While Southern Africa waits for cooler temperatures and clear blue skies for its airshow season to begin, the UK awaits moderate warmth and prays for the occasional break in the clouds for its aviation year to start. The two aviation circuits share many similarities, but also have considerable differences. Having being fortunate enough to have seen shows in both regions during 2016, now is a good time to compare the experiences and perhaps to offer some insights and advice.
Duxford - Meet the Fighters (September 2016)
Attending an airshow in England in the middle of September is a risky business, especially when you have bought premium tickets at a cost of just under R1000 each. In our case these were of the 'Silver Pass' variety that included access to a marquee, crowd-line seating, and VIP parking. The September show is a two day event and each day's 15,000 tickets need to be pre-booked. Those who were unlucky enough to have chosen the Saturday show sat through a full day's torrential rain with very little flying happening.
Arriving early on a gloriously sunny Sunday morning, traffic was very well managed and the staff extremely welcoming. Duxford is the site of the outstanding IWM aviation museum and entrance to this is included in the ticket price, helping to fill in the many hours until the flying started mid-afternoon. Many of the display hangars had special events on the day; perhaps the highlight for me was the 'walk around' talk at the SR-71 given by an ex-Blackbird pilot. The Silver Pass also allowed for a walk down the flight line, an opportunity for the keener enthusiast to get within half a dozen metres of the display aircraft.
Opening the flying were a Hawker Fury and a Bearcat - the ultimate piston fighters. These were followed by a change of pace to WWI action. Most of the aircraft were replicas (built to original plans, with authentic engines), but the Bristol Fighter was an original that was coming up to its 100th birthday! Me 109's, albeit Spanish built ones, were the next up before the sky was filled with the height of early 1930's technology in the form of a Fury, a Nimrod and a Gladiator - the latter giving a very spirited display. Trainers were represented by a Harvard and a pair of Chipmunks before a Hurricane displayed a target tug attack on a banner towed by a Piper Cub. The BBMF Lancaster was the next star before a Corsair and then the Norwegian Historical Flight's Vampires and Mig-15 gave examples of early Cold War jets. The locally based Catalina and B-17 (the well-known Memphis Belle
) both gave polished performances before the day's highlight of 14 Spitfires taking to the air to perform a mass fly past. The Red Arrows closed the three hour show.
Disappointingly, especially given Duxford's mixed RAF and USAAF heritage; there were no modern aircraft from either air force with the RAF display teams being at a competing show several hundred miles away. However, some compensation was given by Classic Wings
, who were offering flights in Tiger Moths, Harvards, and three Dragon Rapides. I could not resist the latter and for R800 an enjoyable twenty minute flip around the Oxfordshire countryside ensued.
The other complaint has to be the current safety restrictions that limited some of the display manoeuvres, particularly for the Norwegian display, but more importantly meant that the crowd were far too far away from the action. Aircraft were little more than dots in the sky, and my usual 350mm photographic lens did little to fix this.
A serious accident meant that some cars took nearly two hours to escape the car park, but this simply presented extra time to return to the museum hangars and have a better look round with most of the crowds gone.
Botswana Airshows (July and September 2016)
Botswana's International Show at Matsieng, just outside the capital, has gone from being a fly-in to a major airshow in less than five years and this year it was joined by the Gaborone International Airshow for the first time.
Despite having been to airshows around the world, the Matsieng experience cannot be beaten in my opinion. While safety is the major concern, it has managed to retain amazing intimacy where people can still get close to the aircraft both in the ground and in the air. This is down to the hard work of the De Wet family, but also reflects Botswana culture. Where else do you get a president flying a display (either in a CASA 235 or a 412) and then mingling with the audience? As a photographer, the shear closeness to action has to be experienced to be believed. Nowhere else do you have to look for a shorter lens as the action is too close! The flying display was largely an extension of the South African circuit and there was something in front of the spectators for nearly eight hours without a break - a bargain given the R100 entrance fee. This especially true when considering the truly world-class pilots involved, Nigel Hopkins, Jason Beamish, et al.
The later Gaborone show again relied heavily on the South African circuit, but the two shows had enough variations in formations and combinations to ensure that those who attended both were not bored - something true of the shows down South as well. The participation of the Botswana Defence Force did supply something different, especially the massed formation and anti-poaching displays. With some of the smaller aircraft using the nearby taxiway as their departure point the crowd was once again close to the action.
Bruntingthorpe - Cold War Jets Day (August 2016)
When is an airshow not an airshow? Bruntingthorpe Open Day is a unique experience on the airshow circuit as none of the aeroplanes that people flood to see actually leave the ground. Instead, these priceless Cold War jets are limited to high speed taxis - not that the crowd seems to mind!
