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2011 UK Airshows

JUL 31 2011
Airshows >> UK: Windermere Air Festival 2011 - An Airshow Widow's Review

My husband Jonathan is part of the Airsound commentary team and - I'm ashamed to admit it - most of his work is a bit of a mystery to me. As an airshow approaches, I lose him to hours of editing music and scripts and numerous telephone calls about running orders, sequences and weather reports. The airshows always happen on weekends over the summer, from which he comes back exhausted, having lugged boxes of technical equipment up and down the country.

I decided it was time to give a bit of moral support and find out what all the fuss was about.

The Windermere Air Festival is family orientated and the location a popular tourist destination, so there's no doubt that us airshow widows have plenty to keep us entertained. But, I wondered, what if I missed all the falconry displays and avoided the bar and, instead, stayed by the commentary tent for the entire display? What would I find out about aviation? Might I become an airshow convert?

The Windermere Air Festival is now managed by an events company, where once it was organised by the Rotary Club. The subsequent entrance fee is a contentious local issue, but the upping of the scale means that the organisers now wanted to include a professional commentary, which is where Airsound comes in.

As it turns out, far from the weekend jolly involving five minutes of work bunging a CD out over the PA which I was expecting, Airsound appears to work quite hard. Sean Maffett, the commentator and an ex-RAF navigator, is simultaneously scanning the skies, listening to the display frequency and updating the crowd on the ever-changing schedule. His relaxed, informed delivery is beautifully easy on the ear and his nerve never falters, even when an emergency Medevac operation throws the Falcons into disarray just as the Vulcan is due and Sean's mobile radio mic and mobile phone stop working.

Jonathan Ruffle - OK, I'm married to him but promise to be impartial for the sake of professionalism - is juggling both the technical side (with support from the PA company); the music; and pre-recorded and live interviews with - among others - ATC members past and present, the Tucano ground crew and Martin Withers DFC, the Vulcan pilot. The sound is essential to the mood of the day and works beautifully, particularly the montage accompanying the Breitling Wingwalkers, which takes in both Guaglione and the Benny Hill theme. Like Sean, Jonathan is making split second decisions, for example, how much John Barry to play to build up the tension for the Falcons... bearing in mind that they might actually not land. To the delight of everyone under 25 - perhaps less so for the parachutists themselves who, after all, have an image to maintain - he chooses the music to the Angry Birds app for the eventual landing.

Airsound, then, can effectively build up a story behind the display that appeals to non-aviation experts like me. But what of the planes themselves? It's no surprise that the climax to the weekend is the popular Red Arrows, whose high speed, precision flying draws the biggest gasps and applause. But what about the rest?

Well, pretty impressive, as it happens. What aviation fans and experts might forget is that simply staying in the air is an awe-inspiring feat for lots of us. Winning the 2010 Windsor Horse Show AND being able to fly an RAF Hawk at speeds of up to 550 knots, as Jules Fleming can do, is simply staggering.

Whether the serious fans were satisfied, I can't answer. But personally I was enthralled by the graceful, aesthetic power of the RV8tors and the Twister Duo. My stomach flipped when the Breitling Wingwalkers went into a perilous looking roller coaster manoeuvre. And my heart beat just a little bit faster as the Vulcan - appearing unexpectedly and ominously from behind the headland - soared noisily and vertically over the lake.

Sadly, on Saturday the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight was minus the Hurricane. On Sunday, stuck in traffic returning from my pony trek, tantalisingly I could hear the famous Merlin engine but no sign of the Spitfire, my favourite plane. Sulking, I cursed the crowds, until she appeared in my wing mirror and I wound down the window to see her as she passed low, drawing every eye on the busy streets skywards.

Jonathan tells me that the next Airsound event at the Sanicole Airshow is much more of a production line of aircraft and that there will be no fish pedicures or Tapas bars available locally.

Do I still want to go? Heck, yes!


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