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NATO's finest lined up

Mildenhall Air Fate 2002

Guy Harvey reflects on another Air Fete weekend...

It is a crisp, clear morning, the sun rising above the trees over the threshold to runway two-nine. Light bounces from all angles off the array of military hardware set before me - the time is six-thirty in the morning and the gates have just opened, the mile-long queue already formed is now working its way onto the airfield.

Although it is early, the smell of charcoal-fired barbecues fills the air, burgers being on the menu for breakfast, lunch and tea. Time to decide what to do; eat or photograph? "You can eat anytime", thinks I, and so head off to the mile-long line of fighters stretching towards the hangars.

The sixtieth anniversary of the arrival of the USAAF is being celebrated, and 'Sally B' heads up a line of all types of aircraft that have been based in the UK - even an F-111 is present, thanks to the Aussies. All flyable P-51s in the UK have been assembled and will provide the finale to the flying - a massed formation that will out-do anything Flying Legends has seen before. More modern times are reflected with the biggest Fighter Meet for many-a-year, with at least one representative from each of the nineteen NATO nations present. Such has been the interest in attending that invitations were passed to the members of the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council, with the result that many of these smaller nations are making their first airshow appearances in the UK. Names such as Armenia, Moldova and the Kyrghyz Republic (a real country, believe me) are represented, mostly by small transport aircraft such as the Let 410, but some gems grace the flightlines, such as the Drakens from Austria, Su-33s from Russia and the lone Tu-160 of the Ukraine. Such had been the fuss when this great white bird entered British airspace that two Tornado F3s were scrambled from Leuchars, due to some cock-up in Whitehall. It wasn't until the Blackjack had plugged in the burners and detoured via Cornwall that it eventually lost the fighters, as they had to divert to St Mawgan to refuel. Just to show no hard feelings, the two F3s are flanking the Blackjack in the static line, pointing somewhat aggressively at its nose.

The Russian Knights were just one of a dozen display teams

By now my camera is on overdrive as I blitz the static lines before the rest of Joe Public wanders in and out of the shots. I thank the 1Gb microdrive as it stores picture after picture - I'm sure to need its 1,000 shot capacity today. Somehow I keep ahead of the crowd, the aircraft angled just right for the light. The F-22 Raptor looks particularly good, sitting alongside the MiG I-42, and seems somehow more advanced; it must have something to do with the pop rivets holding the MiG together. Chuck Yeager sits in the cockpit, still not looking a day over 78, wondering what a FW190 would look like in the sights.

Beyond the Berkut is a line-up of Flankers, the Russians at last sending full military squadron aircraft, two for the static and one for the flying. Almost as good as that Israeli F-15I at Waddington last year, thinks I. MiG has brought its thrust-vectoring MRCA, and I can't wait for this particular nugget to get airborne. Mid-way through an eight-hour flying programme, it will be interesting to see how he copes with the Typhoon that will be providing a little target practice within his routine. Rumour has it that the rehearsal was a one-sided affair, but as it was held over the ACMI range in the North Sea no-one will say what happened…

The Blue Angels outflew everyone as usual

Lines of F-16s, F-15s, and Tornados are fodder to my D30, together with Phantoms from Germany, Greece and Turkey, Singapore A-4s, Viggens from Sweden and Rafale from the Aeronavale. I find it hard to think of something that isn't here, but eventually settle on a Tutor from the RAF; perhaps the civilian contractors wouldn't do the overtime.

Time is moving on, it's now five to ten and the flying is about to start; time to find a spot by the fence. A quick bag of donuts eases the hunger pangs and a gap is found towards the eastern end of the display line, just in time for the first act. Some puffy white clouds have appeared, but help ease the rays of the sun from incinerating the crowd.

