Fete - A family affair
Almost an institution amongst the aviation fraternity, Air Fete always raises high expectations for enthusiasts. This, the official 25th anniversary, although only the 24th actual event (the 99 show being cancelled due to the crisis in Kosovo), was expected to be something special in terms of aircraft participation. The fact that it wasnt, and was pretty ordinary as participants went, led to a considerable degree of criticism from those wanting a bit more. But, Air Fete is not just about placating avid enthusiasts, it is about the USAFE 3rd Air Force opening its doors to the local populace to build better relations, and provide an event for the family to enjoy. That they manage to do, despite not attracting the latest aircraft every year such as the B2 Spirit. One was planned for this years event, but operational commitments forced a cancellation with just a few weeks to go - together with the loss of four US Navy fighters from the Mediterranean based USS Enterprise, this denied a line-up as good as Air Fete 2000 had been.
But, for the average punter, there was still much to see. Bear with me as we look at the show with a typical eight-year-old and his father...
Arriving very early to beat the queues, young James asks the inevitable question. "Dad, why do we have to get here so early? I could have watched some Live & Kicking." "If we dont get here before 6:30, we could be queuing for ages" replies his father. Traffic this year on the Saturday was beset by problems - many queued for hours only to be turned away as the airfield was full. Construction work had reduced the amount of space available, but the parking was too slow and laborious, causing the traffic to back up considerably. Official figures put the weekend's attendance at more than 550,000, breaking the air displays previous record attendance of just over 400,000. All 50,000 car parking spaces were filled up. Cars were parked in every space available, including the Mildenhall industrial estate and many small, private lots. For next year, the base, along with the Suffolk Constabulary, will try to find more park and ride locations to help with the traffic congestion around the base. "Mildenhall is a typical rural Suffolk town," said Superintendent Doug Paxton, Suffolk Constabulary. "The roads around the base are not designed for that volume of traffic. However, we will meet with base representatives and discuss what we can do to make it better next year," he said.
"No time for breakfast son, lets go and see whats in the static park". Off they trudge, James wishing for a bowl of Rice Krispies rather than the potential burger on offer as it's so early.
"Wow! Thats a big tail, Dad! Is that the biggest plane in the world? Is it a Jumbo Jet, Dad?" "No, its a C5 Galaxy, the biggest the Americans have got, but smaller than the Russian Antonov. And no, theres not one here." "Why does the nose point in the air, Dad?" "Because its a transport plane, and thats where they drive the tanks on" replies Dad, already realising it was going to be a very long day of questions. "Hey Dad, theres one of those mushroom planes that fly out of Lincoln!" "Thats actually an American mushroom plane, and its called an E3 Sentry." They hadnt yet quite reached the static park, and already James was doing his best Magnus Magnussen impression.
"Whats that big white airliner for, Dad? It hasnt got any windows, how do the people see out?" "Its not an airliner", laughs Dad, "its an E6 TACAMO, the US Navy use it for some sort of electronic counter-intelligence. You cant go to the Canary Islands in that!" James is completely befuddled by this, so decides not to ask any more about that one.
They move along a bit. "Dad! Why is that one all wrinkled? Its got more wrinkles than Grandad!" "Its a B52 Stratofortress, quite an old plane, the Americans use it for bombing." "Did it fly in the war, Dad?" Dad doesnt really know how to answer this one, as Jamess knowledge of Twentieth Century history isnt that great. "Sort of, son" is the cop-out reply. James decides to call it the Grandad plane, primarily because of its wrinkled cheeks.
James really likes the sleek bomber next to the Grandad plane. "Wow, I bet that goes fast!" he says with an air of excitement. "Its got a dragon on the side - what does reluctant mean?" His father thought that B1 86-103 Reluctant Dragon might have been reluctant to attend any more airshows, as it seems to be the only one in the USAF inventory. Changing the subject, he says "Did you know that the one on the flying side of the airfield (86-0110) set 18 world speed records on 17 September 1987? Oh, of course you wouldnt, I suppose." "I think its cool," says James, not in the least offended by the patronising remark. "Will it be noisy? I cant wait for it to fly. Whats it called?" "A Bone," replies Dad. James cant see the connection with bones, but accepts it as some higher meaning.
