Written and photographed by Tom Mercer | June 7th 2017
The Abingdon Air and Country Show, for many years, has traditionally been seen as the start of the UK air display season but unusually for 2017 the organisers decided to push the show back in an attempt to attract British military displays.
This years show at Abingdon saw a number of changes; not only was the show pushed back to mid-May, the showground itself was flipped 180 degrees and taken to the opposite side of the airfield. Why? Simply put, as a result of changes in air display regulations, it was the only option available to the team if they were to carry on with the airshow element this year.
An Impressive Line-Up
There was a lot of focus on the static display at Abingdon this year and it’s easy to understand why. For the first time in a number of years, the static display area was almost completely full up, so much so that it was very difficult to get clear photographs of the individual aircraft.
Almost all of the participating aircraft were on the ground but they were joined by some real gems. Taking centre stage at the very front of the display area was Martin Baker’s Gloster Meteor, WL419; an aircraft rarely seen in public and one that the team somehow managed to keep as a complete surprise right up until a few days before the show! In the digital age, it’s refreshing to see that secrets can still be kept as this booking had been made a number of months prior to the announcement.
The Meteor was joined by two Tucanos from the Royal Air Force, a second Yak-3 (with one already booked for the flying display), Jet Provost, P-51 Miss Helen and a beautiful de Havilland DH.90 Dragonfly to name just a few.
This really was one of the most varied and exciting static display that we’ve seen at Abingdon in a number of years.
A number of the static aircraft were on site in time for the nightshoot that took place on the Saturday evening and for the very first time, the evening photographic session was run by the newly established Threshold.aero team. To begin with it looked as though the attendees may be slightly disappointed as most of the pilots had disappeared, however over the course of the evening Threshold managed to arrange for most of them to start up at some point. A job well done by those involved.
An Eventful Afternoon
The flying programme at Abingdon tends to start in the early afternoon and this year was no different. As everyone grabbed their seat on the display line ready for the flying to begin, the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight Spitfire was cleared to run in. Always a firm favourite with the public, the Spitfire Mk PRXIX from RAF Coningsby gave a graceful display but was a little distant at times.
The distance, it is understood, is a direct result of changes to display flying regulations for 2017. It seems that it’s becoming increasingly difficult to display in a way which best shows the aircraft. Instead it’s more a case of displaying the regulations as best as possible. Does the increase in distance decrease from the overall sense of satisfaction? Apparently not. According to an independent review of the 2016 display season for the CAA, ‘statistics showed’ that very few even noticed a difference. We can only assume that they didn’t speak to the vast majority that attended airshows up and down the country throughout the summer!
Following on from the Spitfire was Lauren Richardson. While she arrived in her normal Pitts Special display aircraft, Lauren took a turn in Bob Grimstead’s elegant Fournier RF-4 motor glider.
It was incredibly refreshing to see an alternative display from Lauren and it just goes to show how talented a pilot she really is; a true inspiration for aspiring young pilots, boys and girls alike.
Taking to the skies shortly after the motor glider landed was the Twister Aerobatics Team with their two Silence Twister aircraft.
Shortly after their display had started and after a number of low energy pairs maneuvers, one of the pilots reported a loss of power and made a forced landing at the northern end of the runway. The on-site emergency response team was with the aircraft just moments after it was on the ground and it was impressive to see just how quickly they were on hand to assess the situation and assist the pilot. The incident was handled superbly by all involved and the public were kept up-to-date at all times with relevant information as to what was going on; this included a much-needed announcement for people to stop pushing forward on the crowdline and to keep back behind the original markers.
The displays continued as soon as the required emergency teams were back on standby and incredibly the team were only an hour behind schedule.
Continuing with the flying display, the North Weald based UH-1 helicopter performed a stunning routine which successfully demonstrated the agility of the aircraft. With plenty of slow and high-energy passes, the display gave photographers plenty of chances to capture the infamous helicopter in all its glory.
Unbelievably, when the Great War Display Team arrived into slot, their newest aircraft also suffered a problem with it’s engine just minutes into their routine and safely landed at the far end of the airfield. The display continued, full of pyrotechnics and superb flying, and the aircraft was recovered right at the end of the day.
The earlier delay meant that the display programme had to be reshuffled and unfortunately a number of aircraft were forced to scrub their displays; this included Peter Davies’ entertaining routine in his Calidus Autogyro and given that he’s based in Blackpool, he had to depart early to get back in time.
