Past Talks : JuLY 2023

The Queens Platinum Jubilee Flypast 2022, by Lt Cdr David Lilly, RN

David Lilly stood before us in his flying suit, wingsand rank tabs, which was very fitting because, as a serving officer, he had not long come off duty at HMS Heron (aka RNAS Yeovilton) – on the other side of the fence to our auditorium.

The Queens Platinum Jubilee Flypast at Buckingham Palace took place on 2nd June 2022 and of the 70+ aircraft that took part, the very front, lead aircraft was a Wildcat helicopter flown by our speaker tonight. That is a pretty significant role to play and it does look good on the CV.

Davids CV is a good place to start in setting the background to a very lively, animated and humorous evening.  David Lilly decided that he wanted to fly military aircraft for a career and presented himself to the RAF. They did not want him, so on reflection he thought the RN sounded more interesting and presented himself to them instead and in 1977 he started his new life. Four years later David gained his Wings and joined 702 Squadron. Apparently, 4+ years to gain your Wings is typical these days and a high proportion of pilots now come directly from university, via the UAS (University Air Squadron). To date David has flown around 4,400 hours, including 1,500 hours as an instructor and he has flown every type of aircraft in RN service. In his time, he has served in the Baltic, the Gulf, spent 4 years as a Lynx Trials Instructor, spent 3 years with the Oman Air Force, was involved with the introduction of the Wildcat into Squadron service, plus Wildcat Conversion Instruction and he spent 6 months on training in the Ukraine – which included all aspects of training, such as escape and evasion, which he knows has been put into practice since.

David is clearly a very experienced pilot and is currently Senior Pilot on 825 Squadron.

In March 2022, the Squadron was told that a flypast of Buckingham Palace for the Platinum Jubilee was being planned. It was all very vague. It soon emerged that the RAF had devised and wanted to implement its plan with participation by the other services. However, it was equally soon apparent that they were not the only ones with a plan. The RN, the Army and the JHC (Joint Helicopter Command) also had plans. In the event the RAF was nominated the lead organisation, but because it was a ceremonial occasion, the RN, as Senior Service, would lead the fly past followed by the Army Air Corps and finally the RAF. Bearing in mind the speed difference between a helicopter of say ±150kts and that of jet aircraft at 400+kts it would be a nightmare if it went wrong.

The 2nd June was going to be a busy day for 825 Squadron, because the flypast was scheduled for the morning and in the afternoon was the Squadrons WingsParade at RNAS Yeovilton, when new pilots were formally awarded their wings. David was greatly pleased to be told by his bossthat for one reason or another, he David, would have to lead the flypast while the boss took the Wings Parade. David explained that as a naval helicopter pilot the experience is very different to that of a land helicopter pilot and it was a big moment when a pilot (male or female) first puts a helicopter on 1/. an erratically moving ships deck, 2/. the same, at night, 3/. the same, in poor weather. It is a great enlightenment and motivator for all pilots. The Wildcat is after all the primary weapon of a warship.

A mass briefing for the flypast followed at RAF High Wycombe with something like 180 people in the room – and it was all still very much a secret. An Air Marshall gave the bigbrief and unsurprisingly it was very jet-centric.

Rehearsals would be an essential element and Restricted Airspace was allocated stretching from Hull, down to offshore Ipswich and inland as far as RAF Cranwell. The briefings also quickly revealed a lack of commonality in some terminology. The word Holdfor example meant something different in each service. Additionally, on the 2nd June, all flights to/from Heathrow and Gatwick would be stopped during the course of the flypast. That is not done lightly.

The over-riding objective was for all aircraft to arrive over the Palace, on track and on time. More easily said than done for such a large, diverse formation of aircraft, but it happened exactly.

The preparations were detailed and intense, including: rendezvous at RAF Benson; routing across London; for accuracy, mark plots on the chart at one minute intervals for 15 minutes; tolerance no more than 5kts/5 seconds, otherwise the 70 aircraft following behind would back-up and bunch, or stretch out like a motorway queue (totally unacceptable); plan to fly constantly at 90kts ground speed, so that the other faster flying elements could realistically calculate their speed to arrive precisely on schedule.

One full rehearsal took place using RAF Cranwell as its Palace substitute for the timings of the exercise and to iron out some of the communication anomalies. Other than that the RN team used its flight simulators to practice and refine the plans. The JHC wanted additional rehearsals, but they had to be reminded that squadrons still had a full-time job to fulfil and no time could be spared.

One of the useful capabilities of the Wildcat is that it can listen to up to 30 different radio frequencies should the unlikely need arise. As lead pilot David had to brief all the rotary winged crews from RNAS Yeovilton, RAF Benson and RAF Odiham. This in itself could be daunting with an audience of over 150,000 flying hours experience and much more senior brass than he was, sat watching and listening to him intently. Not a problem, said David with all that instructing under his belt.

No matter how good the planning is, there is always snag, a constant, unpredictable snag. The weather. Well, in the event it was good, in fact it was excellent weather for a flypast. Not only that, but all the aircraft were serviceable. On time, all according to plan, David and his team started up and taxied out. All 8 Wildcats flew to RAF Benson, refuelled, lined up with 10 additional helicopters and launched precisely on schedule. As planned they arrived at the first way-point and maintained the exact schedule throughout the onward flight path. David stressed the critical role played by his Observer whose hard work was paying off as they progressed along the route. With all its sophistication, the Wildcat spends most of its operations flying over the sea, hence navigation is only automated to give height and heading readings. The actual plotting of waypoints is a different kettle of fish over the sea.

The scheduled arrival time over the Palace was 13.00 and the BBC added some excitement for David by airing at 12.53 its previously recorded interview with him. The reaction? Davids mobile phone went berserk as everyone he knew called him to say they had seen the interview, etc., etc.. Oh dear, the timing!

The Wildcat carries some highly sophisticated equipment and on the run in over the Palace Davids Observer switched on a camera to gain some excellent close-up images of the Royal party standing on the Palace balcony looking up at them.

Similarly, the crowds in the Mall took video shots of the fly past from every conceivable angle. David mingled many of these views with the ones taken from his cockpit of the London Eye, The Mall and the Palace, plus of course the other aircraft formating on his Wildcat.

Once past the Palace, it was all over and the Wildcats returned to Yeovilton. Not prone to self-satisfaction, just for once David reflected while driving out the gate, “that was a job well done”.

Several lessons were noted, including: people so easily overcomplicate things; there is always more than one way to achieve the aims; experience does matter and is important; individuals deal with stress very differently; it would be a great benefit if flight simulators between the different services were connected.

On reflection David feels pleased with the outcome of the exercise and the way that it all fell into place. Undoubtably, he is very loyal to the RN and took great delight in any opportunity to exchange banter with the many ex-RAF Members of the audience. It was a super evening and if you cannot join us in the auditorium, make sure you join us on Zoom, it is so easy to do. Thank you Lt Cdr David Lilly for a super evening.

Summarised by Robert Heath