2010 Articles

SEP 26 2010
Coventry Airport's 'Heroes Fly-in'

At the start of December 2009, the future of Coventry Airport was thrown into doubt after a petition was submitted by Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs to wind up the company then holding the airport lease, West Midlands International Airport Ltd, themselves owned by Howard Holdings. One week after this news came to light, the airport closed with immediate effect, resulting in the loss of 70 jobs.

It is said that many of the problems encountered by West Midlands International Airport Ltd were caused by the unusual situation created by the site laying on land controlled by two different councils: Coventry City Council, who were wholly supportive of the airport’s development, and Warwick District Council, who not only sought an injuction to stop scheduled commercial flights from the airport, they also refused planning permission for a permanent passenger terminal. It was as a direct consequence of this that WizzAir elected to withdraw their regular services to the airport, while the Thomsonfly (the airport’s most prolific operator) merger with First Choice Airways led to them also ceasing operations from Coventry, citing a change of focus towards a more charter-led business model as their reason for doing so.

Sir Peter Rigby’s Patriot Aviation emerged as the likely new owner in March of this year and a deal was finally completed at the end of April. Widely regarded as one of the UK’s top entrepreneurs, Sir Peter’s ties with the Midlands are extremely strong and his company’s vision for the site is that Coventry Airport should become a “vibrant, commercial regional hub for General Aviation, including leisure, business and freight; with passenger flights amongst possible future plans, alongside creating more jobs and generating income for the region.”

And so to the ‘Heroes Fly-in’. As many members of the enthusiast community will be all too acutely aware due to the regular Royal Air Force C-17 flights into Birmingham International Airport, the newly built Queen Elizabeth Hospital in the city, and before that Selly Oak Hospital, is the first place that many of our injured military personnel are admitted on their return to UK shores to start their rehabilitation journey.

With Coventry’s close proximity to Birmingham, it’s really not hard to see why the event was run in support of the charity, Help For Heroes, with the funds raised going towards improving the lives of those injured in the call of duty.

Mike Hammond, Chief Executive of Queen Elizabeth Hospital Birmingham Charity, which directly receives financial assistance from Help For Heroes, explained, “It is through the support of events such as the Coventry Airport Fly-in that we are able to fund new equipment and therapies that have never before been available in this country.”

With entry being charged on a ‘per car’ basis (£20 for up to four passengers) there was a perceived complication brought about by on airport parking being restricted to 2000 cars. Beyond that attendees would be parked off site and bussed in using a park and ride system, incurring additional £3 per adult and £2 per child charges in the process. It seems this added complication was enough to deter a number of people from attending. Clearly though, plenty of people did still attend as evidenced by our joining of the already not inconsiderable queue to get in at 0930.

The on-airport parking also led to another rather unusual (perhaps even unique?) situation in that it meant that the two sides of the showground (there was an ‘active’ ramp on the airport side, plus static displays and additional movements taking place from the Airbase side of the site) were perfectly dissected by the runway and necessitated another bus ride to travel between the two.

This in itself was not a problem as the buses were running frequently, but one wonders if this was the reason why no real ‘displays’ were permitted to take place during the day – though one regular display pilot did tell us that it was his belief that he could, quite legally, have flown aerobatic manoeuvres to entertain the assembled crowds.

In the week leading up to the fly-in it was announced that the appearance by XH558, the Vulcan, would be its last such public event unless £400,000 can be found by the end of October, and I’m sure many of the people in attendance will have been there wanting to see her for, potentially, one last time. Her missed approach and go around on arrival was unquestionably impressive, and it was nice to see the deployment of the braking chute on landing too.

Arriving in the circuit at roughly the same time but landing a tad earlier was the other real star of the line-up, the Tornado GR.4 from 41(R) Sqn at RAF Coningsby, whose support of airshows and other events this year has been quite superb; a real credit to those who they’re seeking to remember with the specially applied three-letter codes on the tails of their fleet of aircraft in this Battle of Britain 70th Anniversary year.

Spread between the two sides of the airfield was the bulk of Air Atlantique Classic Flight’s fleet, with both Venoms, the DC-3, Jet Provost T.5, Anson and Prentice all flying at various points during the day, while the remainder of the collection was present in a static capacity. Indeed, making its public event debut was the recently arrived Nimrod MR.2, which had a constant stream of people waiting to go inside to have a look around during the day.

