Farnborough International Air Show 2012

For one week every two years, Farnborough International Airport is transformed into the home of one of the biggest aviation trade shows to grace the world. From Monday to Thursday, some of the world’s biggest defence companies descend on the Hampshire town to showcase their latest innovations with hopes of selling them to countries around the globe and then the gates are opened to the public until the Sunday. As well as the defence side of things, FIA is also a chance for other aviation related industries and companies to display their newest technologies. The media is always keen to draw attention to the fact that we are in a global economic recession, yet at FIA this year customers were able to place over $72bn worth of orders – up from 2010 when orders totalled a mere $47bn in comparison. However, we’re yet to see a return to the financial success of 2008 when a staggering $88.7 billion worth of aviation equipment was ordered.

So where did these orders come from? You can always rely on FIA to turn into an unofficial competition between Airbus and Boeing to see who can secure the most orders and it looks as though Boeing came out on top this year. One of the biggest individual (confirmed) orders came from United Airlines who ordered a total of 100 Boeing 737 Max airlines for their fleet totalling around $9 billion (Reuters). Airbus were also proud to announce that they secured a total of $11.1bn for 54 aircraft.

As I live locally to Farnborough and seeing as the Royal International Air Tattoo was the weekend before the show started (review here), I decided to take the week off work and see what the 2012 show had to offer.

The trade day flying displays last between two to three hours and you can often see a mixture of both military and civil aircraft. The key aircraft displaying this year in the trade show were the Airbus A380, the newly painted Qatar Airways Boeing 787 Dreamliner, the Yakovlev Yak-130 advanced jet trainer/light attack aircraft, the Boeing Bell MV-22 Osprey and the Korean Aerospace Industries T-50 – also an advanced jet trainer.

With the weather forecast looking pretty grim, I was beginning to regret taking the entire week off work but nevertheless I decided to make the short drive to Farnborough in time to see the Red Arrows and Vulcan open the show on Monday. Unfortunately I was only able to see the flypast from my car as I was stuck in traffic about a mile from where I needed to be.

Monday had a couple of highlights for me. It saw the first display flight of the Qatar 787 at Farnborough – Boeing officially weren’t going to display the 787 at all this year, but the owner of Qatar decided that he’d like to show it off on Boeing’s behalf. Taking off into a gloomy sky, the 787 pulled up to the right almost immediately and levelled off to begin its display. With the A-380 also present and displaying earlier in the day, the 787 pilot had an awful lot to live up to. The A-380 display is something that has to be seen to be believed – the Airbus test pilot throws the aircraft around in a way that makes you feel slightly uneasy – an aircraft of that size just shouldn’t be able to do half the things that it does. Unfortunately it turns out that the 787 display is nothing on the Airbus jumbo – with a couple of flypasts, turns and climbs, it all seemed a little tame. Don’t get me wrong, its an attractive aircraft and technically ahead of the majority of its competitors but it just isn’t a display aircraft.

Another first for the show this year was the T-50. Having seen the Black Eagles display team on Saturday at RIAT I had high expectations for the solo display. Three of the Black Eagles had flown in earlier in the afternoon – one for the static display, one for the flying display and one as a back up aircraft. The solo eagle lined up on the runway and turned up the heat for take off with full use of its afterburner. The T-50 makes for a fantastic display aircraft and certainly has one of the best paint schemes on the circuit. High-G turns, fast passes, and a high alpha pass made for an interesting display. The added bonus of reheat makes the aircraft even more enjoyable to watch.

The weather forecast improved a little for Tuesday so I decided to set up camp again with the prospect of a USAF B-52 in some blue skies. Bang on 1213 as scheduled, the B-52 turned on to the display line. As the unmistakeable smoke filled the sky behind it, the bomber flew over head with its engines whistling away in the wind. A rare sight in the air at shows these days so it was a real treat to be able to tick that off the 2012 list.

