With the news that RAF Waddington International Airshow will be taking a sabbatical in 2015, with no guarantees that it will return in 2016, Gareth Stringer argues in defence of the military airshow. 

In front of me is a copy of the 1987 Royal Air Force Yearbook. It’s a special Red Arrows issue and in amongst the numerous features is the Team’s display schedule for that year which, much as it does now, begins in earnest in May, and finishes at the end of September.

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The Yearbook in question – these days they make for a fascinating read – Gareth Stringer © www.globalaviationresource.com

Ignoring civilian airshows and events, and also families’ days, private military functions and overseas commitments, the Red Arrows display calendar for 1987 includes performances at the following, directly RAF-related, public events:

RAF Mildenhall, RAF Upper Heyford, RAF Biggin Hill, RAF Swanton Morley, Lowestoft (RAF Town Show), RAF Coningsby, RAF Cosford, RAF Church Fenton, Swansea (RAF Town Show), RAF Brize Norton, RAF Hereford, RAF Chicksands, RAF Cranwell, RAF Manston, Eastbourne (RAF Town Show), RAF Fairford, RAF Chivenor, RAF Brawdy, RAF St Mawgan, RAF Bentwaters, Whitby (RAF Town Show and Regatta), Blackpool (RAF Town Show), RAF Valley, Cromer (Carnival and RAF Town Show), RAF Binbrook, Scarborough (RAF Town Show), RAF Brize Norton (RAF Gala), RAF Marham, RAF St Athan, RAF Abingdon, RAF Finningley, RAF Leuchars and RAF Newton.

Despite the initial shock of reading a list that contains so many RAF stations that are no longer in use, either by the RAF or USAFE (United States Air Forces in Europe), or even existence in some cases, and accepting the most obvious fact that the Royal Air Force was much bigger in 1987, the reality of where we are in 2014 still hits home, for this year the Red Arrows have displayed publicly at just RAF Waddington, RAF Cosford and RAF Fairford (RIAT), though the latter is not actually a Royal Air Force hosted event.

Gareth Stringer © www.globalaviationresource.com

50 seasons and still adored at home and respected globally – Gareth Stringer © www.globalaviationresource.com

So, Cosford and Waddington are the last two remaining events where the general public is invited on to an RAF station, by the RAF, to enjoy a day of aviation and family entertainment; to see what their taxes go towards and how the Royal Air Force goes about its business.

Its business has changed much since 1987, of that there can be little doubt, but many of the core responsibilities remain. For example, the Royal Air Force is still defending the United Kingdom 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, it is still a member of NATO and it is still hosting USAF units on British bases, albeit in greatly reduced numbers.

It is, however, far more of an expeditionary force these days, designed to deploy and fight, or keep the peace, away from home, as opposed to being almost totally focussed on helping the UK survive the pre-nuclear exchanges of a conflict in Europe against the Soviet Union, as it was during the Cold War. Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya all are recent examples of what the RAF has faced and most likely expects to face in terms of modern warfare.

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A real Cold War warrior – on static display at RAF Cranwell in 1990 – Gareth Stringer © www.globalaviationresource.com

As for manpower and equipment, to examine the differences between the RAF now and the RAF of the late 1980s is much like comparing chalk and cheese.

In October 2010 the Strategic Defence and Security Review recommended that, by 2015, the full-time trained strength of the RAF should be reduced by 5,000 to 33,000 (this figure was on top of a 2,000 reduction already decided in a previous planning round) and it is true to say that the current strength of the RAF is at a post-WWII low, although numbers were lower between the two World Wars.

For comparative purposes though, in 1990, manpower for the Royal Air Force was officially recorded as being 89,700.

Gareth Stringer © www.globalaviationresource.com

Tornado Solo Display – we haven’t had one of these for a few years – Gareth Stringer © www.globalaviationresource.com

It was in 1990 that the Royal Air Force deployed forces to the likes of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Oman, under the auspices of Operation Granby, which became Gulf War 1, and it did so with the likes of Tornado GR1, Tornado F3, Jaguar, Victor, Chinook, Tristar, VC10, Hercules and Buccaneer. Just prior to that, in 1987, and I refer here to my trusty Yearbook for clarification, the RAF was also still operating Phantom, Nimrod, Harrier, Lightning, Shackleton, Wessex, Andover, Canberra and Pembroke, among others.

It was a big service, albeit nowhere near the size it had been at its peak (1950 – 193,000 men and women), but, with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the UK’s political masters began to look at down-sizing and restructuring the armed forces, starting with the Options for Change package of cuts in 1992, the RAF becoming a leaner and more flexible organisation, better to meet the demands of the new world order.

