Written and photographed by Tom Mercer | May 12th 2016
The airshow industry has had a pretty miserable time over the last few months as the CAA announced a number of initiatives in the wake of the accident at Shoreham last year. As a massive hike in airshow display fees was announced, the aviation community pulled together in a campaign to fight the rise in fees but sadly it wasn’t all that successful. Even with a number of high profile organisations taking the fight into the public domain and numerous MPs successfully lobbied, the display fees were drastically increased. As if that wasn’t bad enough, just weeks before the display season started revised airshow regulations were published.
The annual Abingdon Air and Country Show held at Dalton Barracks in Oxfordshire is run by an extremely dedicated team of volunteers that works round the clock to make sure that the show goes on, no matter what. Since 2007 the show has been a major fundraiser for the Thames Valley & Chiltern Air Ambulance Trust. Over the past nine years more than £60,000 has been donated from the Airshow takings and that’s set to increase again this year.
The 2015 show was plagued by bad weather and last minute cancellations completely outside of Abingdon’s control. Unfortunately for the team it looked like everything was going against them once more when numerous items cancelled within weeks of show day.
One of the most notable absences on the ground was the complete lack of support from the Royal Air Force. RAF Benson have been fantastic supporters of the event in recent years but sadly the Chinook and Puma were withdrawn from the static display with the Joint Helicopter Command citing ‘insurance issues’ as the reason for their no-show.
Abingdon was thrown a massive lifeline however, when the Belgian authorities notified the team of a potential aircraft for the show just weeks prior to the event. A short while later it was confirmed that the Belgian Air Component were sending their all-new NH-90 helicopter for the static display, something that was understandably applauded by the enthusiast community. Bookings like this demonstrate the fantastic reputation that the Abingdon team have built up over the last decade or so.
Although this booking was a massive win for the team, it also demonstrates the obscurity of red tape within this country’s armed forces. A European nation was willing to send one of their newest military assets over 200 nautical miles to support a small foreign airshow but our own Air Force were unable to provide anything from an RAF base just 10 miles down the road. The mind boggles.
Into The Unknown
As has already been mentioned, new regulations implemented by the CAA mean that a number of things have changed for the 2016 display season. Although Abingdon is now controlled by the Military Aviation Authority (MAA), a number of changes were implemented for the show which involved temporary road closures and increases in display distances for aircraft over a certain weight and speed.
With an MAA presence on site, Abingdon acted as a live guinea pig for the rest of the display season and there was an awful lot unknown about how the new regulations would affect the show; you could almost feel the tension and apprehension in the air.
At first the increased distances weren’t all that noticeable as the show was opened by the Jump4Heroes parachute display team, however, as the show went on and aircraft began taking to the skies, it was evident that things had most definitely changed.
First up was the beautiful Bristol Blenheim which was lovingly restored at Duxford. It was the aircraft’s first appearance at Abingdon post-restoration and it was a real treat to see. The aircraft lined up on the runway (having landed earlier in the day) and took to the sky having refuelled on the opposite side of the airfield. The Blenheim routine is exceptionally well choreographed and is just right for showing off the classic lines of the airframes. Flying a number of topside passes and figures of eight allowed the crowd to see all angles of the angelic warbird.
Peter Davies returned to Abingdon for the second year running. Peter made his debut at the show in 2015 and made such an impact on the crowd that he was instantly booked after his display for this year. The Calidus Autogyro may look like a slightly dull aircraft but the routine is anything but! The speed at which the routine is flown allows Peter to really showcase the aircraft and demonstrate its agility; by getting the crowd involved with his ‘no handed’ flypast,this display was certainly well received on the ground.
After a distant and tame, but well flown routine by the Travel Air biplane, it was time for Simon Wilson to take to the skies in his lovely Piston Provost. Aircraft like this are perfect for smaller venues like Abingdon or at least were perfect this time last year. Although the routine was flown exceptionally well, at times it felt like it was just a little too far away.
