Tempted by months of reporting of an everlasting summer heatwave on Sky News, I decided to plan a trip to the Scottish International Airshow during my trip to the UK from Botswana. Scotland, Saturday, September - what could go wrong?!
Having driven through the cloud base on the way there, it was not a surprise to arrive at the Ayr seafront to drizzle and clouds rolling past well under 500 foot. Despite having paid for unobstructed seating, a heavy shower sent us scurrying back to the car after only seeing the RNLI and Coastguard give a simulated rescue display with an AW189 and a Trent Class lifeboat.
Miraculously the low cloud lifted, albeit to reveal another band at around 1800 foot, just in time for the RAF Typhoon display. While the display is over the seafront at Ayr beach, the display aircraft were operating from nearby Prestwick airport and the Typhoon could be heard taking off. Forced into a flat routine by the weather, the crowd were treated by the pilot, Jim Peterson, to some serious noise and impressive tight turns, with the afterburners lifting some of the gloom.
More sedate entertainment was provided by a Calidus Autogyro flown by Peter Davies before a solo Extra 300 braved the light rain. This was followed by a very attractive Boeing Stearman painted in US Navy colours.
Two former stalwarts of RAF training, the Chipmunk and Bulldog (the latter familiar to the Botswana Defence Force) then gave a formation display, again limited by the conditions to gentle turns and level passes. These conditions sadly meant that the much anticipated Battle of Britain Memorial Flight, with its Lancaster, Spitfire, and Hurricane, did not take to the skies.
The Global Stars gave a polished display in their Extras, as would be expected of a team of former Red Arrows pilots and British aerobatic champions.
The highlight of the show for me was the Swiss Classic Formation. Based at Grenchen, Switzerland, this private collection of three Beech 18's and a DC-3 gave a very impressive display of tight formation flying.
After a long break, flying resumed with Plane Sailing's Duxford based Catalina, Miss Pick Up. This aircraft is an amphibian, while the RAF operated pure flying boat versions just along the coast from Ayr during WWII.
An unusual combo was the Dragonfly and Exec Aviation Spartan pairing. Offering very different versions of 1930's executive travel, they provided a glimpse into the past. While the Spartan still has a racing look to it, the Dragonfly is redolent of a different era.
The weather related cancellation of the Sea Fury meant a reprise, this time as solo displays, for the Chipmunk and Bulldog. These were followed by a superb Pitts display by Lauren Wilson. Lauren only completed her CPL at the start of the year, but is a seasoned veteran of the aerobatic circuit having become the British Female Aerobatic Champion at the age of only 22.
The RAF's second contribution to the show was a Tutor trainer, suitably marked for the organisation's centenary.
Captain Ham, an ATC at Prestwick during a normal day, then showed off his piloting skills with a float-based Cessna 172. The aircraft carries an appropriate registration and is known as Wee Dram. Despite a ten knot crosswind, the crowd were treated to two 'splash and goes'.
Captain Nicolas Rossier of the Swiss Air Force then had a chance to show off what his F/A 18 is capable of. Like the earlier Typhoon, his display was exquisitely flown, full of power and grace.
At the very end of the show the clouds parted and the sun appeared, allowing the Red Arrows to show why they are regarded as one of the world's best display teams. For the first half of the show the crowd were wowed by 9-ship formations before they split into the 5-ship Enid and 4-plane Gypo.
So was it worth it? First the good points. The show was well planned and the largely volunteer force that assisted with parking and on the crowd line were incredibly helpful and friendly - as well very efficient. The commentary team, which included Ken Ellis (editor of FlyPast
magazine for many years), was both funny and informative. The food on offer was reasonably priced and was of a very high standard. The seafront and surrounding hills made for a spectacular setting. For those more adventurous, there was a well put together fun fair with many stomach churning rides and the entertainment went on into the night with a concert. It also gave a great chance for those interested in aviation to find out more about prospective careers, with a large RAF recruiting presence on the ground.
This was of interest to the many Air Training Corps cadets present, some of whom were working and others, like those from 1743 (Crieff) Squadron, just having a day out. The ATC does a great job of preparing young people for adult life and is focused on much more than the RAF, with outdoor bound expeditions and Duke of Edinburgh courses available as well as regular air experience flights.
Also present were three Royal Air Forces Association tents, one providing welfare for ex-airmen and the other two selling goods to raise funds for the charity. RAFA raises about 30 million pounds each year and this is mainly spent on providing support to ex-servicemen who have fallen on hard times. This largely volunteer agency is an international organisation, hence the plural 'Forces'.
The downsides were obviously headed by the UK weather and this perhaps explains why many airshows are now spread over two days. The dark skies made photography difficult to say the least. Fortunately, for those visiting on the Sunday the weather was forecast to improve. The lack of RAF/Army/Navy displays was disappointing, especially given the 100th celebrations for the Air Force. This led to a display programme that felt a little light weight.
However, it was more than worth going to see the two Swiss displays that lit up the sky in a way the sun struggled to.