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Spirit of Air Fete

Mildenhall Air Fete 2000, 27/28 May:Gary Parsons reports

Hail, Mildenhall

...And it did. The worst Spring Bank Holiday weather for many a year descended upon the UK over the weekend of 27 - 28 May, Sunday especially seeing prolonged heavy rain, strong winds and temperatures barely in the teens. Star of the show was undoubtedly B2A Spirit 90-0040 'Spirit of Alaska' from the 509th Bomb Wing (BW), which seemed to bring the Alaskan climate with it! Although not a resident of the aforementioned state but of Whiteman AFB, Missouri, it was either a stroke of genius on the part of the mission planners or just some cruel joke by the powers that be at the Pentagon...

To be fair, Saturday wasn't too bad, with sunshine and showers throughout the day; it would have been rather pleasant for mid-March. A strong wind persisted from the off, causing many display aircraft problems in positioning and take-off, but most of the programme was completed successfully. A few started engines but thought better of it, notably the Austrian Saab 105 which ventured as far as the runway before turning back - unjustified rumours suggested it wouldn't have had enough grunt to beat the headwind onto runway 29.

New millennium, new team

C17 for the RAF

Much was made over the weekend of the British Government's decision to lease four Boeing C17A Globemaster IIIs from the US for the Royal Air Force beginning in 2001. Maintenance support and aircrew training initially will be handled by the U.S. Air Force (USAF) and The Boeing Company.

The C-17 is capable of carrying up to 169,000 pounds (76,395 kg) over intercontinental distances, yet can land on small austere fields as short as 3,000 feet (1,000 metres). It operates with a crew of three and is capable of airdrop operations and aeromedical evacuation. It is refuelable in flight, but the aircraft for the Royal Air Force will have a new extended-range fuel tank in the centre wing area previously left dry. Holding 10,000 gallons, the tank will add about fifteen percent to the average mission unrefuelled range. U.S. Air Force C-17s also will have this new tank fitted in due course.

The USAF currently has 120 C-17s on order, with 60 already delivered. The fleet, home based at Charleston Air Force Base, South Carolina, and McChord Air Force Base, Washington, has logged more than 200,000 flight hours since the first flight in 1991. The C-17 is assembled in Long Beach, California, but parts come from more than 800 suppliers around the world, including nine in the UK.

Deliveries to the USAF will not be affected by the UK aircraft. Boeing has to date delivered 48 C-17s ahead of schedule. The aircraft will be based at RAF Brize Norton.

A new organising committee has been appointed by the host unit, the 100th Air Refuelling Wing (ARW) to co-incide with the new millennium, Simon Ames heading up an experienced team of seasoned airshow personnel. This, the 24th Air Fete, is the first in a long while not to feature the commentary of Roger Hoefling, RIAT veteran Sean Maffett providing his usual efficient and informative patter. Using a blend of music and talk throughout the display, this was the most evident change to the format of Air Fete; otherwise it was the familiar mix of modern and vintage aircraft in the flying display to vary the appeal throughout the day. Air Fete normally has a theme - originally it was intended to portray the story of flight throughout the last century, with pioneering aircraft from the beginnings of aviation. Perhaps fortunate then, given the stormy conditions, that plans changed and the fragile aircraft were spared! So, the theme this year, "Onward," incorporated US and foreign aircraft from around the world, focussing on the phenomenal and far-reaching capabilities of aircraft from the past and present. Unlike other air shows, Air Fete's emphasis is not on a new product or aircraft; it highlights the day-to-day military capabilities of real people and the air forces of allies and friends. This year, members of the US armed forces also celebrate 50 years at RAF Mildenhall.

In amongst the burgers

Thinner than in previous years, the static park was predominantly filled with the types that regularly transit Mildenhall; C5 Galaxy, C17 Globemaster III, E3A Sentry, KC135, and a bevy of different types of C130. A sprinkling of fighters included one or two nuggets for the enthusiast, principally Turkish RF4E 69-7456 and the Austrian contingent, comprising of Draken 01 and Saab 105 1136. Much comment was made about the number of spare aircraft parked on the southside of the airfield, especially the second Turkish RF4E - it does seem a shame that the parking plan is so inflexible as not to accommodate extra aircraft when others drop out. The non-appearance of the Swedish Gripens (for technical reasons) left a vacant slot in the static line, unfilled over the weekend, that would have been nicely filled by the Rhino.

Occupying the western end of the static park was the Spirit, positioned so as to enable a clear turn onto the threshold of runway 11 and far enough back to be safely cordoned off. It is understood that anyone approaching unauthorised within 100 feet is automatically arrested, so when she taxied out several hundred spectators should, in theory, have felt an automatic rifle poking their ribs...Watching the Spirit prepare for the display was enlightening; the sheer speed in which the flaps and airbrakes operated was amazing, only a split-second necessary for a full sweep from closed to fully deployed. It reminded one of the computing power necessary to keep this unstable beast airborne, and the thousands of tiny corrections per second necessary to enable the graceful flying about to be displayed.

For a closer look at some of the static exhibits, click here or on the LET above.