But, this blog is not an exercise in sentiment, or a whimsical look back at a golden era, for aviation enthusiasts at least, that quite simply will not return, for the downsizing and the closure of stations, along with scarcity of funding in recent years, has had a genuinely negative effect on the Royal Air Force’s ability to publicise its work, its people and its equipment.

Gareth Stringer © www.globalaviationresource.com

Airshows give the general public a chance to say goodbye to ageing equipment – Gareth Stringer © www.globalaviationresource.com

This is a situation that surely must not be allowed to worsen any further.

For the general public, day-to-day opportunities to see the Royal Air Force used to be far more prevalent, with many more aircraft in the UK’s skies and, as the list we began with clearly demonstrates, far more events either hosted by the RAF or organised directly in conjunction with the RAF.

Interestingly, while researching this feature I have learned that the RAF Town Show still exists, but it is careers-led and with none of the airborne action that makes airshows so uniquely engaging.

Gareth Stringer © www.globalaviationresource.com

And get a first glimpse of the ‘new’ – Gareth Stringer © www.globalaviationresource.com

I am not suggesting for one minute that the Royal Air Force doesn’t engage with the general public these days, far from it. In the air, this year, we have the Red Arrows, Tutor, Tucano, Typhoon, Falcons, BBMF and Sea King (occasionally). You might also, from time to time, see ad hoc flypasts from other aircraft in the fleet, such as Hercules or Voyager.

Between them, these aircraft will perform for hundreds of thousands of spectators at airshows across the UK and Europe. It’s a huge undertaking in terms of manpower and support, and not one that I am seeking to demean at all, despite my concern for what the future may hold in terms of RAF engagement.

It’s not all about the aircraft either, for the flying displays are often supported by ground displays with static aircraft (where applicable), merchandise and information, opportunities to meet the pilots, engineers and careers / recruitment experts. These are always very busy and lend a vital human side to the process of engagement.

Gareth Stringer © www.globalaviationresource.com

Airshows give the general public a look behind the scenes, and they remain hugely popular – Gareth Stringer © www.globalaviationresource.com

So, all good then, you might think?

Well, maybe, to a point, but the risk, as I see it, is the trend – and it is most definitely a downwards one.

RAF Cosford, RAF Waddington and RAF Leuchars were the last three remaining open days for quite some time, with Waddington taking on airshow duties in 1995 from RAF Finningley, when it closed, until last year when, with the RAF scheduled to relocate the Leuchars based assets to RAF Lossiemouth, and that station hosted its last airshow. Geographically, Lossiemouth is far from ideal, being much further north, and creation of a replacement event seems unlikely, leaving us with Cosford and Waddington alone.

Gareth Stringer © www.globalaviationresource.com

Airshows inform and educate a captive audience – Gareth Stringer © www.globalaviationresource.com

The positive impact of these events must not be underestimated. Waddington draws a huge annual crowd, in the region of 140,000 over the airshow weekend, and while a good portion of these people, some 20%, are from the local area, the remainder come from far and wide; such is the event’s attraction. The show also attracts aircraft and personnel from all around the world and, while its main aims are to raise public awareness and understanding of the RAF and its role today, there is something else, with 85% of all proceeds from the event distributed to the two main Service charities, namely the RAF Benevolent Fund and the RAF Association, with the remaining 15% being donated to local worthy causes. Since the first show at Waddington in 1995 the event has raised over £2,700,000 for Service and local charities.

RAF Cosford, home to the RAF Museum, hosts the only event of its kind in the West Midlands and, despite its short runway somewhat handicapping participation and the scope for visiting aircraft, it is another hugely popular event, frequently attracting in the region of 60,000 visitors on its single day.

It’s not just about numbers though. Traditionally, these kind of events were called ‘RAF At Home’ days, and that is exactly what they remain, a chance for the RAF to open its doors and say to the public, ‘come in, come in and see where we work and what we do, come in to our domain and be entertained, and be educated too, while enjoying yourselves.’

Gareth Stringer © www.globalaviationresource.com

The UK’s allies also support our military shows, promoting a spirit of entente cordiale (in this case) – Gareth Stringer © www.globalaviationresource.com

Of course people can see the RAF on display elsewhere at the UK’s many airshows, but nothing can really compete with the feeling of driving on to a real life military base and knowing you are entering a normally private world, and being given a glimpse of what goes on behind closed doors. I remember that feeling from when I was a youngster, and it won’t have changed for the people who attend airshows today.

