The annual Abingdon Air and Country Show traditionally heralds the beginning of the UK airshow season, bringing to an end the long off-season. Greg Marsh reports for GAR.
Now in its 17th year, the event has become a popular fixture with enthusiasts and participants. Led by Neil Porter, the team of volunteers always works hard to provide a memorable season opener. Unfortunately in recent years, the line-ups have been rather affected due to significant cancellations in the run up to the show and 2016 was sadly no exception.
The Fly Navy Heritage Trust’s de Havilland Sea Vixen was, perhaps, the star item on the agenda for many attendees. Alas, due to an overrunning engineering schedule, this impressive beast was removed from the flying programme several months in advance. Additionally, the Old Flying Machine Company’s Spitfire and P-51 Mustang, An-2 Club’s Antonov An-2, Richie Piper’s Harvard, Bob Grimstead’s Fournier RF-4, the Global Stars Team and Will Greenwood’s Yak-3 were all further cancellations (for a multitude of reasons) as the weeks progressed. In terrible luck, the Norwegian Spitfire Foundation’s P-51 Mustang (itself an eleventh hour replacement) developed a minor technical problem at Duxford on the morning of the show! Hopefully, many of these items will be able to grace Abingdon’s skies in future years.
Still, let’s focus on what did appear and credit must be given to Neil and his team for securing replacement acts and assembling a credible season opener.
Highlight for many was the static appearance of a Belgian Air Component NH-90 Kaiman; the first time this large helicopter has appeared at Abingdon and a very welcome foreign participant. This was accompanied by a pleasing array of statics such as the Bronco Demo Team’s OV-10 Bronco, a Yak 52, RAF Grob Tutor, a resident 612 Volunteer Gliding School (VGS) Vigilant, Biggin Hill-based Shipping and Airlines’ Messenger and Chipmunk and the Gazelle Squadron with two Gazelles and accompanying Cabri. One of the high points of the varied fly-in was the quirky Helio Courier. This short take-off utility aircraft from 1949 is fast becoming a fairly regular sight at events countrywide and it would be wonderful to see it participate in a flying display in the future.
On that note, the flying display featured the usual variety of aircraft that represented a cross-section of the aviation and airshow spectrum. This was the first year that the show was held under Military Aviation Authority (MAA) rules (Abingdon Barracks is owned by the Ministry of Defence (MOD)) and this presented a number of hurdles for the organisers to overcome. It has to be said that the displays certainly felt rather more distant this year as a result, although I should stress that Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) lines have now been aligned with the MAA’s so there would have been no difference had the show still been run under CAA jurisdiction.
Additionally, all land-based airshows are now taking measures to eliminate the so-called “secondary crowds” who congregate outside the venue. This caused Neil and co. even more difficulty with a chunk of the show’s budget being directed at closing a number of local roads that fell under the display datum and ensuring they were adequately policed.
Full respect to everyone who entertained the crowd in the air that afternoon, as Abingdon was the first proper airshow to be held in the “new regime” so to speak, where air displays, pilots and organisers are under greater scrutiny than ever before.
Star of the flying for many was the Aircraft Restoration Company’s sensational Bristol Blenheim Mk.1F, fresh off a busy 2015 season. John Romain showed the aircraft off to fine effect in a beautiful, flowing sequence that belied the restrictive regulations. The new world in which airshows are held was rather more apparent for the sole civilian warbird fighter display, Peter Teichman’s P-40M Kittyhawk. With performances now being adapted in order to avoid built-up areas, Peter was restricted to diving in to the display box and flying loops, barrel rolls, aileron rolls and quarter clovers; the regulations eliminating the beautiful topside passes PT is renowned for. Peter has been particularly vocal about the regulatory changes on social media, and how counter-productive to safety he feels they are in reality.
The Battle of Britain Memorial Flight (BBMF) provided Hurricane Mk.IIc LF363 and Spitfire Mk.XVI TD311 for a dynamic performance that contained several new elements, such as the Spitfire’s on-crowd half-cuban to commence its solo display. It’s nice to see new BBMF Boss Squadron Leader Andy Millikin incorporating these manoeuvres in order to keep their repertoire fresh. The routine now closes with two topside flypasts, which should please the photographers in the audience.