Additional aircraft present included the Army Air Corps Historic Flight’s helicopters, a Citation bizjet, and some lighter types. The Vampire Preservation Group’s Vampire T.11, WZ507, did also get airborne to perform a few fly-throughs, but the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight’s planned participation was scuppered by the overly windy conditions at RAF Coningsby which precluded them from getting airborne at all – even though they were hosting their own Lincolnshire Lancaster Association Day at the same time.

While that couldn’t be helped, it might have been an idea if someone had mentioned their cancellation to the commentator who was still announcing their scheduled arrival right up until the point that they were due, when we’d been told some two hours earlier that they’d cancelled.

It should also be noted that there were many ‘dead spots’ around the site where the commentary simply could not be heard from, and the significance of some of the movements may well have been lost on many people, myself included. For instance, the ‘real Heroes fly-in’ was scheduled to be led by Marine Arthur Vaughan Williams in a PA28 Warrior, who is paraplegic after severing his spinal cord. I have to take Gareth’s word for it that he did indeed arrive as I heard no reference made to it at all…

Perhaps the most eagerly awaited moment of the day was the Vulcan’s departure and many of those in the crowd that hung around will have done so specifically in the hope and expectation of hearing that trademark howl for one final time. It came, therefore, as a bit of a surprise to see her follow a typically impressive noisy departure up with a straight and level flythrough at what sounded like idle power. Many of those around me looked on in utter disbelief as 558 banked right and headed off into the distance to rendezvous with a Jet Provost for an air-to-air photo sortie as she made her return journey to RAF Lyneham.

From that I can only conclude that things are not as bad as we’re being led to believe. IF that does go down in the annals of history as being XH558’s final flight in front of the public it would be fair to say she went with a whimper. Surely to goodness it would have hardly been wasteful to use an extra engine cycle in making sure she bowed out in style?!? Who knows, it might even have persuaded a few more people to put their hands in their pockets to help to secure another year on the circuit… Not just disappointing, but utterly perplexing, in my humble opinion….

41(R) Sqn’s Tornado GR.4 gazumped 558’s token effort with ease a matter of minutes later with a fast, noisy, yet still only dry-powered flyby after their own departure.

For the regular airshow attendee, Coventry’s Fly-in may have seemed like a bit of a damp squib, not helped by the overcast and decidedly parky conditions, but it’s important to remember that it was never billed as being anything more than a fly-in. As such it’s difficult to be critical of the organisers who delivered exactly what they’d promised to and backed it up with a variety of other things for visitors to see and do on the ground. More importantly, I imagine a decent sum of money will have been raised for that most deserving of charities, Help For Heroes, on the day.

2003 was Coventry Airport’s last ‘proper’ airshow and I’m sure there are plenty of people who would love to see the event return. What better way can there be to showcase the wonderful collection of aircraft that call Coventry home?

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2010-10-08 - Karl Drage
Dave - but what use are 'saved' engine cycles on a grounded aircraft? As I said in the article, I can only conclude that things aren't as bad as we're being told, either because someone's very confident that the funding shortfall will be covered or because the 'hole' has an element of margin built into it - be that in terms of the timescales stated or the actual amount required.

If I'm wrong and that's not the case - and she is indeed grounded - then I think it will have been a great shame that the "people's aircraft", as we're continually told she is, wasn't given anything close to a proper send off.

Kind regards,

2010-10-06 - Paul Ashenden (PASH)
Karl - you forgot to mention your jet blast encounter with the Tin Triangle - it added to the occasion I thought when you remembered that this might be the last public airing for 558 as a going concern

2010-10-06 - Dave Wiseman
The Vulcan certainly did howl magnificently on take off as commented by several spectators near me. However we were watching from the visiting aircraft park on the southside of the airfield. Maybe something to do with the near 90 degree crosswind from the North? I do agree with you that using one more engine cycle for a climb out after the flyby would have been good but I can understand the need to preserve as many for the future as possible.

2010-10-05 - Glenn Stanley
Good report and thanks for the photo of my bum under the Tornado :-)

2010-10-05 - Karl Drage
David - many thanks for clarifying that.

2010-10-05 - David Depledge
The company that owned the airport lease that went out of business last December was West Midlands International Airport Ltd which was owned by Howard Holdings, an Irish company. They had bought the lease from TUI some years before.

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