Friday, 26 August 2016

Observations on the RNAS Culdrose 2016 Air Day

With poor weather forecast for over a week, it was with some trepidation that I bowled up at RNAS Culdrose for Arrivals Day.  I hadn't booked an advance ticket as the official Arrivals Day on base had been hiked from £25 to £40 this year, which at a 60% increase certainly didn't produce a 60% increase in value. The weather as forecast, was poor for most of the day and the arrivals only really began trickling in around 14H30 and then in numbers, just as people were being encouraged to leave.

Caught up with an old friend from my youth, who felled me with some terrible news about his health. He was being taken to the show the next day by his granddaughters and he confidently, if stoically, expected it to be his final one.

Air Day itself dawned on 28 July in poor visibility and although it showed signs of lifting during the day, never really improved much.  However, given the forecast, one would have thought alternative arrangements could have been planned.

After years of taking my chances on the crowd line, this year I decided to plump for the Seahawk Enclosure, which was a brilliant call. A large marquee, with a few tables and chairs, an attended pay bar with an adjacent grandstand and portaloos, all in a prime location meant many of the discomforts were removed at a stroke.

Went to photograph the static display in the mist and ended up getting lost, after I'd been coming here since 1972. Gazelle HT.3  ZB627/A

Even if you could find the display, Lynx HMA.8 ZF562/404

once again, the barriers around some of the static aircraft were far too close. Avenger T.1 ZZ500

Just for once, please rein in the lust for Mammon through the commercial pitches and move them all back a bit ?

With a set of misty and rather unsatisfactory pictures, I collected the pre-booked picnic lunch; it was very good and we made our way to the grandstand seating, which gave an elevated view around the base.  Not that much could be seen though; even the seagulls were walking.

Seagulls on the ground

Rather like Kenneth Wolstenholme and football, George Bacon is an institution amongst air show commentators. After his upbeat welcome and assurances that all would be well, his incessant chatter was broken by an interview with Rear Admiral Keith Blount who gave an informative, inspiring and uplifting view on the future of Naval Aviation.

The flying started badly when the Belgian F-16s cancelled and continued directly to Spain.  This rather set the pattern for the day and it wasn't long before the Belgian Sea King (waiting tantalisingly over at Bravo South) then cancelled and was towed across the duty runway to augment the static display.  With more reassurances from George, the radio revealed that the Sea Vixen was circling over Falmouth Bay in blue skies, with plenty of fuel, waiting for a break but was eventually sent away.

Then the curfew tolled the knell of parting day when Commander Ian Fitter gave a lacklustre set of excuses and announced that he had cancelled the flying display.  The @RNASCuldrose and @CuldroseAirDay twitter feeds were notable for the lack of replies to the many "What are you going to do about it ?" queries, presumably due to acute embarrassment; it is not like Culdrose is a stranger to poor weather (Air Days 2008, 2009, 2011 for example).

The Sea Harrier ground display was already a feature in the programme, with two SHAR FA.2 and a Harrier T.8 taxying up and down the runway, in front of the crowd.

SDFO SHARs taxying
This theme could easily have been built upon.  Culdrose has so much to offer and it is quite lamentable how little thought had been given to a bad weather plan, where people could stay on the crowd line; the Helston Twirlers in the arena and the Worm World stand in hangar C2 just isn't enough:
  • there's bound to be an airfield bird-scarer or two; bring that on and play the calls from the Land Rover loudspeakers with a commentary ?  Do they have live birds of prey as well; put on a display in front of the crowd ?
  • no-one is asking aircrew to take unnecessary risks during peace time but couldn't we have seen some hover taxying ? It was done a few years back in even worse conditions.
  • there are Fire and Rescue vehicles all around the base on standby, why not drive them up and down and put out a burning car wreck on the grass ?  In the 1970s, an announcement used to come over the PA "Would the owner of car xxx please move it, as it is blocking...". This would be repeated at half-hourly intervals in an increasingly irritated tone until just before the flying was due to start,  a final warning was given and a Wessex picked up an old banger and inevitably dropped it near crowd centre.
Where has the Royal Navy's improvise, adapt, overcome innovative creativeness gone ?  Down the drain with the Treasury budget cuts, I suspect.

Sea King ASaC.7 XV656/185 of 849 NAS puts on a ground display at the 2011 RNAS Culdrose Air Day. It can be done. Sea King ASaC.7 XV656/185 of 849 NAS puts on a ground display at the 2011 RNAS Culdrose Air Day

It's a bl**dy long way to Helston and the day certainly wasn't saved but a few incidents for me, put a tiny bit of the shine that the Royal Navy is usually so good at producing, back on:
  • 6 Hawks returned from a Thursday War tasking and found about the only break in the mist during the afternoon, to recover.
  • there were a couple of premature departures.
  • because many people had cleared off as soon as the announcement of flying cancellation had been made, access to the static display in the late afternoon improved enormously.
  • I was shown around an 820 NAS Merlin by Observer Chris Ford, who turned it into a really memorable experience with his expert knowledge, personal charisma and excellent delivery, peppered with astute and ascerbic observations.  This officer has a bright future as an after-dinner speaker.
After so many miserable Air Days at Culdrose, of course I'll be going back next year.  And while I won't be ripped off for the Arrivals Day, I will be returning to the Seahawk Enclosure, if only for my wife to have somewhere dry to sit.

You can see some more pictures (just) from the Arrivals Day and Air Day at the RNAS Culdrose Air Day 2016 flickr group page.

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