Old Sarum Airshow

The county of Wiltshire is steeped in history and is world famous for being the home of Stonehenge. Just a few miles down the road lies the very traditional, picturesque Old Sarum Airfield. With beautiful rolling hills as a backdrop, the airfield is an almost ideal venue for an Airshow and although there was a small event held for the Para Charity last year, 2015 was the first time that a full-scale Airshow has been held on site. The organisers promised a varied display programme and a major headliner item;  I made the short trip down the A303 to see what the inaugural Old Sarum Airshow had to offer.

Rumblings of a new event at Old Sarum started doing the rounds at the beginning of the year but it wasn’t until the season had started that the Airshow was confirmed by its organisers. Almost as soon as the website went live, a list of possible participants was published and this included the mighty Avro Vulcan XH558. Initial reactions were understandably sceptical but once VTTS had confirmed their appearance, tickets for the Saturday show (the event was run over an entire weekend) were almost sold out. In the wake of Shoreham, the organisers chose to withdraw the Strikemaster display that had been booked to appear but other than that, the show was to carry on as scheduled.

A Winning Combination

Although the flying programme had been advertised as starting at 11:30am, the show didn’t get underway until 1:30pm.

Opening the show was supposed to be a Spitfire and Hurricane pair from Biggin Hill but sadly the Hurricane had run into an issue. Fortunately the team at Biggin Hill have a large array of warbirds to choose from so instead sent a pair of Spitfires.

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Once a number of items had departed to hold, the first Spitfire roared over the hangar and joined the display line with a beautiful topside pass. RW382 conducted a short solo routine before it was joined by the second Spitfire, TA805. The pair conducted a number of tight formation passes, as well as a stunning tail chase; once the pairs section was complete, TA805 became the centre of attention and closed off the opening act with its own display.

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The RAF Tutor display has been seen at many shows over the summer but I don’t think any venue has suited the aircraft as much as Old Sarum did. The Tutor is the Royal Air Force’s basic trainer and relies heavily on the use of altitude during its routine; the display starts high so that there is enough momentum for the opening sequence of manoeuvres. As such, the aircraft tends to get lost in the sky at some of the bigger shows but the short display line at Old Sarum meant that the aircraft felt much closer than usual so you were really able to appreciate the complexity of the routine.

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Having seen Peter Davies’ autogyro display earlier in the year at Abingdon, I had a rough idea of what to expect from the routine but was still blown away by Peter’s flying ability. On the premise of the aircraft being an autogyro, you would think to some degree that the display would be boring but it really is incredible. The little aircraft was thrown around the sky in a way that just shouldn’t be possible for something of that size. As I have already said elsewhere, Peter’s display really has been one of the most surprisingly impressive of the display season.

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It amazes me that even with the number of shows that I’ve been to over the years, there are still some acts that I’ve not seen and up until two weeks ago, Bob Grimstead and his Fournier RF-4 motorised glider were one of those acts. I had to research the aircraft type before the show as I wasn’t too sure what it was and I have to be honest, my first thought was ‘this is going to be dull’. How wrong could I have been?! Similar to Flt Lt Andy Preece’s display in the Tutor, the closeness and nature of the routine really demonstrated Bob’s superb flying ability. Bob has already asked if he can return to the show next year!

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Another two displays that I’d not seen before were those of the Auster TW536 and US Navy schemed Harvard. Both aircraft seemed to display quite far out and as a result didn’t seem to have much impact. Had they been closer, I’m confident that both would have been much more impressive.

There were three different display teams present at Old Sarum: Team Raven, The Turb Team and the Great War Display Team. I have seen the Turbs and GWDT at many shows over the summer; both are hugely entertaining and really seem to appeal to families of all ages.

This was the first time however that I had the opportunity to see Team Raven in the flesh. The team is formed of five Vans aircraft of varying models and as you would expect, the display has both formation and solo elements to it. The aircraft are decorated in slightly bizarre USAF markings that as far as I’m aware, are completely irrelevant to the team but then I guess it doesn’t matter all that much. After all, Miss Demeanour is a technicolour Hawker Hunter! The routine seemed a little rough around the edges, with slightly loose formations in places but nevertheless, the display was enjoyable to watch and the team has certainly got a lot of potential.

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I have been following Lauren Richardson’s progress on Twitter for some time now and it was fantastic to finally see her display in person. The Pitts Special is in incredibly agile little aircraft and is almost perfect for smaller shows. Lauren did her absolute best to entertain the capacity crowd and her display seemed to be greatly appreciated, right until the very final pass which came complete with a crowd line Mexican wave.

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The Spitfire pair weren’t the only warbirds in attendance at Old Sarum. Three other World War II veterans displayed over the skies of Salisbury: the latest restoration from the Royal Navy Historic Flight, Fairey Swordfish W5856, P-51 Mustang Ferocious Frankie and B-17 Sally B.

