from the direction of the North Sea, we had the benefit of them landing right in front of us, but if they landed from the opposite direction, they ran the length of the runway and accessed the taxiway which was again right in front of us. This was in some ways preferable for us, as the aircraft were passing just feet away from our position and we were able to show our appreciation to pilots who appeared to be enjoying the interaction. Indeed, the fact that we were there appeared to please some pilots so much that they came down to give us closer inspection.
The theme for this magnificent event was the 90th Anniversary of the establishment of the Royal Air Force and in fine Leuchars Airshow tradition, the organisers had pulled out all the stops to ensure an impressive selection of aircraft were in attendance for the show, both in the static display and in the flying programme itself. As the most northerly of the RAF’s Airshow venues, Leuchars always attracts large crowds from the surrounding areas, in addition to thousands of hardened enthusiasts who travel much greater distances to be part of this magnificent event. With many international participants taking part, this was going to be a cosmopolitan aviation affair and a definite highlight of the 2008 Airshow season. Let’s take a closer look at some of the aircraft arrivals which took place during ‘Enthusiast Friday’.
The Germans are coming!
There is nothing quite like the approach of a McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom to focus the mind and with a plume of black smoke heralding its arrival, could there possibly be a finer way to start any event. Approaching the airfield from the North Sea and coming in over the River Eden, the Phantom could never be described as being a stealthy aeroplane, with the smoke generating General Electric J79 turbojet engines giving its position away well before the aircraft itself is in sight. The attendance of this quite magnificent Jagdgeschwader 71 ‘Richthofen’ F-4F was almost worth the ticket price alone and with Leuchars having strong links to the Phantom in British service, this stunning aeroplane was always going to be something of a crowd-puller.
Sadly only destined for the show’s static display, the Phantom was joined by a Luftwaffe Tornado ECR enemy air defence suppression fighter bomber from JaBoG 32 ‘The Flying Monsters’ from Lechfeld and even though both aircraft were presented in standard air superiority grey schemes, they were still incredibly welcome additions to the show’s static aircraft display.
Fighting Falcon ‘Buzz Job’
It is remarkable to think that had this year’s Airshow season taken place, it would have been able to mark an impressive 42 years of service for the General Dynamics F-16 Fighting Falcon, one of the most important post war jet aircraft to be produced in the West. Designed in the aftermath of the Vietnam War and the need to equip the USAF with a dominant air superiority fighter, the General Dynamics F-16 Fighting Falcon was the first aircraft intentionally designed to be aerodynamically unstable, making this an extremely manoeuvrable aircraft, but one relying heavily on computer controlled fly-by-wire technology. Introduced in 1978, the F-16 is still in service today with several of the world’s air arms and has become the most heavily produced modern Western jet fighter in history, serving not only in the US Air Force, but also with 25 overseas nations.
Europe has been a loyal operator of the F-16 over the years and Leuchars was to benefit from the attendance of several different examples throughout Friday’s arrivals and practice day, including a rather colourful 65th Anniversary ‘Special Tail’ machine representing the Leeuwarden based No.322 Squadron ‘Polly Parrot’ of the RNLAF. Indeed, we were to get rather an intimate experience with the Fighting Falcon on the day, with aircraft both on the ground and in the air. Obviously aware of the enthusiast group’s presence, the Dutch F-16 demo pilot seemed to be using our position as one of his display datums during his practice, making sure he grabbed our attention in spectacular fashion. Both Dutch and Belgian Air Force Fighting Falcons were in attendance at the show that year.
Happy Birthday Royal Air Force
As the final RAF Airshow in this 90th Anniversary year for the force, it was obvious that the current Royal Air Force was going to have an extremely strong presence at the show, with the home based Tornado F.3 fighter squadrons playing a central role. Aircraft from No.111 and 43 Squadrons were clearly going to be putting on a strong showing over the next couple of days, as they displayed the air defence variant of this variable geometry wing fighter aircraft. They would also be ably assisted by units from other RAF stations presenting examples of the more numerous strike variant of the Tornado, which included one particular No.9 Squadron Tornado crew who found the opportunity to send a group of ‘spotters’ diving for cover just too tempting as they arrived in the circuit - they certainly gave us a fantastic view of the underside of their speeding aircraft.
