Gary Parsons reports on Waddington's International Airshow '03
...for an airshow was Sunday 29 June, especially in the Lincoln area as day two of Waddington's annual airshow attracted some 75,000 spectators. Blue skies, temperature in the mid-twenties, low humidity and a cooling breeze served together with a mix of modern jets and historic aircraft gave a very pleasant garden party atmosphere, reminiscent of those halcyon days when all airshows used to be like this...or is it just we always remember the good ones? Saturday was dry, but overcast most of the time - 55,000 enjoyed their day, but probably wished they'd gone a day later! With only a lacklustre Wimbledon to compete with for the public's attention this year, Sunday found the airfield to be bursting at the seams.
Waddington's airshow is now, after nine years of regular planning, a well-oiled machine that clicks into place ensuring little traffic chaos, toilets where needed and every little aspect of a public's requirements over a weekend suitably catered for. Funfair, craft stalls, activity arena, trade stands and other goings-on mean that a full day can be enjoyed without once looking at an aeroplane - if you're that way inclined, of course! Enthusiasts will always complain about the bouncy castles spoiling their photos, but without them and the associated income the airshow wouldn't happen, plain and simple.
Although this well-oiled plan works wonders with the logistics of supporting an airshow, it's a different matter when it comes to procuring the aircraft themselves - never has the airshow team been challenged as much as they were this year. Invites for the next airshow are always sent in the autumn of the preceding year, and tacit agreement reached in the Spring, enabling some confidence to be given to the programme in the weeks leading up to the show itself. Not this year, however - the conflict in the Gulf scuppered any forward planning, any initial commitments being swept aside as Operation Iraqi Freedom unfolded. Late last year hopes were high that the Blue Angels would commit to a European tour, but the events in the Gulf certainly put paid to that.
As late as early May the participation list was scant to say the least, many forces unable to commit due to the fall-out from the intensive period of activity during March and early April. Worst affected was the USAF, which was still relying heavily on reserve forces for regular taskings - this led to the loss of B-1Bs and KC-135s, so often a regular feature at Waddington shows. More bizarre cancellations were a pair of Portuguese Alpha Jets, who suddenly remembered they had an airshow in Portugal the same weekend with a week to go! Golden Apple's F-86A Sabre suffered a hydraulic failure at the preceding weekend's Twenthe airshow in the Netherlands, and the CL-44 Guppy fell foul of some paperwork somewhere.
Strawberries and cream
But Waddington without its star turns is like Wimbledon without its Leyton Hewitts - it's still a place to be, to enjoy the atmosphere, sniff the jet fuel and hear those Merlins sing. I'm sure you could have found a stall selling strawberries if you had looked - not that they are the staple diet of plane spotters! Two big themes were being advertised for the static park - along with many other shows, '100 years of flight' was given its own area on the vast Alpha parking area and along the main taxiway the fast jets of the 'Big Cat' gathering gave a colourful flavour to the normally grey flanks of Tornados and F-16s. To the airshow team's credit, with 130 aircraft on display this year's show certainly didn't reflect the problems they faced in acquiring participants, the line of fighters stretching as far as it has ever done.
A near seven-hour flying programme was on offer both days as usual, although it didn't quite have the international participation of past years. Most display teams had been attracted to the Austrian Air Power airshow held at Zeltweg the same weekend, so it was left to the Royal Jordanian Falcons to join the Red Arrows and Blue Eagles as display teams for the weekend. With foreign solos restricted to the Belgian Alpha Jet, F-16, Spanish EF-18 and German F-4F, the bulk of the flying programme was filled with official RAF display items, reminding one of the good old days of the regular 'At Home' series of airshows many RAF stations held in the seventies and eighties. But, as Waddington is now the RAF's premier airshow, this is as it should be - a chance for the air force to demonstrate to the taxpayer just what he gets for his money. Strange then is the apparent indifference that the service pays to its own airshow - despite several attempts by the organisers, they couldn't entice the 28 Squadron Merlin to participate at all, or a Chinook in the flying. Standing orders should go out to every squadron to be there - or face a charge!
Heading the RAF challenge were some familiar names - Tornados GR4 and F3, Jaguar, Hawk, Tutor, Tucano, Sea King and Harrier. A first was the tactical demonstration by the C-130J Hercules, performing a remarkably swift reversing manoeuvre back up the runway at a rate of knots that would have seen many light aircraft take off! Noticeable once again by its absence was Typhoon, despite being officially handed over to the RAF the day after the airshow - it's been nearly ten years now that Waddington has tried to get one. Let's hope that next year will see its service presentation to the public.
Top acts were Commandant John Vandebosch in the Belgian F-16AM and Major Torres with his Spanish EF-18A. Torres performed the most amazing high-alpha pass, the Hornet standing on its tail at ridiculously slow speed, second only to a thrust-vectoring Flanker. Of course it was aided by computer, but several tons of heavy metal shouldn't really be able to do that! He won the popular vote in the press tent for best display of the day, and the acclaim of the crowd.
Civilian acts helped bolster the programme, ranging from ex-air force jets to Denny Dobson's unique limbo-act. Making a debut was Tom Moloney's new Strikemaster G-UPPI in Ecuadorian Air Force markings, and Classic Aviation Projects' beautiful Canberra WK163, ably flown by Dave Piper, shone in the Sunday sunshine - one could have easily slipped back fifty years to when the first Canberras were delivered to nearby Binbrook. From nearby Scampton came Hawker Hunter Aviation's Swiss Hunter J-4021/G-HHAC, flown on Saturday by Louis McQuaide and Sunday by Blair Hickman, a rare outing for one of the company's twelve Hunters - maybe one day they'll all be in the air together! Also bursting with colour in the afternoon sun was Delta Jets' Gnat XR538/G-RORI, displayed with usual panache by David Roome, an ex-74 Squadron Phantom jock used to a tad more power in the past.
"You cannot be serious..."
Boeing sponsored trophies for best flying demonstration and best displayed aircraft in the static - these went to Will Curtis and his Sukhoi Su-26 and Delta Jets' beautiful black Hunter T7 respectively. Judged by a panel of ex-Wing Commanders, they awarded second in the flying to the AAC Historic Flight and third to the Piston Provost. A matter of taste certainly, but who are we to argue?
Another successful Waddington show, and deservedly so - in these difficult times for airshow organisers, the team certainly pulled one 'out of the hat'. Even without a 'star' act there was something for everybody, and more positive news is that 2004's show is already in planning, with the 40th anniversary of the Red Arrows as its main theme. Despite what you may have heard or read elsewhere, it will be on the last weekend in June as usual on 26 & 27th - let's hope that summer makes a return appearance!
Acknowledgements - Thanks to the Airshow office staff, CCO Jacqui Wheeler and the guys at VASS for their assistance.