Part two: The airshow - unlucky thirteen...
Gary Parsons reviews the ill-fated Waddington 2007 airshow and Jim Baker looks at its Falklands 25th commemoration service. Pictures by the authors, Jack Parsons, Bob Franklin and Mike Kerr
This, the thirteenth edition of the modern-day Waddington International Airshow, will unfortunately be remembered for its cancellation on the Sunday, rather than a fitting finale to its airshow team of Paul Byram, Mal Gardner and Kay Sall, all of whom will have retired or moved on by March of next year. For the last twelve years the small team, led by Paul and ably supported by 'volunteered' station personnel in the busy weeks leading up to each airshow, have worked tirelessly to produce well over a million pounds for the RAF Benevolent Fund and local charities - in 2006 alone £200,000 was raised from the fabulously sunny weekend.
It seems we paid in spades for that glorious summer - this year's event was plagued by bad weather, both in the preceding weeks and the days themselves. The incessant rain of late June had put many parts of Lincoln at risk of flooding - the River Witham was just a foot away from overtopping the day before the airshow. As a consequence, the local emergency services were on standby, leaving little flexibility for any incident that may have occurred at Waddington. But the show must go on - Waddington is very well drained, sitting atop the 'Lincoln Edge', and although rain fell constantly throughout Saturday the ground was holding up well, with little thought of Sunday being any different.
The real problems started at 06:00 Sunday morning - torrential downpours turned the parking areas into lagoons and many of the traders' tents were submerged under a few inches of water. Vehicle movements were almost impossible in the quagmire, and with the forecast of more rain Paul had no option but to cancel the event at 08:00, despite some people having entered the gates. "We couldn't take the risk on Health & Safety grounds", he said; "if there had been an incident due to the poor state of the airfield, it would have left us in a very vulnerable position." A tough call indeed and one that Paul has never had to do before in twenty years of organising airshows. Of course, many people were on their way to the airshow, and it was impossible to get the message out as quickly as everyone would have desired, although broadcasts were made within minutes on local radio.
It seemed as though unlucky thirteen was getting into its stride before the weekend - first was the difficulty in getting international participation (the Indian detachment excepted), followed by the news that the 'star' attraction, Vulcan XH558, would not be ready in time. More than ever the flying programme took on a RAF 'At home' dimension, not helped by the disappearance of the Tornado and Harrier solo displays, with the new Role Demonstration taking an increasing prominence in the billing. The early withdrawal of the Jaguar denied the airshow the opportunity to send the aircraft off in style, as was done with the Canberra last year, with the MoD insisting that the Jaguar 'went quietly'. The shortage of military flying displays, especially from overseas, gets more difficult every year and has now got to the point where there is effectively no NATO content at all - contrast this with the event at Koksijde in Belgium the same weekend, and one has to come to the conclusion that either British Foreign Policy has had a bigger effect than first thought or that with reducing military forces, Waddington's closeness to RIAT bites ever harder.
But let's not forget we did have an airshow on the Saturday, and a full programme at that, despite the best attempts of the weather. Low cloud base in the afternoon did truncate the Red Arrows display after ten minutes and also wreck the Role Demonstration, but enough 'bangs' were provided by attacking Tornado GR4s and the pyrotechnics to give the public a flavour of what it had missed. Sqn Ldr Andy Pawsey, creator of the Role Demo, explained: "We do have a 'bad condition' Role Demo. In fact we have a range of options that come in to play if the cloud base is less than ideal. As the aircraft lined up at Waddington on Saturday, the shout came to do the bad-weather demo - however, the airborne jets checked out the condition of the holds and called a knock-off."
"Fortunately, having the two GR4s already airborne meant we could bring them through for a bit of smoke and noise. The decision on what is possible and what is not is made by the Mission Commander based on the current situation in consultation with the Flying Display Director. The disappointment on the faces of the crews afterwards was obvious to see. The Waddington Role Demos were to be the last for this particular Mission Commander, so imagine how tough it was to make the call. It is easy for us to sit on the ground and say 'do this and that' - we don't have to do it in the air. You pick the best people you can and then trust them to make the right decision, however hard and disappointing it may be."
The weather also prevented the traditional flypast of station aircraft, this year to be joined by the latest ISTAR asset, the Sentinel R1. After taking off and forming up they entered low cloud and lost sight of each other - rightly, the aircraft captains decided to 'fly through' individually, which meant, due to the display schedule, they could only conduct one pass each. Other than that though, almost a full programme was achieved on Saturday, including a remarkable RAF Falcons drop through a small gap in the clouds - they certainly earned their rations that day!