W5856 is the oldest flying aircraft in the Royal Navy and this was the first time that I had seen it display. The Swordfish is a truly incredible aircraft but it’s hard to believe that it fought alongside aircraft like the Seafire; the two seem worlds apart. The routine consisted of a number of graceful passes and while not the most energetic of displays, the Swordfish was still a delight to see.

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Nigel Lamb is a busy man and is currently in the midst of the Red Bull Air Race Championship but somehow he still finds the time to fly Ferocious Frankie (I can’t blame him really!). Nigel is a terrific display pilot with an impressive CV and his routines in the P-51 really are quite special. The routine was filled with the sound of the Mustang’s whine and although we didn’t know it at the time, Nigel wasn’t quite finished after his final low pass.

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The show was due to close with a formation flypast from XH558 and Sally B but after an extensive photo sortie along the south coast, XH558 had begun to experience difficulties with what was described as ‘a severe fuel leak’. Much to the disappointment of the crowds at both Old Sarum and Goodwood (where she was also due to display at the Revival), the crew had no choice but to return to Doncaster as soon as possible. This left the organisers with a small gap in the programme but after a quick radio chat, Nigel agreed to take the Vulcan’s place in the formation and in my eyes, this formation made much more sense. After all, the P-51 is at home escorting bombers to their destination.

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After two passes, Ferocious Frankie departed back to Duxford and left Sally B to close the show in style. There is no doubt about it, the B-17 was a perfect closing act and every single inch of the Wiltshire sky was filled with the glorious sight and sound of Sally B; over an airfield the size of Old Sarum, the aircraft looked spectacular.

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So Much To Learn

It’s fair to say that the display programme for Old Sarum was fantastic but unfortunately the same cannot be said for the rest of the show.

From the very moment the show was announced, confusion surrounded everything to do with the event. The website was incredibly basic and amazingly didn’t even tell you any timings for the show. There was no official Facebook Page or even a Twitter handle, and in this day and age you’re simply foolish to take social media for granted when it comes to PR and advertising.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, things got even more confusing when tickets went on sale. Tickets for the parking and show entry had to be purchased separately for some reason and had both a ‘face value’ and ‘actual value’. As far as I can see there wasn’t any real reason for this but it was certainly one of the strangest pricing structures I’ve ever seen for an airshow.

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People turned up on the Saturday nice and early for the ‘Gates Open’ time of 8.30am (which was printed on tickets) only to be told that gates weren’t actually opening for another hour. Once inside, there was an announcement to say that the flying wouldn’t start until 1:30pm, some two hours later that had been previously mentioned online. Bearing this in mind, and the fact that there were only a handful of retail stalls on site, this meant that some people had arrived on site somewhere between 7.30am-8:00am to then wait six hours for something to happen. I just can’t understand why gates opened so early in the morning for a flying display that started so late in the day; the mind boggles.

I think it’s also pretty obvious looking at the two days that the so-called ‘Vulcan Effect’ was in full force on the Saturday. The first day of the show was almost a complete sell-out and while this shouldn’t have been a problem, the organisers were unfortunately let down by a large percentage of their booked caterers when the simply didn’t turn up. This meant that there were just three options for food and drink, including the airfield café. With clear skies, warm weather and LOTS of people, some were left queuing for over 45 minutes just to get a burger. Sadly this couldn’t be helped.

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Although the flying itself was exemplary, the air-side organisation along the crowd line left a lot to be desired. Participating aircraft were parked all across the front of people for most of the display line and this meant that take-off and landing shots were almost impossible. I appreciate that people might want to be close to the action but there was so much other space at either end of the crowd line that the aircraft had no need to be parked where they were.

I really do hate to be so negative about a show in its first year but I feel that so many of these things could have been avoided if they’d just been planned a little better. That’s not to say that the organisers didn’t work hard to get this show sorted but everything just felt incredibly rushed. In a world where something can be published in as few as 140 characters, it seems inexcusable that the organisers couldn’t even provide correct timings for the show.

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It would also seem, as much as I hate to say it, that the attendance figures on the Saturday were mostly related to the planned appearance of the Vulcan. From photos and comments I’ve seen online, Sunday by contrast was incredibly quiet in terms of attendees. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Airshow returned next year as a single day event.

All that said, it’s not all doom and gloom for the Old Sarum Airshow. The event has proven that an Airshow can take place at this beautiful venue and even with all the frustrations on the day, the show itself has so much potential. The organisers have already apologised for some of the confusion surrounding the show and with a little more thought and planning, I don’t see any reason why Old Sarum Airshow can’t become a regular on the UK circuit.

On the whole, Old Sarum Airshow was a hugely frustrating event but I’m really excited to see what the future holds for this newcomer.

Welcome to the wonderful world of Airshows!

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