2011 Articles

MAR 29 2011
Airshow Archive Part 4: Farnborough International 90

Farnborough International 1990 was held between 2-9 September and it was the 29th show staged by the Society of British Aerospace Companies at the site. The mainstream aviation press reported that exhibition space sold out well in advance, and the result was that the exhibition halls – all 60,000 square metres of them - were occupied by about 800 companies, not including the many firms that wanted to exhibit, but couldn’t be accommodated.

Then, as now, Farnborough provided a platform for aerospace business to be conducted at the highest international level, and there’s much that could be said about the corporate side of things, but I’m going to mainly concentrate here on the flying display which, in 1990, was itself conducted at the highest international level.

The Farnborough 90 flying display featured a magical mixture of old types, new types and old types presented in new ways. Among the debutantes were the world’s largest aircraft and a host of new military and commercial developments and upgrades.

As per usual, the last three days of the event were for the public and this was reflected by the inclusion of additional flying items that extended the display to around five hours. These included the RAF Red Arrows, the RNHF’s Firefly, the Microlease Pitts Special and – appropriately, in the 50th anniversary year of the Battle of Britain – both the BBMF and an RAF Tornado F.3/Spitfire XIX duo. Entrance prices were set at £11.00 for adults and £3.00 for children and, on Saturday 8 September – the day I was there – the weather was pretty good, with lengthy spells of sunshine, especially around mid-afternoon.

On a personal note, Farnborough 90 was the first airshow I attended that wasn’t at Biggin Hill. I was a wide-eyed ten-year-old and it absolutely blew me away. The static display alone was much larger than anything I’d experienced before, while the flying display was punchy and exquisitely choreographed, building up to a mid-afternoon frenzy before winding down to end.

Stepping off the special bus service from Aldershot, and walking over the passenger bridge outside the main entrance, the sheer scale of Farnborough 90 suddenly, dramatically, came into view. There was one aircraft that instantly caught my attention in terms of size alone: the Antonov An-225. It, along with many other types, was positioned on the main runway, prior to being towed off to the far side of the airfield in readiness for its slot.

After a parachute drop by the Red Devils from a BAe 146STA, the main flying display began with the McDonnell Douglas MD530 NOTAR (No Tail Rotor) – a Hughes/MD500 helicopter retrofitted with a directed air system in lieu of the traditional tail rotor design. The new addition gave the NOTAR a lovely, whistling kind of tone and it proved itself an extremely lively performer, with loops a-plenty. A series of hovering manoeuvres near the flight’s conclusion demonstrated that it was as stable as it was nimble, and the fact that the design had only been in the air for little over four months made it all the more impressive. As with the majority of the performances to follow, the NOTAR had a four-minute slot, but it packed a great deal into that. This, to me, was one of the most appealing aspects of this Farnborough Airshow and the next couple I attended: each slot followed the next with hardly any gap at all and this, along with the length of the presentations, created a 50-item flying display!

Hot on the heels of the NOTAR came a troop of trainer designs, the rocketing Jaffe Swearingen SA-32T, the extremely aerobatic Slingsby T67M200 Firefly and the Chilean Enaer T-35 Pillan and Namcu. I enjoyed these individually and, especially, collectively, with the chance to compare the styles of different country’s demo pilots as much as to assess each aircraft’s handling characteristics.

Trainers themselves were much in evidence: in addition to those mentioned, the Socata Omega and the Shorts Tucano T.1 both displayed later in the day, and these were just the propeller-driven types! On the jet trainer front, we had the BAe Hawk 100 and 200, the Promavia Jet Squalus, the IAR99 Soim, the FMA Pampa, the SIAI Marchetti S211, the Aero L-59 Albatros and the Alpha Jet. All were flown extremely well but it was yet another trainer design that impressed me the most – the extraordinary RFB Fantrainer 600. A Farnborough veteran, it was making what would be its final appearance at the show, after having first flown in 1977 and, it’s fair to say, not really taken off in the way its developer intended (although Thailand ordered a batch for advanced pilot training purposes). Equipped with a 650 shaft horsepower engine driving a pusher fan, it sounded fantastic (the mixed propulsion set-up placed its pitch somewhere between a PC-7 and a Hunter/Meteor blue note) and it gave a terrific display, blending advanced aerobatics with a handling demonstration, which included rapid knife-edge-to-knife-edge rocks and quite violent pitching.