Highlights for the enthusiasts were a 'signature flypast' with the Red Arrows and 5(AC) Squadron's first Sentinel R1, plus brief flypasts by three of the Indian Air Force Su-30MKIs and one by a lone Jaguar GR3A, flown by Dave Southwood from Qinetiq - the aircraft was due to make its last flight on Monday, returning to Boscombe Down where it will be retired. It was at least a chance for the public to appreciate the aircraft for the last time, although there were two very nicely painted examples sitting at Coningsby just twenty miles away. Paying a visit direct from Warton was Nimrod MRA4 ZJ518, the quietness of its BMW engines contrasting with the earlier R1's Rolls-Royce Spey turbofans. It was the first public demonstration of the new Nimrod, excepting the brief appearance at one of Farnborough's trade days last year and Warton families' days.
A major feature of the weekend was a special 25th anniversary ceremony, organised by the South Atlantic Medal Association (SAMA), where veterans of the Falklands campaign were welcomed to RAF Waddington. Attendees, greeted by grey and leaden skies, were reminded of the appalling weather conditions endured by the task force in 1982.
The presence of so many veterans demonstrating pride in their country and the units they represented brought into focus the memory of the formal MoD announcements on activities during the war - televised announcements were given by one Mr M C Donald, a Ministry of Defence spokesman, who spoke in an extremely measured way providing cold hard facts with no sense of pride in the achievements being reported but no reaction either to the setbacks that the Task Force endured.
The formal attitude in 1982 was in sharp contrast to the pride and passion on show outside Waddington's number 3 hangar and these servicemen have much of which to be proud. Above all the sacrifice, endeavour and brilliant military planning, the abiding achievement is that the Falkland Islanders have now enjoyed twenty-five years of freedom, peace and democratic rule, achieved by motivated service men and women and clear political leadership.
Having regard to the huge contribution RAF Waddington and the resident Vulcan squadrons made to the offensive air campaign to retake the island, it was indeed a fitting venue for the drumhead service and an opportunity for the public to join with and support the veterans on parade. The Vulcan 'Black Buck' missions, supported by the tanker wing of Victors from RAF Marham, have had much written of them, in particular the book 'Vulcan 607' by Roland White, which graphically sets the story of their achievements.
B2 XM607 firmly fixed in place alongside the A15, the focal point for
the drumhead ceremony was a more modest aircraft. Following the two-minute
silence a wreath-laying ceremony took place by Gazelle AH1 XX411 - this
aircraft was formally with the 3rd Commando Brigade Air Squadron Royal
Marines and was last flown on 21 May 1982 when it was shot down, resulting
in the death of its pilot. XX411 was one of two Gazelles lost to small
arms fire near Port San Carlos on that day - killed in action were Sgt
A P Evans, Lt K D Francis and L/Cpl B P Giffin. Gazelles at war in the
Falklands had their rear doors removed in order to mount a general-purpose
machine gun and the air gunner from XX411, Sgt Eddie Candlish RM, survived
the crash and is pictured next to Baroness Thatcher, the political force
so important to the success of the operation to retake the islands, who
was present at the ceremony at Waddington.
Modern warfare is of men, machines and politics, but the machines were not forgotten at the airshow with a static exhibition of Harrier GR3 in the colours of 3(F) Squadron, a Wessex V belonging to Doncaster Aircraft Museum and a Wasp.
Waddington's airshow now enters a new phase, one of a new organising team. With the 'International' tag becoming hard to justify, now may be the opportunity to take the airshow in a new direction, one of showcasing the RAF at its best, especially with the ninetieth anniversary of the Air Force in 2008. What better than to present a mini-review with every squadron represented, every aircraft type present and role demonstrations galore, perhaps with 'one-offs' to include scenarios such as Harriers operating from hides, ASTOR communicating with ground forces, and so on. Despite claims of being the RAF's premier event, it is clear that support from the top is still lukewarm, and more resources will still be put into RIAT than its own airshow. But with the spectacular failure of 'Spirit of Adventure', the RAF needs to recognise what successful events it already has, and capitalise on them.
The Airshow Office is offering refunds for those that bought advance tickets for Sunday. Return the tickets (complete with counterfoil) to "The Air Show Office, RAF Waddington, Lincoln, LN5 9NB" - include a stamped self-addressed envelope and your telephone number. Your refund will include 30p for postage. If you purchased your tickets at Morrisons, Alliance & Leicester or HSBC Banks, please state the outlet used (that is - Morrisons, Alliance & Leicester or HSBC). For those who purchased a Sunday ticket at the gate, simply return the ticket to the above address with your address and telephone number. More information is available on the official website.