2011 Asian Airshows

MAR 01 2011
Airshows >> Asia: Al Ain Aerobatic Show 2011

We heard nothing else for another week until we finally learnt that they wanted one of us to go out, and, with the emphasis being on photography, Gareth very graciously stepped aside.

Al Ain Aerobatic Show 2011 was scheduled to run from Wednesday 2nd to Saturday 5th February, however, as things transpired, the four day public show was reduced to just two.

Flying out of Heathrow on the Etihad EY012 service to Abu Dhabi on the morning of Monday 31st January, the last thing on my mind was the weather conditions in the UAE. I mean, they had to be perfect, didn't they?!?

Al Ain is approximately 145km east of Abu Dhabi and, after my taxi driver had successfully delivered me to the Al Ain Hilton, albeit ‘pinging’ a speed camera in the process, I headed into reception where the first familiar face to greet me was Team Viper’s Ian Oliphant-Thompson.

The news from their side was particularly grim. What had been planned to be a five-ship display had become just three, with one aircraft going sick in the UK and another in Aqaba, Jordan, on the way down. Furthermore, no flying had been possible that day due to high winds and associated sandstorms, and more of the same was forecast for the next day too. Brilliant.

The four-hour time difference meant that I wasn’t remotely tired when I went to bed, but still, so far as my body clock was concerned, necessitated an 0400 start ahead of the next day’s activities. If nothing else, a press event had been planned for the morning, so it seemed certain that there’d be something to do, even in the absence of any flying.

The following morning dawned as forecast, with 30km/h+ winds and severely limited visibility. The whole sky had a bizarre pinky-orange glow to it, and, with the fast jet formation teams needing at least 8km of visibility, the prospects for the day were not good at all. Whoever heard of an airshow in the UAE being scuppered by the weather?!

We arrived at the airport a little later than planned and having missed some of the press events. It was still a very worthwhile exercise, both in terms of site familiarisation and getting a few ‘different’ shots, particularly of the Team Viper guys. It was here where I caught up with Adrian and Iain from PlanesTV too (look out for a dedicated piece from Iain on Team Viper’s Al Ain 2011 in the coming weeks).

Al Ain’s runway alignment is essentially north-south (01/19), but the rather short display line utilises an east-west running taxiway at the northern end of the airfield, ensuring that, when it shines, the sun is pretty much behind you all day. It was just a shame that I’d have to wait a little longer to savour it for myself!

Press event complete, the TSA guys headed off for a meeting with the airshow organisers, the upshot of which was the decision to cancel the following day’s public show. With so few of the participating crews able to fly, practice or – for those that needed to - validate, the decision wasn’t a hard one to make, as disappointing as that was for all involved. The one saving grace, so I was told, was that with the Arabian weekend being Friday and Saturday, historically, those have always been the busiest days at the show, so if you had to lose any, Wednesday or Thursday would easily be the least painful.

With nothing else left to achieve, it was back to the hotel mid-afternoon for a few scoops at the bar and my first experience of the quite outstanding buffet.

Dave Walton had, naturally, been keeping a close eye on the met and, returning a little later than we had, reported that things were not looking so good for the following day either and that there was talk of rain for Friday…. This was starting to get a tad concerning. How on earth was I going to live it down if the whole trip was a disaster?!?

When I awoke the next morning, the wind was audibly less fierce than the previous day, though that could have been in part due to a change of direction. The picture through my patio doors was very similar to that which had greeted me the previous day, but, after breakfast and another check of the met, things started to look a bit more optimistic for later in the day.

Once again we made the not-inconsiderable journey across to the airport and it was noticeable that the sand appeared much more golden than the previous day, and a whole range of sand dunes that had earlier been obscured by the dust in the air were now also visible.

While at lunch at the Officers Mess things took a distinct turn for the better. Marie-Louise Saghbini, the principal event organiser, introduced me to Masoud, the UAE Air Force’s Mirage 2000-9 display pilot, and then proceeded to tell me that the Air Force was intent on flying in the afternoon. A series of four-ship flypasts had been scheduled, comprising F-16E/F, Mirage 2000-9 and Hawk 128 - all operating from their home bases - and these would get proceedings underway at 1527, before Masoud would take his Mirage to the skies for a practice of his own.

Despite this improvement, it had sadly come too late to save the Thursday show, and, like Wednesday, the decision was taken to use Thursday as a practice day. All sorts of potential scenarios were being discussed, including extending the public days to include Sunday and even delaying the show for a week!

We headed back across to the civilian side of the showground and I immediately set course for the grandstand, which was still having the finishing touches applied to it. This was not your average grandstand either – it was utterly huge with estimates putting the capacity at somewhere between six and nine thousand! I don’t know how high the back row would have been, but it would be great to have that sort of facility available at some shows in the UK.