There’s no doubt in my mind that the next display was my favourite of the day. A regular visitor to Farnborough took off mid-afternoon to give its display – the F/A-18 Super Hornet. Focusing on the Hornet through the heat haze, I snapped away – full reheat and a sharp pull over the TAG hangers made for one of the best take off’s I’ve seen to date. The Hornet display this year is incredible and is by far one of the best solo fighter displays. Lots of high speed runs, rolls, flips and almost tail slides are all very photogenic and the lines of the F/A-18 lend itself to vapour clouds left, right and centre. The jet action didn’t end there with the Saab Gripen taking to the air next, giving a demonstration of the small, sharp looking fighter. The display is enjoyable to watch but it just doesn’t have the edge on the Hornet.

I decided to stay at home on Wednesday to write my RIAT review so my next visit was on Thursday. Thursday by all accounts should have been a great day had it not been for the weather. The Red Arrows and RAF Tornado Role Demonstration were due to validate late in the afternoon, an hour or so after the displays had officially finished. Grey clouds began to loom on the horizon and slowly but surely the drizzle set in. Once the Reds had arrived and the A-380 had displayed it soon became too wet to keep the camera out. The weather was so bad that it stopped both acts from validating. I went away with just a few usable images – a disappointing day for Farnborough International.

I had originally planned to go into the show on Friday to have a look in the trade halls but I was offered a free ticket for Sunday so decided against it. It would seem that the exhibitors just aren’t interested in staying for the public days any more which was one of the main attractions for a lot of people. I have fond memories of going to Farnborough and coming home with bags full of posters, post cards, key rings and stickers. It was all part of the fun and I feel slightly saddened by the thought that the younger ones won’t be able to experience this side of the show any longer.

Saturday quickly rolled by and it was time for the last day of the 2012 show. It is felt by many an enthusiast that the public days at Farnborough are possibly some of the worst air shows ever put together. The display looked thin but I was determined to have a good day, the sun was shining and the tickets were free so what did I have to lose.

Many have expressed their negative opinions on the security at Farnborough this year but I for one did not experience any problems. My friend and I were among the first 100 people to join the queue at the Eelmoor end of the airfield and it took all of about ten minutes to get through security once the gates had opened. Getting in early gave us the best chance of getting a good seat along the fence line and once camp was set up (just chairs – none of this stupid tent malarkey) I decided to go off and have a look around.

I headed off back the way that we had come in – this time avoiding the mud and sludge left over from the weeks rain. Most people would say that the shows static displays are one of their biggest weaknesses but I’d have to disagree with this. The aircraft were mostly displayed side by side in groups, yes they may have been a bit too close to get a full body shot of a sole aircraft but this didn’t bother me. Those that are familiar with my work know that I tend to focus on the close up shots rather than sweeping wide angles and I felt that I came away with some very nice shots indeed.

As I mentioned on my Facebook page (http://www.facebook.com/tommercerphotography), I was very fortunate to finally meet the members of the Breitling Wingwalkers mid-morning and had the opportunity to get some one-to-one shots of Danielle Hughes – one of the leading ladies of the acrobatic display. It’s the first time that I’ve met an act who genuinely seemed to care that you took an interest in them, she was more than happy to stop for five minutes to have a chat so I have to say a huge thank you to Danielle and the other girls who were present!

Heading back up the fence line I found where the American hardware was hiding – tucked away behind the C-17 in front of the BAE exhibit hall. It was a good chance to get a couple of shots of the Super Bug but the most interesting experience by far was going on-board the Globemaster. I’d not seen the inside of the transport aircraft before and was shocked at just how big it was inside. The C-17 aircrew were great to talk to and like the Wingwalkers, were more than happy to answer your questions. One of my rules of thumb when it comes to photography is that you should never be afraid of looking stupid when you’re trying to get the shot that you want and it almost always pays off. You can get some great angles and lines when you’re willing to go the extra mile.

It was soon time for the displays to begin and for spacial awareness to go out the window. In terms of the crowd line, Farnborough is by far one of the worst that one can experience. If you don’t get to the fence before 10am then you’re guaranteed not to have a clear view of the runway. Fortunately as we’d arrived early we were fine but the crowds started to gather with people standing shoulder to shoulder along the concrete taxiway – trying their hardest to avoid the rotten wet grass. As well as the uncomfortable crowds there were also the fact that there was a complete absence of any form of commentary from where we were. Not sure what the reason for this was but we didn’t have a clue what was going on all day. Its good to know that from 2014 there will be someone new in the display directors chair and hopefully these things will be sorted! Just one last moan – I had to wait over twenty minutes just to go to the toilet. Sort it out Farnborough.

