Abingdon Air & Country Show

The first Bank holiday weekend in May can mean only one thing; Airshow season is upon us! Abingdon Air & Country Show is known by many as the first real Airshow of the season and is held at Dalton Barracks in Oxfordshire. The organisers had worked incredibly hard during the months leading up to the show but with just ten days to go, the team was hit with a long list of cancellations. On Sunday 3rd May, I made the short drive to Abingdon to see what the 2015 show had to offer.

The team had compiled a stellar line-up of aircraft for this year’s show; some acts were familiar to the show but there were a handful of scheduled displays that would have been a first for Abingdon.

Within the space of about ten days, almost all of the ‘star’ items had cancelled for a number of different reasons:

  • The Wessex Whirlwind (RAF SAR scheme) was due to appear in the static display but unfortunately withdrew due to unforeseen circumstances.
  • The Midair Squadron Canberra was due to return after it’s debut at the show in 2014 but the aircraft developed a technical fault.
  • The recently repaired Kennet Aviation Seafire was set to make it’s comeback until the crew discovered an oil pressure issue, meaning that the engine had to be removed and inspected again.
  • As has become quite common, the RAF Puma withdrew it’s static participation on Thursday, citing operational commitments for it’s no-show.
  • The Royal Navy Historic Flight Swordfish was forced to cancel it’s flying display due to ongoing oil pressure issues.

You would have thought that this many cancellations in such a short amount of time (and so close to show day) would have caused a big problem for the team. Well apparently, it didn’t! Neil Porter has built up such an incredible reputation over the last fifteen years that he was able to call in a lot of favours and get the flying display programme back up to capacity in just a matter of days.

The Classic Air Force Meteor T7 was tasked with replacing the Canberra but sadly developed a technical snag and was further replaced by the other Meteor that CAF own, the NF.11. The T-28 Fennec that had been drafted in to replace the Vampire T11 (this participation was cancelled in March) suffered a nose gear collapse mid-week and was forced to withdraw, meaning that a last-minute phone call secured the RV8tors. The Seafire was replaced with Kennet’s T6 Texan and the Swordfish replaced with the addition of a second Gnat.

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The static display was also bolstered with the very late addition of the Army Air Corps Historic Flight’s Westland Scout and the Yeovilton-based Westland Wasp. These two aircraft have been absent from the UK circuit for a number of years so this was a real solid boost to the line-up.

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Showers With Sunny Intervals

At least that’s what was originally forecast for Sunday in the Oxford area.

Saturday evening was looking pretty wet mid-week, with Sunday looking like the preferable day and that meant that most likely, the night shoot would have been a complete washout. Luckily the weather remained mostly dry on Saturday with only slight drizzle arriving at about 9pm. The wind patterns changed and this meant that heavy rain was forecast sporadically throughout Sunday.

Abingdon has been pretty lucky with the weather over recent years and has remained mostly dry, bright and sunny. This was not going to be the case this year though; no, 2015’s show will be remembered as a day filled with heavy rain, thunder, lightning and the occasional rainbow.

Originally the military helicopters were scheduled to arrive at 8.30am so with that in mind, I was up at the crack of dawn to capture all the arrivals. The weather was so bad and visibility so poor that the first arrivals weren’t actually until the show opened to the public at 10am. The heavy rain persisted for most of the morning (and afternoon but we’ll get to that later) and sadly had a massive impact on the number of visiting aircraft that flew in for the event. Out of a scheduled 65 civilian-owned aircraft, only five were able to leave their home airfields and make a safe transit to Abingdon. The conditions also meant that the Royal Navy Sea King was unable to get out of Culdrose due to thick fog and that the Yak-3 was unable to get out of Duxford for similar reasons; both rare aircraft were scheduled to display but sadly cancelled early in the day.

The great thing about Abingdon is that the display programme doesn’t start until about 1.30pm in the afternoon and means that you can always have a good browse of the various stalls that are on offer.

Being part airshow and part country show really gives Abingdon an edge that other shows don’t have. While you obviously have some aviation related sellers, there are also a wide range of homemade food stalls to look at. My favourite this year was the Chocarell stall which was selling many different varieties of chocolate brownies; the Cadbury Mini Eggs brownie looks particularly delicious!

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Getting Airborne

By 1pm the cloud had started to disperse and after a short ‘fire power’ demonstration from a T-55 tank, the flying display was underway with the first act of the day; the RV8tors.

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The RV8tors have become a very familiar sight on the UK circuit in recent years and although their ‘fly2help’ colour scheme leaves a lot to be desired, the display itself is still extremely entertaining and is one of the most tightly flown pairs routines that exists. The RV-8 is a high performance, kit-built aerobatic plane and in the hands of Alistair Kay and Andy Hill, is an extremely agile aircraft. The display felt close enough to touch at times and served as a great opener to the afternoon’s flying programme.

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One of the highlights of the show for me was finally getting to see the OV-10 Bronco in the air. The Bronco Demo Team have been together since 2010 and during the past five years have visited Abingdon on a number of occasions but only ever as a static display. However, due to overwhelming demand from enthusiasts, Neil Porter made sure that the Rockwell OV-10 Bronco would return to the Oxfordshire skies for 2015 and demonstrate its full display.

As the sky darkened, the Bronco taxiied to the end of the runway and carried out it’s pre-flight checks. A few minutes later Tony De Bruyn was airborne and soon showing off just how unique the OV-10 is. The North American Aviation Rockwell OV-10 Bronco is a turbo-prop aircraft that was initially designed as a light-attack/observation aircraft and during the 1960s saw heavy use in the Vietnam theatre as a Forward Air Control (FAC) aircraft. Tony’s well choreographed display contained a number of decent top-side passes, making it very photogenic but the routine also demonstrated the versatility of the aircraft with a complex combination of maneuvers at varying speeds.

