UK Airshows

MAY 09 2012
Airshows >> Review - Abingdon Air and Country Show 2012

Here we are again! It certainly doesn’t feel like it’s been more than six months since the curtain came down on the 2011 airshow season; perhaps the raft of off-season photo-shoots, fly-ins and aviation gatherings that pepper the cold, dark winter months have helped ease the airshow withdrawal symptoms somewhat.

Indeed, there is so much going on from October to April that you’d be forgiven for thinking that there is no such thing as an off-season, but I digress.

Abingdon in Oxfordshire was the location for the first full-blown airshow of the year, with the Air & Country Show offering the usual smorgasbord of participants and ground attractions.

It would have been a joint honour, held with the Shuttleworth Collection, had Old Warden not turned into a quagmire severe enough to cause the cancellation of the Spring Airshow, owing to the persistent heavy rain that has turned the countryside into a soggy mess in recent weeks.

That brings me nicely to that ever-present gripe with British airshows - the glorious weather! I'll get it out of the way early - yes, it was quite cold, no, the sun didn't shine down on us for very long and yes, inevitably it cleared as soon as the flying finished, but did any of us care?!

The Air & Country Show is always a fine way to kick-start the season. While there’s plenty to see on the ground and in the air, it isn’t a major airshow in the sense of your Duxfords or Fairfords and thankfully for the first airshow of the year, it affords visitors a much more laid back day out, free from the manic crack-of-dawn rush and crowdline wars that some of the bigger events held later in the season are notorious for.

Indeed, Abingdon offers the perfect opportunity for spectators to reacquaint themselves with familiar favourites for the first time in several months. Definite crowd-pleasers in the 2012 line-up were the Breitling Wingwalkers, who appeared as a duo with Danielle Hughes and Sarah Tanner braving the unseasonal chill to entertain the crowds – who, it must be said, lapped up the whole barnstorming routine with audible gasps and cheers from the many families in attendance.

The revised format of the second half of the Wingwalkers' display - with one aircraft keeping low and close while another flew higher level aerobatics overhead - was a welcome change and one which worked very well, keeping the action constant.

Historic aircraft aficionados were well catered for, with a strong contingent of classic aircraft and warbirds both in the flying and on the ground. My personal highlights from the pack were the dazzling displays by the inimitable Alister Kay in the Old Flying Machine Company’s P-51D Mustang ‘Ferocious Frankie’ – a perennial favourite – and Carl Schofield in Peter Vacher’s lovely Hawker Hurricane Mk1, an aircraft all too rarely seen in solo displays.

The Mustang, all screaming gun ports and roaring Merlin, put in a blinding show, with a number of top-side passes for the photographers and a fluid display of aerobatics, all executed with the traditional OFMC panache. Equally memorable was the Hurricane solo, a superb demonstration of energy management in a comparatively low-powered mount to the Mustang’s racehorse which combined graceful high wingovers and dives with tight turns and fast aileron rolls; proof if any were needed that Sir Sydney Camm’s often overlooked fighter was no slouch itself, even when compared to the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight’s Spitfire PRXIX – flown on the day by Sqn Ldr Ian Smith.

On the heavier side of things, Plane Sailing’s Catalina – a last-minute draft following the 11th hour cancellation of the airshow at Old Warden – was a welcome sight, boasting new nose art which cause a furore amongst some of the historic enthusiasts in attendance. C-47 Skytrain ‘Drag-em-Oot’ provided a terrific pairing with the Classic Aircraft Trust’s Avro Anson, flying several formation passes before an on-crowd break led to solo routines.

It’s worth noting that neither of these aircraft have been seen on the British airshow circuit since 2010, so their appearance at Abingdon as a pair was all the more significant and something of a coup for Neil Porter and his team.

Another duo display, albeit one flown at an altogether higher tempo than the Anson-Skytrain pairing, was that of the Trig Pitts Special team, who put on a very impressive display of close formation aerobatics. These guys seem to go from strength to strength and if their performance at Abingdon was anything to go by, they should be in for a very successful season.

