Red Bull Air Race – Round 5, Ascot Racecourse

2015, Reviews

For the second year running, the UK leg of the Red Bull Air Race championships took place at Ascot Racecourse; a track that’s more used to hosting horse racing than air racing. Staged over three days; Practice on Friday, Qualifying on Saturday and the Race on the Sunday, the weekend promised to be full of adrenaline and excitement for the capacity crowd.

Qualifying took place on the Saturday of the race weekend and determined the starting order for Sunday. For those unfamiliar with the format of the Red Bull Air Race, Race Day is broken down into three distinct rounds; Round of 14, Round of 8 and then Final 4, as described below:

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As the race itself didn’t start until mid-afternoon, there was a chance to get up close and personal with both the pilots and aircraft in the pit area. It was more than a little refreshing to be invited into most of the hangars for a chat and some unique photo opportunities, with most of the participants available to answer any queries.

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It was also great to see so many people waiting at the fence to grab photos and autographs from their favourite pilots.

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Race Report

The format of the Round of 14 means that those that perhaps didn’t perform to the best of their ability during qualifying, effectively get given a second chance to proceed in the race and in the most extreme case can mean that the slowest person from Saturday knocks the fastest person out.

Importantly for the home crowd, there were two pilots flying the flag for Great Britain; Nigel Lamb of the Breitling Racing Team and Paul Bonhomme of Team Bonhomme, winner of the Ascot race in 2014 and leader of the 2015 championship.

Nigel Lamb went up against Kirby Chambliss (Team Chambliss) in Heat 5 and picked up a 2-second time penalty for ‘Incorrect Level Flying’ which meant that his chances of progressing to the next round were severely impacted. However, Chambliss then went on to pick up a similar time penalty in the last stages of his run and this meant that incredibly, Lamb was through to the Round of 8.

The rest of the field continued with their duals and after a particularly intense Heat between Matt Hall and Pete McLeod, Hall joined Muroya, Bensenyei, Ivanoff, Sonka and Lamb to take up his place in the Round of 8.

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Qualifying fastest on Saturday, Paul Bonhomme was in the best position possible to crack on with getting the job done on Sunday but it wasn’t going to be easy. Hannes Arch took to the sky first and set the fastest time of the day so far, putting his terrible qualifying behind him and guaranteed himself a place in the Round of 8. Bonhomme was under pressure to perform but just couldn’t quite put his mark on the circuit and lost out to Arch by seven tenths of a second but fortunately for Paul and the team, his time was enough to get him through to the next round as the Fastest Loser.

After a short break, the Round of 8 got underway and saw Lamb facing off against Australia’s Matt Hall. Lamb appeared to be in a world of his own as he posted his quickest time of the weekend but it just simply wasn’t enough to beat a truly stunning performance from Hall which saw the Brit instantly knocked out.

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Matt Hall joined Muroya and Ivanoff in the Final 4 with just the last place to be decided in Heat 7.

The Race format meant that Bonhomme was to face Arche once more and Paul put in a stunning time that set the bar high but unfortunately the crowd were robbed of that fight. For the second time in the weekend, Hannes Arch and UBFS Racing were unable to get their engine started and after running out of time were declared out; Bonhomme was through and within reach of the top prize.

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Unlike the previous two rounds, the Final 4 is a straight fight and the best time wins. Bonhomme was set to fly last and it was looking like all he had to do was fly a clean lap as each of the finalists picked up time penalties, with Hall guaranteeing himself second place on the podium, setting a time of 1:09.024.

As Bonhomme started his run to the first gate, 29,000 people were on their feet cheering and clapping with encouragement for the home team. Eyes darted between watching Bonhomme fly tightly around the gates and to the big TV screens in front of the crowd. As Paul reached the final gate he was well within the green and meant that as he shot through the finish gate and into the vertical, he had completed his lap in a time of 1:06.416 – just under three seconds faster than Hall!

