2010 Articles

APR 20 2010
Abingdon Air and Country Show - the season opener that always delivers

The season's first airshow - always a great occasion and for the UK's many fans an opportunity, after a long winter break, to see some aircraft in action, get some practise with the camera and enjoy a good day out with friends and family. The Abingdon Air and Country Show is now recognised as our first major event each year and it doesn't disappoint with military and civilian participants both large and small performing for a substantial, but comfortably sized, audience.

This year sees the show reach its tenth anniversary in its current guise and it is entirely down to organiser Neil Porter and his dedicated team of volunteers that the show continues to grow and improve, all the while supporting great causes local to the Oxfordshire airfield where the event takes place. We know much about the issues facing the large airshows in the UK and the issues they face with regard to participation and logistics, so how on earth does a smaller event like Abingdon manage to attract such wonderful participation, including this year, for the first time, a foreign military display item in the shape of the Royal Netherlands Air Force F-16 Fighting Falcon? Did Neil and his team always hope that this is how things would develop?

"Well, to be honest, if I think back to its inception in 2000, the event started life as a very small 'trial' fete at the bottom of the airfield, and we never even thought the show would survive more than a couple of years; partly due to the cost and partly because you have to get established and be known," says Neil.

"But I was adamant that I wanted to put something back on at Abingdon airfield for a good family day out, to kind of replace, in a smaller form, the annual RAF Battle of Britain airshows back in the late 1970s through to 1990."

Abingdon itself has had a long and proud history, opening in September 1932 and then closing as part of defence cuts in December 1992. It was a Bomber and Transport Command station until the early 1970s, then Support Command until closure, playing a role in conflicts such as the Berlin Airlift (1948/49) and the first Gulf War (1991). Many different aircraft were based at Abingdon or came through for maintenance, including Hawker Hind biplanes, Battle, Whitley, Beverley, Andover, Hastings, Bulldog, Chipmunk, Hunter, Buccaneer, Hawk and Jaguar. Following closure in 1992 the site became Dalton Barracks-the name coming from a famous soldier, James Dalton, who fought in the Battle of Rorkes Drift during the 1879 Zulu Wars, and is currently home to 3 Close Support and 4 General Support Regiments of the Royal Logistic Corps - both involved in operations around the world. The airfield is used by army for training exercises and also No 612 VGS flying Grob Vigilants at weekends, as well as Merlin, Puma and Apache helicopters which will frequently drop in during weekdays for training.

From an airshow perspective, Abingdon hosted one of the aforementioned (and numerous back then) Royal Air Force Battle of Britain at home days in September every year. These shows, which attracted mass RAF participation along with visitors from foreign armed forces, are much lamented by airshow supporters of a certain generation - many of whom seem to believe that all our shows should be similar today. If only that were possible! So where did Neil actually start? How do you even begin to think about putting on an airshow from scratch?

"Since 2000, with my small team of volunteers, I basically just got on with scouting for items at shows around the country or by looking on the internet and just asking display crews if they wanted to come to our show, so helping to build a reputation for the event. In most cases now we get telephone calls / emails from them asking if they can come to the show!"

Initially titled Abingdon Fayre, the event changed its name to the more appropriate Abingdon Air and Country Show and it seems incredible that, with the show now in its eleventh year, there are still people unaware of its existence - it clearly takes a long time to develop into a credible event.

"It's a lot of hard work getting the show known within the newspapers, magazines and on the internet. We take our small publicity stall to events and also rely on word of mouth. If I was going to give anyone planning to do something similar a piece of advice I would say not to grow the event too big too soon, as we have all seen other events come along with high expectations, only to fall at the first hurdle! If you go at a steady pace and act wisely with your limited budget you're more likely to survive."

A strong team also helps and Neil relies a great deal on those who volunteer to help organise and run the show each year, but many of the most important factors naturally remain the remit of the man at the top.

"Although being the main organiser overall, my speciality as it were is dealing with all flying side matters; getting the airfield up & running, dealing with the authorities - which in itself is a major task - along with booking and bidding for flying and static display aircraft - all within a limited budget," says Neil.

"The other committee members have set tasks ie one looks solely after the Trade Stalls & Amusements bookings, another for Vintage / Classic vehicles and so on."

So how long does it take to organise a show like Abingdon? We hear much from the large events about a 12 month planning cycle whereby they begin organising the next one as soon as the airshow is completed, but has Abingdon reached that stage yet?

"Well, what we did in the beginning was to have a break until the end of the year, whereby a few things were sorted out and we went from there, but now, as the show is that much bigger and more established, as soon as one is finished we have a debrief and then maybe a month off, and then its keeping our eyes open generally to see what's around for the following year and to start formulating ideas. Personally it's not uncommon, whether it be during working hours or late at night, to quickly jot something down on a piece of paper before I forget!"

I should add that for me, I start things rolling airside around early September and it's then a steady flurry of activity until around January the following year, when the level of interest, emails, phone calls and general workload increases somewhat. And as I have a day job I do all this after working hours, so I have to make time a lot in the evenings and at weekends to make sure all the deadlines are met or in the process of being completed. I wouldn't like to hazard a guess at how many hours I put into the show, but you can bet it's a hell of a lot - at times sacrificing my social life! Sometimes I wish I was paid for doing this!"

Let's not forget that this is not Fairford or Waddington (for example) that we are talking about here, with a vast full-time team working on the event. I ask Neil if he can enlighten us with some of the detail he is referring to. What exactly goes in to running an event like this?

"We essentially hire the airfield from the MoD for six days; that allows for set-up, show day and clear down days. Unlike most shows at established airfields where infrastructure is in place such as fuel, runway sweeper, air traffic control etc, we have to hire in the infrastructure to make the airfield safe for aircraft operations as well as hire in everything else we need while at the same time meeting our operating costs - all within our limited budget," Neil explains.

