Farewell to an Icon
The depressing news on the 1st August 2017 that 657 Sqn would be placed into “suspended animation” was not foreseen, however it did not hinder the professionalism of the squadron; after all, we still had a job to do and an operational role to fulfil.
We stoically continued the onward progression, with several exercises that we were already been committed to, including multiple ‘Air to Ground’ range packages and a deployment to the jungle. Around this time all Sqn members agreed a fitting tribute to the end of the Lynx was needed, so we got to work to send the old girl out in style. After all the ‘mighty’ Lynx has been a trusted and battle hardened workhorse for the past four decades.
Firstly, a date needed to be set in early 2018 for the final flypast. A task that sounds relatively simple until you start looking at the factors that were working against us. The weather can be very problematic at that time of year, especially when you are trying to get a formation around the UK for people to see. Furthermore, the daylight hours available is a major issue, the aircraft would have to conduct the flight during the daytime, as nobody would appreciate the sight of four flashing strobes highlighted against the dark sky.
After some research, the daylight available in early January capped us to a nine hour flight window. Notwithstanding, probably the greatest issue was the amount of pilots and crewman available to undertake the task, as postings out of the Sqn started shortly after the 1st August and we were left with ever depreciating numbers.
However, the date was set for 16th January 2018 and 5 Lynx Mk9a were due to depart RAF Odiham on a route around the UK, encompassing significant locations to the Lynx and the Squadron itself. Unfortunately, 1 aircraft of the 5 did not launch due to an unforeseen sickness, however it mean the formation had a spare. Early in the planning, it became apparent that a route to the North to visit locations such as Dishforth in Yorkshire (a place of significance to not only the Lynx but to the AAC as a whole) was just not feasible with the time and the aircraft available on the day. Next in the planning came the question of what formation call sign should we opt for?
The squadron had the standard UK training call signs available, such as, Pilgrim, Ironman etc, but a special event called for a special call sign. It seemed fitting that a legacy operational call sign should be used. This was an easy decision, it could only be ‘Valhalla’. This was in remembrance of ZF540, Valhalla 57 which tragically crashed in Afghanistan in 2014. The passing of Captain Clarke, WO2 Faulkner and Corporal Walters of the AAC, together with Flt Lt Chauhan (RAF) and Lance Corporal Thomas (Int Corps) would be remembered during every radio call during the final flypast.
As the planning progressed it was clear that this was to be an event that we wanted to remembered by all, and certainly receive as much attention as possible. The issue is no one had the faintest idea of how to achieve this, enter the Army Media and Press Centre. Mr Chris Fletcher was the unfortunate soul who answered the phone that day, but he achieved more than ever could be expected. Soon the Times newspaper and national TV were requesting full coverage and it became apparent that this was becoming a large media event that needed careful co-ordinating.
A special event like this also called for a special aircraft. Flt Lt A Donovan, the designer of the CH47 centenary paint schemes, was approached and agreed to not only design the aircraft tail but also make contact with Mr J Littlejohn in the SERCO spray bay to make something magical happen. Time was of a premium; and whether it could still be achieved was still debatable. Through sheer determination, hard work and many man hours ZG917 was born with a commemorative paint scheme, and what a fantastic looking aircraft she is.
The route was set after many planning hours and various tweaks, it then went live on several media formats so those in the aviation world had an opportunity to visit a location to watch the flypast.
“Valhalla, 3, 2, 1, rotor brakes off!” was the first call of the day made by the Sqn boss on the inter-aircraft net, signalling the last time 4 Lynx helicopters would start and depart from our home base for the past 18 years. From RAF Odiham we would fly to the Middle Wallop, not only the home of the Army Air Corps but also the location of the Museum of Army Flying. Middle Wallop would attract the kind of attention that was appropriate for the aircraft’s final flight, with many old Lynx pilots still living in the area. From there, the formation went to Upavon, providing the opportunity for the civilian photographers that visit Salisbury Plain in all weathers, to take photos in a controlled environment.
This is where the plan on paper didn’t quite go as smoothly as expected. The first leg was to take the formation to an airfield in South Wales, where the Tactical Supply Wing was patiently waiting to refuel us. The weather on the day gave us a very strong wind from the West, the direction of travel for the most fuel critical leg. As the formation departed Salisbury Plain and turned directly to the West, it was evident that fuel was going to be an issue, so the formation commander, Maj Jim Peycke AAC, in consultation with the other Aircraft Commanders elected to remove the South Coast leg and convert the fly through at RNAS Yeovilton into a fuel stop, the home of 1 Regt AAC.
