Rachel Ramsay takes the impressive Scout to Goodwood Revival – and delights in the exhilaration of helicopter formation flying
12 October 2022
I’ve been lucky to have had a couple of days out in the Westland Scout this month – an unexpected, and most welcome, side effect of having spent some time getting to know this iconic machine for my article on old military helicopters earlier this year.
As I wrote in said article, my friend Alex Bishop splashed out on the type rating over the summer, and is consequently in the fortunate position of being able to self-fly-hire the Scout from our friends at Dragonfly Aviation.
With its illustrious military heritage dating back to 1963, we considered it the perfect machine in which to make our first foray into the world of the legendary Goodwood Revival, where we reckoned it would fit right in with the 1940s, 50s and 60s vibe for which the Revival is renowned.
It was with considerable excitement that we donned our flying suits and studied the arrival procedures for Goodwood Aerodrome, which was shut to fixed-wing traffic and transformed into a busy heliport for the duration of the event.
The instructions were straightforward: pick your reporting point depending on the direction you’re approaching from (for us, ‘panels’, of the solar variety), join directly from there and aim for the runway midpoint. So much simpler than faffing about with overhead joins!
On hover taxying to parking, the ‘pride of place’ spot, promised to us by the chap in the tower, turned out to be lined up with all the other helicopters on the other side of the runway from the show, which we felt somewhat diminished the spectacle of the Scout’s arrival. But we were certainly conspicuous among the AW109s, AS355s and EC130s, and happily, we bumped into several charter pilot friends immediately on landing. The helicopter world is a remarkably small one.
We were taken in a very old Land Rover across the airfield to the show entrance, where there was an enclosure of wonderful old aeroplanes that included ‘Miss Pick-Up’, one of the world’s few remaining airworthy Catalina flying boats.
Wandering amid a sea of Spitfires and other relics of a golden age of aviation, it struck me that there’s a romance to vintage aeroplanes that helicopters – even cool old military ones – just don’t have. But what helicopters lack in romance, they more than make up for in excitement.
Proving this point were my memories of the previous week, when we had been on an adventure with not one but two of the UK’s eight or nine remaining airworthy Scouts. We had originally been designated to fly into Abingdon Airshow in a loose formation of two Scouts and a Wasp; Mark Cowley, owner of Dragonfly Aviation, had spent considerable energy putting together his display for the show. However, HM Queen Elizabeth II’s death meant it was not to be, so Mark kindly invited Alex and me to join him and Andrew, the other Scout and Wasp owner, for a lunch trip instead.
To make up for no airshow action, Mark had planned an exciting day for us. First, we flew his Scout to Andrew’s house and gathered around the kitchen table for a briefing on formation flying. Alex and Mark would be in Mark’s Scout, and I’d be in the other Scout with Andrew. We’d be flying, Mark explained, as close as one or two rotor diameters apart, so getting everybody on the same page before take-off was critical.
So what kind of things does one have to think about when formation flying with helicopters? Well, to begin with, more or less the same as for fixed-wing: agree a frequency on which to communicate (we went for the display frequency, the easy-to-remember 123.45), decide who’s going to be lead ship and how we’ll refer to each other (Scout Leader, Scout 2), work out a route, duration and fuel required, how fast we’ll fly, the angle of bank in any turns, the type of break we’ll use and which direction to break in, how to change lead ship. And so on.
There were a few helicopter-specific considerations, too, such as which bit of the other helicopter to align with (the rear skid post, for example), and the need to fly slightly above the lead helicopter rather than at the same level or below.
With all this worked out, we strapped ourselves in the two helicopters and made ready to lift. I’ve done a fair bit of formation flying with fixed-wing aircraft over the years, but this was my first time with helicopters, and I couldn’t have asked for a more exciting aircraft for my first rotary formation!
Andrew was flying, which he told me requires an immense amount of concentration, so I took on the role of photographer and snapped some fantastic air-to-air photos. Coming up alongside the other Scout was awe-inspiring, particularly knowing the aircraft’s history and having visions of it in a combat scenario.
That vision was strengthened when we then landed the two aircraft at nearby Preston Capes airfield, where Mark had promised us a preview of the display he would have flown at Abingdon. Having only experienced the Scout from inside it, it was a real treat to stay on the ground and watch Mark practise his carefully choreographed display (from the regulatory 150m distance).
There’s a limit, of course, to how much you can throw around an old helicopter, but believe me when I say that low passes, torque turns and quick stops look and sound suitably impressive when done in a Scout. I imagined what it would’ve been like to be approached by a Scout in anger in Northern Ireland or some other conflict zone – not a sight you’d want to see coming towards you.
A far cry from the battlefield, our final stop of the day was a wonderful lunch at Harley Equestrian, a country store in Northamptonshire run by friends of Mark’s and not (yet) on SkyDemon.
We approached the landing area with the two helicopters in parallel, which made for an excellent video on the store’s Facebook page later that day. The Scout may not have the romance of a Spitfire, but if there’s a more thrilling way to arrive somewhere for lunch, I’d like to hear about it…