Onward, to the flying

Air Combat Command (ACC) provided the centrepiece of the show at midday on both days, with the Buff, Bone and Spirit launching in turn. A sparkling opportunity to formate all three was not taken, but those powers that be at the Pentagon would probably never have approved it anyway on insurance grounds...The Bone, or Lancer if you prefer, as ever pure noise and speed provided the spectacle; the Spirit, with its unique lines and shape the grace; and the Buff, its eight TF33 turbofans adding to the growing storm clouds, the brute strength. 'Sally B' later provided the history and tradition on the Sunday, but the gusting crosswinds were just too much to risk during the preceding day. The incessant rain of most of Sunday provided one of the most stunning sights of the weekend, as the B1B squeezed the vapour out of the atmosphere, a large cone enveloping the fuselage as one high-Mach pass preceded another. It was just one of many acts to valiantly try to entertain the sodden crowd, many traders giving up as their makeshift stalls fell victim to the stiffening gale and driving rain. By early afternoon, the trade areas were a quagmire, with scenes reminiscent of the Western Front. But, the spirit of Air Fete was still high as 100,000 hardy airshow goers braved the elements, hungry for some airshow action after the cancellation of '99.

Return of 'Sally B'

Sunday's display saw the very welcome return to the airshow scene of B17G 124485/G-BEDF 'Sally B' of Memphis Belle fame. After her trials & tribulations of the past two years, airshow appearances will be rare, but sponsorship is being sought and the signs are promising that things will turn around very soon. A gentle performance, very obviously treating the elderly airframe with a great deal of respect, provided a stark contrast to the B2A Spirit, although only forty years separates them...

Committing despite the weather was the Battle of Britain Flight, direct from Coningsby where the runway alignment was more suited to the south-westerly gale. Turning on a sixpence, Lancaster PA474 shrugged off the breezy conditions, betraying the ex-Vulcan display roots of pilot David Thomas. An opportunity to closely inspect her new 'Mickey the Moocher' nose-art was denied the crowd, as although intended to stay the weekend the Flight returned to the safer haven of Duxford, returning for display on the Sunday. Dakota ZA947 also played a part in Sunday's proceedings, the old tail-dragger carving out a polished airshow act all of her own.

Display teams were in abundance, no less than five dominating the latter stages of Saturday; proving more spectacular than ever were the Frecce Tricolori, following the Royal Jordanian Falcons, and upstaging the Patrouille de France who were next to go. Committed to shows in France on Sunday, the French team left early as to avoid further competition. Closing the show were the inimitable Red Arrows, second to none. Earlier the Patrouille Swiss provided their usual spectacular finale, releasing flares in the break. One must question, however, the situation in which the organisers found themselves in on Saturday; by 17:00, the Frecce, Jordanian Falcons, Patrouille de France and Reds all still had to perform. Granted the programme was behind due to the weather, but the original schedule didn't have any of them on until 15:15; in hindsight, a better spread throughout the day would have been wiser.

Two MH53s and four MC130s provided the host participation with a welcome tactical demonstration of Special Force capabilities. A dropping of supplies into the drop-zone in front of the crowd summoned the MH53s into a pirouetting display of agility in the fierce cross-wind; positioned precisely over the pick-up point, the Pave Low hardly moved an inch despite the buffeting of the thirty-knot gale. This crosswind had earlier prevented the RAF Falcons free-fall team from displaying, as they would possibly have ended up in Brandon had they jumped.

Fast jets were plentiful, starting with the colourful red and white bedecked Austrian J35 Draken 08 which preceded to rip apart the early morning clouds with its Rolls-Royce Avon inspired Volvo RM6C turbojet. Keeping in spirit was the RAF Tornado F3, Flt Lt Tony Parkinson displaying the kind of rip-roaring routine that marked him out last year as 'one to watch'. 'Parks' will be off to pastures new next year, no prizes for guessing where...Missing was the Firebird, approval to display the aircraft is yet to be gained, but it was planned to bring it along as the spare, only going 'tech' late on the Thursday. Other RAF displays came from the Harrier, Jaguar and Tucano season performers, catch them all at other airshows around the country.

So to the second stealth of the weekend, the F117; but a rather uninspiring demonstration. Acknowledged that it isn't built to entertain, but the straight and level passes contrasted with the graceful swooping turns of the Spirit. A shame that the Nighthawk isn't able to demonstrate its remarkable agility for such an aerodynamic aberration. On hand to talk to the crowd was RAF exchange pilot Al Monkman, proving the British Government still has an active interest in stealth technology.

Foreign participation was high; the Belgians provide the only F16 display and Magister, the French a usual Mirage 2000, the Germans the mighty F4F, the Slovenians a nimble but dark PC9, contrasting with the bright yellow PC7 from the Dutch, and the Italians a trio comprising G222, AMX and MB339, although the weather forced their cancellation on Saturday. A Swedish Gripen was the only listed item not to make it to Suffolk, as on 17 May a battery exploded on a aircraft causing every JAS39 Gripen to be grounded. The Swedish Air Force was ably represented by old stalwart Tp84 Hercules 841, now resplendent in a light grey colour scheme, fresh from Marshall's at nearby Cambridge.

Spirits high

100,000 visitors attended on Saturday, with a similar number of gallant spectators braving the elements on Sunday, proving the spirit of Air Fete is as strong as ever, despite the weather and enforced two-year gap. Next year, world crises permitting, should see the 25th Air Fete, something surely to celebrate in style; let's start crossing those fingers for warm sunshine right now!


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