The same can be said for Lauren Richardson and Peter Teichman in the Pitts Special and P-40 Kittyhawk respectively. Both these aircraft are usually so at home at smaller air shows like Abingdon but due to new regulations, both felt like they were displaying over a neighbouring village. It has to be said that this is absolutely not Lauren or Peter’s fault, it is simply a sign of the times and unfortunately a huge proportion of the ‘wow factor’ has been lost by forcing these aircraft to display beyond the 230m mark.
Lauren’s routine is technically faultless and what she’s able to do in her Pitts should be applauded. Peter, likewise, is highly respected within the industry and is considered by many to be one of the most talented warbird pilots in the country but because of the speed of his display and the new distance that requires, the impact was almost completely lost; the display seemed so distant that the photography was almost useless. Both the solo Twister aircraft and Auster also seemed far too far away from the crowd.
The MAA were on site all day and this goes to show just how much attention is on the airshow sector at the moment. During the RAF BBMF Spitfire/Hurricane display, the MAA were out on the airfield positioned on the 230m line to ‘observe’ the routine.
Thankfully though a little faith was restored during the latter part of the show when the Catalina got airborne. Once again the aircraft was flown a little further out than normal but due to it’s size, it wasn’t as noticeable. The Catalina has been on the UK circuit for many years now but it’s always a very welcome addition to any show. The routine was flown in a gentle manner but nevertheless, it was one of the most entertaining display of the day. Well, that was until three vintage helicopters took to the stage anyway.
First up was the Westland Wasp of Wing Commander (retired) Terry Martin. The Wasp is a navalised helicopter which was used extensively in the anti-submarine throughout the 1960s and 1970s and was designed to live on the back of a Frigate. Having seen footage of Terry displaying at Old Sarum last summer, this routine was one certainly high on the bucket list for this year. For an older design of helicopter, the Wasp can sure move and Terry demonstrated its maneuverability perfectly as he put the aircraft through it’s paces in what can only be described as an aerial ballet right in front of the crowd.
This theme continued into the final display of the day with the public airshow debut of the Army Historic Aircraft Flight. The Sioux and Scout are both attack helicopters and played a vital role in the British Army of days gone by. While the Sioux AH1 is a militarised version of the Bell H-13, the Scout is a relative of the Wasp and was a further evolution of the Saunders-Roe P.531 helicopter.
The display consisted of a number of opposition maneuvers, similar to what you might expect to see from the Royal Navy Black Cats (just a lot more gentle), before the two aircraft split off to carry out their own segments of the display. You’d never believe that this was their UK airshow debut because the routine was flown with such confidence, it was fantastic!
A Sign of Things to Come
Even though Abingdon was once again victim to lots of last minute cancellations, the organisers still went out of their way to make sure that people went home with a smile on their face. Unlike last year, this years show also had fantastic weather and this helped to bring more than 8000 spectators through the gates!
The great thing about the Abingdon show is that it’s not just an airshow and you really are missing out if you don’t take the time to take a proper look around the show ground. With a huge variety of things to see both in the air and on the ground, Abingdon guarantees value for money year on year.
It’s evident from the show that the new regulations are certainly going to affect some acts and locations more than others; while items like the Pitts and P-40 felt unusually out of place, the Wasp, Scout and Sioux made things feel much more familiar. Again, I must stress that this was not the fault of the pilots, they’re simply adhering to the guidelines they’ve been given.
Sadly the increased distances meant that despite having a fantastic lineup of talented display pilots, the crowd were left feeling out of touch with what was going on at times but right now there’s not a lot that can be done about it. As shows collate feedback over the course of the summer, one can only hope that things are reviewed at the end of the season and regulations are changed. While there’s clearly still public interest in aviation and airshows at the moment, how long can this interest remain when things are pushed further and further away from paying spectators.
We’ll no doubt be back at Abingdon Air and Country Show next year, which has already been confirmed as taking place some time in May again.