Farnborough Airshow – We’re Back!

It was with great pleasure that the Historic Army Aircraft Flight returned to Farnborough for the International Airshow this year. 

Looking back through our archives, the earliest photo we could find of an Army aircraft at the Farnborough International Airshow was from 1974.  Sioux XT250 was still in service at the time and had been on static display to the public.  The day after the show completed, the mighty Sioux, piloted by a young Nigel Thursby, flew past the almost-as-mighty SR-71 Blackbird.

Fancy a race? Sioux XT250 and SR-71 Blackbird #17972, Sep 1974

Eventually becoming “historic” in 1977, the Sioux and the rest of the current historic fleet have made various appearances over the decades. These included the Scout helicopter featuring as part of Agusta-Westland’s celebration of British-designed aircraft, dating back to Saunders-Roe, among their other predecessor companies.

More recently, the Sioux, Alouette, Scout and Chipmunk flew a flying display on the 23rd July 2010, captured here in silhouette by Mike Pursey against a light, but cloudy sky.

We were more than a little disappointed when our invitation in 2020 came to naught with the entire airshow being cancelled as a result of the pandemic.

But…!  We finally got to this year’s airshow on Friday 22nd July 2022, themed “Pioneers of Tomorrow”. It was the last day of the show and was dedicated to being an exciting showcase of the very best in science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics (STEAM), designed to give students, apprentices, graduates and young professionals considering a career in aerospace unprecedented access to the industry. 

The Historic Army Aircraft Flight was excited and proud to open the show (OK, after the Red Devils parachute display team!) with a formation display by the Auster, the Sioux and the Scout.

Blue skies on practice day

We’d practiced our display at Farnborough the preceding week in glorious sunshine, only to find on display day that the summer was over and we’d be displaying in not-so-light rain!

Rain on display day, watching the smoke trails of the Red Devils

We could see more than few umbrellas on the crowd line, but were pleased to see the hardy British public and their devotion to airshows, whatever the weather!

With 30 minutes to go, we three pilots took a quiet moment together to walk through our display routine; pretending to be flying, we walked the sequence in the calm before the noise started! 

We had the routine drawn out like a child’s sketch on piece of A5 card on our kneeboards for ready reference and to make sure we were all aware of each other’s location at all times.

On cue from the Flying Display Director, the indomitable Les Garside-Beattie, we lit a fire in each engine and took our place in front of the crowd.

As the Auster launched from Runway 24, the Sioux and Scout stood guard facing the crowd beside the runway. Once the Auster passed by, the helicopter pair nimbly accelerated after the Auster, before breaking right into a figure-of-eight in line-astern at 150ft above ground level (agl), the height at which Army helicopters live most of their airborne lives!  Meanwhile the Auster climbed to a height of 400ft agl … the relatively low height at which it would have hidden from the enemy ‘back in the day’. 

First to take centre stage, Rich Pillans flew the Bell 47 Sioux helicopter along the display line, gracefully pulling the nose up to 60 degrees above the horizon at each end of the airfield to perform a ‘torque turn’, a manoeuvre which uses the torque reaction from a quick increase in engine power to rotate the aircraft through 180 degrees.

Move aside the Sioux, because next up is Paul McNulty in the Taylorcraft Auster, bringing his height further down and demonstrating how the Royal Artillery pilots in the 1940s to 1960s would spot the enemy and direct artillery fire from the air.

Finally, in the newest design of the Historic Army Aircraft Fleet (first flight August 1960), Paul Stanton demonstrated the robustly agile Westland Scout, powered by a Rolls Royce Nimbus turbine engine.  With a higher top speed and greater all-up-mass, the Scout’s torque turns zoom higher into the sky than the Sioux’s!  Finishing his set piece with a high hover, a common sight over the decades as Army helicopters provided an eye in the sky for security forces on the ground.

As the minutes ticked by, next up was to put all three aircraft into close formation … a technique predominantly used by military pilots when there are a lot of aircraft needed in the same place at the same time.

View from the Sioux

We flew a final pass in ‘Vic’ formation (a V-shape with the Auster at the front and the two helicopters behind & offset to either side).

Scout behind the Auster

The helicopters then descended to the hover over the grass and ‘danced’, each taking their turn to fly backwards…

With perfect timing, the Auster returned to terra-firma with a ‘wheeler landing’, where Paul McNulty ‘kissed’ the aircraft onto the runway with just the main two-wheels, keeping the tail wheel off the ground as long as possible.  Rich Pillans and Paul Stanton climbed vertically in their helicopters and bowed their aircraft’s nose at the crowd, before calling over the radio, “Display Complete”. They smoothly followed the Auster to the parking spot, aptly parking beside the Rolls Royce-owned Spitfire.

Our return to the Farnborough International Airshow was a delight to be part of … and we were proud to represent the Army … doing our thing in the rain as much as the shine!

Photo credits: Nigel Thursby, Mike Pursey, Clare Cargill, Rich Pillans & Izzie Taylor