Elliott Marsh's 2010 blogGAR Entries

MAY 26 2010
No rest for the weary: Travels in the Garden of England

I've been accused many a time of having an "obsession" with aircraft. I once went on a date with a woman who nearly walked out of the restaurant in disgust when she found out I enjoyed watching warplanes flying. A colleague once told me, upon hearing I was spending the weekend away in Bedfordshire to attend two airshows, "Aww, that's nice. Don't worry, we all have our little foibles." A lot of people just don't understand my passion for aviation. When my plans to visit the La Ferté Alais airshow in France fell through at the last minute, I decided that every (vapour) cloud has a silver (star) lining: this was my chance to prove to those who question my sanity that I can spend a weekend without the company of aircraft.

La Ferté Alais had been on my list of "must see airshows" for some time. Having finally decided to bite the bullet, I'd booked accommodation for three nights, scheduled pleasure flights in the Junkers Ju-52 and Antonov An-2 (the latter of which was to be taken in the co-pilot's seat) and had planned a nifty two week holiday following the show, during which time I would trapse up and down the UK, taking in airbases, airfields and museums. Typically, the best laid plans of mice and men didn't just go awry, they were shredded, stomped on and buried, thanks to passport application form blunders. Ironic really, given that I work in immigration. You'd think that three years spent working on visa applications would mean I'd be pretty handy around a passport application form. You'd be wrong.

Thus, as my GAR colleagues prepared for some warbird action á la Française, I was left with a blank weekend in my airshow diary. A scary thought - not a single public airshow in the UK. Two days with no air displays, no early starts, no aviation fuel to inhale. I decided the best course of action would be to give my wallet (and my car, which is gradually turning into a bucket of bits) the weekend off, instead heading for the south coast to bask in the glorious sunshine. You could almost guarantee that, had there been an airshow on, the weather would've been terrible. Nice as it was to lie on the beach catching some rays, there was something missing. Before long, the oh-so-familiar shakes started to set in; that unmistakable craving for the fizzy penis feeling that James May described so perfectly. I needed an aviation fix.

So I gathered my camera gear (don't think for a second that I ever go anywhere without my camera, lenses, memory cards and batteries - you never know when you might happen across a Bulgarian MiG-29UB) and headed off to Kent's biggest missed opportunity, Manston airport, to have a look around the rather excellent Manston History Museum. I remember the History Museum when it was a simple collection of photographs pinned to the walls of a decaying wooden hut by the roadside. Nowadays, the museum has expanded into a comparatively large building complex, housing several aircraft and a huge amount of interesting memorabilia covering the airfield's entire history.

Being a regular visitor, I'd photographed most of the exhibits several times over and know the place inside out, but to my surprise they have recently installed a V-1 rocket "gate guardian" outside the main entrance. There is also the added attraction of the ex-North Weald based T-33 Shooting Star, newly resident and awaiting extensive maintenance which will see the aircraft repainted in a silver scheme (it is unclear at this point whether it will be a bare metal or painted finish). After an hour or so of pouring over the exhibits, I went outside to find that I'd missed the arrival of the day's only movement - a turboprop airliner that, from a distance, looked like a Dash variant. "Typical!", I thought, before considering the combined might of the aircraft I was missing that were, at that precise moment in time, displaying at La Ferté. The only way I could possibly cheer myself up was by indulging in a hefty Indian curry before enjoying a mini pub crawl around the Isle of Thanet (strictly alcohol free, I might add - I need to keep my wits about me at all times in case a rogue Spitfire should appear at low level on the horizon, necessitating the rapid unzipping of bags and the urgent mating of lens and camera body). In keeping with the aviation theme, we had a quick drink in the Jolly Farmer pub in Manston village, which is adorned by photos and paintings of aircraft, being a popular drinking hole for visiting pilots and crews. Even the Red Arrows have lunched there, though quite how they were served in time to meet their 4pm display slot at Southend is anyone's guess.

Sunday dawned bright and beautiful, with endless blue skies and barely a cloud to photoshop out of the background of any shots I might take. I'd initially planned to drive up to North Weald to watch Peter Teichman take the gorgeous Hurricane IIb, Pegs, off west for a private display, but it turns out that not even the best looking warbird in the business has enough impetus to drag me out of bed on my Sunday off. Instead, I chose to drive into the heart of the Garden of England to enjoy a day in the company of the Tiger Club at Headcorn aerodrome. Headcorn is always good value on a Sunday, particularly when the weather is kind. Home to a variety of civilian and vintage aircraft, ranging from Tiger Moths to Yaks and a Harvard, Headcorn is like the classic aircraft enthusiast's equivalent of RAF Coningsby, with all manner of movements, the potential for some warbird visitors and constant activity from morning to twilight.

The airfield is pretty much the perfect venue for an airshow - a ready made crowdline, naturally formed aircraft park, ample car parking, a lovely background of trees and rolling fields and a runway close enough to the crowd to allow for some really impactful shots, if that's your game. It'd be wonderful if someone, someday, could pull together a Little Gransden sized display here. Sunday's trip started slowly, with a steady trickle of visiting civilian types, complimented by the Tiger Club's Tiger Moths, Piper Cub and Stampes coming and going. Business picked up shortly after midday as P-51D Mustang 'Big Beautiful Doll' suddenly appeared, diving in from height before blasting over the airfield at 'full chat' and low level, pulling up into a barrel roll at the end of the runway. I almost drop my Canon getting out of the car (I was mid-pork pie, see), but manage to pull through in time to snap off a couple of respectable shots.

As the day went on, we were treated to displays from a Tiger Moth, Cap 10 and Midget Mustang (which looks ridiculously fun for something so tiny), as well as the traditional Stampe shenanigans with one of the local pilots demonstrating the aircraft's manoeuvrability on take-off by flicking the aircraft onto its side and banking 90 degrees before levelling out, all in about five seconds. Second only to the Mustang's beat up in terms of highlights was seeing the reaction of the passengers who were enjoying pleasure flights in the Tiger Moth. The pure joy on their faces as they banked overhead was wonderful - you could almost hear the fizzing of appendages.

Disappointingly, it seemed as though the traditional Sunday evening 'balbo' formation was not to be. We called it quits and made for the Maidstone services for an iced latte and questionable Wimpy burger, before driving home into a rather stunning sunset. Despite the lack of Yaks and Rafales, it was still a fine weekend. Headcorn delivered in spades, as it always does, and my escapades in Kent went a long way towards bringing about the return of my yearly "airshow tan". Next weekend I'll be back at Manston for the annual 'Wings and Wheels' type event, which will most likely see the Bf-108 mercilessly slaughtered by the Kent Spitfire.

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2010-05-28 - Paul Fiddian
Excellent! What a good read that was: entertaining and full of humour! Your new addition's quite the literary powerhouse - top marks all-round.

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