Valley of aviation delights
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.
Even though we are now entering the final few weeks of the 2019 Airshow season, we are going to be taking a little break from this year’s aviation action in this latest blog, so that we can take a slightly more nostalgic look at air power of the Royal Air Force. In this latest edition of Aerodrome, we are heading back to a specially arranged enthusiast event which only took place in 2007 and interestingly, we will see how many of the aircraft taking part back then have now either been withdrawn from service, or are in the twilight of their service careers. Featuring some true RAF aviation classics, we have magnificent aeroplanes and anniversary schemes galore, as we head for the beautiful Isle of Anglesey and a review the Valley Aviation Society Photocall from 2007.
Before we get started, as we only have a few weeks of the current Airshow season remaining and many of us will be cataloguing and backing up our photographs over the coming winter months, could I please ask readers if they would be good enough to send us a small selection of the images from this year’s events that you are most pleased with, as we intend to produce a readers pictures review of the 2019 Airshow season to coincide with the end of British summer time. I would be grateful if you would send your images to our usual email@example.com e-mail address please.
Aviation nostalgia at RAF Valley
The former Hunter gate guardian looks over the airfield at RAF Valley and out to the Cymyran Bay
As one of the busiest RAF stations in the country, any visit to Royal Air Force Valley will usually allow visitors to see plenty of flying activity, from either the home based training squadrons, or any number of aircraft routing through the area. Indeed, one of the real joys for aviation enthusiasts is turning up at Valley on a fine weather day and simply enjoying whatever aviation action comes your way. Situated on the west coast of the beautiful Isle of Anglesey, RAF Valley has long been associated with the training of military pilots, but was originally constructed during the early months of the Second World War to serve as a fighter station, covering the industrial North West of England and the shipping lanes of the Irish Sea.
The first aircraft residents were Hawker Hurricanes and Bristol Beaufighters, however, it would not be long before this corner of Wales became a haven for the US Army Air Force. RAF Valley was selected as an air ferry terminal for the USAAF and would soon witness the arrival of hundreds of US bombers destined for the air battles in the European Theatre of Operations, as well as acting as a relief landing airfield for combat damaged aircraft and those suffering technical issues. At the end of the war in Europe, this vital role was reversed and more than 2,600 bombers and over 60,000 air and ground crews passed through Valley, as they made their journey back to the US and potential redeployment to operations in the Pacific.
The 1950s was a time of significant redevelopment at RAF Valley, as infrastructure and facilities were upgraded for an important new role for the airfield, that of a pilot training station. Over the years, the name RAF Valley would become synonymous with the training of future RAF and Royal Navy fast jet pilots and the skies above Anglesey would resonate to the sound of the jet engines of such classic British aircraft as Vampires, Meteors, Hunters, Gnats and since 1976, the British Aerospace Hawk. Valley would also be an important centre for helicopter training, especially the important Search and Rescue role, where the yellow Whirlwind, Wessex and Sea King helicopters of the RAF would become some of the highest profile military aircraft in the UK. Unfortunately, this force was disbanded in late 2015, as the RAF and Royal Navy finally relinquished this responsibility after providing over 50 years of exceptional service.
Today, RAF Valley remains one of the most active military airfields in the country and is still home to No.4 Flying Training school, engaged in the training of the next generation of fighter pilots. Retaining its link with helicopter training, the airfield is also home to No.202 Squadron, which is part of the Defence Helicopter Flying School and engaged in preparing RAF and Royal Navy pilots for their careers flying rotary aircraft operationally.
Back in 2007, the Hawks of No.208 Squadron were a regular sight in the skies around RAF Valley
The Valley Aviation Society was formed by a group of like-minded enthusiasts in 1993 and whilst they all lived in the vicinity of RAF Valley, they wanted to form a group to discuss all aviation related matters within the regions of Wales and North West England. As membership grew steadily, so did their ambitions and whilst they will always be closely associated with RAF Valley, they now cover all aviation related subject matter and cater for all interests. The close ties the Society have forged with RAF Valley over the years put them in the rather unique position of being allowed to organise a number of charity photocall events at the airfield, with both station charities and local good causes benefitting from funds raised by these popular events. The opportunity to visit an operational RAF airfield during a normal day’s flying activities was clearly of huge interest to aviation enthusiasts and was certainly the reason why I decided to join the Society many years ago. Since joining, I have been fortunate enough to attend several fantastic ‘on-base’ events at RAF Valley, which have always been exceptionally well organised, very well attended and offered plenty of unusual aviation related photographic opportunities – indeed, I would have to say that this particular part of North Wales has to be one of my favourite locations in the UK.