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For the second time in two years, Paul Bonhomme claimed first place at Ascot and goes into Round 6 of the Championship with a lead of eight points over Matt Hall.

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Filling The Gaps

Tasked with entertaining the massive crowd between the Rounds were the AAC Apache Helicopter Display Team, RAF Chinook Display Team and Breitling Wingwalkers.

2015 has seen the Apache team conducting a pairs role demonstration but due to the confined display line at Ascot, this was not possible. Instead a solo aircraft took to the sky and put the helicopter through its paces much to the delight of the crowd, many of whom had not seen the aircraft before judging by various comments that could be heard. The display may have lacked the explosive punch that we’ve become accustomed to over the last few months but it certainly did a good job of showing off the agility of the aircraft.

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Having stunned the crowd with their gravity-defying routine in 2014, Red Bull invited the Chinook Display Team back to Ascot to once again demonstrate the incredible manoeuvrability of the tandem-rotor aircraft. Chucking the helicopter about the sky seemed to leave an incredible lasting impression with the crowd as almost everyone rose to their feet and applauded the team as they bowed and exited to land back on. There may have been no running landing in their display but the increased number of nose-down quick-stops seemed to go down well!

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The Breitling Wingwalkers have been busy all over the world this year and incredibly, Ascot was the first time that I had seen them display this season. Unfortunately for the team, there was little wind and this meant that their smoke lingered on the display line for longer than was desirable but the full two-ship display still seemed to entertain the crowd.

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The Venue

There’s no doubt about it, Ascot Racecourse has a fantastic atmosphere and is an incredible place for flying but there is a lot about the venue that leaves a sour taste in the mouth.

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Like in 2014, it was as if no-one had told the people on the gates that this wasn’t going to be a normal race day and when help was needed, a number of staff didn’t appear to have the answers that were required. One particular member of staff on the entrance gates was heard telling a paying visitor that they were not allowed to bring their picnic in and that they must eat it all before they got in as ‘his boss wanted them to spend their money inside the gates’ – this wasn’t a joke either, he was deadly serious. Similar reports of this sort of behaviour were also voiced on social media over the weekend, leading me to think that perhaps the guidelines for picnics needs to be revised for the event next year; especially when the prices of food and drink on the premises were higher than even the most expensive Airshows on the calendar. While there was certainly lots of variety, charging £8 for a single burger is unbelievably expensive when you’ve already paid £40 entry.

Ascot provided yet another fantastically exciting race weekend and I’m already looking forward to it again next year but certain aspects of the venue need to be refined if it’s going to attract the same people back again.

Review – Shuttleworth Season Finale ‘Race Day’ Airshow

2014, Aviation, Reviews

The Shuttleworth ‘Race Day’ airshow was the finale to Old Warden’s long season and for many enthusiasts, the last airshow of the year. The weather forecast had been getting marginally better for a number of days and on Saturday night I took a gamble and booked my ticket.

You couldn’t have asked for more really; a crisp autumn day and plenty of displays to watch in the skies above rural Bedfordshire. I attended the Military Pageant airshow earlier in the year and it was more than enough to tempt me back again for the end of season display.

Race Day

The idea behind the ‘Race Day’ season finale airshow was to celebrate the golden years of ‘air racing’, most notably because this October marks 80 years since the 1934 MacRobertson Air Race in which the Collection’s de Havilland DH.88 Comet claimed first place.

To mark this anniversary, the Collection organised a special flypast of six aircraft that participated in the ‘World’s Greatest Air Race’; a de Havilland DH.88 Comet (Grosvenor House – the only specific airframe to fly in the race), a Dragon Rapide, a Miles M3A Falcon Major, a Miles Hawk, a Desoutter Mk1 and a de Havilland DH.80A Puss Moth. All six aircraft flew past in a very loose formation (sadly too loose for me to capture in one frame) and then carried out several solo fly pasts before landing in the order that they arrived in Melbourne in 1934. It was a lovely way to celebrate such a momentous occasion.

