On 7 September 2013 the 65th and final RAF Leuchars Airshow took place at RAF Leuchars, on the Fife coast near St Andrews. It was a glorious day that far surpassed the very poor weather forecast, and the event was a huge success that attracted over 40,000 people. It was also a sad day, marking as it did the end of an era that had allowed three generations of Scots our best chance of seeing the Royal Air Force in action. But nothing lasts forever, and with Leuchars due to become an Army base, this really was the last occasion on which the airshow could take place. To misquote Douglas Adams: "so long, and thanks for all the planes".
With the demise of the RAF Leuchars Airshow, it's fair to ask why Undiscovered Scotland still maintains a feature about the event. The simple answer is "because we can". We attended eleven of the twelve airshows that took place from 2001 to 2013 (we missed 2002 and there was no airshow in 2007 due to runway resurfacing), and over the years we took many photographs of the event. It seems only right to maintain our feature, partly as a reminder for those who attended, partly to give everyone else the faintest of glimpses of what a truly wonderful event it was, and partly to show what has been lost to Scotland with its passing.
The RAF Leuchars Airshow combined a day-long flying programme with a varied and extensive park of static aircraft and supporting displays in some of the hangars. Plus aircraft arrivals and flying display practice on the preceding Friday for aviation enthusiasts. For those who wanted more from a day out than just aeroplanes, the airshow also offered an interactive area, fun fair, simulators, vintage military displays, and a wide range of traders with a distinctly aviation theme.
Which meant that as well as admiring the aeroplanes in the air and on the ground, you could test your luck or skill, and risk spending the rest of the day wondering what to do with the four foot tall fluffy tiger or bear you'd won.
You either love aircraft, or you don't. For those who do, RAF Leuchars could usually be relied on to provide a collection of those classic aviation moments guaranteed to bring the whole airfield to a standstill as everyone stops what they are doing to watch the display.
A perennial favourite at Leuchars was the RAF's Red Arrows display team, which has been performing since 1965. The Red Arrows performed their 4,000th display at Leuchars in 2006, and they have now given some 4,500 displays in 54 countries. It's fascinating to look at images of their displays and see refuelling teams on top of their trucks, aircrew on the roofs of static display aircraft and people working on the far side of the airfield standing on the nearest grassy mound, all simply to get a better view of something most of them have seen many times before. Humans aren't given to perfection, but the Red Arrows come about as close to it as most of us will ever see.
Another "must see", or perhaps that should be "must hear", was the sound of the Merlin engine, whether singly in Spitfires and Hurricanes, or as the four that power the Lancaster of the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight (BBMF). There is something about these classic and evocative aircraft that reaches across the generations since they were themselves in the RAF's front line. The 2010 Leuchars Airshow marked the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Britain, but the BBMF could be counted on putting in a memorable performance at Leuchars whenever the weather permitted (rain and priceless, irreplacable aircraft tend to be a poor mix).
Five of the last six Leuchars Airshows introduced a new, yet also very old, addition to the list of show-stopping moments in the form of Vulcan XH558. Poor weather prevented a flying display in 2008, but 2009's perfect conditions allowed this venerable old lady to show how incredibly sprightly she still was, taking off straight into a very steep climb, which topped off with a roll. XH558 is now something of a legend, having returned to the sky in October 2007 after more than a decade's restoration by the Vulcan to the Sky Trust. 2010 saw her named "The Spirit of Great Britain" in honour of her 50th birthday and she carried her name proudly on her nose during her visit to Leuchars. She again performed beautifully in 2012, but a technical problem unfortunately prevented her planned attendance at the 2013 airshow.
Images on this page and on the additional page of airshow images give an impression of the range and variety of what was on view in over a decade's airshows. For us the highlight of the 2013 airshow came early, with the flypast of nine Red Arrows in formation with four Leuchars-based Typhoons. Thirteen aircraft in formation is a very unusual sight in the modern era, and this was a fitting farewell to Leuchars by the Red Arrows. With budgetary constraints preventing the US military taking part in airshows in 2013, a number of European participants stepped up to the mark, including a role demonstration by Typhoons and a C-130 of the Austrian Air Force and the Saab Viggen and Saab 105 of the Swedish Air Force. There were also a number of historical aircraft including the Catalina, Sea Fury, Hunter, and Gnats; and a flypast commemorating the 70th anniversary of the Dambusters raid.
The 2012 Leuchars Airshow was a celebration of the Queen's Diamond Jubilee. The flying display began shortly after 11am, and continued under beautiful blue skies (albeit with a strong and gusting wind) for over six hours. As well as the Red Arrows and the Vulcan, those attending were treated to the "stand up" parade by 1 Squadron to celebrate its re-formation at Leuchars with Typhoons, and to a spectacular "role demonstration" by Tornado Gr4s from 15 Squadron at Lossiemouth, simulating a ground attack against the airfield. Perhaps the most heroic moment of the day came with the display of a World War One vintage SE5a biplane, flown despite the strong wind which at times appeared to make it hover. The most spectacular sight of the show was, without doubt, the diamond nine formation of Eurofighter Typhoon aircraft which brought it to a conclusion.
The 2011 airshow celebrated 100 years of military aviation in North East Fife. It was perhaps ironic that this milestone should have arrived soon after it had been announced that the RAF would be leaving Leuchars in April 2015 and that it would thereafter become an Army base. The 2010 airshow included a parade of the 6 Squadron standard before the Duke of Kent in the morning, accompanied by a unique flypast of Spitfire, Tornado and Typhoon. 6 Squadron had reformed at Leuchars a few days before the 2010 airshow as the first of the three Typhoon squadrons expected to form in Scotland.
Earlier years offered a variety of themes. 2003 was all about celebrating the past, with displays from the B17 Flying Fortress Sally B & Memphis Belle amongst many others. Also at Leuchars in 2003 and celebrating their 50th year in the business, were the French Armée De L'Air Patrouille de France whose blue Alphajets provided an interesting contrast to the Red Arrows. The same contrast was on view at the 2011 airshow, when the Patrouille de France made a welcome return to Leuchars.
The 2004 airshow looked to the future, with four Eurofighter Typhoons providing a focus for a programme that included displays by most of the RAF's current aircraft plus contributions from the Royal Navy, the German and Belgian Air Forces. In 2005 the focus was on what was by this time the RAF's last "Battle of Britain" airshow, and a rare Spitfire MkXVIII was joined by a Mustang P-51 and an Invader A-26 from Scandinavia.
The 2006 airshow marked the 90th anniversaries of two of the three fighter squadrons then based at RAF Leuchars: 43 Squadron and 56 Squadron. A highlight of the show was the very rare sight of a diamond nine formation of Tornado F3s flown by aircrew from those two squadrons.
Add to the usual suspects a cast list that includes a lot of noise and afterburner from a range of spectacular modern fighters, the more sedate passes of the larger military aircraft and the exploits of individual vintage or aerobatic aircraft; and Leuchars could usually be guaranteed to serve up one of the most varied and entertaining flying displays it was possible to see anywhere. It is a shame that all we have left of it are memories and photographs.