The 2007 Valley Aviation Society Photocall event
It was with great excitement during the early summer of 2007, that Society members received notification that the Station Commander at RAF Valley had given permission for Valley Aviation Society to hold a Photocall Day on the airfield on 16th August that year and knowing that the limited places would be in great demand, everyone rushed to send in their attendance application. The attraction of an event such as this is that attendees are allowed on to a working RAF base during a normal day’s flying activities and able to take up a position which would not usually be accessible to members of the public. With the added attraction of being able to photograph the day’s proceedings and the home based pilots being aware that they had a large, enthusiast audience who were enthralled by their every move, the scene was set for an extremely memorable occasion.
As we were going to be allowed on an active military airfield, security checks were essential, particularly as we were being allowed to position ourselves on the 19 Squadron ramp, on the far western (coastal) edge of the airfield and extremely close to where all the potential flying activities were going to be taking place. As well as all the home based aircraft being informed of the occasion, the Society sent out notifications to other RAF squadrons, requesting that they consider a visit to Valley on the day, either to take part in the static aircraft line-up, or to fly through the airfield for the benefit of the gathered enthusiasts. Their polite foresight would result in an extremely memorable day and one which would see the attendance of a large number of RAF aircraft which were in service on that date, a number of which no longer grace our skies and have passed into the pages of the aviation history books.
Let’s take a closer look at the 2007 Valley Photocall and some of the aviation attendees which graced the event.
There is no doubt that 2019 will be remembered as the year in which one of the RAF’s most effective strike jets was finally withdrawn from service, however, back in 2007, the Panavia Tornado was still very much a front-line aircraft and would play a significant role in the day’s proceedings. The most attractively presented machine was definitely No.13 Squadron’s 90th Anniversary jet ZA401, looking resplendent with its colourful tail and as this aircraft was colloquially known as the ‘Mighty Fin’, they would have needed quite a bit of paint in producing this tribute. At the opposite end of the presentation scale, XV Squadron’s GR4 ZD743 is delightfully dirty and represents a fine example of this RAF strike workhorse, an aircraft which saw almost 40 years of front-line service with the Royal Air Force.
Although this year has been all about the sad withdrawal of the Tornado GR4 from RAF service, back in 2007, the Royal Air Force could still boast two variants of this magnificent aircraft in service and the sight of this F.3 air defence variant reminds us all just how elegant the fighter version of the Tornado was. Although No.25 Squadron’s ZE168/FA did not land to take its place in the static display, it performed a single high angle of attack flypast, to the delight of the gathered masses.
As far as the aviation enthusiast is concerned, what arrives for the static display has to leave at the end of the day and offers another fantastic opportunity to grab a few more memorable photographs of the occasion. Especially in this final year of RAF Tornado service, pictures featuring aircraft wearing special anniversary schemes will be particularly cherished in future years and this scheme is one of the most striking. An image which is a fine record of this occasion and one which includes two aircraft which will never be seen together again at RAF Valley, this XV Squadron GR4 is seen blasting off over a 208 Squadron Hawk, with the mountains of the Snowdonia National Park in the background – what could be finer?
As this event was taking place at an operational base and the daily routine of flying training was in full swing, the home team were very much in evidence during the day, with both fixed wing and rotary aircraft taking to the skies. The most numerous aircraft at Valley is the British Aerospace Hawk and in 2007, the T.1 variants were wearing the colours of No.19 and No.208 Squadrons – whilst there was just a solitary Valley based Hawk in the static aircraft display, numerous examples could be seen either setting off on a training sortie, returning from one, or engaging in aborted landing training. It is fair to say that the air was full of Hawks for the duration of the Photocall. Without doubt, the most photogenic Hawk in the static display was XX285 from No.100 Squadron, which looked spectacular in its distinctive 90th Anniversary scheme – it was a good year for RAF squadron anniversaries. As these earlier Hawks are now slowly being withdrawn from Royal Air Force service, the highest concentration of these aircraft at any event is now usually during a Red Arrows display, as the T.1 is still the mount of the world’s most famous aerobatic display team.
The ‘Home Team’ at RAF Valley back in 2007 could also boast several helicopter types, all of which have now been withdrawn from service, as RAF rotary air power has gone through a significant period of change over the past few years. The Defence Helicopter Flying School were operating both the Griffin HT.Mk.1 and the Squirrel HT.1, however, by far the most famous helicopters on view were the magnificent Sea King HAR.3 aircraft of No.22 Squadron. These distinctive aircraft formed the backbone of Britain’s Search and Rescue force for many years and as such, were viewed with great affection by the general public and seen as something as aviation ‘angels on our shoulders’. Unfortunately, it would not be too long before I was back at Valley to witness the distressing sight of Sea Kings being transported away from the base by road, as the RAF were forced to relinquish their Search and Rescue responsibilities.