Representing the future of the RAF’s fighter force and the aircraft which was scheduled to replace all remaining Tornado F.3 fighters over the next few years, the Eurofighter Typhoon display over show weekend was to be performed by a two seat T.1 training variant of the aircraft, one which had arrived from No.29(R) Squadron at Coningsby. Unfortunately, despite the significance of the anniversary at hand, the special markings applied to the aircraft turned out to be not that special and could be described as uninspiring at best. The same word could not be used to describe the aircraft’s impressive practice display, especially the part when it had us all considering diving for cover during one particularly spirited low pass. As a mark of respect, the pilot did have the decency to drop by our end of the runway at the end of his display, just to see if any of our number had been shaken up during our little game of chicken, but all he got was an enthusiastic thumbs up from each and every one of us.
An aviation selection of the rest
Somehow, it doesn’t seem quite right to start this section by featuring arguably the most popular individual aircraft to have ever appeared on the UK Airshow scene, but I suppose that just illustrates the embarrassment of aviation riches that were in evidence at the 2008 Leuchars Airshow. Avro Vulcan B.2 XH558 had only returned to the air less than 12 months before the 2008 show and its attendance was clearly going to be one of the major attractions at Leuchars, even though poor weather on Saturday would see her display slot suffer several delays, in the hope of better conditions later in the day. Unfortunately, this did not prove to be the case and her display was eventually cancelled, but thankfully, at least the enthusiast day ticket holders had the opportunity to document her historic return to Scotland and the first time she landed at Leuchars following her triumphant return to flight.
Other noteworthy aircraft spotted arriving for Leuchars Airshow 2008 were this beautifully presented Antonov An-26 transport aircraft of the Czech Air Force, classic British aviation style in the form of this Hawker Hunter F.58 wearing Patrouille Suisse markings and a stunning Spitfire Mk FR.XVIIIe, which represented arguably Britain’s most famous aircraft type. This aircraft is still a regular performer on the UK Airshow scene, but now wears a very different and rather striking all-over silver scheme.
A short HAS diversion
In what appeared to be no more than the blink of an eye, our time next to the runway at Leuchars was over and even though we tried our best to ignore them, our RAF chaperones soon had us gathering our belongings and returning back to the waiting vehicles. As the engine started, one of the wags in our group said half in jest, ‘Any chance of a quick trip around the HAS site?’ and to our delight, the answer came ‘Don’t tell anyone’. In what proved to be a real unexpected bonus, we were allowed to grab a few pictures of No.111 Squadron’s gate guardian Lightning F.3 XR713 outside the unit’s offices (this aircraft is now in the care of the Lightning Preservation Group at Bruntingthorpe), in addition to a few more contemporary RAF aircraft types.
In a mad few minutes, we were allowed to photograph Panavia Tornado F.3 ZE887 in one of the No.43 Squadron hardened aircraft shelters, as well as the No.9 Squadron Tornado GR4 which had presented itself for low level inspection earlier in the day. All in all and despite the indifferent weather, this turned out to be a thoroughly enjoyable day out in Scotland.
Clearly, having enjoyed an aviation experience like this once, I was desperately keen to ensure my place on the Enthusiasts Package was secured for subsequent years and whilst I was fortunate enough to go back to Leuchars in the same capacity several times in future years, things were never quite as good as they were on that first extremely memorable occasion. Ever changing event regulations meant that 2008 would be the only year that I was ever able to sample the delights of a southside trip across the Leuchars main runway, but despite having my wings clipped in that respect, Leuchars Airshow was always my highlight event of the year.
In the next edition of Aerodrome, we take our position in the enthusiasts enclosure on show day itself, where we see what Leuchars 2008 had in store for the huge crowds that turned up, as well as enjoying a pleasant evening stroll amongst the aircraft arranged in the impressive static display. Just to let you know, famous Leuchars Phantom ‘Black Mike’ will be putting in an appearance!
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 22nd May, where we look forward to bringing you even more interesting aviation related features.
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