Old Sarum Airshow

2015, Reviews

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!

Dunsfold Wings & Wheels

2015, Reviews

For over 50 years Dunsfold Aerodrome’s history remained top secret under the protection of the Official Secrets Act but in 1990 the government declassified records and the importance of Dunsfold was revealed to all. The airfield played a crucial role in the Second World War but once war was over, the airfield was declared as inactive in 1946. Some five years later, the airfield once again returned to the forefront of British aviation and became home to the infamous Hawker Aircraft Company, where the boundaries of modern technology were pushed to their limits in order to design, test and develop aircraft like the Harrier and Hawk. It’s fair to say that Dunsfold Aerodrome is a shadow of its former self but each year the public are welcomed on to the historical site to enjoy the wonderful Wings & Wheels show.

In recent weeks the Airshow community has been thrown into a media frenzy, with every aspect of the industry coming under extreme scrutiny following the tragic accident at the Shoreham Airshow. Strict measures were instantly put in place to help prevent a similar incident occurring; all UK-based Hawker Hunter variants were grounded, pending a full investigation by the AAIB, and all vintage jet aircraft displays were temporarily restricted to a number of flypasts, rather than their usual aerobatic sequences.

In light of this news, a number of events up and down the country announced that they had decided to cancel or postpone their event, but this wasn’t really an option for the Wings & Wheels team. The team quickly realised that now, more than ever before, the Airshow community needed to stand strong, acknowledge what had happened but at the same time, continue to demonstrate just how safe the UK Airshow circuit is and to re-confirm that this country really does have one of the safest and strictest set of Airshow regulations anywhere in the world (regulations that are the envy of many foreign nations).

Aviation at its Best

In September 2013, one of the last RAF VC-10’s touched down at Dunsfold Aerodrome for the final time. Brooklands and Dunsfold Park had worked together to acquire this example and the plan was for the aircraft to be in taxiing condition by the weekend of the show in 2014. Due to a number of technical difficulties (and perhaps an underestimation in what was required in maintaining such a complex aircraft) this didn’t happen but it was promised that the Conway engines would roar once more at Wings & Wheels this year; and boy did they roar! Brooklands delivered on their promise and much to the enthusiasts’ delight, opened the Sunday show with two fast taxis up and down the runway.

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With the VC-10 runs complete and the first round of motoring out of the way, it was time to reflect on the events at Shoreham and hold a minute’s silence. As the announcement was made over the  loud speakers, people immediately stood to show their respect; it was so silent that I’m pretty sure you could have heard a pin drop on the other side of the airfield!

The end of the 60 seconds were signalled by Peter Teichman in his P-40 Kittyhawk screaming over the tree tops and carrying out a victory roll over the aerodrome, before going to hold briefly prior to conducting his solo display. Peter is one of the best (perhaps the best) warbird display pilots going, so for him to take part in this way was an extremely fitting tribute to the events that had occurred just a week previous.

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Rich Goodwin’s ‘Muscle Biplane’ act is becoming increasingly popular on the UK circuit and for Wings & Wheels, his display had been altered slightly to include a number of ‘races’ in which he tried to match his ability with that of a Porsche 911 that was going at speed up and down the tarmac. There is no doubt about it, Rich Goodwin’s aerobatic ability is phenomenal and no two displays are exactly the same due to the nature of the free-flow routine; the Pitts Special is a great little aircraft and it was certainly pushed to its limits by Goodwin.

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A familiar sight at Dunsfold is the Aces High DC-3 Dakota. The aircraft has been a star of many Hollywood films and TV series, and has a rather unique, distressed look to it. For such a large aircraft, this display was flown with exceptional grace and was an extremely photogenic display. I’ve seen this routine on a number of occasions over the last few years and this was easily one of the most polished to date.

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Another common sight at Wings & Wheels was the Old Flying Machine Company pairing of Spitfire MH434 and P-51 Mustang Ferocious Frankie. This act has been at the event on numerous occasions over the last few years but the display always manages to impress with its tight formations and solo routines. The formation section of the display seemed especially tight this year and the pilots of OFMC really have to be applauded for their skills in flying such historic aircraft.

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Although the 2015 Chinook Display team is made up of members of 27 Squadron, the team have been displaying in the 18 (B) Squadron centenary-schemed aircraft at a number of events over the summer. The aircraft has been somewhat of a ‘problem child’ over the course of the season but finally, I was able to see the display in this special commemorative paint scheme. In my opinion, the Odiham-based team have easily won the award (again) for the most consistently impressive RAF display this year; there’s something about the gravity-defying, tandem rotor routine that just never gets boring.

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Returning to the Surrey airfield again was the Dutch B-25 Mitchell. Even though the aircraft are very different, the RAF could learn a trick or two from display routines like this; the B-25 was thrown about the dull grey sky and almost instantly brought a bit of colour to proceedings. Always a welcome sight and a thoroughly entertaining display.