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If I told you that the most captivating display of the show came from a RotorSport Calidus Autogyro with a measly 115hp engine, you’d probably question my opinion, right? I have been wanting to see Peter Davies’ display for a number of years now but he had sadly never been far enough South…until now.

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An Autogyro works on the principle of ‘autorotation’. This is where the main rotor spins purely based on the aerodynamic forces of the airflow passing over the blades; much in the same way that a windmill works.

I wasn’t too sure what to expect from Peter’s display but I was simply blown away by his routine. Due to the size and weight of the aircraft, it seems to zip around the sky and performs very much like a helicopter. What I couldn’t get over was the incredible amount of ‘blade slap’ that gets generated when the aircraft suddenly changes pitch and direction; you could be easily forgiven for thinking there was a Chinook on the horizon. The routine was like nothing I’d ever seen before and was a true demonstration of aerial ballet. It was, hands-down, the best display of the day!

As a side note, it seems that I wasn’t the only one that was hugely impressed with the Autogyro display as Peter Davies has already been booked for the 2016 show!

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Mid-afternoon the rain came again and this time it was here to stay. This wasn’t just a light shower either, this was a full-on heavy downpour that lasted a number of hours and the only two acts brave enough to display in those conditions were Rod Dean in his Bulldog and the Gnat pair based out of North Weald airfield. The Gnat Display Team’s decision to display was questioned by many and at one point got a little uncomfortable to watch but they prevailed and completed their routine in less than ideal conditions. Shortly after the pair departed, Lauren Richardson cancelled her Pitts Special display on the grounds of safety and the display programme was suspended with doubt over whether it would continue at all.

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Close to two hours passed as the rain continued to saturate the airfield but the team have to be applauded for the way in which this situation was handled. As many headed for their cars (and sadly the exit), the social media platforms were updated on a regular basis with what was going on and showed just how determined the team were to get the show going again.

From updates on Twitter, I was aware that the Typhoon, Spitfire, Hurricane and Dakota were all airborne from RAF Coningsby (the Lancaster remained on the ground with engine related problems and has since had a fire in the no. 4 engine) and holding a number of miles away because the visibility was so poor. Weather pattern updates suggested that the rain would eventually clear by 4pm so I held out (like many enthusiasts did) and at roughly 4:05pm, the Spitfire and Typhoon Synchro pair were cleared for display.

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This pairing, of old and new, have been put together for 2015 to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Britain and for the first time ever in the UK, the Typhoon from 29(R) Squadron has been fully painted in a WWII era Spitfire scheme. The display started with a number of formation passes before the two split at crowd centre for various opposition passes. The routine is well thought out and is brought right into the present at the end of the routine when the Typhoon pulls the throttle back and launches vertically into the sky. The display serves as a fitting tribute to such a momentous time in history.

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There was another brief pause in the display programme while the team sorted further displays for the next hour or so. This gave the Catalina a chance to depart for it’s display slot at the Shuttleworth season opener but also meant that a very rare shot could be taken; they say there’s always gold at the end of a rainbow, right?

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The rain clouds started to gather again and were pressing in from the west at an alarming rate. It was almost time for me to leave (mainly because I was completely drenched from head to toe) but there was still a chance to squeeze in just one more display and that came in the form of the Classic Air Force Meteor NF.11. This particular airframe hasn’t been seen an awful lot over the last couple of years so it was a real treat to see it perform in a tiny break of blue sky.

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The Classic Air Force have had a great deal of negative press over recent months thanks to the terrible way in which the Newquay-based operation had been managed (you can read more about that here) but this didn’t stop them from carrying out a show-stopping display in their classic jet. Although the NF.11 isn’t as good looking as it’s silver counterpart (at least in my eyes!), the team put on a terrific display of grace and power.

As was mentioned earlier, I left soon after the Meteor display and by all accounts missed out on a brilliant display from both the returning Catalina and BBMF Dakota.

What If?

At the end of the day, the 2015 Abingdon Air & Country Show was completely at the mercy of Mother Nature and I really feel for Neil and the team. The show takes almost a year to organise so I can only imagine how heart-breaking it is when many of your ‘star’ items cancel, replacements are drafted in and then on the day itself, the display programme is once again turned upside down by the weather.

The aircraft that did manage to display, put on a cracking show for those that were brave enough to stick around and see what happened. Those that didn’t display must have been incredibly frustrated but it’s always better to be safe than risk going up in such atrocious conditions. Abingdon has been pretty lucky in the past with the weather but 2015 will be remembered as the year when the heavens opened and the show that could have been.

My only real criticism of the show goes on something that isn’t in any way related to the flying display. The selection of food outlets at the event is still pretty poor and in a time when people seem to be happier spending a little more on good quality food, it seems pointless to have so many food carts offering the same old selection of fast food. ‘Street food’ is big at the moment and it’d be great to see some premium quality outlets at the 2016 show; I’m thinking Mexican, Indian, Chinese etc. They’re out there somewhere and I really do think it’d compliment the quality goods that are already on offer from the trade stalls.

As I said earlier, the team must be applauded for the way in which the unpredictability of the show was managed and full marks go to the team for their ongoing communication with the public.

To Neil and his loyal team of volunteers, thank you for a terrific weekend at Dalton Barracks!

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