While the souvenir programme might have noted that this year’s Leuchars Air Show marked the “65th Battle Of Britain At Home Day”, 2013 is significant for another reason, too. As announced towards the end of last week, this celebration of the Royal Air Force and those who serve with it will be Leuchars’ last as the base prepares for its imminent surrender to the Army.
Unaware of this at the time, I arrived shortly after the gates opened to the public, collecting my press pass from the media centre and making my way through security to the runway at which the bulk of the show traditionally takes place. Even at 10:15 the base was bustling with eager and enthused visitors keen for the displays to get underway. And they didn’t have long to wait.
Following a cursory lap of the site — along a row of Dutch F-16AMs and between larger static displays including a VCIO K3, a KDC-10 and a Sentinel R1 — my attention was drawn to the unmistakable sound of approaching aircraft. Announced by commentator Andy Pawsey, I looked up in time to see a flypast by the Red Arrows and four accompanying Typhoons.
Over the next few hours, audiences — many of whom had come prepared with windbreakers, camping chairs and telescopic camera lenses — were treated to a series of maneuvers made by a BAC Strikemaster, Pitts Special and Royal Air Force Tucano T1. There was also a second flypast, this time involving a Sentry AEW1 (or a Boeing E-3D in civilian speak) and another two Typhoons.
For me, the two most impressive spectacles — save for the Red Arrows, which weren’t scheduled to appear until 14:00 — were those exercised by the Vampire and a solitary Typhoon. A lightweight aircraft introduced in the ’40s, the Vampire is a very distinctive jet fighter, with its twin-booms and mixed wood and metal composition. The Typhoon, meanwhile, this year piloted by Flt Lt Jamie Norris, dazzled with its dexterity.
The air show had much more to offer than airplanes, however, and with a short break before the Red Arrows were scheduled to take to the skies I left the runway and static display area for another, longer look around. There were food stalls, carnival rides, air craft simulators and a pipe band. There was also a prominent portable studio where Chief of the Air Staff Sir Andrew Pulford was being interviewed by Forth One.
The Community Hangar housed a full scale replica of the Bloodhound Supersonic Car, representatives from a number of local businesses and charities, and Swansong, the RAF Leuchars Military Wives Choir, who were introduced by both The X-Factor’s Peter Dickson and a recorded message from Queen’s Brian May. To its left stood the Interactive Zone, where the whole family could get to grips with the skills necessary to become a serviceman or woman.
As the usual spotters looked on from beyond the fence and ticket booths, everybody else immersed themselves completely in the day’s festivities. Children played with foam planes, decked out in replica flight suits and ear defenders, while their parents enjoyed the spectacle of seeing the Royal Air Force at its very best in chairs they most likely brought with them every year. From their choice in merchandise, however, it was clear that many were there for one thing above all else.
I had seen the Red Arrows twice before, in 1996 as they performed over Canberra and Sydney’s Taronga Zoo, but I was eager to see the them in action again. Known officially as Royal Air Force Aerobatic Team, the Red Arrows had travelled up from RAF Scampton, near the city of Lincoln, where they spend the bulk of their time. A plane down so that a pilot could spend time with his newborn baby, the eight active Hawk T1As put on a terrific, if asymmetric display, which included maneuvers such as “Vortex”, “Carousel” and a new move for 2013 termed “The Twister”.
At this point the crowd, believed to be approximately 40,000 strong, began to thin out. There was still a great deal to come, however, and for those who remained the organisers had waiting in the wings The Wildcats, a Catalina and a mid-air demonstration by the Austrian Air Force of two Eurofighter Typhoons forcing a C-130 Hercules to land. This item was of particular pertinence given 1 (Fighter) and 6 Squadron’s Quick Reaction Alert roles at RAF Leuchars.
Following occasional warm spells the sky finally clouded over at this point, and both cold and tired we relocated to One Nine One for a coffee ahead of the inevitable queues at Leuchars’ otherwise little-used train station. We left in time to catch the Battle Of Britain Memorial Flight, glimpsing the iconic Lancaster bomber as it flew overhead, escorted by a Tornado GR4 decorated with special Dambusters 70th Anniversary tail art.
The event was a terrific success, and despite its staggering size and Leuchars’ relatively limited facilities the organisers put on a show that few will likely forget, for all the right reasons. As Air Chief Marshal Sir Andrew Douglas Pulford seemed determined to make clear during his interview, Leuchars may be set to close but the Royal Air Force’s presence in Scotland will remain, with the possibility that RAF Lossiemouth may one day inherit Leuchars’ demonstrative as well as operational roles.
On a slightly more personal note, Saturday 7th September was also significant in terms of my own story. After so many chapters spent exploring the world, moving house and making friends, my affiliation with the Air Force — as slight as it might have become in recent years — has finally come to an end. And thanks to the 65th and final Leuchars Air Show, and by extension the hundreds of service man and women it must have taken to make it work, it was a very, very memorable conclusion.