Squirrels get a grip on Skyfire

Published on Ms Dallas McMaugh (author), LSIS Sarah Williams (photographer)

Location(s): Canberra

Topic(s): Helicopters, Bell 429, Squadrons, 723 Squadron, Events, Skyfire

723 Squadron's pairs display pilots, Lieutenants Richard Groves and Joshua Slaytor, with a AS350BA Squirrel helicopter, which will be flown over Lake Burley Griffin during Canberra's Skyfire.  (photo: LSIS Sarah Williams)
723 Squadron's pairs display pilots, Lieutenants Richard Groves and Joshua Slaytor, with a AS350BA Squirrel helicopter, which will be flown over Lake Burley Griffin during Canberra's Skyfire.

Navy’s 723 Squadron Squirrel Pairs display team is back next Saturday to thrill audiences with a display of precision flying over Lake Burley Griffin for Canberra’s Skyfire. 

This year Lieutenants Richard Groves and Josh Slaytor will be the pilots behind the wingovers, quickstops, break turns, torque/pedal turns, pirouettes, precision hovering, low speed manoeuvring and the famous 'head nod' on 19 March. 

The pilots will also demonstrate the Squirrel helicopter’s impressive manoeuvrability and aircrews’ high level skills and training with a practice on Friday in preparation for the Saturday afternoon show. 

For Lieutenant Groves it will be a world away from his previous career choices which include time as a Physical Eduaction teacher and IT consultant and will also provide a different view of Lake Burley Griffin for this Canberra local. 

“I joined Navy in July 2004 as a direct entry Pilot and am now the Squirrel Pilot Training Officer, delivering flying instruction to new Pilots and responsible for the conduct and progression of all Pilot Rotary Course training at 723 Squadron,” Lieutenant Groves said.

“I have participated in Skyfire before but only as part of a static helicopter display where we landed next to Lake Burley Griffin - so this year will be a very different experience for me.”

Lieutenant Groves last flew in the Squirrels Display Team as part of the 2016 Australia Day celebrations. 

“It’s something I really look forward to,” he said. 

“I enjoy being able to conduct manoeuvres in the Squirrel that we don't perform during any of the Pilot training at 723 Squadron. 

“It’s a nice change from training to be able to operate the aircraft in that manner during the workups and display.”

For Lieutenant Slaytor, a qualified Flying Instructor at the squadron, this will be his first Skyfire but not his first flight as part of the Pairs Display Team as also participated in the 2016 Australia Day performance over Sydney Harbour.  

“It's always a fun sequence to fly and a real plus is that it gives you the opportunity to go out and fly the manoeuvres required,” Lieutenant Slaytor said.   

Flying in the Squirrel Pairs Display Team requires a high degree of knowledge, skill and familiarity with the aircraft. 

“The Pilot is required to manoeuvre the aircraft near its limits in a confined area over Lake Burley Griffin to ensure that we meet our separation requirements from the audience, the other aircraft, and the water,” Lieutenant Groves said. 

Preparation for Skyfire will consist of three days of workups, a couple of days practising the routine over HMAS Albatross, and then a rehearsal over Lake Burley Griffin the day before.

Lieutenant Groves said the Squirrel is well suited to precision flying for a range of reasons. 

“In larger helicopters with a different rotor head design, there is a significant delay between the pilot's input to the controls, and the aircraft responding but the Squirrel is a light helicopter, and the design of the rotor head is such that the aircraft responds to pilot inputs very quickly.”

Both pilots agree that community events such as Skyfire are a great opportunity to demonstrate the strengths of the aircrew and aircraft of Australia’s Fleet Air Arm. 

“I hope the Skyfire audience enjoys the Pairs demonstration, that they also go away with an appreciation of the Squirrel and the capability of an aircraft that has provided in excess of 30 years service to the Royal Australian Navy,” Lieutenant Groves said.