With the sun due to set at 1804, a pretty full-on programme was arranged for that two and a half hour window, although as things transpired, not everybody would use their slot. Indeed, of the UAEAF flypasts, only the F-16s made it through and, while the Saudi Hawks launched, it didn’t take long before they decided that they weren’t happy with the visibility. The Turkish Stars also flew, but rather than putting in a full practice, they used their slot to conduct familiarisation flights over the display site and surrounding area.

Masoud and his Mirage 2000-9 did get a full practice in, which, it has to be said, was very good. The undoubted highlight for me was a pass that I can only liken to the Frecce Tricolori’s ‘Crazy Fly’, but, instead of having the gear down, his was up. Unlike its more familiar French counterpart, the UAEAF examples sport a much greyer two-tone scheme and look fantastic!

While it was nice to finally have some flying taking place, photographic conditions still weren’t great with the sun disappearing behind a sand cloud fairly early on in the piece, and the light was truly horrible by the time Jonathon “Flapjack” Whaley took his well known Hunter F.58A, “Miss Demeanour”, to the skies.

Not all of those practicing were flying display participants, however. Without doubt the act creating the biggest stir was rocketbillyracing.com’s spectacular jet truck, ‘Pyro’. A 1982 International Transtar 4300, Pyro is powered by a Westinghouse J34-WE-48 Turbojet engine with afterburner from a T-2 Buckeye, and makes a hell of a racket and pumps out a phenomenal amount of smoke!! Little did I know it at the time, but this would be my one and only attempt to watch and photograph Pyro’s show….

One of the most notable elements of the 2011 Al Air Aerobatic Show was the inaugural FAI Desert Challenge. The contest, which brought together six pilots - all top 10 FAI event rankers in the last two years – would see the competitors pitted against one another in three rounds of competition; two compulsory and one free-style. Pilots Philipp Steinbach and François Le Vot, both flying the Sbach 300 (an aircraft designed by Steinbach), took the opportunity to take to the skies before the sun finally set.

That evening I started to feel quite ill and got almost no sleep, and, when I did manage to get a few minutes, I would wake up with a real fever. I’m still not sure if it was dust related or proper illness, but as I write this, some two weeks on, I’m still suffering and am on a second type of antibiotics.

Illness aside, Thursday was like a completely different world, with a much bluer sky and even more vibrant colours showing up on the sand dunes.

My morning was initially spent photographing the FAI participant aircraft on the civilian side, before I headed to the military base to shoot some of the faster acts on display. I should explain that, as official photographer, I was the only person allowed to take pictures at the military base, but even then I was restricted to shooting away from buildings, I wasn’t allowed to shoot any UAEAF aircraft and I was only allowed to take pictures when my security ‘minder’ was present. It seems that there have been issues in the past with non-approved people taking pictures and then sharing them with the wider world. It made for a more difficult situation than was ideal, but at least I came away with some exclusive images.

For the afternoon I was back across at the civilian side, once again watching the rehearsals from the grandstand. It was my first chance to see a number of items, including the Scandinavian Airshow. As the name suggests, this act has more than one element to it, and, on this occasion, the Grumman G-164A Agcat and two wingwalkers went up first, followed by the Pitts Special, known as ‘Wasp’, later on. A third element, utilising the Pitts Python, appeared on the website pre-event, but at no stage did I see it.

The Baltic Bees also passed in front of my lens for the first time, although, little did I know at the time, I’d enjoy a much nicer opportunity to photograph them later in the week! The team is based in Latvia and has only been in existence since 2008, operating five L-39 Albatros aircraft – although only four were present at Al Ain. Long-term the desire is to increase this to nine.

The afternoon also bore witness to a full rehearsal for the FAI Desert Challenge, with Castor Fantoba, Gerald Cooper, Juan Velarde and Hubie Tolsen joining Philipp Steinbach and François Le Vot who had both practised the day before. There was a nice mix between high level and low level aerobatics, with the latter offering up a few decent photo opportunities.

Sadly the cross-wind was too strong to allow the Skip Stewart Team to get in a complete rehearsal of the incredible act that should have seen Skip fly his Pitts S-2S underneath a pair of ramp jumping motorcyclists. This was another act that I would ultimately never get to see in full.