"Whats this ugly one, Dad?" asks James, pointing to the A-10 Thunderbolt. "Wow, look at the size of the gun! Is it loaded, Dad?" Dad hopes not, knowing that it could spit out up to 6,000 rounds a minute. "Its called a Warthog, James." James thinks of a joke relating to Mummy, but decides to keep it to himself.
"Dad, why do all these aeroplanes look the same?" asks James, sweeping his arm to point out all the F16s parked in the static. "Well, those are all F16s. The F16 is a cheap but very good fighter built by the Americans that many different countries have bought. You can see some from Denmark, Turkey, Portugal as well as America." "Dad, has the RAF got any F16s?" "No, we decided to build our own new fighter with the Germans, Italians and Spanish called Eurofighter." "Dad, is there a Eurofighter here today?" Dad certainly wishes there was, but knew that the powers-that-be seem reluctant to demonstrate their new toy to the taxpayer. "Sadly no, James" he replies. "It seems that they dont want to show it to us, us that actually pay for it in the end." "Crikey," thinks James, "I didnt realise Daddy had to pay for these aeroplanes. No wonder him and mummy argue so much about the shopping." Another question pops into his head. "Dad, are the Americans going to buy the Eurofighter?" Dad laughs. "No no no, theyve just developed a brand new plane called the F22 Raptor which will be even better than Eurofighter." "Is it here, Dad? Is it?" shouts James excitedly at the prospect of seeing the best fighter in the world. "Maybe next year", says Dad.
The ice cream van beckons, James tugging at his fathers arm. It is a lovely warm day, slightly hazy but a vast improvement on Sunday last year, thinks Dad. The Gripen in the static park doesnt excite James too much, as he thinks it a bit weedy and a girls plane. He is more interested in all the old men taking pictures of it, like they had never seen one before. Maybe they hadnt? He didnt know, this being his first Air Fete. All he knew was that mummy had some rude names for these people, and that Daddy was one of them.
James is quite enthralled at the MH53 Pave Low on display, bristling with pointy bits of every description. He gets a look around inside, much to his delight, the American soldiers all being very friendly - he thinks he might join the American Air Force when he gets older. There are some smaller helicopters around the corner, two of which he recognises as Apaches, as he had played the game on the PlayStation.
James really wants to see the Red Arrows, as they had recently been on Blue Peter. "Are the Red Arrows here, Dad?" "Not sure, son" is the reply. "Hey! There they are! The Red Arrows!" exclaims James, pointing at the Patrouille de France. "But theyre blue!", laughs Dad. "Well, they look like the Red Arrows" says James, with a distinct air of disappointment. "Who are they then?" "Its the French team, the Patrouille de France" confirms Dad. James didnt know what a Patwee was, but is distracted by the smell of donuts before he can ask. Dragging father towards the van, Dad says he better be behaved as it was a long day - it was nine oclock and the flying was due to start in an hour.
A trek through the trade stalls on the way back to the car brings many requests from James - "Can I have this, Dad?" echoes for most of the next hour. Patience tested to the limit, Dad eventually relents and buys a small diecast model. "That should keep him quiet while I queue for a beer and burger", he thinks.
Back at the car by ten, just in time for the start of the flying, they seek a spot on the crowdline free of windbreaks and stepladders. Such is the popularity of Air Fete that even some half-mile away from the static park the crowdline is filling ready for the aerial displays. James has his Gameboy ready, as eight hours will pass before the show is over, and Dad doesnt think he will get through it without any comfort aids.