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One of the stars of the show for me was the Norwegian Air Force Historic Squadron MiG-15. This was fortunately the only aircraft affected by the temporary display regulations and whilst the aircraft was a joy to see (and one that I’ve never actually seen in the air before), the tame routine left a lot to be desired. There didn’t appear to be much of the trademark Russian-built black smoke but I’m guessing that’s because the display wasn’t flown at any real speed. A disappointing display in my eyes but this couldn’t be helped; in terms of the aircraft though, it’s another one that I can tick off my wish-list!

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I can’t really believe that I’m saying this but the Breitling Wingwalkers have been fairly absent from the display circuit this summer with much of their work being focused on a more international scale, with trips to India, Japan and Dubai. To see them back in the air down South was a welcome sight and whilst their display is of a much slower pace to most items, the formation and opposing sections of the routine are incredibly photogenic. The sound of the radial engines is also something that I’ll never tire of!

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The RAF Hawk T2 Display Team are new to the circuit this year and their display is built around a role-demonstration, with a view to showing off the capabilities of the modern jet-trainer aircraft. The RAF Valley-based team have built a routine that shows off the aircraft’s agility nicely but at times the two-ship passes feel very distant. The pyrotechnics add another dimension to the display and I feel that this team has an awful lot of potential. In their inaugural year, they’ve done Valley proud!

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The rest of the air segment featured displays from The Blades, Turb Team, two Aerobility-backed routines (Yak-52 and Glider – both flown by Guy Westgate), Sally-B, the RAF Typhoon/Spitfire Synchro Pair, RAF Tutor and the RAF Typhoon Display Team. The solo Typhoon display was perhaps the most impressive Eurofighter Typhoon display I’ve ever seen; the combination of noise, power and reheat wrapped up the 2015 show in style.

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The Vulcan was due to attend but must to the disappointment of the crowd, XH558 couldn’t get through the bad weather front that was lingering around country for most of the day.

There were many intriguing acts this year but I can’t help but feel that the aviation element of Wings & Wheels is starting to feel a little stagnant. If you look at the above, the B-25, Blades, Turb Team, OFMC pair, DC-3 and to a degree, the Kittyhawk, are all acts that appear at Dunsfold almost every year (or at least feel like they’re far too common there). With the wealth of warbirds and display teams in this country, I find it difficult to understand why we don’t see more variety at Wings & Wheels year on year.

With the Vulcan exiting the display scene later this year, I really hope that the organisers make the most of the spare funding and book some really interesting (and new to the event) items in 2016.

Also, what happened to the large-scale model section this year?

Burning Rubber

Keeping true to the ‘Wheels’ part of the event’s name, the show also focuses heavily on motoring with two sections of running from both historic and modern-day cars and motorbikes.

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The first segment runs right at the beginning of the day and the noise that some of the vehicles produce is almost spine-tingling at times. Whether you’re interested in motoring or not, the speed at which some of these cars can go is truly fascinating and the first run is always something that I’m interested in. To see so many beautiful motors at once is a real treat.

I guess that’s where one of my main problems with the show comes from. Just two hours later, that entire run of cars and motorbikes is repeated and you end up with an almost identical 60-minute slot of driving. No one usually watches any given TV programme and then re-watches the exact same episode just two hours later that day; why would you?

It’s not the first time that I’ve said this and I have a feeling that it won’t be the last, but the motoring element of the show really could benefit from a little re-think. Why not break up the running order into two sections so that you don’t have to just run a repeat session? Many people immediately around me were making similar comments on the day and a large proportion of the crowd line took the second session as an excuse to go and get some food or have a toilet break. A few years back I remember seeing a Mercedes-Benz act at Dunsfold; what happened to that? Motoring entertainment acts do exist and I can’t understand why they’re not used more at shows like this.

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Still a Top Show

Despite the slightly familiar air displays and repetitive motoring sections, Wings & Wheels is still a very enjoyable event and always manages to provide an entertaining day at a reasonable ticket price.

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The team are always thinking on their feet and brought in a load of hay for the weekend to help out with the extremely boggy ground. The showground itself wasn’t too bad but the car park itself was incredibly muddy and slippery. The car park could have really benefitted from some metal tracking on the main paths coming in and out but as it dried out towards the end of the day, it got a little better.

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It was also great to see an even larger range of catering options available on site this year; people are definitely willing to spend a little more at the moment, as long as they’re getting a quality product in return.

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Many have moaned about the queues getting out of the car park but from what I can gather, this wasn’t really avoidable. A lot of people decided to leave once they found out that the Vulcan wasn’t attending (an hour or so before the end of the show) and at that time, by design, there weren’t as many marshals around to direct traffic so it became a free-for-all to get out first. Had some people hung around at the end of the show, grabbed a coffee and listened to the live music, they would have found that getting out of the site was in fact incredibly easy; it was then only the slow moving traffic all the way to Guildford that was a problem but that seems to be completely unavoidable.

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In my eyes, the organisers have got a little work to do for the 2016 show but I can guarantee that I’ll be there regardless of any changes. Wings & Wheels is still a great show and for atmosphere and friendliness, is still one of the best on the display calendar.