"Abingdon airfield today is semi-active and used regularly by RAF Merlins and Pumas from nearby Benson, while AAC Apaches use the field at times along with other odd types, but it is not maintained like an operational airfield would be, so is essentially a bare bones site with very limited maintenance & infrastructure.

"We also actually repair anything we consider to be a hazard before the show to save spending money. Many favours are asked to help and many other suppliers give us reduced rates, because after all, it is a charity event.

"As you point out in your question, few people do actually appreciate the amount of hard graft and work behind the scenes that goes into making the show happen."

Support from the military has played a key part in Abingdon's success since airshows at the venue were reborn in 2000, and 2010 will be no different, with the Royal Air Force once again providing numerous aircraft for the flying and static displays. Hawk, Tucano, Tutor and the Spitfire, Hurricane and Lancaster of the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight will all be flying this year, with examples of Merlin, Puma and hopefully C-17 on the ground - a line-up befitting of much bigger events.

"I think our first involvement with the Events Team was back in 2001 when we had the BBMF Spitfire, flown co-incidentally by an ex RAF Abingdon based pilot! All I did was find out how and where you have to apply and hoped for the best, and its been like that ever since - although as the years have gone by the relationship with the Events Team (Grant Macintosh), Joint Helicopter Command, the Royal Navy and overseas nations are known, as such, and I have respect for the services and the support they have provided. I feel very fortunate and proud to have them on our side.

"Grant for example gave us the solo Jaguar display in 2005, something that was special that year as it was almost a homecoming as Jaguars were serviced here for 16 years until 1992 with no. 1 Air Maintenance Sqn, and of course, with it being the Jaguar's final display year it was most fitting. The Hawk is another ex Abingdon type and therefore we have had support from either 100 Sqn or 208 Sqn since 2004 - another piece of the RAF's past history at Abingdon."

With Abingdon effectively heralding the opening of the UK's airshow season I wonder whether that status brings its own pressures to bear on Neil and his team? Expectations tend to run rife these days with people expecting more and more from events with more aircraft and, occasionally, more exotic participants.

"Personally I am fully aware that we'd want to put on a half decent show within what our limited budgets allow, providing an enjoyable day for all the family and thus raising money for the Charity we support; the Thames Valley Air Ambulance Trust," is Neil's response.

"There is a lot of pressure to build on the previous year's show in terms of content, as on the ground display side we have introduced tank rides, a farmers' market and the likes of Dr Who's Daleks - as you need to bring in new features to the show to keep it fresh and keep the interest levels up.

"Aviation-wise, in 2004 we managed to get the Hawk display back to Abingdon which was a major milestone as it was the first RAF jet to land back on the airfield since 1992, and in 2005 we got the Jaguar and our first International participation in the shape of the Polish M28 Bryza on static. In 2006 we had US Army SHAPE Flt involvement with their UH-60 Blackhawk who now return to us every two years, and last year we went big by having the only appearance by an RAF 99 Sqn C-17 Globemaster on static; a major coup. This year we have our first international flying participant in the form of the Dutch F-16; another huge coup for us. My motto is if you don't ask you don't get!"

Speaking to GAR, Flt Lt Tom Bould, the 2010 Royal Air Force Tucano Display Pilot, had the following to say ahead of the event: "I am really looking forward to the start of the display season at Abingdon. There has been a lot of hard work in the pre season build up, both on the flying front for me and on the support side from Martin. It will be great to finally display the Tucano and show off the superb Battle of Britain paint scheme. I am sure there will be some anxious moments in the run up to our first show but Martin and I are relishing the fact that we are finally able to deliver the Tucano Display in front of the general public."

Abingdon is also unique in that, unlike most established shows where financial sponsorship is secured, the event team have to fundraise and rely on a good day's takings as well as trader stall fees etc to help them through into the following year. After all the essential bills are paid which includes the airfield hire, public liability insurance, emergency services cover, aircraft fees and fuel as well as aircrew accommodation, arena displays, the hire of ground equipment and marquees etc (the list goes on) the remainder is split so an amount is kept in reserve to help kick-start the following year's show and the remainder goes to the nominated Charity. The airfield licence fee alone by the way is 9000!

Abingdon Air and Country Show has donated around 14,000 to the Air Ambulance from the last three shows, and before that a further 14,000 to the Helen / Douglas House respite centres in Oxford - a fantastic achievement, especially in the tough economic climate of late.

"It has proved very difficult in trying to get sponsors on board. Sometimes we have been lucky in persuading a few local companies to contribute financially which doesn't always amount to a great deal but it does all help to offset a cost of a display item for example.

"We are still seeking sponsors for this year's show, so any potential company wishing to back a good all round family day out should get in touch!"

Events like Abingdon's reflect everything that is great about the UK airshow scene. A small group of volunteers working in their own time to put on a superb display with something for everyone and all in the name of a great cause - from enthusiasts to families. We're very lucky to have shows like the Abingdon Air and Country Show and, if as yet you're not planning to attend, give it some thought; it's a great day out!

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2010-04-23 - Team Merlin
A great article once again team. We have a real soft spot for Abingdon, being our 'local show'. The amount of work that Neil and his team of volunteers put in is fantastic. They have a real community spirit during show week and manage to pull off a great event every year. The fact that they also support local charities as a result is very commendable. If you haven't been before, go along!! We will see you there!

2010-04-21 - Paul Fiddian
Superb, interesting and insightful article. Well done all-round gentlemen.

2010-04-20 - Peter Fleetwood
A fine feature on an event I had been only vaguely aware of.
Excellent photographs, of course.
Many thanks to GS for this.

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