A show too far...
As the European airshow season beckons, Andrew Bates looks back at three shows from the weekend of 21/22 June last year and one way not to do them...
It seemed such a good idea at the time, an opportunity not to be missed. With the 2003 airshow season in full swing, enthusiasm got the better of me, and I agreed to a planned European weekend away to attend three different shows. It all seemed so simple - over to Twenthe for the annual KLu open day on the Saturday, with a drive back to the Paris region for our hotel. Sunday morning it would be straight into Le Bourget for the biannual Air Salon, then early afternoon across to Evreux for their Meeting National. It was all fine in theory. Reality, however, would be an entirely different matter...
Some of the regular Air-Scene UK readers are probably already aware of your scribe's dubious penchant for testing endurance of body and mind in pursuit of a (supposedly) relaxing hobby. Much to the consternation of 'her indoors', previously 'double booked' weekends away have seen dual attendance at Bierset/Biggin Hill and Yeovilton/Dijon, with the most recent during 2002 for the weekend of Waddington/Colmar. So, adding an extra show to the itinerary seemed quite reasonable, or so I thought.
The initial omens were good. The weather forecast for all of Northern Europe was excellent. It was going to be dry, sunny and extremely warm just about everywhere - except Twenthe. After an uneventful journey, we had arrived at possibly the only corner of Holland that was devoid of any sunshine that day. With not even a hint of any discernible breeze, a heavy grey blanket of cloud had stubbornly parked itself over the airfield, where it was to remain for the duration.
Unfortunately, from a photographer's point of view, the grey skies were not the only disappointment. Unusually, for a Dutch show, the static park was not as well laid out as normal. A large proportion of the airframes on show were parked on a taxiway which appeared to be on a slight plateau, so with people walking either side, it was virtually impossible to achieve shots without 'undercarriage clutter'. Worse still, the organisers had decided that extra security was called for, which resulted in a double barrier system around all static areas, creating extra obstacles to try and eliminate from the viewfinder. All in all, a real challenge, not to mention an increase in blood pressure! After a frustrating ninety minutes or so of aimlessly wandering around awaiting some sunshine (all to no avail) it was with some reluctance that the cameras were finally coaxed out of the camera bag. Grey aeroplanes against a grey backdrop were to be the order of the day, a seemingly common recurrence for Dutch shows in recent times.
However, despite these gripes and moans from your whinging old scribe (this is what happens when you pass 40), from an enthusiast's point of view, there was still much to be thankful for. You can usually count on a KLu open day attracting some tasty hardware, and Twenthe was no exception. Taking time out from their Danish deployment at Alborg for Exercise 'Clean Hunter' were no less than four Canadian Hornets from 416 Squadron. These were evenly comprised of two single-seat CF-18A and two twin-seat CF-18B models, of which one of the former was still adorned with special tail markings celebrating the 60th anniversary of 416 Squadron back in 2001. From a personal point of view, these were a sight for sore eyes. Ever since our Canadian friends withdrew a fighter presence from Europe in the early 90s, it's especially more pleasing to see them, not to mention a touch nostalgic, when they do manage to make that all too rare airshow appearance every now and then.
There was further nostalgia to be experienced, specifically for all the Dutch enthusiasts, courtesy of a pair of ex-KLu NF-5B Freedom Fighters, now operated by 133 Filo Turkish AF. Being accustomed to seeing the familiar white and red livery of the NF-5s operated by the Turkish Stars display team, it actually made a refreshing change to see these two examples turned out in their two-tone grey colour scheme (totally contrary to my usual thoughts on colour).
Other interesting visitors included an Austrian Draken, Czech L-159, a pair of Norwegian F-16AMs from 331 Skv, a pair of Portuguese Alpha Jets, a pair of 52nd FW A-10As, a pair of 48th FW F-15Es, French Mirage 2000D and Mirage F1CT, German F-4F and Tornado trio, including a first glimpse of JBG31's superb 'Blue Lightning', which easily merits 10 out of 10 for artistic flair. The only UK representation in the static came from a lone Tucano, but this was equally welcome, as it was the first example I had seen wearing 72(R) Squadron markings.
The flying programme contained some equally interesting items, such as the Hungarian Mig-29, Swedish Gripen, Austrian Draken and German F-4F, whilst there were no less than five display teams in attendance; Frecce Tricolori, Red Arrows, Patrouille de France, Team Orlik, and Patrouille Suisse. In-between all the fast jets and aerobatic teams, there was also the customary selection of warbirds, not forgetting the ever impressive Dutch air power demonstration. Unfortunately, it was not possible for us to watch the whole show, as we had a long drive down to Paris ahead of us, so reluctantly, we departed Twenthe whilst the flying was still in progress.
The following morning saw the weather actually comply with the forecast; blue skies, plenty of sunshine, and high temperatures. In fact, very high temperatures, a taste of things to come for the long summer of 2003. We arrived at Le Bourget before the gates had opened, so there was just enough time to have a quick nose around the biz-jet park to see if there was anything of interest on the apron. It turned out to be a good start to the day, as we were subsequently rewarded with the sight of an Italian Falcon 50 from 31º Stormo.