Bringing a close to proceedings was Hannes Arch with a very different set piece, dubbed ‘Rhythm and Air’. Taking place at sunset, Hannes’ aerial exploits were matched with a musical accompaniment courtesy of leading experimental music act, NOISIA, whose unique stainless steel ‘sound sculptures’ were joined by Cellist, Irmi Vukovich, of the Vienna Symphonic Orchestra. The main visual aspect at ground level was provided by the Vienna State Opera’s former principal ballet dancer, Karina Sarkissova. The picture should have been completed by a silver suited lady complete with flaming fire wings (which would literally be set on fire by one of the support crew), but again on this occasion, the wind rendered this final element unsafe.

This was so far removed from anything I’d witnessed at an airshow before, I wasn’t too sure what to make of it – and I’m not sure the locals did either. The flying certainly felt incidental, and, while the music and ballet were enjoyable, to my rather uncouth mind, it did seem to drag on a bit. That said, as a sunset finale, I guess time wasn’t really of the essence….

And so, with everyone ‘signed off’, Al Ain Aerobatic Show 2011 was finally set to open its doors to the general public on the Friday, the penultimate day of the event and two days later than planned – but at least it would happen.

Friday broke bluer still. At the request of Marie-Louise, my main objective for the day was to capture some shots of the Saudi Hawks and the Turkish Stars pilots with their aircraft at the military base, though even this would not go quite to plan!

My security man arrived nice and early and I was free to take advantage of the morning movements, namely Team Viper, Castor Fantoba, Otto the Helicopter (another routine that I never did manage to witness), Juan Velarde, Hubie Tolsen and The Baltic Bees. All the time I kept receiving assurances that the Saudis and Turks were ‘coming across now’.

Eventually it became clear that they wouldn’t be joining us until they were getting ready to fly, mid and late-afternoon respectively. That in itself wasn’t a major issue – I was having a good time shooting the comings and goings from the military base – but when the security guy announced that he was going for a break and that I wasn’t to photograph anything till he returned, things started to take a turn for the worse.

He wasn't back by the time the Saudis taxied out to display but fortunately had returned in time for their recovery, and they, led by Lt Col Abdullah Al-Ghamdi, 88th Squadron Commander, really could not have been more co-operative, humouring me with a number of photographic requests.

Checking the flying programme, I had a good idea about when we needed to make our way across to the far ramp from where the Turkish Stars were operating. My security man had other ideas, however, and he decided that we would go across to them to catch them coming back instead.

When we did head over, I made a point of asking the team’s groundcrew where they would taxi (in front of or behind the sun shelters) and which way they would face when parked up. I was assured (by several independent parties) that they would taxi in front of the sun shelters (which was good because the rear of them was now in shade), turn left, then right, then right again and park nose out to the sun. Perfect! A great opportunity to get a nicely lit head to three-quarter head on shot of a decent number of F-5s taxying in.

Except, perhaps rather predictably, they taxied in behind the sun shelters, leaving me totally out of position and only able to capture a few shots of aircraft turning into their parking spaces – with buildings behind that I wasn’t allowed to photograph!

It got even better. Upon introducing myself to the team leader and making my request for some formal, posed shots with the jets, I was told that the team members were hot and that they would prefer to do it the next day before they flew….

By the time I finally got across to the civilian side, all that was left to perform was the Hannes Arch ‘Rhythm and Air’ set-piece.

While I’d come away with some nice images of stuff on the ground, it had come at a cost. I’d missed the only opportunity to see the Etihad A340-600 flypast (Friday only), the UAEAF four-ships in by far the best light so far and there were still a number of display acts that I’d not seen at all, and ultimately never would!

One thing that I did have to cling onto was the talk of going flying the next morning, but, given the way I was feeling that night, I really wasn’t sure I should be taking up the opportunity if it did indeed present itself.

I didn’t have a great night’s sleep (as was now the norm) but I did get up feeling much better that morning. Confirmation was received early doors that we were indeed going flying, though, given what was going to be involved, I still refused to believe it at that stage! Look out for a separate feature next week dedicated to the flight in question!

Post flight and after the imagery that had been captured had been diplomatically cleared, we made our way across to the public side, just as Jonathon Whaley and Miss Demeanour were completing their routine.

After shooting the static I went off to find the TSA Consulting guys to see how the programme was shaping up. To my horror I was told that there would be at least a 90-minute hiatus in the flying display due to a VVIP movement, the upshot of which would be the cancellation of the UAEAF four-ship flypasts and Team Viper’s simulated bombing runs…. Oh, and the airfield was under lock-down while the VVIP was present, making it impossible for me to get back to the military side to get the shots of the Turkish Stars with their aircraft….

That meant that all that was left were the Saudi Hawks, the Mirage 2000-9, the Turkish Stars, Fazza Team, Zoltan Veres and Hannes Arch; such a shame as the conditions really were lovely….