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The Air Race theme continued with another special formation flypast of three aircraft; two Percival Mew Gulls and a Vans RV-7. In 1939 Alex Henshaw flew Mew Gull G-AEXF and completed the 12,754-mile round trip in a staggering 4 days, 10 hours and sixteen minutes – some 71 years later, Steve Noujaim beat Henshaw’s record by 23 hours in a Vans RV-7. These trips to South Africa are regarded by many as two of the greatest and most intriguing stories in the aviation world and rightly so. The speed, sound and agility of the 1930s Mew Gull has to be seen to be believed, it’s a truly remarkable piece of British engineering.

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The show also celebrated the Formula 1 air racing class of aircraft with a Cosmic Wind and a Taylor JT.2 Titch. These two aircraft are exceptionally small but can travel at incredible speeds – the Cosmic Wind was first built in 1947 and can achieve an impressive airspeed of 185mph! The Formula 1 racers flew several laps of the airfield before landing safely back on the grass runway.

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The Air Race celebrations ended with a fantastic mock air race. The race used a handicap system which meant that the ten participating aircraft (two Chilton DW1s, a de Havilland DH60X Moth, Miles Hawk Speed Six, Miles M3A Falcon Major, Miles Whitney Straight, Comper Swift, Miles Magister and a Spartan Executive) took off in order of slowest-fastest with time advantages between each aircraft. Each aircraft had to complete eight laps of the triangular course which stretched to the airfield boundaries in each direction – the winner was the first to cross the finish line having successfully completed all eight laps. For twenty minutes the audience was transported back in time and it was incredibly easy to forget that you were still in 2014. The sound, sight and atmosphere was electric – the organisers did a terrific job of demonstrating what air racing was all about in a bygone era. An epic way to finish off the Race Day spectacle.

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Best of The Rest

The rest of the airshow was padded out with some truly fantastic displays.

The Hawker Hunter T7 from North Weald Airfield arrived in style low and fast and let off just the tiniest hint of a blue note. Chris Heames flew a beautiful display in what has to be one of my all time favourite aircraft and filled the sky with the roar of the timeless Avon engine.

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Hawker aircraft continued to thrill the crowd, this time in the form of the Collection’s own Sea Hurricane. I’ve seen a lot of Hurricane displays over the years but this was, hands down, the most thrilling and exhilarating routine I’ve ever seen. It felt closer than ever thanks to the sweeping curve of the Shuttleworth display line and it seemed to just go on forever – it was like an enthusiasts dream display.

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Joining the Sea Hurricane in the golden autumnal light was the Westland Lysander. The Lysander is a peculiar looking aircraft with it’s bulky fuselage and high cockpit but’s it’s an incredibly graceful and majestic aircraft. This was the first time that I’ve had the opportunity to see the Lysander in all it’s glory and it really is quite a special aircraft.

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The Shuttleworth collection is home to a fantastic array of aircraft but perhaps one of the most unusual looking airframes is the Fauval Glider. The glider was taken up on a tow and released at altitude; what followed was a brilliantly flown aerobatic sequence. With it’s short fuselage, large wingspan and small twin tail, the aircraft is capable of flipping on it’s tail in no time at all. The crowd was all but silent and all you could hear was the wind passing over the aircraft as the glider came into land. It was a glider display unlike any I’ve seen before.

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A Fitting Tribute

Overall the ‘Race Day’ finale was a show of epic proportions – a packed flying display and almost perfect weather conditions made this one of the best airshows of the year for me. I attended the Red Bull Air Race at Ascot earlier this year so was more than intrigued when I heard that Shuttleworth were planning to celebrate the golden age of air racing. There were plenty of aircraft types that I’d never been fortunate enough to see before and the mock air race finale really was enough to make your jaw drop.

It may only have been my second show at Old Warden but I feel that I’ll be attending many more shows in the coming years. There’s something quite unique about this small all-grass airfield and there’s no doubt in my mind that The Shuttleworth Collection will make you fall in love with aviation all over again.