A few shots later and we were soon heading back towards the gates to join the ever-growing queue to get in. Despite the masses of people congregating around the entrance (it was, after all, a public show day and on a Sunday), it was not long before we were inside the gates and heading towards the static as fast as our legs could carry us in the ever increasing heat. Basically, we had approximately two hours to get round everything before we had to turn around and head for our next event at Evreux.
Fortunately, or unfortunately depending on your viewpoint, the 2003 show was a little sparse in comparison to previous shows, which meant that a mere two-hour window actually proved to be an adequate time slot in which to take in the static park. The big downside to this was that the flying displays didn't start until the afternoon, by which time we were well on our way to Evreux. C'est la vie!
Thankfully, in amongst all the hospitality tents and plastic mock-ups, there were some items of interest to be found. Some on prominent display, some tucked away, almost hidden from view behind chalets and flagpoles. Dominating the helicopter park was an Italian Navy EH-101 Merlin, whilst other interesting choppers included Eurocopter Tigre, SAAF A-109LUH, Italian Army A-129 Mangusta and a US Army AH-64A. Other US types included a 48th FW F-15E, a 52nd FW F-16C, a VX-20 E-2C Hawkeye and, shoehorned into a corner, a T-6A Texan II wearing the markings of the Randolph based 12th FTW.
There were further highlights to be found dotted around the sprawling exhibition areas, which included a Czech L-159, Romanian IAR-99C, Russian Yak-130, and two examples of the Rafale, one from the French Aeronavale and the other from the Armée de l'Air. It was also nice to see a sprinkling of historic airframes amongst all the pristine, factory fresh hardware on display. Apart from the customary types such as Magister and Flamant, these included a recently retired Air France Concorde and the Ailes Anciennes' long-term Lancaster restoration project.
With our allotted two hours at an end, it was time to depart Le Bourget and head for our next destination; Evreux-Fauville, predominately home to the Transalls of ET 01.064 & ET 02.064 amongst others. Unfortunately, this is where our carefully planned triple-excursion went rather pear-shaped. Traffic around the vicinity of Le Bourget had reached nightmare proportions. Trying to depart the area around the airfield was virtually as bad as trying to navigate the Peripherique around Paris during the rush hour. Inevitably much valuable time was wasted, sweltering in the heat, whilst going nowhere fast. After what seemed like an age, it was with great relief that we finally cleared the traffic and started to make progress in our journey to Evreux, but ever mindful that the clock was still ticking.
Upon arrival at Evreux, it was no surprise to find the show well underway, seeing as a good proportion of the afternoon had already passed. After gaining our entrance and parking, a swift glance at the watch revealed the unpalatable truth. We had precisely one hour before we had to turn tail and head for Calais. Just for a moment, I had to remind myself that attending airshows is my chosen hobby for relaxation, seeing as I was about to spend a mere hour racing around an airfield in blisteringly hot conditions. It was then that I began to wish that I had learnt to roller-skate in my younger days!
First question to myself. Should I tackle the static or the flightline? After wasting a valuable sixty seconds assessing the situation, I headed for the static. It was not particularly well laid out, with many airframes individually displayed amidst tight barriers and red tape. However, in amongst the usual Mirages and Alpha Jets, there were a couple of rarities that had caught my eye. A humble Nord 262D from ETE 00.041 was the first. Not a particularly inspiring or exciting choice, but they probably won't be around for much longer, so catch them while you can. The other rarity, as far as I was concerned, was the DC-8-72F from ET 03.060. Like much of the static, it was surrounded by tight barriers, and worse still for a photographer, there was a queue of eager 'punters' waiting to board it for a cabin tour. Despite all this, I just had to get a picture. Sometimes, against all your usual standards, you just have to take a shot, regardless of circumstances. Especially, if it's a 'must have' photo. Fortunately, it was possible to take a shot from a distance, which helped to blend some of the clutter into the background.
It soon became evident that the majority of the static was really a lost cause due to both time and barrier constraints, so without further ado, I cast aside all thoughts of heat exhaustion, and headed over to the flightline as fast as I could. Here at least, there were much improved photographic opportunities to be found with some of the display aircraft. I took some consolation from the fact that my last half an hour at the show would at least prove to be a bit more productive. Apart from the Polish Team Orlik, the line-up was quite varied. There were multiple examples of both Belgian and Danish F-16s, Mirage 2000C, Alpha Jet, Epsilon, and Jaguar, along with a solitary Super Etendard.
One of the Jaguars, a twin-seat E, was to prove the highlight of the show as far as I was concerned. It was painted in a stunning 30th anniversary display scheme, presumably commemorating the Jaguar's long service with the French. Inevitably, this was attracting much attention amongst enthusiasts, so it was necessary to wait in turn before it was clear enough for a shot, thus wasting even more valuable time. All too soon, our precious sixty-minute allocation was exhausted, and so was I. There was just time for one last shot of a Skyraider, then we were on our merry way.
As we pulled out of the gates to head back home, I was still trying to catch my breath, as I tried to estimate how much weight I had lost in the last hour. At that moment, I would have sold my soul for one ice cold can of Stella and a ten-minute stint in an oxygen tent! As I ruefully looked out the window to watch the Mirage IV in the distance climb out to commence its display, all I could think of was: 'Three shows in one weekend? - Never again!'