Shaun Schofield's 2011 blogGAR Entries

DEc 05 2011
blogGAR: Shaun's 2011 Airshow Season Wrap-up

It's been a good year for me, having taken in plenty of events, big and small, encompassing just about every aspect of aviation. The gloss was taken off the year far too often however, with more incidents than I can remember in a single year, both home and abroad. The deeply sad losses of Jimmy Leeward at Reno, and especially Red 4 Flt Lt Jon Egging at Bournemouth and Red 5 Flt Lt Sean Cunningham at Scampton, really put things into perspective.

Despite these terrible events, there was much to enjoy throughout the season. Always the highlight of the year, RIAT 2011 proved to be a thoroughly enjoyable four days spent in the Cotswolds. I attended arrivals for the first time, pitching up in P&V East on the Thursday and enjoying eight hours of superb action; almost an airshow in itself.

With the sheet of lies in hand, I was immediately drawn to the star of show, if not the season - the Ukrainian Su-27. Its arrival was much more sedate than its departure on the Monday, but to see such an exotic beast gracing the skies above Fairford once more was a definite highlight of the year.

The show itself came under much criticism, rather unfairly in my opinion, with the weather causing havoc on the two show days. Despite the torrential rain on both mornings, I thoroughly enjoyed the weekend, with some impeccable display flying on show. Obvious highlights were the Italian C-27J, USAF A-10 and Turkish F-16 displays, but the stand out solo for me was the mighty Rafale, an aircraft I'm beginning to develop something of an obsession with! Armee de l'Air solos have always been among the best, but this year's display was staggeringly good, full of turning, burning and thunderous noise; every box firmly ticked.

RIAT will always be the show of the year, but it was given a run for its money by my local show at RNAS Yeovilton. The organisers did a tremendous job in arranging a varied display, filled with quality throughout to appease both enthusiasts and general public alike.

Probably the coup of the year as far as flying participation goes was the Polish MiG-29, which flew an excellent routine, full of noise, burner and the trademark smoke from those old engines. With their increasing scarcity, it was becoming one of those aircraft, much like the Flanker at RIAT, that I thought I'd never get to see again, so to witness it display twice, including the morning practice, was a definite highlight for me; it certainly took a while to wipe the smile off my face!

Not to be outdone, the French were equally impressive, with the Aeronavale sending its 'role demonstration'. It's difficult to qualify a series of fast, slow and dirty passes as a demonstration, not that anyone would care, with both the Super Etendard and especially the Rafale wowing the crowds with a breathtaking display. I spent the Friday before the show on the fence for the arrivals day, and what had been a slow and somewhat uneventful day was brought to life by the arrival of these two aircraft - there's nothing quite like a near-supersonic pass to get the juices flowing!

With additional highlights coming in the form of the flare-tastic Belgian F-16 and Dutch Apache solos, the public debut of the Westland Wildcat, a unique formation of Vulcan and the majestic Sea Vixen, as well as the traditional commando assault finale, Yeovilton really raised the bar for UK airshows. It was without doubt my favourite single day at an airshow this year.

Old Warden has rapidly made its way up list of favourite venues. There isn't a more charismatic or relaxed airfield from which to enjoy the more nostalgic side of aviation, which is why I made the long trip to three of their shows this year. The May and July airshows were plagued by wind and cloud respectively, although that did little to stifle my enjoyment of both, with the public debut of the Shuttleworth Collection's delightful Polikarpov Po-2 at the former, and a full complement of Edwardian types at the latter headlining each show.

It was the final show of the year however where everything came together perfectly. Unseasonably high temperatures and glorious light made a mockery of the title 'Autumn' airshow, and, with an excellent and varied line up, including a delightful quartet of Miles aircraft and the stunning Spartan Executive, there was no better way to close the Shuttleworth season.

Naturally, no season would be complete without a visit to Duxford. I had initially planned to attend all four events but in the end was only able to make it to Flying Legends and the traditional season curtain-call at the Autumn Show. Ending a hectic weekend that took in two days at Yeovilton, I attended Legends on the Sunday only. It was unfortunate the show was marred by the loss of 'Big Beautiful Doll' and other less serious incidents as on paper it was potentially a classic.

