2011 Articles

JAN 18 2011
Airshow Archive Part 2: Air Fete 87

From my perspective, I suppose this piece was inspired when I began scanning in some of my image archive while laid up at home following ankle surgery in September. It's not designed to stimulate the meaningless 'airshows aren't as good as they used to be' debate, I want to make that quite clear from the word go! The passage of time has affected airshows as it does everything else in life and we (GAR) would much rather celebrate and enjoy what we had before, and perhaps give some of our younger readers a better feel for what airshows were all about in days gone by, while perhaps stimulating some of you to share your own memories from what were great events.

Air Fete. Even today those two little words make many airshow enthusiasts smile, or at least those who are old enough to remember what was an undoubted highlight, maybe even the highlight, of the airshow calendar, particularly through the 1980s and early 1990s.

The first Air Fete was held in 1976 as part of the America's Bicentennial celebrations and it became an annual event, usually held on Memorial Day weekend at the end of May, running until 1999, when it was called off during Operation Allied Force, the NATO-led military operation in Kosovo. It was held again in 2000 and 2001 but with security concerns coming to the fore following the growth of global terrorism since 9/11 has not featured since, although the show could return in some form in 2013.

In 1987 I was an aviation-mad 14 year old. I had been to numerous shows prior to this, mainly at places like North Weald and Duxford (more of which in forthcoming features), British Aerospace Hatfield (my local) and Old Warden. Mildenhall delivered my first experience of a large scale military airshow (that I can remember properly anyway) and well, what a show it was!

The 1987 show marked, as you can see from the Air Fete display checklist, the return of the DH88 Comet to Mildenhall, some 53 years after it departed the base at the start of the MacRobertson International Air Race to Melbourne in 1934. Having not flown since 1938 the aircraft was making its public debut after restoration and was undeniably a beautiful sight in the skies over the vast USAF base. The show also commemorated the 40th anniversary of the United States Air Force and proudly boasted the "most comprehensive collection of USAF aircraft to be seen at a public display this year."

It just doesn't happen these days but don't forget that you never really knew what was going to be at shows back then. No internet of course meant little or no information although I do recall endlessly ringing the airshow hotline for some shows which was a recorded telephone message giving detail on timings and headline participants! Aircraft Illustrated and other magazines would also occasionally run preview pieces.

A huge part of the pleasure therefore was driving in and fervently scanning the airfield to see what was on the ground (I didn't do arrivals days until much later) and Mildenhall rarely disappointed on that front. The other and perhaps most obvious thing to remember when looking back at shows from this era were the sheer number and variety of types that were in service globally at that time. In terms of the flying and static displays this usually meant a veritable pot pourri of aircraft of all shapes, sizes and roles.

So, back to Air Fete 87 and wow, what a line up it was. Looking at the list for the static display first (I handily ticked everything off as you can see from the flying programme!) there were numerous highlights, many of which are now long gone unfortunately.

The static was large in comparison with many of today's shows and certainly beats them all in terms of variety! Funnily enough it wasn't dominated by a vast number of nationalities with the USA and UK providing the bulk of participating aircraft but the checklist does all show visitors from Belgium (Mirage Vb), Canada (CF-188 and CT-133), Denmark (F-16), France (Mirage 2000), Germany (Tornado, CH-53G and BO-105) and The Netherlands (F-16, Alouette III).

As for USAF, I'll pick a few highlights from a very long list with C-141 Starlifter, FB-111A, RF-4C, F-111F, EF-111A, F-4G and SR-71A just some of the aircraft which were Air Fete regulars at the time and sadly won't be gracing an airshow anywhere again.

On to the flying display which, as per the programme started at 10.50am with The RAF Falcons, probably jumping from a Hercules although I don't remember precisely! Despite the relentless sands of time there are many items which we still performing at airshows to this day, so naturally it is the items which don't that really stand out. Harrier GR.3 solo, Sea Harrier FRS.1 solo, Tornado F.3 solo (making its debut on the circuit in 1987) and the Vulcan were the stand out UK military displays for jet fans, along with no less than two Sea Kings, Gazelle, Lynx, Red Arrows, BBMF and the RN Sharks with their four Gazelle HT2s.

The European military fliers were impressive. The Dutch F-16A was already becoming a regular UK performer and the CAF CF-188 display stands out as being a favourite of mine, with its Square Loop an especially eye catching part of the routine. The German Navy sent a solo Tornado IDS while the German Army displayed not just a BO-105 but the mighty CH-53 alongside it. The Danish F-16 was also an Air Fete regular and as I said after Yeovilton's Air Day earlier this year would be extremely welcome at more UK shows in 2011, having made just a single appearance this year.

While an AAC Lynx and Gazelle were scheduled to close the show at 17.45, rather bizarrely I think looking at the schedule now; the real heart of the action took place from 14.51 onwards when the programme was, appropriately, dominated by aircraft from the USA.

This section was kicked off by a host of warbirds with B-17G Sally B the largest aircraft of the bunch, flying alongside the likes of P-51D Mustang, Curtis P-40E Kittyhawk and Republic P-47D Thunderbolt. We then moved in to the jet age and a rare performance from a USANG A-7D Corsair from the 127 TFW/107 TFS based at Selfridge ANGB, Michigan. These jets, there was a two-seat A-7K in the static as well, extended their deployment for exercise Coronet Eclipse at Gioia Del Colle AB Italy just to visit the show and had been in Europe from the 4th / 23rd May, returning Stateside the day after Air Fete.