Amidst this flurry of foreign participants, there was still room for British innovation to play a part. The dashing little Chichester-Miles Leopard had been exhibited in mock-up form before but, here, now, was the real thing – a distinctive-looking light business jet made of composite materials that swept around at speed while, by way of contrast, the beautifully bizarre Edgley Optica carried out some of the slowest flypasts of the show. It was displayed by Neville Duke – certainly no stranger to Farnborough – who, at that time, was Edgley’s Chief Test Pilot.

Larger civilian types abounded and, among them, there was a newcomer in the shape of the BAe 1000. Based on the BAe 125, the model 1000 added a couple more feet of fuselage, the ability to carry more fuel and new Pratt and Whitney turbofans to effectively repackage an almost-30-year old design in advance of the looming arrival of the 21st century. While, basically, the idea worked (52 more -125s subsequently left the production line), the same couldn’t be said for another new type at the show – the Embraer CBA 123 Vector. Only two prototypes of the pusher-engined light business aircraft were ever built before the programme, amidst rising costs, was cancelled.

Besides the 125-1000, British Aerospace presented a full line-up of commercial products including the ATP, 146-200 and the Jetstream 31, the latter in Pan-Am colours, reflecting the international success the type had achieved. All gave fluid and well-structured displays, but the Dornier Do228 triumphed in the agility stakes with an eye-opening, high-banking demonstration that included a stall turn!

Helicopter participation included a unique duo display from a pair of Sikorsky S76s (A and B models) and, representing Westland of Yeovil, solo Lynx HAS.3, WS70 Blackhawk and EH101 demonstrations.

The sharp end of military aviation, meanwhile, was showcased by a series of excellent fighter displays that were spread out throughout the afternoon. The General Dynamics F-16A presented its usual mix of power and agility, leaving a blur of twisted smoke trails in its wake, while there were two versions of the Mirage 2000, the BX-1 and the nuclear-capable N, and both were displayed with finesse. The CF-18 Hornet was another excellent performer but, arguably, the RAF stole this aspect of the show with a combined, six-ship Harrier GR.5 demo in the type’s first full year on the airshow circuit. The routine culminated in a combined hover that concluded with synchronised pedal turns and a mass landing – quite the spectacle!

Finally, the Russians. The star of Farnborough 88, the MiG-29, was back and, this time, joined by several other newcomers. That appearance, two years ago, had served not only to induct this awesome Russian Air Force fighter into the UK airshow circuit but, equally, to really launch the display career of the brilliant Anatoly Kvotchur. This time, the MiG-29 was in the hands of Mikoyan Test Pilot Roman Taskaev and put on a tremendous display, including the familiar tailslide and the newer ‘snakebite’, in which it rapidly reared upwards from level flight before dropping back down again. Thereafter, the snakebite, later renamed the ‘cobra’, became a staple feature of MiG-29 airshow presentations, but it wasn’t exclusive to this aircraft. Indeed, the first public demonstration of it had occurred one year earlier, at the 1989 Paris Air Salon. This took place within the Sukhoi Su-27’s first international presentation and, now, here it was at Farnborough, flown – as at Paris – by Victor Pugachev. The Su-27 put on an outstanding flight – tailslide and snakebite included - and another Sukhoi product, the Su-26MX, was displayed by the newly-crowned women’s World Aerobatic Champion, Natalya Sergeeva. It’s tempting for me to write paragraph after paragraph about the Su-26 and/or Natalya, but suffice to say the routine was brilliant, full of rolls and executed with extreme precision.

The Antonov An-225 Mriya absolutely stole the show. Premiered at the 1989 Paris Air Salon, like the Su-27, it was being seen for the first time in the UK, and gave an astounding performance that really belied its size. After a heaving bank straight after takeoff, it flew a teardrop shape to position back on the display line for an initial pass and a very tight 450 degree turn. That completed, it reversed the angle of bank and lowered the undercarriage for what, I thought, was its landing. Not so! Rather, it was a touch and go, and a super-smooth one at that. Another heaving turn, another very tight circuit and again, the gear was lowered. This time, it did land - its immense flaps deployed to produce a rapid deceleration into the basking glow of the late summer sun.

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