Crossroads at Leuchars?
Gary Parsons looks back at Scotland's International Airshow held at Leuchars on 13 September and assesses its future as changes are on the way
"One standard issue airshow, Sir!"
Scotland once again turned out in force for the annual Battle of Britain airshow at Leuchars, the last left in the UK to informally celebrate the height of the battle on 15 September. Most would have been unaware of the fact that the 2003 event marks a watershed in the history of the airshow, as it was the last to be organised by Martin Barnett, who has been at the helm since the late eighties.
The departure of a single member of the airshow team may not immediately raise an eyebrow, but it may have a far-reaching effect on the guarantee of the event - at this moment in time no successor has been announced, and it is rumoured that the control of the event will be tasked to service personnel on a part-time basis, much as used to be the case twenty years ago - indeed, it was the way that Martin Barnett became involved and eventually progressed to the permanent post of Airshow Director.
Martin has been Manager of the Leuchars Airshow since 1993 although his involvement goes back to the early 1980s when he was still serving in the RAF as a Navigator on 43 Squadron. He says "As an event organiser, managing the Airshow for the last ten years has been a wonderful and rewarding experience. Over the past decade RAF Leuchars has developed the event into a major International Airshow with a first-rate reputation for putting on high quality displays. Our reputation is such that foreign air force display teams want to come to Leuchars not only because of the facilities we provide but because the Scottish public attending the event are so appreciative and welcoming."
Last of the few
In the past Leuchars Airshow was one of four 'At Home Day' Airshows held in mid-September to commemorate the Battle of Britain - today, it is the last.
Inevitably, the Airshow has had to change with the times and is run as a business. It costs over £500,000 to stage the event and every penny has to be covered from the public entrance charges, fees to the commercial traders and by sponsorship, vitally important as without it charges to the public would be higher. Many of the sponsors are local, and any profit raised from the Airshow is then donated to the two Air Force Charities, the RAF Benevolent Fund and the Royal Air Forces Association.
Martin Barnett may have had his critics amongst the aviation enthusiast, but there is no denying that without him at the helm the airshow would probably not be happening today. Modern-day airshows are primarily targeted at being an event for the whole family, rather than an opportunity for a few hundred spotters to photograph a wide array of modern hardware in a perfect, bouncy-castle free environment - Leuchars today is very much in the former category. And, because it is possibly Scotland's biggest event, the organisation requires a dedicated team that can function without distraction, without the threat of deployment overseas or the thrust of a rifle in the hand and told to go and guard the gate.
So, the airshow is at a crossroads - maybe it's time to re-evaluate its potential. If it is to survive, it needs a dedicated organisational team as it has now, and so does every other surviving major airshow - Waddington, Cosford (which will be back) and Yeovilton, for example. Maybe now the time is right to prepare for a two-day event - certainly most of the costs required for a two-day show are incurred with a one-day event - all the aircraft and pilots are there on Sunday, and traders would much prefer the extra day to maximise profit from what is a long trip for many of them. Extra policing costs would be required, of course, and the demands upon volunteers and service personnel would be greater, but most of the second day's income would be profit, maximising the proceeds donated to charities.
At the moment the organising committee is unconvinced that the catchment is there, that numbers on Sunday would be insignificant, but we disagree - despite a high-profile football match at Dundee involving Celtic and a dodgy weather outlook, the numbers this year actually seemed up on last year. Traffic is always a problem in the Cupar area on show day, but we think that a two-day show would help ease this problem and provide an equal attendance on Sunday, all at minimal cost - surely it's worth a try? But, without a permanent airshow director, the show will be at risk of going the same way as Mildenhall's Air Fete - staffed by service personnel who were immediately re-tasked with Operation Iraqi Freedom - and which now seems likely to never happen again.
Because of its 'standard issue' approach, the airshow again missed some opportunities to give it that distinctive flavour, something that we have criticised in the past. We're not commenting on the choice of aircraft, as we know just how difficult it is to get them these days - many local enthusiasts were frustrated that there were some interesting helicopters on board several foreign frigates in Edinburgh's Leith docks, but it's not a simple job of inviting them - embassies, attachés and mountains of paperwork and red tape need to be in place before any likely attendance. No, it's what was there and could have been used more effectively is where we feel the trick is being missed.
Themes for the airshow included the '100th Anniversary of powered manned flight', the '60th Anniversary of 617 Squadron 'Dam Busters' Raid on the Ruhr Dams', and the '60th Anniversary of the Battle of the Atlantic', although most of the crowd were probably blissfully unaware, as the flying programme could have been any one of the last ten years or so. There certainly wasn't any 'centenary' thread, just the regular RAF displays mixed with a few foreign and historic acts - nothing wrong with that, but did we really need two Hawk solo and two F-16 routines? Instead, how about a Lancaster and Tornado GR4 flypast to celebrate 617's anniversary? Duxford proved it could be arranged, even if the weather prevented it happening. Deputising for the Belgian Alpha Jet was 'Area 51's Chris Hudson and his Red Arrow Gnat 'XR993', displaying just before the Reds departed the show - again, a Gnat leading a formation of Hawks would have been marvellous, and not difficult to achieve - if the Reds can get the USAF to agree to flying a F-117A in the vic, I'm sure Chris would have jumped at the chance.
So, ignore the themes, and what of the display? Blessed with some afternoon sun but with a stiff crosswind, the flying performances were exemplary, especially from Captain Roger Mills in the B-17 'Sally B' and the pilot of the Lancaster who must have been near their crosswind limits on take-off and landing. It was Sally B's first visit north in a long while, and again a formation with the Lancaster, a Leuchars regular, would have been superb.
Highlight of the day for many would have been one of the last chances to see an Austrian AF Draken performing a full display, but sadly it succumbed to afterburner failure while taxying and swiftly returned to the ASP - at least the crowd got to see it for a brief moment. Pilot Captain Dieter Spinger tried again at the end of the airshow but to no avail, the lucky few who witnessed Friday's rehearsal (while the media were confined to the compulsory briefing) maybe seeing the Dragon's last highland fling. Another casualty was the Luftwaffe Tornado that shed a panel during its practice display on Friday (see sidebar).
Stealing the Draken's thunder due to its non-appearance was Captain Patrick Daehler with the Swiss F-18C Hornet, a particularly high-energy display getting our vote of the day. A close second was Major Harald Wirth and the Luftwaffe F-4F, always a favourite of course. This isn't to take anything away from the RAF regulars, it's just that they are, of course, very familiar to us. Oh, and of course no-one ever expected the advertised French Navy Hawkeye to actually turn up - it seems whenever it's included in a provisional flying programme, some technical reason prevents it attending.
Who stole the Royal Air Force?
Attendance by the RAF in the static park was nothing short of woeful, so it's a good job that foreign air forces put in a rather better effort than the 'home' team. Ukrainian IL-76, Austrian AF Hercules and several USAF heavies made for an interesting, if not bursting, feel to the concrete acres around the trade stalls. As we said in our Waddington report, standing orders should be issued to every RAF squadron to attend - Scottish taxpayers deserve just as much as us southerners! And as for the Tomcat featured in the souvenir brochure - wouldn't it have been nice!
It gets harder every year, as so little seems to change at Leuchars, but
the familiarity is a reflection on the success of the show as an entertainment
event. Here at Air-Scene UK towers we always enjoy the airshow, despite
the ever-frustrating media farce of Friday morning, and wish it a well
in the future - let's hope for stability, success and a little imagination!