What followed was manna from heaven - in sequence - A-10A, F-15C, F-16C, TR-1A and SR-71A. The A-10 solo was always flown at this time by the 81 TFW based at Suffolk's Woodbridge and Bentwaters AFBs while the F-16 was invariably from Hahn AFB and the 50 TFW in Germany with the Eagle from the 36 TFW based at Bitburg. All three were impressive in their own right and even flew through as a three-ship formation!

The TR-1A, structurally identical to what we now know as the U-2R, was another Air Fete regular and came from the 95 RS at RAF Alconbury near Huntingdon. Always a display to savour the TR-1A would commence its predictably sedate routine with a jaw-droppingly steep climb out from take-off and seeing the famous spy plane, as it is still inevitably referred, was always a real treat.

The same could be said for the aircraft which followed it, although treat would be an understatement and sedate quite simply doesn't apply! The SR-71A Blackbird was the U-2 / TR-1's Lockheed stable mate and another classic piece of Kelly Johnson inspired design. Where its glider-like peer relied purely on altitude for safety from SAMs and fighters, the Blackbird took things a stage further, with Johnson realising that speed was an additional requisite following the incident which saw Gary Power's U-2 shot down over Russia on May Day 1960. The result was the highest and fastest flying air breathing aircraft ever produced (that we know of at least) with the SR-71A capable of altitudes in excess of 80,000 and speeds in excess of Mach 3; well over 2000 mph.

Det 4 of the 9 SRW arrived at Mildenhall in 1976 and the SR-71 finally left in January 1990, with the aircraft performing in the air at a number of Air Fetes as well as appearing as one of the stars of the static display; the base was proud to host the legendary Blackbird and give the public a rare glimpse in to its necessarily dark and secretive life. No one who saw it will forget the noise, the huge plumes of flame and the distinctive shock diamonds from those J-58 turbojets. The passes in burner were immense, the simulated single engine passes mind-blowing - everything about the jet said power and speed and to be able to say that I saw it in the flesh on a number of occasions is something of which I remain very pleased to this day.

And that wasn't it - look at the list! USAF also contributed C-130s and a KC-135R, nearby RAF Lakenheath provided a flight of four F-111Fs, SAC a debut performance by an FB-111A, with this section, and pretty much the display, concluding, with a B-52G Stratofortress - great stuff. How on earth they thought the Lynx and Gazelle would fair at the end of that lot I'll never know - maybe that's why they didn't bother, according to my checklist anyway.

For me, airshows are always about far more than the aircraft. Some events have almost everything you could wish to see but lack a certain warmth, an atmosphere which makes them truly unforgettable - it's something you can't always put your finger on but you know it when it's there. Mildenhall had it in spades, whatever it is. Maybe it was the great welcome from the based servicemen and women, maybe it was the wet burgers or the Polish sausages being served from the numerous BBQs around the place, perhaps the ice cold cans of Mountain Dew or the bottles of Bud? Not when I was 14 I hasten to add! It just worked and it had something which really no other airshow of its scale has been able to recapture since.

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2017-06-20 - Sean Doyle
I was 20 and selling Ice creams for a company called Rodeo Catering in Park Royal.

Met my now wife on the Friday and we are still going strong after 30 years so i have good memories of the 1987 show

2011-02-03 - Tom
@ Will: The asymetric "unstart" of the SR-71 was in 1986...I was there with all of you...What a sound, like the sky ripping open! LOL

2011-02-03 - Tom
That was a great article! I was stationed on RAF Mildenhall from 1985 to 1988...My job was a USAF Security Policeman...I performed force protection, crowd control, and placed vehicle barriers at my my last Air Fete...I worked crowd control in 1987, and I must say, with over 200,000 European civilians visiting, there were very few security incidents...I found the UK and European "visitors" very friendly and cooperative...I even had kids come up and have me sign thier souvenir Air Fete programs and brochures...Kind made me feel like a celebrity for 15 minutes...
On our south side of base , there was a big wooded area that we nicknamed "the Campground", where spotters and observers would set up tents and sleeping bags...No anti-American sentiment there, and I had a great time talking to the young adults out there...Our Squadron policy was not to "encourage" you to stay there, or talk to you, but I enjoyed every chat I had with you enthusists...Heck, Im still crazy about aircraft today...I dont need any "thanks", I was having as much fun as you all! Cheers...

2011-01-20 - CH2
Was my first one, went on the Sunday, will not forget to the day I die the launch of the SR-71, the first time I saw an F3 and being a bit miffed there was no Lightning! But you've hit the nail on the head when you talk about scanning the static park to see what types had turned up.

Happy days indeed.

2011-01-20 - Phil
I remember the German CH-53 and Bo105 perfoming a display at the same time and then swapping runway ends and repeating the display, so everybody got to see the two extremes. Was this the year?

2011-01-19 - Ian Knight
I am the same age (36); Air Fete 87 was the 1st time I attended. You have captured the atmosphere perfectly!! Everything from not knowing what was going to attend, the anticipation upon arrival as you left the car park onto the base, to the sheer number of types (many we will never see again), and of course the food!!. My highlight was the SR-71 and the B2 a few years later on, flanked by 2 F-15s, apparently for radar contacts (!). I will have to dig out my old photos and revisit them. Thank you again for a highly evocative article.

2011-01-19 - Will
Nostalgic is not the word. I was a similar age, and this was the first airshow that I'd been taken to properly. Living in Suffolk, I was spoilt for choice, with Mildenhall, Lakenheath, Honington, Wattisham, Bentwaters & Woodbridge being so close.
It's a pity that the (perceived) variety isn't there, but maybe I had a high point to start from, with subsequent Air Fetes compounding the '(nice) problem'. One thing, was this the Air Fete when the Blackbird produced the fireball on its high-alpha/low speed pass, or was that the next year. I can't remember?
Anyway, if there are more photos like this, would love to see them.

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