After a hugely successful and record breaking week at the Farnborough International Airshow, airfield owners TAG once again opened up the gates to some 80,000 people for a mid-summer spectacle.
I think almost everyone will agree that the shows at Farnborough have become a shadow of their former self and having had many complaints from the 2012 show, the team at FIA were keen to show that they could improve on their offering.
I attended the Sunday show two years ago; the weather was beautiful but the flying display programme was average at best and the showground was far too crowded. Having held several focus groups, the organising committee had a clear idea of what they needed to do to put Farnborough back on the map.
Fast forward almost two years to the launch day of a re-branded ‘Farnborough Airshow’ and it was an almost unrecognisable event. The entire team held their hands up and admitted in front of the media that they’d fallen behind and delivered a mediocre show in 2012. It was revealed that several star items had been secured for the ‘Celebration of 100 years of aviation’ show; a Spanish Navy AV-8B II Harrier (the result of over 14 months of negotiations with Spanish authorities and a first for Farnborough), the replica Me-262 from Germany, the Breitling sponsored Super Constellation and the Lockheed Martin F-35B Lightning II.
Through absolutely no fault of their own, just weeks later the Me-262 developed a technical fault which meant that it was to take a sabatical for the rest of the 2014 display season and after a long drawn out PR disaster, Lockheed Martin announced that the F-35 would not be making the transatlantic journey due to a grounding being lifted just days before the show started.
Eyes To The Sky
As mentioned previously, the flying display was one of the main areas that needed development and as well as announcing star items at the launch, it was also explained that a contract had been signed with Airbus to keep several of their ‘trade’ items on the ground for the public show. It later transpired that this signing had been part of a new major sponsorship deal with the aircraft manufacturer for the public two day event.
The Airbus backing meant that the A400M, A380 and E-Fan were all displaying in the flying programme over the weekend and as usual, the test pilots put on an incredible show. Seeing an airliner the size of the A380 being thrown about the sky as if it were a fighter is something that has to be seen to be believed. The A400M (‘Grizzly’ as it’s known to it’s testing team) is due to enter service with the RAF later this year as the ‘Atlas’, so to see it at Farnborough demonstrating it’s tactical capabilities was a real treat. It has to be said that when it comes to large aircraft displays, Airbus are the Kings.
A contract was also signed with Boeing to supply the airshow with its F/A-18F Super Hornet – the aircraft had flown every day for the trade week and even though I’d already seen it, the technical demonstration of the Super Hornet is simply stunning. Even with the airspace restrictions enforced by Heathrow, the Boeing flown display was easily one of the most entertaining of the weekend. A combination of high-g flicking and turning built up to a finale which consisted of a square loop flown to maximum altitude.
Without a doubt though, the star of the show was the Spanish Navy AV-8B II Harrier. The RAF disbanded their Harrier squadrons in 2010 and retired the aircraft amidst the political storm that was the SDSR (Strategic Defence and Security Review). Having been absent from the UK circuit for over three years, a Harrier in the Hampshire sky was an almost perfect way to signal Farnborough’s commitment to delivering a better show. The display itself was reminiscent of the ‘role demo’ type displays that the RAF aircraft was forced to fly in it’s final years – three high speed passes and then five full minutes of dirty, smoking hovering. The Harrier is an incredible machine and at a show where it’s successor was a no-show, it was a poetic reminder that the RAF GR.9s were retired way before their time.
Other highlights from the flying display included the Midair Squadron Canberra PR.9 (filling the gap left by the Me-262) which signed off on that unmistakable howl, a full routine from the Red Arrows who in their 50th year look at the top of their game, a brilliant display of solo aerobatics from Mark Jefferies, a decent routine from Kev Rumens in XH558 and a stunningly beautiful display from the majestic, dolphin-shaped Super Constellation. The ‘Connie’ was on the ground at RIAT last year but this was the first time I’d seen it in the air and even though the display consisted of just two straight and level flypasts, the sight and sound of a 1950s prop-driven airliner was a truly spine-tingling experience.
It’s fair to say that the past, present and future were fully represented at this year’s 2014 ’100 Years of Aviation’ show.