The Red Tails P-51 Mustang and Dutch Yak 3-U took to the air one after the other, with the former going out to hold while the Yak belted around the display area. While it was incredibly impressive to see and hear the Yak 3-U being thrown around the sky, it was far too high and far too distant; so much so that at times it may as well have been over another county. Disappointingly, one of the highlights of the flying programme just didn’t reach it’s full potential.
Perhaps one of the most highly anticipated displays of the afternoon was that of the Popham-based Antonov An-2. The aircraft is flown by the An-2 Club and it’s fair to say that the team has had it’s fair share of issues over the last five years.
Having been grounded for so long and absent from the display circuit for a number of years, it was fantastic to see their efforts pay off in a spectacular, and at times breathtaking routine that really demonstrated just why the An-2 is such a unique aircraft.
The Aces High Douglas DC3 Dakota was the last aircraft to go up before the dark grey rain clouds moved into the vicinity. This Dakota, a veteran of the movie industry, is a popular sight on the UK airshow circuit so it’s no surprise that it’s agile routine went down well with the crowd.
The show closed with displays from Rich Goodwin, the Historic Army Aircraft Flight and the T-28 Trojan but all three displays took place in the rain under extremely dark clouds which sadly made photography almost impossible. It’s a real shame that these displays had to run in such murky conditions.
Sadly moving the show had no impact on RAF participation for the event and both the static Hercules and static Chinook were withdrawn with very little explanation. Considering that Dalton Barracks is used regularly by the RAF for training, it’s difficult to understand why nothing ever shows up. A ‘heavy’ flypast had also been on the list but again this was cancelled days before the event; unbelievably a C-130 Hercules became available mid-afternoon to fly through but due to the Twister incident being attended to, the aircraft wasn’t allowed on to the display line.
Stepping Into the Unknown
On the face of it, you may think that shifting the show to the opposite side of the airfield would be a simple task but that wasn’t the case at all. Physically moving the show meant that there was a new and much bigger showground area, a new display box, new ticketing arrangements, new car parking arrangements and new traffic management.
While it was still the ‘Abingdon Air and Country Show’, it may as well have been a brand new event, and with every ‘new’ event comes a number of learning curves. Traffic was a big issue both coming into the show in the morning and leaving the show in the evening. Cars were still queuing to get into the showground after midday and there was absolute chaos trying to get out but what actually happened? We spoke to Neil Porter, organiser of the show, to try and get a better understanding.
“We knew in the run-up to the show that we might have some issues seeing as the show was turned around but not quite to the extent that we experienced. The traffic was down to a number of factors; the new showground layout, the marked out lanes being moved about on the day by individuals because cars were being directed to the wrong lanes and problems on the pay gate. As you can hopefully appreciate this caused considerable disruption. We’re aware that some people travelled only two miles in just over an hour! Of course, it depended on what time of day you arrived but that’s the first time in 18 shows that it’s been that bad.
With regard to the issues leaving, there was supposed to be a volunteer group marshalling within the car parks and help guide cars to the two exits. This is still being investigated but it would appear that those tasked with marshalling didn’t act responsibly and instead of assisting, decided to watch the show! Needless to say changes are being made for 2018.
We can only apologise for the issues that were experienced on the day and we’d like to reassure you that we are already working on plans for next year.”
The proposed changes sadly don’t stop with just traffic management and parking arrangements though. As Neil explains, this may well have been the last year that a traditional airshow takes place at Abingdon.
“We have to be very wary of what money we have in the show accounts, especially given the issues that were experienced on the gate with ticketing this year. At the moment, there will be a show in 2018, however it won’t be in its current form.
We are still looking to have an event at Abingdon for at least the next five to ten years but it’s evident that it cannot continue in its current format. On the Thursday before the show, myself and my FDD John Davis sat down with Group Captain Stradin & S/L Castle from the Military Aviation Authority (MAA) for over two hours discussing the show and associated regulations. What quickly became clear is that things will not ease up in a hurry, if at all. As an example of where things stand at the moment, as part of the regulation changes we had to ask every household within the display box to vacate their premise. As you can probably appreciate, this proved virtually impossible, despite offering free tickets to come to the show and countless advance warning letters.”
It’s entirely possible that the air display element of Abingdon Air and Country show is now a thing of the past and from discussions that have already taken place, it’s likely that the event will become more of a mass fly-in. 2018 will see the RAF celebrate it’s centenary, an anniversary that will be incorporated into countless show’s next year so fingers crossed, Neil and the team can put something together to celebrate in style.
2017 may well be remembered as the final year that an airshow took place at Dalton Barracks.