Gary Stedman mixes with the '99s on Lowestoft's beaches for the country's most easterly Airshow, held over 26/27 July.
Traditionally, visitors to Lowestoft's annual seafront extravaganza have needed to pack an umbrella and suncream, as both are usually required, often only a few moments apart. So It was with a certain amount of scepticism that this regular visitor packed his bags, left out the waterproof and headed for the coast. But in scenes that would rival Baywatch, a packed sun-scorched beach watched what has become, in only its fifth year, arguably the biggest and best sea-front air display in the UK.
Held during the week that precedes RIAT, this year's event boasted a flying programme that had attracted many of the best acts available on the circuit. But, as if to prove a spanner can still be thrown in the works, a stubborn sea mist on the Thursday prevented many of the performers from displaying as close to the display line as usual. To the average punter, this probably went unnoticed, but to a photographer who was without a static display to fall back on, it proved to be quite frustrating. What one would not give for a spot at the end of the Claremont Pier!
Top billing went to the F-117A Nighthawk, one of a pair that had flown over for RIAT. In the weeks preceding the show, much confusion had arisen over their attendance. So much so that I arrived on the Thursday not sure on which day to expect the display, or even if it was a singleton or a pair. From comments heard after the event, it seems that many people had still been expecting a pair on the Friday, as shown in the programme. With conflicting details appearing both on the Internet and in the local press up to the event, even the commentators appeared to be just as confused throughout the two days - it was no surprise that some people were going to be disappointed. Ironically, visitors on the Friday missed little, as the single aircraft again performed three, distant fast passes before disappearing back to Lakenheath.
The flying programme had earlier opened with an army freefall parachute team, not the Red Devils but a previously unknown (to many) team from the Princess Of Wales's Royal Regiment, the 'Spitfire Tigers'. First aircraft to appear was Denny Dobson in his Extra 300, making his umpteenth appearance on the circuit this year - does this guy ever rest! Yet again, 'Sally B' appeared to be dogged by bad fortune, as word reached Lowestoft that yet another engine problem had forced her to return to Duxford immediately upon departure, although a appearance later in the day was not ruled out.
Display aircraft from the Royal Air Force included the Tornado F3, Jaguar, Hawk, and a local favourite, the Harrier GR7. The Harrier routine always has that something extra when performed over the sea, although this year's display, like many of the others, was clearly further out from the beach. It was hard to tell if the display line had been moved offshore, or if perhaps many pilots were being that little extra cautious because of the sea mist. Always welcome performers, the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight was present in full strength. Love them or hate them, there is no denying that the 'Utterly Butterly' wing-walking Barnstormers are always one of the most memorable regular acts at Lowestoft, and this year concluding with a new twist - a final pass dropping fireworks!
With the Sea Vixen, a display full of speed, noise and action was guaranteed. An altogether more gentle routine of tight aerobatics was provided by the Apache Aviation PC-7 pair, another local regular. This year the organisers secured the services of two major service display teams, with the Army Air Corps 'Blue Eagles' making a appearance in addition to the Red Arrows. The display, like the Harrier before them, seemed perfect for a seafront venue. One display that could only be performed on the seafront was the combined Air-Sea Rescue display by a 22 Squadron (B flight) Sea King and the local Lowestoft Lifeboat. For many, this was the highlight of the show (despite being a local to Wattisham, I really am trying not to be biased here!), as a willing volunteer was pulled out of the sea and lowered to the 'Spirit of Lowestoft'.
The planned finale (on Thursday) was, unsurprisingly, the Red Arrows. Their full display, performed in cloudless skies (listening in, it was obvious that Andy Offer was concerned about the visibility at low level), was greeted with unrestrained enthusiasm by the large crowds. Just as many people thought the air display was at a end, a slow, unmistakable shape could be seen droning in from the South. Just in time, 'Sally B' had made it! Her slow, but graceful display included a number of much needed topside passes. Ironically, the only other participation that I recall obliging in this manner was the F-117!
For the committed aviation enthusiast, Lowestoft may be of only passing interest, but for a family looking for a good day out, it's unbeatable. With seafront attractions and a late night firework display, there's something for everybody - even the five-a-side pitch for football fans. A special mention must go to the team of budgies from the region's second best football club, Narrwich City (misprint intentional, local joke!) - must do better!