RAF Waddington International Airshow, 24/25 June - Gary Parsons reports
"You make me happy, though skies are grey..."
Sunshine; a rare commodity at a Waddington Airshow, it seems. Shades of air-force grey in the long static line blended with a patchwork quilt of grey cloud throughout the weekend, causing many a frustrated photographer to curse the heavens. From Thursday afternoon through to Monday mid-day a thick blanket drifted in from the north-east, carried by a stiff breeze that brought temperatures more akin to April than mid-summer. It seems Waddington, along with Woodford, attracts the worst that June can offer - the organisers deserve much better, as Paul Byram and his dedicated team had worked long and hard to provide a day's entertainment that was both varied and exciting. Ironically, the sun appeared for a few brief hours on Sunday evening, but by then the crowds had dispersed, proving the Law according to Sod is alive and well.
Following the closure of RAF Finningley in 1994, the station's Battle of Britain "At Home Day" commitment was transferred to Waddington. Since the inaugural show at Waddington in 1995, the event has gone from strength to strength and it is now widely recognised to be one of the most successful military air shows in the United Kingdom. The show generates valuable public relations for the Royal Air Force and raises significant sums for the Service charities, the Royal Air Force Benevolent Fund and Royal Air Forces Association. Over the previous five years the show has generated £925,000, of which nearly £700,000 has been donated to Service and local charities. Proceeds from this year's show should take the sum raised to well over £1,000,000.
Not classed as such, but Waddington was a veritable Tornado Meet, with no less than eighteen examples dotted around the airfield. Most RAF squadrons were represented, star example being 15(R) Squadron GR1 ZA613 in 85th anniversary markings. Fresh from the Lossiemouth paintshop, '613 was officially reserve display aircraft to ZA321/TAB but much to the delight of enthusiasts was used on both days, otherwise it would have been 'out of touch' to cameras on the southside flightline. Full marks to pilot Jez Griggs, who gave a typical fast 'n noisy routine.
Once again 56(R) Squadron's Firebird was missing, supposedly 'tech' again, but that excuse is wearing thin now lads...regardless, Parky gave his usual vapour-squeezing routine in F3 Alpha-Zulu, in direct competition to Jez's display and that of the Luftwaffe PA200.
Thunderbirds under thunderclouds...
Thunderbirds are go! Perhaps the most over-used cliché as far as the American demonstration team are concerned, and probably completely lost on them, too. On the return leg of a European tour that encompassed many countries, a commitment to display at Nellis on Wednesday prevented a display on Sunday as operating procedures require a seventy-two hour rest after a trans-Atlantic crossing - anyone deserves that after twelve hours in an F16 cockpit. Stars of the flying display on Saturday, a polished performance under low cloud giving lie to the claims that they are 'fair weather specialists' - the formations were tight, unwavering and with few gaps in the performance. At forty minutes it was perhaps a shade long with some manoeuvres repeated twice, but what impressed was the sheer speed at which everything happened, making the precision flying all the more impressive. Friday had seen the team back-seat with the Reds at Cranwell, so maybe they knew just what standards they had to meet. As they departed from the final manoeuvre, one of the solo pilots plugged in the afterburner at low level, a shock wave pulsing a loud crack in the air...let's just say it was officially Mach 0.999!
Missing was the infamous crewing-up parade ceremony, as the team were encamped with their two supporting C141s on the farside of the airfield, taking up the whole of Delta dispersal. Some missed it, others didn't...
The flying; low-power, mid-power and big-power
Commencing at 10:00, a seven hour flying display was offered on both days, only the Thunderbirds differentiating the menu. A welcome touch was a flypast by one of the resident Sentry AEW1s, a feature that has been missing in recent shows. A Nimrod from 51 Squadron would have been equally welcome, but this covert unit was only conspicuous by its absence from both the flying and static park; a lone R1 on Echo dispersal, away from prying eyes was as close as it got.
The low cloud delayed the Falcons until midday on Saturday, their chutes popping as soon as they left the Hercules - instantly a stack was formed, smoke trailing. Impressive stuff. Support Hercules XV295 developed a problem on the ground on Saturday, the number two engine refusing to start. Undaunted, the crew lined up on the runway as if to take off, and sped off at a vast rate of knots, kickstarting the errant engine into life. A quick one-eighty on the runway and it was away, off to the next engagement.
Acts amongst the RAF slots included a French Alpha Jet from ETO.2, the Army's Blue Eagles, a clutch of Fighters from The Fighter Collection, a Belgian Magister and some precision flying from a pair of gliders of the RAFGSA. Providing a touch of derring-do flying was Martyn Carrington in his Piper J3 Cub, dancing and landing on top of a trailer towed behind a speeding Kia Sedona people-carrier, which ironically could out-pace the Auster if required...
