Gary Parsons spends more time there than he should...All pictures by the author unless credited otherwise.
Days of Thunder
Massive thunderstorms greeted the arrival of the Israeli Air Force F15Is to RAF Waddington during the evening of Tuesday 26 June - it was as if Ra'am (raw-am'), the God of Thunder, was welcoming his offspring. The fact that the three Ra'ams (Thunders) were there at all was a coup for the Airshow organiser Paul Byram, who had pulled off something that so far no other European Airshow has managed to do - a full flying demonstration by this operational Israeli strike fighter.
Indeed, such was the originality of the act that the Israelis themselves had no display routine for the F15I, so one had to be devised from scratch, commencing less than three weeks before the airshow date. A stunning rehearsal involving the release of flares was practised on the Wednesday and Thursday, but the flares had to go as they are officially classified as a weapon and thus their release over the airfield was too sensitive an issue to be allowed by the display authorisation committee. Still, the displays given by a Major (who cannot be named apparently) on the Sunday were the highlight for many, a powerful yet graceful routine shading the American F15 displays of late. With a typical inert weapons load attached, it wasn't officially designated a flying display, but a role demonstration with some pretty good display manoeuvres rolled in...the take-off literally scorched the runway. The Major said that "Display flying is eight minutes of real pleasure. When you are flying a combat sortie, all your capability is focussed on carrying out your mission - flying the aircraft is instinctive. In a display, I must concentrate on showing the aircraft's capabilities while following all the rules established to make the display safe. It's a completely different skill."
Many were disappointed that the display was only flown on the Sunday, but this was the Israelis' choice as Saturday is the Jewish Sabbath and so no 'work' can be done. To make up for it they asked to fly twice on Sunday, much to the delight of those that chose the second day to attend the show.
Welcome to the Thunderdrome
It had been a long road in securing the Israelis. An invite was sent early in the year by the RAF's Chief of the Air Staff as a return gesture for the participation of a Tornado GR1 display in Israel a couple of years ago. To the surprise of many the invite was met with unbridled enthusiasm, despite the troubles afflicting the Middle East at the present time. Even more of a surprise was the offer to send no less than three F15I Thunders, plus a Special Ops C130, and that they wanted to fly the Ra'am...The only problem the airshow office faced was the ability to officially announce it, as Ministerial approval was needed and there was an election about to happen. So, in the end it sort of 'leaked out', after much speculation in the enthusiast circle as to what the 'special feature' may be. Supported by two Boeing 707 support aircraft, a tanker and a transport, the Thunders and C130 arrived early on 26 June, to kick the airshow week into action with a 'bang'.
Such was the in-bred security ethos of the Israelis that even when asked and then told which squadron they were from, they still declined to confirm the information! This didnt mean that they were uncommunicative or unfriendly - far from it, as freebies were handed out with pleasure, its just that when it came to hard facts, little was divulged! It was thought that guards were to be posted twenty-four hours a day around the Thunders, but in the event no special measures were taken and the jets received the usual level of attention as any other visiting NATO aircraft would.
Above & beyond
It was a star line-up in anyone's book. Ranging from Denny Dobson to a Sentry/Nimrod flypast from the home team, the flying was full of choice acts throughout the afternoon. Highlights included the absolutely gorgeous Meteor NF11 and Vampire displays, plus a Hunter and Gnat duo that really works. How about a French Navy Falcon 50 - can you remember the last time one did a full flying display? It is the mood of a brilliant airshow - you end up liking it all.
Tempering the success was the loss of both the Su27 Flanker and Sea Vixen - the Russian act once again failed to appear due to paperwork problems, the confirmation of cancellation only being relayed to Waddington on the Friday morning, way to late to take out of the advance publicity. To say the Airshow organisers were upset would be to understate the issue - lets just say the Russians wont be invited back in the near future. As with Biggin Hill, it left a big hole in the bill, both programme-wise and financially, but there was much more to the Waddington programme to enjoy, so ultimately the Flankers absence was a distant memory by Saturday lunchtime. In all Waddington lost over thirty aircraft in the potential line-up, including a French E2 Hawkeye, B52, F104s and Saab 105s - it's a reflection on the quality that no-one really noticed.
The Sea Vixens absence was more understandable, as it had suffered an undercarriage problem before it was due to depart Bournemouth for Waddington. Its display slot was ably filled by Challenges Aviation's recently acquired Meteor NF11 WM167, Dan Griffith again providing a superb demonstration of the veteran jets capabilities. As at Duxford in May, the Meteor was not Dans only display of the day as he also piloted the Vampire, again providing photographers in the crowd with some excellent opportunities. Tom Moloney also entertained the crowd in the ex-Botswanan Air Force Strikemaster.
And of the rest? Most notable was the B1B display, as different as chalk and cheese on each day. Saturday's 'display' was tame to say the least, but Sunday brought a fresh crew and some wonderful low top-side passes with a roll-out at the end. The differences in display were subtle, but the effect was magnified ten-fold to the watching crowd. Speed and power is what they crave, and this guy gave it his best. Competing for star act among the foreign fast jets was Major Gyula Vari in his Hungarian Mig-29, Captain Patrick Daehler and the Swiss F18, Captain Romero Cuenca in the Spanish EF18 (although he would have won an award for having the scruffiest aircraft), Captain Bernd Roschmann's German F4F and the two Benelux F16 displays. They all gave the competing RAF home team of Tornado GR1, F3, Jaguar, Hawk and Harrier a good run for their money, but in the end it's personal preference and any one could have justifiably walked away with the honours.