After the A400M had departed and the RAF Falcons had jumped it was almost time for the A-380 to get airborne. The glossy white airliner pulled on to the taxi way and made for some great shots – one of the positives of Farnborough is how close you are to the runway, so take off shots are some of the best I was able to get this year. Gliding through the air in a majestic fashion, the Airbus giant wowed the crowds and landed to a huge round of applause.

The Breitling Jet Team took to the skies half an hour later and put on one of the tightest displays I’ve ever seen them perform. They were nice and tight and flew some impressive formations but they need another dimensions added to their display to make it that little bit better. Possibly some coloured smoke?

The F/A-18 gave another fantastic display and a very nice take off but as soon as the Hornet was back on the ground, four bright orange Boeing Stearman’s taxied out to begin their display. The team represent air displays of a bygone era, a time when aviation was still very much in its infancy and when barnstorming was a common sight across the country. This was the first time in 2012 that I’d witnessed the four ship routine and I have to say that I was very impressed with their display. It’s always been a favourite of mine at air shows and is one of the most photographic displays on the circuit with lots of manoeuvres very close to the edge of the runway. 

3pm crept up on us and seven red BAE Hawks staggered themselves on the tarmac, it was time for the Red Arrows to rule the sky above Farnborough. As always, the crowds stopped moving and eyes went to the sky in search of the red, white and blue smoke. As the Reds flew over crowd centre to begin their routine an almighty cheer was released and hands were put together for the aerobatic display team of the RAF. I could get quite used to the seven ship display, it seems extremely tight and given the awkward airspace restrictions in place, the Red Arrows were able to deliver another outstanding performance. Voices fell quiet and silence took pride of place when the seven aircraft made their memorial flypast, streaming two red paths of smoke to mark the loss of life from the team last year – it really does bring a lump to the throat. A very fitting tribute indeed.



The BBMF were next up but sadly only flying the Lancaster and just the one Spitfire. I decided that I would try my hand at getting some good prop blur during this display – it turns out that its much easier to achieve in take off and landing shots than it is in the air. Once again the BBMF gave a very elegant display and there’s nothing quite like the sounds of five merlin engines in the sky at once.



The Apache took off, swiftly followed by a very powerful take off from the RAF Tornado Role Demo team. Once the Apache had displayed and landed – the two Panavia jets tore in from the left and right. I was a little worried that the Tornado display would be a little tame due to the restrictions in place but they didn’t disappoint. Due to the rubbish weather on Saturday the team had a weekends worth of pyrotechnics to use and boy did they make sure they used them all. Still using plenty of reheat, the GR.4s created enough noise to make the ground vibrate and laying down the ‘explosives’ it was clear to see who hadn’t witnessed the might of the role demonstration before.

It was crystal clear that the organisers had blown the majority of their budget on the Vulcan and this was confirmed when the Vulcan taxiing became an actual ‘display’ on the timetable. Once XH558 was clear of the main runway, the RAF Hawk, Osprey and Typhoon all gave their displays. As said previously the Typhoon display this year is simply brilliant – much more agile than recent years and surprisingly for an RAF display, its actually quite camera friendly.

Possibly for the last time ever, XH558 graced the skies above Farnborough. I’m not sure why it is, I’ve never managed to work it out but the Vulcan seems to cause a real stir among the general public. The howl of the Olympus engines reverberated across the airfield and after showing off the capabilities of the V-Force aircraft, it landed to a roar of cheering and applause. The Vulcan’s display is brilliant, don’t get me wrong but there are better displays out there and in my opinion the money could be better spent elsewhere. The money could certainly have added a little more variety to the flying display.

In short, Farnborough International 2012 was a mixed bag and a wet one at that. The trade days had some interesting displays but its a shame they couldn’t be tempted to perform in front of the general public at the weekend. The static aircraft were laid out better than previous years but make no mistake – there are definitely lessons to be learnt from 2012 and things need to be corrected if FIA is to survive beyond the next decade. Hopefully a new display director could be exactly what the show needs.

All these shots and more from all throught the week are all available to see at www.facebook.com/tommercerphotography

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