The unrivalled highlight for me was the appearance of the Red Bull P-38, a truly gorgeous machine, and a rather spritely performer too. My memories of 'The Hoof' are pretty vague, so to be able to see this magnificent beast properly and capture it on camera was a real treat. It was also special to see four Hawker biplanes gracing the skies together, a rare and unique opportunity; hopefully that can be bettered next year with the addition of the Hawker Fury.

The Autumn Show is always a favourite of mine, with the relaxed atmosphere and usually excellent flying programme combining into the perfect way to see out the season. This year was no exception, with the public display debut of Meteor Flight's immaculate Meteor T.7 the runaway star of the show. With a Korean War theme to the show, Golden Apple's Sabre was a natural attendee, closing the show, and season, with its usual excellent routine. Both jets were parked together on the apron, providing a unique opportunity to see the world's two oldest airworthy jets parked side by side. Delightful.

As a big fan of classic jets, the Cotswold Airshow is always a winner. With this year's show celebrating 60 years of the Hunter, the ingredients were there for one of the year's best events, and it didn't disappoint. No less than eight Hunters, including a stunning pair from the Netherlands, performed the formation finale to the show, an undoubted highlight of the year. Additional displays from Team Viper and the colourful 'Miss Demeanour' as well as a host of other classic jets combined to make this year's show a classic.

On a sadder note, the Kemble based C-47A made its last display in the UK before it left for the US to join Kermit Weekes. The aircraft is a veteran of D-Day, flying from RAF Upoterry, an airfield where I spent many an afternoon during my childhood, so it's a shame to lose an aircraft from the UK airshow circuit, especially one with a local connection.

Staying with classic jets, another venue that has rapidly made its way up my list of favourites is Bruntingthorpe. There's no other venue like it for allowing such close proximity to the aircraft and the photographic opportunites that presents. This year's May event featured a strong line up that included the Vulcan and certainly saw attendance figures bolstered by its appearance; I've never seen the airfield so busy, a very real demonstration of the Vulcan effect.

A welcome bonus undoubtedly, but it was the trio of Buccaneers running together that provided the ultimate highlight for me. One of my favourite jets, the sight of the three of them appearing one by one over the crest of the runway was very special indeed. Of course, no event at Brunty would be complete without a Lightning thundering down the runway. XS904 took the honours at this event, giving it the beans with both burners lighting, with deafening consequences!

From a photography perspective, few shows can rival Dawlish for unique opportunities it presents, which makes it one of the shows I look forward to most. This year's show had an impressive programme in store, which was unfortunately savaged by serviceability and weather issues that affected the star items, most notably XH558. All things that can't be helped of course, but the show sadly suffered as a result. What did display put on a fine show indeed though, and gave those of us gathered up on the famous hill a handful of those special Dawlish moments that give us reason to keep coming back.

Two smaller events hosted by the Royal Navy provided two of the more enjoyable events of the year. The Merryfield Open Evening presented a chance to get up close and personal with the aircraft and crews from nearby Yeovilton, with some sporty departures of the attending helicopters providing the highlights of an enjoyable June evening. Two weeks later, the Fly Navy Heritage Trust fundraising event at Yeovilton provided a chance to spend some more time at the fence of my local to enjoy the sights and sounds of vintage naval aircraft. Being buzzed at 40 feet by the RNHF Sea Fury was pretty special indeed, but it was the Sea Vixen that was my raison d'etre for going, with two displays on the day, and in glorious sunshine to boot. It's pretty difficult to get much better than that, so it's a real shame Foxy was seldom seen elsewhere during the season. Fingers crossed that is put right next year.

With two Russian fighters already bagged in the year, a late decision to attend the Weston Mini Helidays event yielded another pair of Soviet Cold War warriors for my archives. Both a Czech Hind and Hip were on static display at the Helicopter museum for the weekend, presenting a rare opportunity to get up close and personal to two aircraft that are seldom seen in the UK these days. With the crews being so friendly and accommodating, the atmosphere was supremely relaxed, making for a thoroughly enjoyable couple of hours.

Overall, I've had a blast this year. There were a couple of occasions where I'd have rather been elsewhere than a rain sodden airfield or fenceline, but the standard of flying at each and every show was exceptional, and hugely entertaining. That is what it's all about.

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