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An air of history

Non-profit organisation Navy Wings dedicate their time and expertise to restore and preserve Britain’s great naval aviation heritage.

Words by Rebecca Hawkey | Images by Ross Taylor

In the 75 years since its conception, RNAS Culdrose (HMS Seahawk) still holds the title as the largest military helicopter base in Great Britain, well and truly putting Helston on the map as a naval town. I moved to the area when I was seven, straight into the affectionately known ‘navy estate’, a collection of homes that were built to provide accommodation for serving men, women and their families. I was exposed to navy life at a young age, and my own respect for the forces began in 2002 when we attended the annual Culdrose Air Show, a day where friends and family get to explore the base and see an extensive variety of military aircraft on display. As is custom for Cornish events that require outdoor attendance, this particular day was swept with a bank of low cloud and drizzle thanks to a southerly wind. My family and I were walking home when we happened to line up perfectly with the runway, just in time to see a Panavia Tornado GR take to the skies, afterburners on full. Her low-level fly-by was mere metres above, low enough to pull my heart from my chest and rattle my ribcage. My little nine-year-old self was hooked.

It’s hard to visit Helston or the surrounding areas and not be reminded of the operations going on just a short distance away. Situated on 750 acres of agricultural land and home to over 3,000 personnel, nine squadrons and three runways, this air station is home to skilled aviators, engineers and flight deck crews, all training to protect UK coastal waters and foreign territories, and to provide humanitarian aid and disaster relief. It is one of the biggest single-site employers in Cornwall, contributing massively to the local economy. Culdrose was home to the Sea King Mk7 Airborne Surveillance and Control helicopter, until its retirement, which is when the Merlin took over in this capacity, alongside its role as Airborne Submarine Hunter. Several times a day you’ll hear the thrum of them flying overhead, which continues on into dusk as pilots, observers and aircrewmen do essential night drills. It’s easy to become desensitised to such happenings, but on the odd occasion you’ll be treated to a flyby of a different sort.

RNAS Culdrose recently played host to the Seafire MkXVII SX336. The Seafire was a high-performance carrier-based fighter aircraft, which first entered combat in 1942 and continued to provide air cover for the Allied invasion of Sicily through to the end of the Korean War in the 50s. This particular aircraft entered service with the Royal Navy in 1946 at RNAS Bramcote in Warwickshire, and is thought to have served with 833NAS, Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve until 1953 when she was transferred to RNAS Stretton to be held in storage. Luckily for us, US Navy pilot Tim Manna found her in 1978 and thought her worthy enough to rebuild and restore. She conducted her first post-restoration flight in 2006, 53 years after she last took to the skies. She flies with the markings of 767 Naval Air Squadron based at RNAS Yeovilton with 105 on the rear fuselage, and the RNAS Yeovilton code VL on her tail.

In the summer of 2022, she flew down to RNAS Culdrose under the ownership of Navy Wings, a non-profit organisation committed to the preservation of the nation’s historic naval aircraft, which acquired the Seafire from Tim Manna in 2021. On the tarmac that day was Royal Navy Aircraft Engineer Ross Taylor, who also happens to be a genius behind the lens.

Ross effortlessly captures the exquisite craftsmanship that has gone into this restoration. With the Seafire being more than the sum of its parts, he hones in on features that one might overlook, features that are equally as impressive in their own right as she is as a whole, making the craft a true masterclass in British engineering. On this blue-sky day, the sun radiating off its dark sea-grey exterior as she took to the sky, the unmistakable British military roundel of blue, white and red on her wings, the Seafire looked perfectly at home whilst giving spectators a glimpse into what so commonly soared overhead nigh on 80 years ago.

The Fly Navy Heritage Trust is the charity behind Navy Wings, which works to preserve Britain’s great naval aviation heritage. Nowadays, those who understand the exploits of the Fleet Air Arm and the history of Royal Navy aviation are few and far between, with the exception, of course, of those who have a vested interest. Navy Wings are striving to change that. Through the restoration and demonstration of some iconic aircraft the team are determined to remind the general public of the efficiency and effectiveness of aviation in the Royal Navy, not just from days gone by, but what is still a successful deterrent when defending from the skies in modern warfare.

It’s been 20 years since my encounter with the Tornado fly-by and I am still enamoured with such remarkable feats of engineering. It’s not just the time, commitment and precision that is necessary to build such aircraft that continues to amaze me, but the meticulous, steadfast focus required to pilot them. Navy Wings understand this, and are dedicated to their mission, to remind us of the impressive evolution of military aviation, as well as the men and women who have given years of their life in service. Navy Wings regularly host events in order to raise the substantial amount of money needed to keep their operation ticking over, as they rely solely on public funding. Through these events they are also able to inspire and educate the public about the heroism, innovation and inspiring achievements of the Fleet Air Arm of the Royal Navy over the years. An unprecedented amount of work goes into keeping this collection of naval aircraft in the air, a collection that is comprised not just of the Seafire, but the Swordfish Mk I and II, a Sea Fury FB. 11 and a Chipmunk T.10 to name just a few. You can explore their full collection on their website.

Having lived in Cornwall for as long as I have, and in a naval town at that, I am surrounded by family and friends that serve. The pride our community bears for those in the forces is absolute. Bonds are formed through the shared experience of having loved ones work away for months at a time, all for King and country. The story that Navy Wings are telling is one forged long before my time and one that will continue until my time is passed. It is one we should all try to understand and respect – steeped in history, achievement and sacrifice.

Instagram: Navy Wings

Instagram: Ross Taylor

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