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Shifting sands

Kieran Lear reports on Southport's annual airshow, held later than usual on 22/23 September. Photography by the author and Nigel Watson

Amazingly for this summer, the morning was beautiful with blue skies, warm sunshine and the odd cloud, but typically as Saturday progressed and Southport's flying display approached, the clouds drifted in.
As I arrived at Southport Beach, various types of model aircraft were displaying over the sodden sands, including a spectacular jet display complete with smoke system. Other models to be seen included a 'Dambusters' Lancaster (even dropping its bouncing bomb, although without any explosions!), Heinkel He111, B-17, Ju52 and aerobatic models, the 'pilots' all astonishing the crowd with their precise displays. The Pitts Special actually did a hover on its tail, just feet away from the wet sand, something a real aerobatic pilot would never do (if they did, I could imagine a lot of foul language in the cockpit!). In between the model displays, two RAF Squirrel helicopters arrived and landed on the beach, dropping off the Red Arrows pilots so they could mingle in with the crowd.

Southport stars

So, on with the 'proper' flying display, which started at about half one each day (except the Red Arrows on Sunday, who opened the show at noon due to commitments at a show in France the same day) with the RAF's Parachute Display Team, the RAF Falcons, who did something very unusual, jumping from the display Chinook due to their usual Hercules being on operational commitments. The Falcons displayed perfectly, though their jump was somewhat limited because of the grey cloudbase. Next on the list was supposed to be the Royal Navy Merlin but unfortunately it cancelled, but in its place was something rather unique, Spitfire T9 PT462/G-CTIX flown by Anthony Hodgson, who performed a fabulous routine demonstrating the Spitfire's capabilities wonderfully.

Disband the Reds? Never! Mark Broadbent argues the case
Earlier in the year there was discussion in the tabloid media and on enthusiast forums about the future of the Red Arrows. The team's presence at Southport underlined the enduring appeal of this long-running British institution - it was present on the showground for part of Saturday, with the pilots flown across from Blackpool courtesy of a pair of CFS Squirrels. They were happy to carry out some good PR, handing out brochures and posters, signing autographs, posing for pictures. Needless to say, lots of the attending public thronged to meet them. As the team went about their business mixing and mingling, I was struck by the quiet respect which people had for the pilots as they met them. Some of the younger members of the audience seemed genuinely awe-struck to be in the pilots' presence. Then, during the team's displays, I heard some of the warmest applause and cheers I have ever heard during a Red Arrows display.
The surroundings of a seafront airshow - with an audience mostly made up of people for whom Southport is the only airshow they'll attend each year - gently provided a reminder of the genuine excitement and enthusiasm the general public still have for the team. The Southport crowd's reaction underlined what would be lost if the Red Arrows were ever to be disbanded. Of course, they are fine ambassadors for the RAF and British industry, but they do far more than that - they are a single, unifying national icon, allowing people to be fascinated, enthralled, excited and proud. The Red Arrows are not merely a Royal Air Force or British Government institution; they are ours. As one member of the public was heard to say during their display on Saturday, "they can't ever disband these lot, surely?" That says it all.

The RAF then took centre-stage, demonstrating its sophisticated training fleet with Tutor, Tucano and Hawk, all displaying excellently. The Blades once again wowed the audience, this time starting their display from behind the crowd and going over-the-top - something the CAA has recently approved with the Blades. A solo Royal Navy Lynx of the Black Cats followed (its mate went 'tech' at nearby Woodvale), with a great display from the Yakovlevs and the BBMF (Spitfire PM631 and Hurricane LF363) quickly after.

Now came the centre-piece of Southport 2007 - unfortunately, the traditional military scenario had to be scrapped this year, but there were still huge explosions ready for the show as part of a 'Ground Attack through Time' set-piece, which was to include displays from the Scandinavian Historic Flight's Mustang, two Me108s, a Vampire, Invader, two Spitfires, a Chinook and Typhoon. Sadly, nearly half of the expected aircraft failed to appear (at least on the Saturday anyway) - the Invader had to abort its take-off after a nose wheel problem, the Vampire couldn't make it and there was no sign of the two Spitfires. At least we had great displays from the Mustang and Me108s, always at the centre of the display, plus the loud rasp of the Merlin in 'Old Crow' made the Mustang display a must-see. The Chinook and Typhoon were their usual brilliant selves, with plenty of thumping and noise. The EJ200 engines of the Typhoon lit up the dark sky beautifully.

After the Typhoon came the climax of the show, none other than the Red Arrows. The sky was clearing now, permitting the Reds to fly a safe full/rolling show much to the delight of the Southport crowd. They showed their approval of the Reds by pipping their car horns at the request of Red 10, Sqn Ldr Andy Robbins. The limited cloudbase on Sunday restricted the Reds to a flat show - one has to feel sorry for the team as the 2007 season has been miserable for them, with plenty of flat shows and few full shows when with luck, it should be the other way round. They're still one of the best display teams in the world - maybe you might get the weather next year guys!

So, another wonderful Southport, despite the fact there was no military scenario and a string of cancellations but still, the Southport team made it another excellent show, helped fantastically by the show commentator, Tim Callaway, who kindly allowed me onto the pier, getting me the best place for photography. Thank you very much, Tim!


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