A Missed Opportunity
During the week, the Farnborough International Airshow takes full advantage of the space available on the ground to showcase commercial and private aircraft, helicopters and in places, light aircraft. The static aircraft that had departed the trade show on the Thursday and Friday left plenty of space that should have been filled but for some reason it wasn’t. Apart from the Catalina, a Royal Navy Merlin and the relocation of the Super Constellation, the static area felt empty. The main reason for this was that the Alenia Aermacchi, TAI and US DoD areas were at the far east of the showground – three of the biggest contingents that remained on the ground for the public days.
I would have liked to have seen the empty space filled with more aircraft that could have represented the ‘100 Years of Aviation’ theme. There are many warbirds in this country and a handful of classic jets that would have padded out the showground a little more. It would even have been nice to see some aircraft from the RAF and AAC – Farnborough surely could have been a massive recruitment drive for both forces. On an airfield the size of Farnborough, gaps are unfortunately incredibly noticeable.
As mentioned previously, 2012 was overcrowded and this meant that queues for both toilets and food had waiting times upwards of 30 minutes. 2014 was a different story (at least on Saturday when I attended) – many more toilets were provided and certainly at the grandstand end of the airfield, they were very clean and well maintained. Food was on the edge of becoming too expensive but at an average price of £5 for a single hot item, it seemed to fit in with the majority of other events up and down the country.
New for 2014 and on the back of similar ideas at both RIAT and Bournemouth Airshow, Farnborough Airshow Live! made it’s debut appearance. Fronted by TV presenters Michael Underwood and Angelica Bell, I have to say that I was a little nervous when I heard about the idea but any worries were soon put to rest. It turns out that both are genuinely interested in aviation and this became clear from some of the conversations that took place between Michael and the commentary team during the show. There was also a large stage just behind the main grandstand that allowed the presenters to question the likes of the Red Arrows in front of the audience. As well as the stage, the air displays were being streamed to large TV screens dotted around the showground thanks to fantastic videography from the guys over at Planes TV – this meant that you could go and get something to eat without being too far from the action.
On the whole I think this concept worked extremely well, even more so with the strong presence of families. It may not have appealed to the hardcore enthusiast but at the end of the day, Farnborough Airshow is targeted as a major attraction to families all over the South of England.
With a gate price of £48 per head (under 16s go free), I can’t help but feel that Farnborough is somewhat lost when it comes to ticketing. On the basis of an average family (mum, dad, two teenagers and an infant), the entrance fee alone is more than £140; add travelling costs, food and drink to that and you’re probably looking at somewhere in the region of £200-£250 for a day out at the airshow.
By contrast, a ticket for the Royal International Airshow (an eight hour flying display and extensive static park) costs £44pp and a two day ticket for the RNAS Yeovilton Air Day costs just £39pp (the gate price for the Saturday is just £25). Even with a varied and entertaining flying programme like this year’s, the ticket price is still way off. If the team at FIA are serious about putting Farnborough back on the map, something has to be done about the entrance fee – there is simply no excuse.
One thing that did come down in price however was the souvenir display programme. Created by Key Publishing and priced at just £4, the quality of the programme was exceptional and a massive improvement on the over-glossy, advert filled magazine from 2012.
The juxtaposition of the ticket price and programme is just mind boggling. I really do find it difficult to understand.
A Promising Step Forwards
To say that Farnborough Airshow is ‘the best airshow in the world’ right now would be a lie. It isn’t. What it is though, is a solid airshow that’s making footsteps in the right direction. The team listened and acted upon certain elements that were heavily criticised in recent years but there are still a handful of things that need addressing, most importantly the shows pricing structure.
With the strong re-branding and procurement of key airborne stars, Farnborough Airshow is definitely making a comeback one step at a time. In years gone by, Farnborough was the home of cutting-edge British technology and a worldwide stage for aviation; don’t be scared of it FIA, embrace it.
Having just celebrated the 70th anniversary of D-Day, the centenary of WWI and the Red Arrows 50th anniversary, aviation is once again making the headlines and one thing is clear – this country is still very much interested in airshows.
It’s time to take full advantage of that and I’m counting down the days until FIA 2016.
Farnborough, it’s over to you…