The T-birds weren't the only newcomers to Waddington, as the Spanish aerobatic team Patrulla Aguila were also making their first appearance at the Lincolnshire base, bringing a Spanish flavour to this years Airshow. This was only their second appearance at an RAF station, as previously their only appearances had been at International Air Tattoos at either Fairford or Boscombe Down. It has been eleven years since their first visit to the RAF, when they appeared at RAF Scampton for the Red Arrows' 25th birthday celebrations in October '89.
Formed in 1985, the team currently comprises of seven instructor pilots from the Spanish Air Force Academy, based at San Javier. Famous for its formation take-offs and landings, the Patrulla is also one of the quietest teams around, due to the small Garrett turbofan engine of the CASA 101 Aviojet. In all, fourteen pilots make up the team, comprising of the Team Commander, seven official display pilots and six reserves, supported by Engineers, maintenance NCOs and a Logistics Officer. All pilots are flight instructors of the Air Force Academy, where future Air Force officers are trained - the main difference to other foreign teams is that the pilots are not exclusively dedicated to the Team and have to arrange their daily tasks as flight instructors around practising with the Patrulla. Since 1985, when the Team was born, the Patrulla has performed displays around Spain, Europe and the Middle East, displaying a high level of skill similar to that of other European aerobatic teams.
All the pilots have around 3,000 flying hours experience, most of them in fighters (Mirage F1, F5, F18). In order to join the team, the pilots must meet some minimum requirements; they must be volunteers, a fighter pilot with at least 1,000 flying hours including 300 hours in the CASA 101 Aviojet, and be posted in the Air Force Academy as a flying instructor.The pilots remain in the team for three years, beginning as spare pilots and entering the First Team during the second year.
Accompanying the Patrulla from the Iberian peninsular were two EF18s, the single-seater from which performed a sparkling routine on both days. Always good to watch, the Hornet's agility contrasted nicely with the speed and aggression from the Tornado displays, of which there were three, and the Viggen which was sheer brute strength. Flown by Major Peter Soderstrom, he kindly displayed both the all-grey and lizard camo aircraft at his disposal, the latter on the Sunday.
Being the RAF's official airshow for the year, RAF participation was ensured at the highest level (given the low cloud, of course). Every service display aircraft was present, from the Tutor to Nimrod (see sidebars for details), plus old favourites from the BBMF (Dakota, Lancaster, Spitfire & Hurricane). Closing the show on Sunday were the Red Arrows, performing in front of their 'home' crowd, but it was evident that an extra special touch was missing after the Thunderbirds display of the previous day; it had been hoped that Eurofighter would have provided that star turn, the organisers working extremely hard to get the elusive bird to the show for the day. Whatever the reason, Eurofighter GmbH again proved reluctant to release any aircraft from the testing programme and yet again the British public was denied the chance to see what it is getting for its money in a few years time.
Shades of grey dominated the main static line, occasionally broken by a red Dominie or black Tucano. Viggen, Starfighter and plenty of Tornados stretched the length of the trade stands accompanied by a selection of helicopters braving the screams and shouts of the funfair. Many different weapons fits could be viewed and pilots were on hand to answer the many questions of the 120,000 strong crowd; "just exactly how fast does it go?" Alpha dispersal contained the goodies, two Royal Singapore Air Force A4SU Skyhawks being by far the biggest draw for enthusiasts. Both a single and twin-seater types were present, fresh from the detachment at Cazaux in France and looking even fresher from the paint shop, both being immaculately presented. If a Concours d'Elegance was being held, they would have swept away with the honours. It was a first for Waddington and the UK in a very long time, Greenham Common is thought to have been the last time any A4s visited these shores.
Alongside the A4s was a sole Mirage 2000BG from the Greek Air Force, another rare attraction for the milling photographers. All three aircraft were thoughtfully positioned away from the main fighter line, where photography is best described as 'challenging', and in front of the main Sentry maintenance hangar, the olive green of the A4s almost perfectly matching that of the doors. Better positioned still was Hawk XX172 from 208(R) Squadron, sporting a red dragon paint scheme across the entire fuselage. Heavies dominated the rest of the dispersal, Sentries, Atlantic, Nimrod, P3 and Hercules C4 filling the northern flank. However, a large area in the centre of the dispersal went unfilled, space that could have been more effectively used (perhaps the Starfighter and Viggen?).
Maybe next year...
So another weather affected airshow at Waddington, but one to savour for the Thunderbirds and array of types in the air and in the static. Always excellently organised, traffic queues are minimal, and there is plenty to keep the family amused while you get your aircraft fix; funfair, trade stands, motor show, hangar displays, plus even Chitty Chitty Bang Bang chugging around. Maybe, just maybe, summer will bless the last weekend in June next year...
Additional inspiration by Dave Eade & Roger Cook.