First on are the Blue Angels, back in the UK for the first time since '92. An immaculate routine follows, impossibly tighter than can be believed possible. Match that, anyone! More teams are scheduled for the day, including the two Russian teams, the Swifts and the Knights with their respective Fulcrums and Flankers; the Thunderbirds are also here, who have been given congressional dispensation to fly within a quarter mile of the crowd; the Turkish Stars, whose commentator was offered a dose of Valium the night before and the usual array of European teams, except the Patrouille de France who someone forgot to invite.

A lone voice crackled over the intercom: "Shhhiiiiiiiiiiiiitttttttttttt"

American air power is demonstrated by a two-ship B-1B routine - apparently they were inspired one day by the Spitfire display of the BBMF where the two machines perform cross-overs. One has to say that the sight of these two enormously powerful beasts heading towards each other at a closing speed of 1,000 knots is rather impressive; pity it only happens once, as the scream over the scanner suggests it was a bit close.

A loop was out of the question, though

Even more impressive is the four-ship display performed by a quartet of B-52s on temporary deployment to Fairford, the formation taking most of East Anglia to turn around. But, after the B-2A had surprised us with a 360-degree turn before heading skyward, the real star is the NASA SR-71A spearing across the airfield at one hundred feet and six hundred knots. Performing a fuel dump at this height is one thing - at least the breeze takes the flaming torch to the far side of the airfield. Not sure that the press contingent is really appreciating this as they run like mad, a brief grass fire ensuing but it is swiftly dealt with by the emergency crews, a few singed eyebrows being the worst of the injuries (excepting a few crushed Nikons).

As the day slips away, dazzling fighter routines are ten-a-penny, but surprisingly only one F-16 solo takes to the skies. A Mirage IVP performs a JATO-assisted take-off - later we find it shouldn't have happened, and the Americans will be sending the runway resurfacing bill to the French Air Force.

It could have been any one of number of recent conflicts

With hardly a break in the action, more fighters play out an Afganistan patrol demonstration with tankers and AWACS circling overhead, the sky suddenly full of aircraft. Time now to move to the other end of the airfield, to catch the late afternoon sun as it turns behind, just over the threshold of one-one.

Roger Hoefling's dulcet tones crackle over the tannoy. "And now…from the right…"; a fast quintet suddenly screams overhead, the familiar sound of Rolls-Royce Avons in reheat signifies the arrival of Mike Beachyhead's Lightning trio and Buccaneer duo. Non-stop from South Africa - well, with maybe one or two fuel stops along the way (the last being Stansted), the glorious aircraft break for landing, and another fuel top-up before the first Lightning display for fourteen years. XP693 does the honours, fully regaled in 'Firebirds' display markings, before a Buccaneer taxis for its slot. There are not many dry eyes at this point; time has stood still for thirty years or so. Only one thing can top this; its name is Vulcan. But, as hope as you might, it just ain't gonna happen…yet.

Thunderbirds are g...no, that's too corny
Thunderbirds are g...no, that's too corny

Towards the end of the show are the T-Birds, their regimented ground display going slightly awry when the wrong music is played, some wag thinks the theme tune to the 'Benny Hill Show' may be more entertaining. I think he is right. Nevertheless, five F-16s is always an impressive sight, even more so when they inadvertently fly within a hundred feet of the crowd. Lastly, that warbird balbo brings a tear to many an eye, as a 'missing man' formation brings up the rear.

As evening falls, I make my weary way back to the car, finishing off those statics that I missed in the morning; the Spirit, F-117, Air Force One (with celebrity Harrison Ford busy signing autographs) and a myriad of Illyushins. Surprisingly, the exit gate is clear, and I'm out in five minutes…surely this is too good to be true. Such has been the noise of the day that my ears are still ringing, I can't seem to shake it off….it's six-thirty again, but the rain rattles against the windows. Reality dawns. It is 25 May, but the show is still cancelled. I bash the alarm clock. Osama has won this particular battle, but I hope Air Fete 2003 is half as good as this year! Most of all though, I hope it happens...


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