An Abingdon favourite is Plane Sailing’s PBY5A Catalina which sailed across the Oxfordshire skies like a tall ship. Several passes were noticeably higher, possibly a result of the no-fly areas touched upon earlier. Still, the Cat has a considerable presence and elegance which enhance its appeal. Another enduring favourite at the show is Tony De Bruyn. Complementing his static Bronco was the Short SC7 Skyvan, which opened proceedings by taking the Royal British Legion’s Jump4Heroes Parachute Team aloft.
Abingdon scored a real coup by bagging the display début of Shipping and Airlines’ Curtiss-Wright Travel Air 12W. This was believed to be the inaugural performance by this type of aircraft at any airshow in history. Dan Griffith battled the tricky wind conditions to present the aeroplane to fine effect. I do hope this historic machine can be coaxed into display appearances elsewhere in the future. A booking at Old Warden, for example, would go down a treat!
Historic helicopters are currently experiencing a renaissance on the scene, which is particularly welcome as it can be argued that they have often been overlooked in favour of the more glamorous classic fighters and jets that are abound. Concluding the flying display were two excellent demonstrations of these machines. Firstly, Dr Terry Martin flew his Westland Wasp HAS.1, formerly owned by Kennet Aviation. Terry is an experienced ex-RAF pilot and it is encouraging to see him receiving a raft of bookings throughout the year. The Army Air Corps Historic Flight made its long-awaited return to the British airshow scene at Abingdon. It’s been a while since the fleet was seen at an event due to the arduous process of transferring the machines to the civilian register. At Abingdon, the Bell Sioux and Westland Scout performed a neat duet, followed by individual displays that demonstrated both helicopters off well to the audience. The Flight’s Saro Skeeter was also roaded in for a ground-based appearance whilst hopefully the Auster and Beaver will emerge in due course.
Much of the remainder of the programme retained the vintage theme. Long-time airshow attendees will probably remember the Military Auster Flight, a fixture throughout the nineties and early noughties. One of their former machines, an Auster AOP6 was displayed by another newcomer to the display scene, Kevin Hale. He has flown into the Air and Country Show for a number of years and this marked only his second public display, after a début at Old Sarum in 2015. With increased regulation and costs impacting airshow pilots across the industry, it’s always pleasing to see an influx of new blood on the circuit. Let’s hope the recent changes do not deter pilots from seeking to obtain a Display Authorisation in the future.
A rarely seen item was the Yeovilton-based Piston Provost T.1, flown by Royal Navy Historic Flight pilot Lt. Simon Wilson in a tidy aerobatic routine. A rather more vigorous aerobatic recipe was served by Lauren Richardson in her Pitts S1 Special. I’ve seen Lauren’s routine evolve over the past few years and she really does fly a memorable display of classic manoeuvres that evokes memories of some of the great Pitts maestros over the years such as the late, great Brian Lecomber.
Similarly, Peter Wells flew a rare solo display in his Silence Twister; his wingman Chris Burkett being otherwise engaged with the Global Stars Team in India. It’s been a while since I’ve seen Peter fly an individual routine but it’s fair to say that this was one of the high points of the afternoon, especially as he could bring the aircraft closer to the crowd on the 150 metre line. Abingdon is also an ideal venue to appreciate the display, as a single Twister can tend to get lost in a larger arena.
Now a perennial airshow favourite, Peter Davies displayed his Calidus Autogyro. Neil Porter immediately booked the Calidus for an encore performance following last year’s crowd-pleasing antics. Again, the recent regulatory changes have not hindered this act too much as it can still be flown fairly closely to the crowd line, without diminishing the impact of this small and nimble machine.
The 2016 airshow season will be the most challenging in recent history. Many of those reasons have been mentioned above but it’s a testament to Neil Porter and his volunteers that they were able to organise such an enjoyable curtain raiser. There is much to see on the ground besides the aerial activity, making this a great value day out for the family. It’s important to remember that the Air and Country Show benefits numerous local charities, not least the Thames Valley Air Ambulance, whose H135 dropped in for a static appearance.
It’s for this reason alone that the show must survive and it’s heartening that the fair weather led to a good sized crowd, especially following 2015’s soaking! Despite uncertainty about the show’s future, the organisers recently announced that there will be an Abingdon Air and Country Show in 2017, at some point in May. GAR wishes Neil and his team the very best of luck and hopes that they can continue to provide top flight entertainment for many years to come.