Stars of Waddo
Probably the most interesting non-RIAT static ever seen at a UK airshow - Israeli, Polish, Spanish, Greek - it was certainly a blend of international visitors. The fighter line on the main taxiway may have been shorter than intended, but headed up by the third F15I it also had a high-class feel with a Citation, Matadors and Greek Mirages. Yes, thirty-one aircraft were missing, but most wouldn't mind that there wasn't a Lakenheath F15, Spang F16, or Norwegian F16 (there should have been four!). Perhaps it was surprising not to have a Squirrel, Griffin, Lynx or Gazelle - but let's face it, we have seen them all before and no doubt will again. Another 'first' for Waddington was the appearance of the RAF's newly acquired C17A Globemaster III ZZ171, fresh in the new colours of re-formed 99 Squadron. Rumours abounded that it wouldn't appear due to funding difficulties, but common sense prevailed and the taxpayer got to see what he is getting for the reputed £750 million leasing contract. Many were disappointed that it was missing on Sunday, but the reason it left on the Saturday evening was that a TriStar had broken down at Dover AFB in the USA, needing a new engine. The only available long-haul transport was ZZ171, so it departed to RAF Brize Norton and then to Dover on Sunday - after all, that's what they bought it for!
EP3E Sir? That'll do nicely, thank you. Just like the one forced down in China, the EP variant is a rare visitor to these shores and contrasted nicely with the similarly bulge-endowed Sentrys of the home team. It wasn't possible to rustle up a Chinese Air Force J-8 to park alongside, but you need something to aim for next year (no pun intended). Alpha dispersal was positively dripping with goodies, as an E8 J-STARS sat alongside a Canadian KCC130H, Norwegian P3 and B1B.
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
There was one if you looked hard...German Air Force Tornado 46+44 from JbG32 sported a small dragon on the portside, just in front of the engine intake. Must be some sort of Teutonic humour, one supposes. Fresh from the recent Tiger Meet at Kleine Brogel, the Tornado was undoubted star of the 'Tiger Gathering', its 'torn metal' scheme must be one of the best for many a year. A close second was KC135E 80040 from the New Jersey ANG, who re-paint a new Tiger every year on one of their tankers. More normally seen at Leuchars, the pressure will now be on them to paint another one by September! Most of the rest of the Tiger aircraft were plain unit aircraft, but it was still good to see a Mirage 2000D and sister 'B model from CEAM 330, Istres. Two French Tucanos looked a bit out of place, but they are from a Tiger unit, despite its training role.
And it was warm!
For once the weather was reasonable - a small brief drizzly shower Saturday lunchtime ensured Waddingtons wet weather record remained intact, but for the rest of the weekend warm, muggy conditions prevailed with a south-westerly breeze cooling the vast crowdline. One aspect of Waddingtons organisation that should be applauded is its disabled facilities, a generous compound on the crowdline supported by free-to-use disable chariots provided many less mobile enthusiasts the opportunity to get close to the action and sample the vast trade stand areas which sell everything from saunas to cars. Many were amazed to see that the Hungarian aircrew were selling AK-47M Kalashnikov bayonets, complete with scabbards! Waddington tries to cater for all members of the family, a craft fair and fun-fair are available if you really feel the urge...
Thankfully, after such an awful start to the month the weekend was incident-free, except for a RTA on the taxiway! Aerostars Yak 50 RA01293 was damaged whilst taxying into the back of a Ford Focus, but fortunately no injuries were received, except to the driver's and pilot's pride and reputation. Half a propeller blade was broken off when it came into contact with the rear offside of the Focus, plus damage was received to the cowling. It is going to be a very interesting sketch on the insurance claim form! So one nearly new Focus for sale, needs slight attention...
It's all for charity, mate
It was by far Waddingtons busiest show weekend to date - an estimated 80,000 on the Saturday was exceeded by 20,000 the following day. Such is the demand for high-quality airshows that the success of the show was never really in doubt, although the organisers believe good weather and the cancellation of major events, such as the Lincolnshire Show, contributed to the crowd. Bookings had been at record levels pre-show, which all contributes to over £250,000 raised for charities - £100k for RAFBF, £100k for RAFA and £50k for local charities. Long queues developed each morning, some being stuck for up to three hours - it all seems to be part of the airshow experience this year.
It's an old adage that "You can please some of the people all of the time and all of the people some of the time, but not all of the people all of the time". Well, Waddington very nearly pulled off the latter, a very remarkable feat in these insatiable times - unless you were stuck in those queues of course! Now the work is on to make 2002 yet bigger and better - make sure you're free over the weekend of 29/30 June.
Acknowledgements: Thanks to the Airshow Office, Waddington CRO Jacqui Wheeler and her staff and the RAF Waddington website for their help and assistance.