Even though you would not really describe either a Hawk or a Tornado as a small aeroplane, some of the aircraft attending this specially arranged event really did put them in the shade and represented some of the largest aircraft in RAF service at that time. The gathered masses were treated to the sight of a C-17 Globemaster III and whilst it did not land on the day, it performed several impressive circuits of the airfield, creating its own massive shadow with each pass. By far the largest aircraft in the static display was Lockheed Hercules C-3 XV197, an aircraft which like so many others in this photographic review is no longer in RAF service and has actually now been scrapped.
Without doubt, the most memorable sight on the day was a touch and go pass by one of the RAF’s last Vickers VC10 C1K aircraft, an undoubted 'queen of the skies' and one which is still sorely missed by many enthusiasts – modern aircraft just don’t have the same appeal as these beautiful aeroplanes. I can still remember the enigmatic sound of those four Rolls Royce Conway engines as it climbed majestically away from the runway, demanding that everyone in the vicinity of RAF Valley looked in its direction.
Representing the future of the Royal Air Force, RAF No.3 Squadron, sent one of the first Eurofighter Typhoon fighters to enter service to the event and as you may well imagine, both the aircraft and its US exchange pilot Major P K Carlton were to be the centre of attention on the day. The aircraft certainly looked futuristic when positioned next to a trio of RAF Tornados and made the appearance of the Tornado F.3 variant all the more poignant, as the arrival of the Typhoon signified its impending service withdrawal. Although the Typhoon undoubtedly looked the part, it turned out to be the last non-Valley based aircraft to leave, as the pilot was having a nightmare trying to start the engines at the end of the day. He was eventually seen blasting off from the runway after we had all returned to our cars and started the long journey home – even though the Typhoon would have been the envy of every pilot on the airfield, their older types managed to get them home before this advanced aviation ‘hot-rod’ had even left the airfield.
In yet another RAF aviation dichotomy, one of the most attractive aircraft on display at Valley during this event was Short Tucano T.1 ZF448, which was another aeroplane specially painted to commemorate the 90th anniversary of No.72 Squadron. It would probably be fair to say that the RAF Tucano has never really attracted the enthusiast acclaim enjoyed by other aircraft types over the years and as it is very much in the twilight of its service career, will we all soon lament the passing of what is a really attractive little aeroplane. The wording BASUTO under the cockpit refers to the link the squadron has with the Basutoland Protectorate (now Lesotho), whose population donated aircraft to the Royal Air Force during both world wars, aircraft which were assigned to No.72 Squadron. The Tucano was joined by a Beechcraft B200 King Air from No.45 Squadron, which was also sporting a rather smart 90th Anniversary scheme.
In this final selection of images, we include the international representation in the static display, which took the form of two relatively new aircraft entering service with the Irish Air Corps. Making the short journey across the Irish Sea, we were fortunate to see one of their Augusta Westland AW139 helicopters, along with a Pilatus PC-9 trainer, which looked magnificent against the darkening skies at RAF Valley. These aircraft were joined by a primary trainer from a different era, in the shape of Scottish Aviation Bulldog T.1 XX707, which whilst wearing an attractive RAF scheme, is now privately owned and based at nearby Caernarfon Airport. The final picture in this group is a shot which will never be seen again – even though Typhoon ZJ929 has now been upgraded and is still in RAF service, the other four aircraft have all been withdrawn and have now been consigned to the annuls of the RAF history books.
We hope you have enjoyed this nostalgic look back at what was a really enjoyable event and one which allowed us to enjoy some much-loved former RAF aircraft types, along with another which is due to retire later this year. We end with a final look at the Typhoon which was the headline aircraft at the time, but one which caused more than a few headaches for its pilot. At the very end of the day and with all the other visiting aircraft already on their way home, this was the final ‘on-base’ image I managed to take, before being invited to head back to my car. It shows a rather frustrated Typhoon pilot sat in the cockpit of his aircraft, having failed to start the RAF’s latest fighter on several previous occasions and still appearing to be struggling. I wonder if he was thinking about giving up and borrowing one of Valley’s Hawks for his trip back to Coningsby.
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. As always, if you have any ideas for a future edition of Aerodrome, or if you would like to supply a feature of your own which will be of interest to our worldwide aviation readership, please send your suggestions to our regular contact e-mail address at firstname.lastname@example.org, 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 4th October, where we look forward to bringing you even more interesting aviation related features.
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