Three Royal Navy aviators have good reason to look forward to this weekend’s Sunderland Air Show... for they are all returning to their native north east to perform. The vaunted Royal Navy Black Cats Helicopter Display team is one of the major attractions at the Sunderland spectacular, which is now in its 24th year and is one of the biggest of its kind in the UK.
The Black Cats involves flying Lynx helicopters through a series of close passes and intertwined manoeuvres, to the very edge of the aircraft’s capability.
All of which ramps up the excitement for the group of instructors from Somerset-based 702 Naval Air Squadron (NAS), which trains all ground and air crew for sister front-line maritime Lynx squadron, 815 NAS.
The lead pilot for the Black Cats is Lt David Fleming, 32, who is from Bedlington in Northumberland. A former Royal Grammar School pupil in Newcastle, David has been in the Royal Navy for 10 years and has flown Lynx helicopters on board navy frigates around the world. He said:
“I can’t wait to lead the Black Cats on what is home territory for me. I have a hugely important role within the team, as lead aircraft, but we know our aircraft inside out and are always in control.
"I hope the public enjoy the spectacle.”
The pilot of the second aircraft in the Black Cats formation is Lt Ian Brannighan, 33, from Wallsend. Ian has embarked on Lynx with Type 42 destroyer HMS Edinburgh, been seconded to the Royal New Zealand Navy for a period and has previously won Best Pilot Performance in Flying Training.
He was educated at St Thomas More RC High School and his brother, David, is currently serving in nuclear submarine, HMS Astute, as the navigator. Ian commented:
“This will be a fantastic opportunity for us to impress friends and family and the wider community on how manoeuvrable these helicopters are.
"I am looking forward to returning to the north east and enjoying what is becoming one of the best air shows in the world.”
The third member of the team who knows the area like the back of his hand is Lt Richard Bell, 33, who is from Newton Hall in Durham. As Observer on board the Lynx helicopter, Richard’s operational role means he is responsible for war-fighting tactics, weaponry and navigation systems on board.
He attended Framwellgate School in Durham and most recently worked on the Lynx assigned to Type 23 frigate HMS Montrose in the South Atlantic. Richard said:
"I took part in the War of 1812 Bicentennial celebrations in New Orleans while tasked on HMS Montrose earlier this year.
"I thought it would take a lot to top that, but this just might. I’m really looking forward to it.”
Based at RNAS Yeovilton in Somerset, 702 NAS feeds 815 Naval Air Squadron with aircrew and maintainers, courtesy of 160 experienced personnel. The training unit also provides refresher instruction annually for up to 50 fliers who’ve spent some time away from the Lynx.
For Lynx newcomers fresh from basic helicopter training at RAF Shawbury, or from the observer training squadron 750 NAS, there are 12 months of hard graft ahead as they learn how to fly – and fight – the world’s fastest helicopter.
All manner of instruction is required: rapid roping boarding teams, search and rescue, load lifting, ferrying passengers around, and providing the eyes for naval gunfire as well as the traditional roles of maritime interdiction and submarine hunting. That instruction reaches its climax with an intensive training period at sea.
At the same time, the Lynx ground crew are undergoing thorough operational training – which includes going to sea so they can learn how to maintain the helicopter in the confines of a warship at sea.
The squadron is also the home of the award-winning Black Cats – the Royal Navy’s official helicopter display team. The display contains two helicopters flying close, fast passes, and dramatic synchronised manoeuvres.
The team perform at air shows throughout the country over the summer display season.