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Jersey's changing goalposts

Gary Parsons looks back at Jersey's 2008 airshow, a triumph of persistence over adversity. Pictures by the author

"It's been the most difficult one yet", said Airshow Director Mike Higgins just before last year's show. Those words were ringing around the Jersey Aero Club again this year, and Mike really meant it - "It's getting to the point where it's not enjoyable any more. Fuel costs have almost doubled in the last year, and we made a small loss in 2007, so I'm very worried about this year." With the credit crunch, sponsorship is getting ever harder, leaving Mike in the situation that to break even he needed to sell about 5,000 programmes - a daunting task on such a small island.

That the island loves its airshow is in no doubt; once again the hotels were full, despite the summer season drawing to a close. Crowds flocked to the airport to see the static displays, RAF types such as the Tucano and Tutor that would normally go unnoticed on the mainland drawing admiring glances. Adding international glamour to the concrete apron was the French Air Force display team Patrouille de France, making its return to the island after some twenty years.

But, of course, it was the Vulcan that everyone wanted to see. Disappointingly it wouldn't be landing on the island, as the runway was five hundred feet too short for TVOC to comply with its operating permit, so fingers were crossed that the weather at Brize Norton would co-operate, the airframe would be snag-free and the threat of rain for Thursday wouldn't materialise. In the end, only the weather over St Aubin's Bay detracted from the spectacle, the Vulcan's four Olympus engines echoing around St Helier for some seven fabulous minutes. The rumoured flypast with the Red Arrows couldn't be done, but Mike had seen one of his dreams fulfilled ever since he took control of the airshow in 1997.

Battered by the remnants of a hurricane, Jersey endured its worst airshow weather in recent years. The afternoon started off with the promise of sunshine and blue skies, but as the afternoon slipped by the clouds became more threatening as the squally weather gathered over the island, forcing the Patrouille de France to abandon their display half-way through. Not the Reds though - closing the show in the worst of the weather, they still managed a full routine, ensuring their unbroken record of appearances at Jersey is still intact - forty-four years and counting!

Making possibly its last appearance was Jersey regular B-17G F-AZDX 'Pink Lady', Europe's other Flying Fortress that still can. Fittingly it opened the airshow, getting the best of the weather, enabling pilot Michel Bezy to display the aircraft to the full. Rolled out of the Lockheed-Vega production facility in Burbank, California in December 1944, B-17G-85-VE Fortress, serial number 44-8846, construction number 8246 was delivered to the United States Army Air Force at Cheyenne on 13 January 1945. Late build bombers such as 44-8846 were left unpainted to save weight - the only paint applied to them was olive drab patches on the fuselage in front of the cockpit windows and on the inner sides of the engines to reduce glare into the cockpit.

On 26 March 1945 44-8846 was flown to Polebrook, England, where it was assigned to the 511th Bomb Squadron, the famous 'Ball Boys' led by Major Clinton Ball, one of the assigned squadrons of the 351st Bomb Group. Swiftly acquiring the name 'Half Pint', after six missions and the end of the war, 44-8846 remained in England, being transferred briefly to the 365th Bomb Squadron, 305th Bomb Group, based at Chelveston, before being transferred to the 45th Reconnaissance Squadron, 305th Bomb Group at Lechfeld Army Air Base, Germany in May. It would participate in the 'Casey Jones Project', an ambitious project to map Germany by air. Conversion to a RB-17G followed and on 22 March 1949 44-8846 was relocated to Weisbaden Air Force Base, Germany until February 1953, when it returned to the United States. It was assigned to the Ogden Air Material Command Centre, Hill Air Force Base, in Northern Utah. Retirement came on 10 November 1954, 'Half Pint' ending its days at Olmstead Air Force Base, in Pennsylvania.

On 5 December 1954 44-8846 flew to France after being purchased by the IGN, where it would accumulate 9,483 hours of flight under the registration F-BGSP. Based at Creil, north of Paris, the IGN modified the B-17 with special survey equipment. It undertook survey operations around the world, including locations such as Polynesia. In 1965 it was flown to South Africa for a survey project, allocated the registration ZS-DXM. 44-8846 was also a movie star about this time, appearing in films such as 'La Grande Vadrouille' and 'La Bande à César'. It stopped flying on 27 August 1979 and was put in storage, after having its registration changed to F-BWFU.

In 1984 44-8846 was restored to flight, funded in part by Air France, and performed a flyover during the 14 July parade. In May 1985 it was re-registered as F-AZDX and donated to the 'Forteresse Toujours Volante' association in partnership with the Amicale Jean-Baptiste Salis, based out of Paris-Orly Airport, nicknamed 'Lucky Lady'.

In June 1989, F-AZDX flew to England for the shooting of the David Puttnam movie 'Memphis Belle'. Painted in olive drab, it carried a variety of identities including 'Mother and Country' and 'Pink Lady' - fake turrets were fitted on the aircraft.

In 1999, F-AZDX was painted back in the markings of her original assignment as part of the 511th BS/351st BG, though it remained in the olive drab applied for the 'Memphis Belle' movie. Since then, pilots Michel Bezy and André Domine have displayed 'Pink Lady' across Europe from its home at Melun-Villaroche, but recent insurance increases due to draconian European legislation and the age of the pilots have brought about the decision to permanently retire the aircraft to a hangar at La Ferte Alais in the near future. Its last display of 2008 was at Auxerre on 28 September, and 2009 depends upon finances being raised principally for the sky-high insurance - let's hope that someone, somewhere has the will and the resources to keep 'Pink Lady' where she belongs - in the air.

Elsewhere at Jersey, there were other old favourites such as Martin Willing's T-28, the Scandinavian Historic Flight's A-26 and treats like Armor Aero Passion's Paris F-AZLT. Mike relies on the willingness of many of these regulars to make the airshow happen, who essentially perform for little more than fuel and board. Mike's problem is perversely the airshow's strength - the small size of the island. With a limited catchment, sponsors are hard to find, especially at a time of economic stress and rising fuel prices; but the isolation of the islanders from the mainland gives the airshow a unique place in their hearts, so much missed it would be if the worst was to happen.

 

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