First on is one of those F16s, but this one is plain grey, not the cool black and silver stripy one that James saw on the flightline. This one's from Belgium apparently, and James is completely taken by the speed and noise from the agile fighter. Grabbing for the ear defenders, he watches entranced. Dad is grateful for the noise, as it means a few peaceful question-free minutes. "More! More!" shouts James as the F16 lands. "Dont worry, theres plenty more like that throughout the day" says Dad. A Jaguar duo and Tornado F3 follow, before the crackling sound of six Merlin engines fills the air and the BBMF fly past. "Look! A Spitfire and Hurricane. They must be really, really old" exclaims James - "nearly as old as Grandad!" "Actually, slightly older" remarks Dad, to whom James gives a look of disbelief. "No way!" he shouts. Then, to Jamess enormous relief, the Red Arrows arrive, ready for their finale later in the afternoon. A bit concerned that they are landing without displaying, Dad reassures him that they will fly at about five-thirty, "if James stays the course", he thinks. Dad would secretly like to be away before then to avoid the queues getting out.
The Patwee then taxi out and take to the skies - James loves the smoke heart but is convinced they pinched the idea from the Red Arrows. "Actually, I think it may have been the other way around" quips Dad, who has seen the respective displays by both teams for many years and is lying on the grass, pretending to be asleep. "Id much rather see the Thunderbirds or Blue Angels" he mutters. James had always thought that the Thunderbirds werent real, but he would be quite happy to see Thunderbird 2 drop its pod on the grass and the Mole start digging.
A big transport plane then takes off - James assumes its a Galaxy. It turns tighter than some fighters. "That C17 sure is impressive", mumbles Dad in between taking pictures. "So its not a Galaxy then, but a C17" thinks James. He also thinks all the pilots of C17s must be old fighter pilots from the war, the way that they throw them about. Those Galaxies never do that when they are sitting in the spotters car park at the end of the runway on a normal day.
A large bang cracks across the airfield, causing Dad to spill his Bud. James hadnt heard words like that before. A flypast of those big helicopters and some Hercules (James can recognise those as he has a big Hot Wheels one at home) herald the start of the Special Forces Tactical Demo. Some impressive flying by the Pave Lows follows, with one lifting a stretcher almost in front of James and Dad. James thinks it is very fortunate that the helicopters are on hand to help the man on the stretcher. "Are they taking him to hospital, Dad?" he asks. "Probably" is the reply, Dad not wanting to prolong this particular inquisition.
Dads disappointed that Sally B taxies out but turns back, victim of a technical problem. It appears that she suffered from water ingress into an engine on Saturday, which transpired into a more serious problem while in flight on Sunday, forcing a three-engined diversion to Duxford. Hopefully the problems arent serious, as it would be an enormous blow to the Society so early in the airshow season.
James then notices Dad has started to assemble his camera gear, putting on what seemed the largest lens in the world. He then speaks excitedly about F18s and Gripens - James remembers the latter is the 'girl's plane', so it will probably be pants. "The Hornet's from Switzerland" says Dad, which of course is completely lost on James, who can only think of the hornet on the front of the Jordan F1 toy car he has at home. However, it is a mightily powerful beast, although James wonders why it has first-aid stickers on the wings. Maybe they are rescue planes for the mountains? They use big dogs called Bernard don't they? Next up after a Hawk is the Gripen, with Dad's camera going into overdrive. James is told that it comes from Sweden - he knows Abba comes from Sweden, as do Volvos. "Mummy likes Abba, I wonder if the pilot knows them?" he asks Dad, who can't quite grasp the thread immediately. James decides the 'girl's plane' isn't such a wimp after all, as it scorches around the airfield and puts on a fine show. Following is the French Mirage, just as fast and noisy, and James is now thinking of the packed lunch rather than what's about to happen next.