During the enforced break the presentation took place for the winner of the FAI Desert Challenge. Claiming the title with an overall score of 70.82% was Spaniard, Castor Fantoba. Just 1.82% behind in second place came Brit, Gerald Cooper. Fantoba said afterwards, “Winning the first ever FAI Desert Challenge, and against such high quality competition, is a great personal achievement and one that I’m very proud of. I’ve had an excellent time visiting Al Ain and experiencing this beautiful country, both on the ground and in the sky, and winning this title rounds everything off perfectly.”

With the display programme back under way, one particularly nice variation on the practice earlier in the week was the decision to taxi and park the Mirage 2000-9 in front of the crowd after displaying. This was particularly well received by the masses and Masoud received a hero’s welcome as he made his way from the cockpit.

All too soon the programme drew to a close.

I’d spent five days at the showground and still managed to miss seeing Otto the Helicopter and Blue Voltige display at all, I never got to see the full Skip Stewart Team display or Team Viper performing their pyro routine, I missed the Etihad A340-600, never saw the UAEAF four-ships of F-16s or Mirage 2000s in the sun and never captured the shots of the Turkish Stars with their jets. Perhaps understandably, I came away feeling rather like I’d failed…. Of course, the reality was that circumstances had conspired against me – and repeatedly so - but that didn’t make it any easier to take. If the organisers hadn’t lost those first two days, fitting everything in almost certainly wouldn’t have been an issue.

The whole experience was rather eye-opening. It was the first time I’d travelled so far east and, despite being well briefed about the cultural differences before I went, I still wasn’t fully prepared. The Arab people are wonderfully friendly and hugely helpful, but I did find the whole ‘Inshallah’ (God willing) culture very difficult to cope with. I like to know what’s going on and when, so for things to continually happen at the last minute (literally - such as receipt of my airline e-ticket!), often without any prior warning at all, did create far more stress than I’m comfortable with. I’m told by seasoned Al Ain visitors that you do get used to it after a while – usually about seven years!!

It’s not really fair for me to ‘review’ the show as such, partly because I didn’t see it all, but mainly because I experienced things from a very different perspective to anyone attending the event as a member of the public. That said, I do think it’s important to point out that, from the public areas, it’s almost impossible to get any worthwhile taxi shots (the use of runway 19 gives the best opportunities and offers some token ‘landers’) but if runway 01 is in use, you definitely couldn’t get any take-off or landing shots. The alignment of the display line, however, is perfect for the discerning aviation photographer, sun and sand permitting!

As the show was wrapping up there was lots of talk about the UAEAF retaking control of the running of the display in 2012. Already they have a display team working up that flies the MB339 and goes by the name of ‘Al Fursan’ (Knights). They were away in Italy perfecting their routine during the show, but I’m sure they’ll be ready to perform a little later in the year. Additionally, it seems that there’s a desire to provide more solo display items in the future. Essentially, Al Ain *could* become a very nice, well worthwhile, winter getaway for the European aviation enthusiast, though in order to attract them, it is vital that participation lists start to come together much earlier than they currently do.

Frustrations aside, it was great to see a different country and experience a rather different airshow in truly spectacular surroundings.

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2011-10-02 - Marie-Louise
Thanks Karl, you have done a wonderful job! As Rich said, you have to be there to believe it ;-) Hope it was not too stressful for you and that you enjoyed this experience as well from the ground as from the air! Hope to see you again... Thank you

2011-03-08 - Flapjack
You had to have been there to understand the sand storm viz, didn't you!

"pinging A speed camera." Amateur! I was commuting to and from Dubai for four days and picked up 28 tickets! Sneaky cameras don't flash!

2011-03-01 - Rich Cooper
Nice one mate, I've been itching to find out what you thought of it all and I resisted the temptation to ring you - I wanted to get the full picture from your report. Really enjoyed reading it and, as you can imagine, I get where you're coming from - you've conveyed it well. You've done a great job of the report itself and the photo coverage, not only in terms of making the best out of it given the curtailed schedule, but also feeling rough - THAT's hard work man, fair play. As you've conveyed from the above, Al Ain is something that has to be experienced to be believed... The potential for the event remains immense (imagine it having a spin at a worldwide classic jet meet? The cash, the space, the environment), but then it's so hard to judge against that because of the very factors that make it such an alien experience in the first place! See/speak soon, cheers!

2011-03-01 - Neil McCarthy
Good insight to this show.
If they want a JP and a Vampire cockpit for next year I can help out!

2011-03-01 - Dunk
Awesome access, i am pleased you got this opportunity Karl, now you know how frustrating the UAE can be! Hats off to Dave Walton and the TSA team for making Al Ain a truly remarkable aviation event.

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