Sun, Sea and Smoke
Southport Sea Front Air Spectacular, 31 August/1 September
Fortuitous end of summer weather and an action packed four-hour flying display helped swell visitor numbers at this year's Southport Air Show to record proportions. As the temperatures climbed towards the eighties Chris Chambers from Warplane liberally applied the sun cream and headed down to the beach.
As with a number of sea front displays around the UK, the Southport display utilises a vast area of beach and long sea front which, when combined with the lowest tide of the summer, offers the civilian event organisers a huge expanse of open land to play with. A large area of the seafront had been fenced off and a series of admission gates catered for pedestrians who had taken advantage of the huge local free street parking to walk the last few hundred yards into the display area. An obvious lack of static display aside, the venue is ideally suited to an air display with a long crowd line along the length of the beach and then a second line of spectators some two hundred yards back on the raised sea wall. Separating the two is a line of stalls and food outlets which would not have been out of place at displays the size of Fairford or Mildenhall.
In previous years the show has coincided with the BAE Systems' families days at either nearby Warton or Samlesbury, benefiting from appearances of a number of BAE types operating from Warton, including the public display-shy Typhoon. This year however, there was no families day to tie up with, but still the show managed to attract a number of star performers.
With no airport of its own, most flying display participants operated out of the nearby Blackpool airport, whilst the rotary element flew in each morning to operate off the beach from directly in front of the crowd. Not billed on the flying display programme, but making its public debut was a short display by the Merseyside Police Force's latest helicopter. After only three days in service, the black and yellow chopper performed a number of flypasts and wing-overs in a demonstration which would have any criminal realising there'd be no escape.
Military participants included a 1 FTS Tucano T1 and 16(R) Squadron Jaguar, 208(R) Squadron Hawk and, making the short journey from nearby RAF Valley, a 22 Squadron SAR Sea King. Still only in its first display season was a 28 Squadron Merlin, the large helicopter managing to fill the vast crowdline with a display which certainly belied the 22-metre rotor span in a routine more akin to types such as the Gazelle or Lynx. The BBMF added the historic touch with formation and solo routines from the Lancaster, Spitfire and Hurricane and the Falcons parachute display team managed what must have been one of the highest jumps of the season, zero wind and gin-clear skies affording them their maximum jump height of 12,000 ft from a C-130J.
the Royal Navy was a pairs routine by two Lynxes, the duo performing the
not too commonly seen display of opposition breaks and high wingovers
which left the crowd gasping as the rotors came within feet of each other.
Civilian operated aircraft included another welcome appearance by the Sea Vixen, pilot Dan Griffith managing four displays out of four in two weeks. It appears the aircraft operators De Havilland Aviation have finally overcome the majority of problems which plagued the red and yellow beast throughout last year's display season. Wall-to-wall blue skies also allowed contrast against the silver T-33 of the 'Golden Apple' trust, so used are we to seeing the T-33 blending into grey skies. Hunter G-PSST, otherwise known as Miss Demeanour, performed varying displays each day as pilot and owner Jonathon Whaley made slight adjustments to Sunday's routine to cater for the additional space. Such is the popularity of the colourful Hunter that as it flew over the area in a holding pattern it was instantly recognised by the crowd, the majority of whom were not usual air show attendees.
With regular star attraction the Red Arrows still stunning themselves in Canada, formation aerobatics were provided by the Microlease pair Extra 300s, the multi-coloured Yaks of the Aerostars and, most popular, the Khalifa Team with another slick routine from the relatively new-comers led by the very experienced Jacques Bothelin, formerly team leader of Khalifa's predecessors, 'Team Apache'.
The finale of the flying display revolved around a beach battle scenario with helicopter support provided by a pair of Royal Navy Lynxes, whilst a Sea King Commando carried in an under-slung field gun and later further reinforcements, before finally a quartet of Harrier GR7s swept in low for a series of formation flypasts and strafing runs complete with sand blasting pyrotechnics.
With no struggling for crowd space, no step ladders and surprisingly no wind breaks the event was a joy to attend and it was easily apparent why sea front displays are so popular. No doubt blue skies helped, but what makes Southport really special is the admission charge - a concessionary £2!