Abingdon also offers the Royal Air Force display teams the first chance to perform their new routines for the public and this year, the show benefitted from solo displays from the King Air, Tutor, Tucano and Hawk. Flt Lt Jon Bond’s Jubilee-schemed Tucano was particularly eye-catching and I overhead several people commenting that it looks even better in the flesh than it did in the artist’s impressions unveiled right here on GAR, some time ago. Unfortunately, Flt Lt Phil Bird’s Jubilee-schemed Hawk T.1 display ship wasn’t quite ready to debut at Abingdon, although we were treated to Birdy’s solo in the standard black Hawk, operating from RAF Brize Norton.

I’ve maintained in the past that the criticism levelled at the Hawk display from some quarters is a tad harsh to say the least and, having seen the 2012 sequence, I suspect that many of the detractors will be satisfied by Flt Lt Bird’s offerings. While it features many of the same manoeuvres we’ve seen before, there’s certainly a bit of added punch to his display, and the addition of a gear-down “dirty pass” along the length of the runway ought to please the photographers. The ultra-slow speed loop is a real jaw-dropper too – certainly something I can’t recall seeing in a Hawk display in the past!

Elsewhere, Abingdon saw the notable debut of Axis Air Displays’ Bucker Bestmann, flown with surprising verve by Will Greenwood (keep an eye out for the very impressive wingovers) and a return performance by Gordon Brander’s Bucker Jungmeister, flown on this occasion by Alex Smee. Another Abingdon debut came from Jez Cooke in the beautiful Miles Whitney Straight, an aircraft which just oozes class. This trio, whilst not “show stealers” per se, were great to see as they too, much like the Hurricane, are all too often overlooked in favour of the more powerful displays.

One addition on the day which hadn’t been advertised in advance was the Army Air Corps Lynx, which flew a training sortie on Sunday morning before the main flying display commenced; it’s a display well worth seeking out, with some very impressive sequences and one hesitation pedal turn in particular leaving me with a dropped jaw. Neil Porter and the Abingdon team are in a bit of a no-win situation with surprise items like this; publicise them, albeit on a provisional basis, and there’s disappointment when they cancel – as with the pulling of the Hercules, VC10 and Tristar flypasts which had been planned for Sundays’ display.

Yet, keep the information private and you risk losing out on punters who may have been tempted to come along by their appearance. It’s a tricky one, all told, but regardless of your viewpoint, it’s hard to argue that Neil and co. strive to put on the very best show for the public in these difficult times.

On the ground, RAF engagement was in full swing with Team Merlin’s 78 Sqn crewed Merlin HC.3 taking pride of place in the static park (which, incidentally, I thought was well laid out from a photographic perspective), alongside single examples of the Tutor and Tucano. The latter was joined by its Dutch counterpart, the Pilatus PC-7, which was a welcome foreign military asset at what is for all intents and purposes a small family show.

One of the stars of the static was the Bronco Demo Team’s immaculate OV-10B Bronco, flown into Abingdon on the Saturday prior to the event. The Bronco remains a highly unusual participant on UK shores and Abingdon marked the first of only a handful of UK appearances scheduled for 2012; Tony de Bruyn's post-show departure and flypast, in stunning sunlight, was all the more appreciated in that respect.

So then, while Abingdon 2012 didn’t have the star power of some recent shows – which, to jog your memories, have enjoyed the likes of the Vulcan, Dutch F-16 and RAF C-17 Globemaster – it nevertheless achieved exactly what it set out to do by providing spectators with a full day of entertainment with a solid flying element. It’s very difficult to complain about the standard of participation given that this is a charity show, and the team always does well with limited resources.

Abingdon offered the perfect opportunity to dust off the cobwebs and enjoy some memorable displays in a nice setting and a friendly, country-show atmosphere. The ambience of Abingdon goes a long way and for my money, it’s one of the nicest and most enjoyable events of the season; there were many familiar faces, and some new ones, and all told, it was a pleasure just to spend the day catching up with friends with a backdrop of flying displays and ground attractions. For the family, there was plenty to engage the children with, which is what this type of event is all about, really. If you want heavy metal and afterburners, there are other opportunities for that later in the year. Abingdon is a gentle start, easing you back into the airshow fold with its low-key “beginning of term” feel. Long may it continue!

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