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!

Abingdon Air & Country Show

2015, Reviews

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!

Farnborough International Airshow 2014 – Wednesday Highlights

Features

The third (and final trade day for me) day has come to an end at Farnborough, here are the biggest talking points of the last 24 hours.

News

  • After a whirlwind day of ‘will they/won’t they’ for both Farnborough and Lockheed Martin, the decision was finally made that although the aircraft has been cleared to return to flight, the F-35B will not be making it’s international debut at Farnborough Airshow this summer.
  • BAE Systems revealed that it’s Taranis combat UAV had conducted a new series of test flights in an ‘undisclosed location’. These new tests were carried out some time between late 2013 and early 2014, and included flying the aircraft in full stealth configuration, making it virtually invisible to radar.
  • Qatar Airways’ boss, Akbar Al Baker has explained that it was in fact Airbus that cancelled plans to display the airline’s A380 and described it as a way for the manufacturer to ‘bully’ the airline into taking delivery of the aircraft. The airline head also said that even though the aircraft wouldn’t have been delivered in time for the airshow, he was hoping that Airbus would display the Qatar liveried A380 on his behalf.
  • AgustaWestland have signed their first UK air ambulance deal for their developmental AW169 helicopter with the Kent, Surrey & Sussex Air Ambulance Trust. The type is due for certification later this year.
  • Since its launch on Monday, Airbus have already received 105 orders for their A330neo aircraft.
  • Airbus have announced that the A350XWB will use just one engine across the board; the Rolls-Royce Trent 7000.
  • Boeing has selected BAE Systems to provides its latest 777X with a flight control electronics system.
  • Even with Boeing displaying the P-8 Poseidon as a future MPA option for the UK, the RAF have announced that they are looking into the possibility of extending the life of the Sentinel R1 fleet by adding maritime capability with the help of Raytheon. This is not seen as an MPA option as such but more of a hybrid gap-filler.

Displays