2012 UK Airshows

AUG 24 2012
Airshows >> UK: Headcorn Combined Ops - Review

There were three things that struck me after leaving Headcorn’s IMPS Combined Ops 2012 on Sunday evening. First and foremost, the price: at just £9 per person on the gate, spectators certainly got their money’s worth from this event. Indeed, ten individual ‘items’ in the flying programme spread out over the afternoon, coupled with a field full of ground attractions – military vehicles, trade stands, re-enactors, static aircraft and so on – was very reasonable for a sub-tenner entry fee.

The second was Headcorn itself. Set deep in the rolling green of the Garden of England, the former site of RAF Lashenden and USAAF Station 410 is perhaps the perfect venue for a flying display. The runway is close enough to the crowdline for me to happily shoot using my Canon 70-200mm lens without needing to crop too extensively and participants at Combined Ops were parked along the main crowdline, allowing visitors to see the aircraft up close and interact with their pilots and/or owners.

Another bonus is that the sun remains behind the crowd for the entire day, which works twofold in that photographers can avoid having to shoot backlit displays and, more importantly for the general public, it keeps the sun out of your face so that on days like 12 August, when you’re really feeling the heat, you can at least avoid coming away looking like you’ve been left to roast for 12 hours. Well… that’s the theory anyway. I’m walking proof that it doesn’t always work out that way…

The third talking point of Combined Ops for me was the variety. Despite not being a full-scale airshow, Headcorn presented an interesting mixed bag of participants with a little something for everyone; and while there were several arena displays from the many jeeps, trucks, armoured vehicles and tanks, the focus here is, naturally, the air display.

The flying element began with an excellently timed three-ship display from the Tiger Club’s resident Stampes, flying a number of passes in different formations before splitting to allow the lead aircraft to perform a brief solo display – including some very elegant aerobatics, the most impressive of which had to be the rollercoaster-type bunt manouevre – before reforming for a break and individual low passes down the runway.

Following the Stampes was the Turbulent Team, a real part of British airshow (and Headcorn) history, with their crowd-pleasing mix of barnstorming, flower bombing, limbo dancing and balloon bursting; some of the die-hard enthusiasts may balk at the Turbs’ theatrics, but there’s no denying their popularity with the casual day-trippers who make up the majority of an airshow crowd (particularly at a more localised event like this).

Adding a splice of interwar gusto was the Aerobatic Tactics Ltd Boeing Stearman, an aircraft that should be familiar to the local crowd – a regular visitor to Kent, when it isn’t offering wingwalking to the masses at Damyns Hall in Essex, Tony Richards’ display may not have been as dynamic as, say, the Breitling Wingwalkers’ supercharged and sexy efforts, but it was nevertheless a nicely displayed sequence of low passes and ‘rollercoaster’ climbs and banks. Very nice indeed!

Further US military training aircraft were represented by the wonderfully quirky Ryan PT-22 Recruit, courtesy of Richie Piper. There isn’t a huge amount a display pilot can really do with the Recruit, but Richie manages to keep the display engaging and entertaining, with plenty of clanging grunt from the Ryan’s 160hp Kinner engine keeping the crowd’s attention!

The big set piece at Combined Ops saw an air-to-ground battle pitting the American forces – advancing through the Normandy countryside we were told by the commentator, who set the scene effectively, making sure the crowd were kept appraised of the goings-on – against the German occupying forces.

Beginning with a small convoy of jeeps and armoured vehicles making their way steadily along the runway, supported by ground troops, the sequence developed with a Piper L-4 Grasshopper providing aerial reconnaissance for the allies with some very nice sweeping low and close passes; all clear, one might assume, with the Luftwaffe well and truly vanquished…

The peace wasn’t to last, the quiet air shattered by the arrival of Will Greenwood in the ‘Bucker Bestmann’, packing perhaps the grandest punch any training aircraft has ever had the honour of delivering. Indeed, Will Greenwood unleashed hell, to quote ‘Gladiator’, in the style of Maximum Decimus Meridius circa 1944, dropping some surprisingly hefty ordinance on the allied troops before succumbing to small arms fire and making an “emergency landing”.

It was at this point that Will was surrounded by troops and surrendered to the Americans, who celebrated as though Goering himself had just fallen into their lap. Over the top, gloriously entertaining fun all round – more of this, please! With just a couple of light aircraft and some whizz-bangs, Headcorn crafted their own little battle attack sequence that was full of innovation and spirit.

Elsewhere, Headcorn was treated to several flypasts by aircraft operating in the local area: Jonathon ‘Flapjack’ Whaley ploughed through twice in Hunter 'Miss Demeanour' en route to Eastbourne and later Manston, managing to successfully drown out a marching band on the latter pass. The Battle of Britain Memorial Flight’s Lancaster may have scrubbed due to a technical fault, but one of the Spitfire PR.XIXs still made it through, making up for the Lancaster’s absence with several lovely fast passes down the runway.

Modern military representation was unsurprisingly scarce, with it falling to a Sea King to keep the RAF end up – credit to the pilot and crew for making three nice, slow and low passes along the crowdline before departing. Much appreciated by all, I’m sure!

Closing the flying display (officially, anyway…) was Rob Davies in his Yak-11, making the short cross-country hop from Woodchurch to display this meaty and oh-so-lovely Russian fighter-trainer. The Yak-11 is a terrific airshow performer, full of Soviet agricultural vigor and in the hands of a man of Davies’ caliber, it’s a show-stealer. It was the first time I’d seen Rob flying the Yak in a solo routine and it was certainly a treat, with a pleasing mix of vertical aerobatics and lower, fast passes.

With Rob safely back on the ground, the flying programme had drawn to a satisfying conclusion, leaving time for some of the interesting visiting historics – including a cracking black Nanchang CJ-6, a T-6 Texan, Piper Cub, the Breitling Wingwalkers and four (yes, four!) Yak-18s – to depart for home.

That wasn’t to be the end of it though, with the massed taxi to take-off by a host of Tiger Club machines signaling the start of one of the traditional Headcorn evening ‘Balbos’. With 11 aircraft flying in close formation, including three Stampes, three Turbulents, a Jungmann, Piper Cub and PT-22, it was quite a sight as they wheeled around the sky for a quarter of an hour before splitting into three sections and breaking to land.

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