But who are these people who attend these events in such numbers? ‘They’re hardcore aviation enthusiasts’ we hear the naysayers calling out, ‘and what’s the point of preaching to the converted, bearing in mind the cost of hosting an airshow’. Well, if they were all hardcore aviation enthusiasts, they might have a point, but they aren’t.

Research shows that only a small percentage of airshow-goers visit more than one airshow per year. The vast majority attend one event, often as a family day out, to immerse themselves in aviation and all the other attractions that are provided. The Brits love their aviation, and the positive impact that engaging with the audience at Cosford and Waddington delivers surely justifies the cost and effort?

Gareth Stringer © www.globalaviationresource.com

The Brits love aviation, as this crowd at RAF Waddington shows – Gareth Stringer © www.globalaviationresource.com

The immediate risk to this two show set-up, and it is extremely unlikely to grow incidentally, lies with Waddington. Later this year, Waddington’s based assets will temporarily relocate while the airfield’s runway is lengthened and renovated, a major project that may not be completed before July 2015, when next year’s airshow would take place, except it has already been announced that there will be no RAF Waddington International Airshow in 2015.

And then there was one….

My understanding is that no guarantees have been made regarding an airshow returning in 2016, and this will no doubt be the elephant in the room until some clarification is made regarding what happens beyond 2015.

Gareth Stringer © www.globalaviationresource.com

They work together in theatre, and here they are together at RAF Cosford Airshow – Gareth Stringer © www.globalaviationresource.com

For Waddington, this is a dangerous scenario. Often, especially in military circles, when things are taken away, it is quite hard to get them back again, even with the best will in the word. Two years ago, the RAF’s most popular and engaging display item by far was the Tornado GR4 role demo. It didn’t return in 2013, and it hasn’t come back in 2014 either. Next year? I wouldn’t bank on it.

Could the same thing happen to the airshow at Waddington? Sadly that has to be considered a possibility. As an outsider looking in, it doesn’t always seem as if the RAF’s powers-that-be truly appreciate the value of these events and, should Waddington disappear from the calendar for 12 months and be placed on a shelf alongside the GR4 role demo, the King Air display, the Hawk T1 solo and all the other displays and events that have been quietly tucked away over the years and ‘forgotten’, it might be just as easy, and cheaper, to leave it there.

That would strike a real blow for the RAF’s engagement programme and leave it almost totally reliant on attending privately run, civilian airshows and events. It would also leave a big dent in the bottom line of the service charities that benefit so brilliantly from a show like that at Waddington and, with the RAF’s 2018 centenary rapidly approaching, would also mean that not a single frontline RAF flying station is opening its doors to the general public.

Gareth Stringer © www.globalaviationresource.com

Classic jets like the Vulcan provide reminders of the RAF’s history and Britain’s engineering successes – Gareth Stringer © www.globalaviationresource.com

That can’t be right, surely? So, what should, or could be done?

Well, the future of RAF Waddington International Airshow must be secured from 2016 onwards. Waddington has the location, the infrastructure and the team in place, so why reinvent the wheel?

Next year, why not make RAF Cosford’s show a two-day event, to maximise its presence and its ability to draw in as big a crowd as possible? Maybe some of the team at Waddington could be seconded on to that at Cosford, to help the event attract more military participants from further afield?

Gareth Stringer © www.globalaviationresource.com

The Typhoon Display Team demonstrates the cutting edge of the RAF’s combat capability – Gareth Stringer © www.globalaviationresource.com

I also feel very strongly that the Royal Air Force should be discussing this issue with the Army Air Corps and Royal Navy. The latter hosts just two airshows (at Yeovilton and Culdrose) and, until this year, when a small event was held at Middle Wallop, it has been some time since the AAC hosted anything at all. They both suffer from Waddington disappearing too, so why not exercise some of the cross-service co-operation we read so much about in this day and age and pool resources to create a UK military event, featuring all three branches of our armed forces?

In summary, saving these events or creating new ones will cost money, resources, time and manpower; all of which are in short supply. The alternative though is that the general public’s support for the armed forces wanes as they are given fewer and fewer opportunities to see them and to meet them, and their understanding of the role they play, and the equipment they use to achieve it is eroded. That would be a huge shame.

Military airshows proved themselves to be a great way of engaging from the very beginning when the first Pageant was held at Hendon in 1920 – and they remain so to this day.

Surely they must not be allowed to fade away?