It is a hard decision to make as the route had been published for a few months prior to the flight, and people had made arrangements to view the formation at various locations along the way. The effect was that, with the delay at Yeovilton and sunset getting closer and closer the leg to St. Athan would also need to be removed. Although, the aircraft did make a pass overhead the Westland’s airfield before landing, the birthplace of the Lynx and the current Leonardo Wildcat.
With the refuel complete, and a new route planned the pressure was off. The aircraft proceeded to overfly the Helicopter Museum at Weston Super Mare, and then continued up towards RAF Shawbury. This time, the second team from the Tactical Support Wing were used and the plan was now back on track and timings were looking good to ensure we returned before sunset. As the formation was departing the airfield, a group of spectators were positioned with an AAC flag and were waving frantically, immersing all of the crews with a deeper sense of pride than ever before in the flight.
The aircraft departed RAF Shawbury and turned east, the headwind was now a tail wind and at times the aircraft hit a ground speed of up to 170kts (195mph) without even trying. The next location of significance for the formation was Tilton-on-the–Hill, where there was another ground party to greet us on our way. The location was of great significance to 657 Sqn because on the 18th May 1999, a Lynx Mk7, XZ199 suffered a catastrophic failure when the Squadron was moving from Dishforth to RAF Odiham. Brigadier MC Whiteside (late AAC) OBE was the only survivor from a crew of 4, managing to land the stricken aircraft with a cockpit full of smoke. The huge turnout at the site resulted in the OC electing to conduct a further flypast of this location.
Onwards to Oakington and then the Duxford Museum before stopping at Wattisham, the home of the AAC Apache Attack Helicopter and previous Lynx base through the 90s. Again, another large gathering of spectators were there to greet the aircraft’s arrival. A quick turn around by the Groundcrew meant the formation were all set, ready in good order for the grand finale, London.
It is worth mentioning at this point, that many a formation has planned to fly through the London Heli lanes as part of a final flight, and on the day have been more than disappointed to have the request denied. Months prior to the flight, the work went in to make this possible, with several requests being filed with various different agencies. Even then it was not a guarantee that access would be granted. The Lynx formation was to be met by a Chinook helicopter north of London containing various camera crews from national media news teams.
This would lead the aircraft along the final leg back to RAF Odiham. The tension was building whilst routing from Wattisham. There were a lot of variables that could mean that the London section may not go as planned, but as the aircraft changed onto the London radio frequency; the Chinook call sign could be heard talking to London. This was a good sign, but it was still not a done deal. The Lynx formed up behind the Chinook and the request was made for all 5 aircraft to route through London. Everyone held their breath, access approved. A wave of excitement spread throughout the formation.
As the formation went through London, the camera crews and reporters aboard the Chinook directed the formation around to maximise the photo opportunities. Again, a task made more difficult as the little Lynx got buffeted around the sky from the downwash of the larger CH47 aircraft. Towards the end of the route the formation split, allowing the Lynx to take the lime light back at RAF Odiham as a welcome parade was in position, ready for the final salute to the Lynx. The weather, notwithstanding the wind, had been good to us all day. This was about to change as the formation switched onto the Tower frequency, one last push and we would be safe on ground. Just within sight of the airfield, a heavy wintery shower pushed over the airfield, totally obscuring Odiham and the runway. As we turned towards Odiham, out of the gloom the runway lights appeared and what a welcome sight they were. The formation taxied towards the dispersal, this is where the welcome parade was supposed to be. Instead of rows of cheering troops, there was just one solitary figure, stood to attention. The Squadron Sergeant Major, WO2 Matty Rogers AAC stood rigid, despite snow and hail battering him as he raised his hand to salute.
“Valhalla, 3, 2, 1….rotor brake on,” came the order over the inter aircraft radio frequency. All 4 aircraft rotors juddered to a synchronized stop. The crews got out and stood to the front of their trusted steeds, which not only performed faultlessly, but also have created many good memories and given such joy to over the past four decades.
That was it, job done. The very last time that a Lynx formation would fly, after 40 years of service, it was over. A sad day to say the least, but it is an inevitable event in any pilot’s career.
The event received over 6 million viewers and listeners over a spectrum of TV and radio platforms. As for social media, the footage is still being watched all over the world. A truly befitting reaction for a fantastic aircraft, stand down old girl, your work is done.