Time warp at Abingdon
Damien Burke reports from his Tardis on an 'Alternative to Duxford' event
RAF Abingdon isn't quite the place it used to be, now it's under army control and called Dalton Barracks. However aviation hasn't ceased here - the 612 VGS still fly here at the weekends and the occasional helicopter from Benson or Hercules from Lyneham practices using the runways.
But apart from those irregular movements, your only real chance to see some serious flying is at the annual Abingdon Fayre. Organised by Neil Porter who used to work here (he now works at RAF Benson), this is a small scale event run along the lines of a country fayre, with a strong aviation element consisting primarily of a fly-in with a small flying display in the afternoon. It is as a result the only public aviation related event held in Oxfordshire each year.
Arriving early - old habits die hard - it was immediately clear traffic wasn't going to be a problem! Directed around the perimeter track to the old control tower (now disused and boarded up), a scattering of aircraft had already arrived despite a stiff Northerly wind. With the sun playing hide and seek in the clouds it looked like it was going to be a bit hit and miss for photography, but with the crowd placed to the west of the North/South runway, we were in the perfect position for photography during the afternoon - assuming the sun would be out later on!
A wander round the various stalls found a few gems, though the police presence was unusually strong for such a small event. Perhaps Dr. Who had used the police box to go back in time for some of these cars? Families were being kept busy with the assorted attractions including miniature steam railway, traction engines, dog agility displays and so on.
But never mind all that, what turned up? Well... an amazing amount for such a small event on such a windy day. While the BBMF were grounded by crosswinds at Coningsby, no less than 42 aircraft braved the weather to fly into Abingdon (that North/South runway orientation coming in very handy for once). Lots of Austers, Cubs, Chipmunks, Tiger Moths and so on - an impressive showing considering this wasn't the Great Vintage Flying Weekend!
As the static line-up expanded with each visitor taxiing close to the crowdline, photo opportunities were arising at a seriously expensive rate, and just as I was checking on how much film I'd brought with me, one of 28 Squadron's Merlin HC3s became visible in the distance. Arriving in somewhat sedate fashion, they hover-taxied this big beast down to the far end, prompting a fair amount of camera-laden chaps to leg it up the airfield to get photos of her shutting down.
Seconds later one of Air Atlantique's DC-3s roared into the overhead, banking round for a beautiful topside pass before settling into the circuit and landing. Things were really looking up! Soon after that a 33 Squadron Puma arrived. Well, 'arrived' is a bit of a tame word for the manner in which they turned up - full power run at high speed down the runway followed by a pull-up into a hammerhead turn. Very nice, and not something I've seen anybody do with a Puma before! With the Merlin crew appropriately shamed, the Puma settled onto the grass beside her larger cousin.
One of the things I like about smaller events is the less formal feel to them, and the more exuberant flying you often get to see as a result. Sadly the Cranfield-based Piston Provost that turned up shortly afterwards offering a low pass, only managed a fairly high one because the circuit was so busy, before joining the queue to land itself. Nice to have such a big piston taxi past you...
Talking about exuberant flying... ever seen a PA-28 trying to take-off like a Lightning? It was a valiant effort anyway, and quite a surprise to see it held low until the runway end and pulled up into a steep climb! This, it turned out, was Martin West departing to Oxford to refuel before his display later in the day. First up on the display front, though, was Denny Dobson in his Extra 300. If you've not seen Denny's display, you must have been hiding in a bunker for the last ten years, but suffice to say there aren't many people who can throw an aircraft around like Denny Dobson. Finishing off with two very low passes - one under a ribbon held aloft by his brave support crew, and the second to cut the ribbon, it's certainly a display of precision flying that few can beat.
Up next was Air Atlantique's Dak, and for those who missed the chance for a nice topside photo when she arrived, the opportunity was repeated many times throughout a graceful display that really showed off the aircraft to best effect. If only all larger types were displayed like that.
Final display of the day, with the BBMF of course grounded, was Martin West, returning in his PA28 Arrow II - not an aircraft famed for aerobatics! Introduced to display flying by Denny Dobson, Martin has been Denny's camera ship and support crew pilot for several years, and looks to have a bright future ahead of him in this more active role. Beginning with the sort of low pass that is hellishly difficult to take a good photo of (the parked aircraft in front of the crowd line got in the way!), he pulled off a neat (if a little distant) display in a type I've certainly never seen chucked about like that before.
With the action over, engines were bursting into life all over the place, and the 612 VGS control cabin boys did an admirable job of getting the various visiting aircraft off the airfield safely in almost no time at all (no real surprise after their sterling efforts in getting everybody into the airfield in the first place while still managing to carry out their own operations in the morning). And with that, it was time to go home...so I missed the 28 Squadron Merlin departing, when they apparently regained some honour from their comrades on 33 Squadron by carrying out a reversal of the Puma's arrival antics.
Overall, a very civilised day out. A limited display means this is not a day out for the die-hard action fanatic, but if you wanted no end of good photo opportunities, some unusual flying and the sheer tonic of a relaxed atmosphere, Abingdon was the place to be on 5 May. Of course, it didn't rain either... and the sun spent a fair bit of time shining instead of hiding. The frozen masses at Duxford have my sympathies!