Tickets for this event were R350 each and as an early arrival traffic was light and well managed, although it did back up later in the morning. Bruntingthorpe is a privately owned airfield that acts as a boneyard as well as being home to several restoration projects that were all open to the public on the day. The Super Guppy was a major attraction as was the Avro Shackleton. There is a sense of British amateurishness (in the best sense!) as many of the projects are run by volunteers. This lent itself to a friendly atmosphere, though serious questions were asked when the Shackleton ended up on its tail.
The stars of the show were the taxiing Cold War display and these included Hunters, Jet Provosts, a Polish Iskra, a L-29, a Nimrod, and a VC-10 who all performed a serious of fast and slow runs immediately in front of the crowd. However, the stars were a formation of three Buccaneers, the Victor, and an afterburning run by an English Electric Lightning. The latter is one of three owned by the Lightning Preservation Group who have saved a Quick Reaction Alert (QRA) 'shed' to house there collection - and it is from here that the Lightning is scrambled along the crowd-line. Having two Rolls Royce Avons in full reheat less than twenty metres away is an unforgettable experience.
The air was not completely empty though, with a display from a Folland Gnat and a Battle of Britain Memorial Flight Hurricane. However, the closeness of the runway to the crowd for the taxing jets only emphasised the distance from the audience of the actual flying due to the current safety restrictions. In between the 'real' aircraft there was an excellent display of large scale models, some of whom had cost more than R400,000!
Access was available for most of the aircraft, including cockpits, and those behind the scenes were more than generous with their time, supplying answers to any number of questions from the public. A measure of the spirit of the 'hands on nature' of the organisers was that the airfield's owner was driving the bus that ferried those members of the public who wanted to access better photo viewpoints!
As with Duxford, there were a large number of tents selling books, art, clothing and memorabilia - with some good bargains to be had.
SAAF Museum - Flying Training Day (July 2016)
Having missed the museum airshow, I was lucky enough to attend a flying day on the first Saturday of July. While the pace of flying was pedestrian it was a great chance to get up close to the SAAF Museum's collection and the R50 entrance (that included a drink and a Boerewors!) bought a very enjoyable and relaxed morning.
The museum's helicopters were all very busy and I somehow blagged my way into a joyride in a Puma. For me, though, it is always the Vampire that brings shivers to my spine - even the pre-flight was fascinating. What made this morning was the friendly atmosphere created when everyone present is a real enthusiast, and many a tale was swapped.
The Flying Day also provided a chance to see the ground displays which was officially closed due to infrastructure repairs on the base but was open for the day. The Friends of the Museum had a couple of tents raising money by selling various items, including some very good books and magazine collections. The Museum is a must see and is one of SA's hidden gems.
South Africa is very lucky to have a very professional and close-knit airshow scene and the benefits to the public include easy access that is almost impossible elsewhere. This reflects a general aviation scene that, despite currently stretched finances, is still very active and relatively easy to join. The standard of display flying is truly world class and you would struggle to find better aerobatic displays anywhere else. The downside to this intimacy is that there is a certain 'sameness' about most of the shows, with only the military participation at shows like the SAAF Museum's, AAD, or the Gaborone International offering something new.
In contrast the UK offers a huge diversity of shows, from vintage wood and wire biplanes at Shuttleworth to the latest military hardware at RIAT. While the Friends of the SAAF Museum are working hard to restore a single Spitfire to African skies, the UK can offer the chance to see more than a dozen at a single show. Similarly, it was great to see a de Havilland Rapide return to SA skies last year, but Duxford had three offering 30's style 'flips'. The downside is that even major shows will not have all the types you would like to see and a lot of planning, and money, is required. There are plenty of good websites to help with this, perhaps the best being britishairshows.com which offers aircraft lists and advice on travel. It is also interesting to note the much better ground displays in the UK, with much more to buy of a genuine interest to adults and children alike. However, it must be said the food on offer at SA events is in a different league entirely!
Despite the professionalism and friendliness (in most cases!) of the organisers the general public is kept at a distance at UK flying shows, both physically and metaphorically. The Duxford show certainly had a 'corporate' feel rather than intimacy of its African equivalents .The Shoreham disaster will only widen this gap as safety rules are tightened still further, squeezing the life out of some of the smaller shows and some of the enjoyment from the larger ones. This trend has already been felt in South Africa and it is up to organisers and the CAA to ensure that, while safety is paramount, airshows still have the power to inspire a new generation of flyers.