While our family scoff cucumber sandwiches, two parachute display teams do their thing next, the RAF Falcons preceding the US Army Golden Knights, and completely outshine them. The Falcons' tight descent is in stark contrast with the Knights' disarray, causing James to think the Knights are total pants - he doesn't know where to look next as they are so far apart. Anyone who saw the practise on Friday will know that the crowd missed a thriller on both show days. The rehearsal involved some 15-20 members dropping from the C141 and forming one large free-falling diamond before pulling cords at what seemed to be a very low altitude. A great shame, but they are more used to better weather conditions and cloudless skies. "Just shows us Brits do it better", laughs Dad. James thinks that is a bit rude, as many other people in the crowd are cheering and clapping. Maybe he just missed the point of it.
The afternoon whiles away, with first a Nimrod (nice and noisy) and a performance from the RAF Harrier, notable of comment by James. "Wow, he can fly backwards! How does he do that, Dad? Why can't Mummy do the same in the car, Dad?" Dad tries to explain the principles of VSTOL but is drowned out by the Dutch F16, which James is suddenly interested in due to the 'cool' colour scheme. "Neat" and "cool" were two ways to describe it, along with the inevitable question: "Dad, why don't they paint all the display aircraft in neat colours like that one?" "It all comes down to money and being able to afford to do it", says Dad. "Can't you just pay a bit more, Dad?" "Maybe you should ask Tony Blair", sighs Dad. James thinks he will write Tony a letter when he gets home. Another Jaguar, then A Hercules is next, which tears around the sky like a ferret with its tail on fire. Another Swede, James is told, but he can't see any vegetables anywhere.
"Hey Dad, the Blue Eagles, just as you wished for earlier on!" shouts James. "Err, not exactly what I said", mutters Dad, but who is still impressed with the opening reversing-through-the-Gazelle manoeuvre by the Lynx. A Warthog is next, which pleases Dad, although it isn't a full display, the pilot not having display authorisation.
The Bone and Grandad aeroplanes then re-appear, having taken off some half-hour ago, activating many car alarms in the process. James notes that Dad complains that they only do one pass before circling to land, but James thought the bone's pass was really cool, very fast and low.
Its now the turn of the Italian contingent, and everyone is captivated by the routine of the G222, which completes no less than three barrel-rolls. Dad is more impressed this time than James, whose grasp of dynamics doesnt quite appreciate how difficult this is for a supposed lumbering transport aircraft. "Just wait until that pilot gets a C27 Spartan", shouts Dad. James knows Spartans are old people he learnt about in history who went around terrorising others. Maybe thats what the pilot will do. He seems to be giving it his best shot at the moment. Also from Italy are the AMX and MB339, but these are too quiet to hold James' attention.
"Dad, that one sounds really funny", James exclaims as the B25 Mitchell takes to the air. "Like a washing-machine full of wellies", says Dad. James laughs at this, as even he knows its a bit stupid to put wellies in the washing machine. Dad remembers the Doolittle mission against Tokyo in the war, and the forthcoming motion picture Pearl Harbor. He must make an effort to go and see it soon. An Avenger adds to the wartime nautical theme.
The suntan cream has been in good use throughout the day, and the Gameboy used sparingly in the few gaps in the flying programme. Dad has run out of film, but will probably curse at the pictures when he gets them back for facing the sun all day. A third Tornado does its bit, this time it's a GR1 of the RAF variety, he notes. Earlier a German example had displayed, all three Tornado routines providing plenty of vapour and thunder.
Finally its time for the Reds, and James watches entranced. The pilots grunts and groans are broadcast over the PA system, amusing James is the process. Dad is already packing, in anticipation of a quick getaway as soon as they break to land.
They make their way back to the car. Exhausted, James asks the inevitable question. "Dad, how long before were home?" Dad says he isnt sure, as it may take an hour to get off the airfield. Over 250,000 thousand people have attended today, and they cant all leave at the same time. Dad is already thinking of next year, the actual 25th airshow, and of B2s, F117s, F22s and JSF, but then he is the eternal optimist. Whatever, he and James will definitely be there. James is already asleep, dreaming of being a fighter pilot...
Next years Air Fete is scheduled for May 25-26, 2002.