Small is beautiful...
Two things you certainly wouldn't use to describe our correspondent, Damien Burke, who literally flew into Abingdon's Fayre 2003 on 4 May
As with last year, the airshow season was being kicked off in early May by several events scheduled for the same date. But after the success of last year's Abingdon Fayre my decision was already pretty much made on which to go to, with Abingdon being the hot favourite. Throw in an offer to fly in to the show courtesy of pal Malcolm Martin and that was that.
With a distance of 48 miles from home base - the former RAF Little Staughton, which once resounded to the roar of Mosquitos and the like - to the former RAF Abingdon in a nice straight line with nothing nasty to avoid and a cruising speed of 60 knots or so, we should have been there in well under an hour. However, throw in a stiff Southerly wind and it ended up as an hour and a half of flying through gorgeous clear skies with amazing visibility. No need for the GPS with weather like this. The urge to take photos is counter balanced by Malcolm's offer of the joystick, and I'm afraid the joystick won - bar the odd snap of an airfield or two en-route.
over the terrain of Northamptonshire, Bedfordshire and Buckinghamshire
is made easy by the veritable cornucopia of wartime airfields, most now
disused. First up is the massive expanse of the former RAE Bedford
Soon after comes the rather more lively Cranfield, which we give a wide berth to before passing over Milton Keynes. Visible already are the taller chimneys of Didcot power station, just down the road from our destination Abingdon - the map being reduced to a means to identify all the airfields we are seeing as a result! We're already somewhat off our ideal track by now, the wind and our wide berth of Cranfield routing us over the Northern edge of Milton Keynes. Buckingham makes a good landmark to aim for, and the disused airfield at Finmere soon disappears under our nose.
Now well into Buckinghamshire we can also see Turweston in the distance on our right, the golf ball radomes at Croughton further West of that and soon come to Bicester, a busy gliding field. With the town surrounded by open countryside there is ample room for housing to expand - yet the airfield is lined up to be closed and covered with houses, destroying a valuable local amenity and historic airfield in the process. We detour South around Bicester to avoid any glider launches though all looks quiet. Soon RAF Weston-on-the-Green sneaks by under the starboard wing, nearly unnoticed - no parachute drops going on today. Upper Heyford, now sadly bereft of F-111s or indeed any aviation activity at all, also shows up in the distance. The massive runway is not covered by quite as many cars as it has seen in recent times but still enough to make any landing attempt an exciting affair!
Oxford (Kidlington) proves a tricky proposition to find, being mainly grass and just as I spot it Malcolm spots Abingdon further off to the South. His eyes are better than mine, because I can't see it yet. Routing clear of Oxford itself we're soon lined up on final approach with the huge ex-RAF station filling the windscreen. The only other aircraft we've seen on the entire trip is an Auster coming in shortly behind us - yet the skies around Abingdon were busy. Suddenly I understand those Battle of Britain dogfight accounts where one minute the sky is full of aircraft and the next minute not a single one can be found - it's a big sky!
Soon we are parked on the visiting aircraft line and exit the aircraft for a wander down to the control caravan. One dayglo jacket later and I'm firmly back into ground-bound reporter mode, joining the marshallers and other photographers among the arriving aircraft. It's only after a few minutes of walking in the sunshine that I realise this is the single most stress-free arrival at any airshow I've ever experienced and my vague plans to acquire a private pilot's licence suddenly assume wallet-threatening firmness.
As with last year, Neil Porter - the event organiser - had lined up a varied show with ground attractions including vintage vehicles, dog agility demonstrations and piles of stalls selling, well, piles of stuff. The aviation element consisted of not just the visiting aircraft but also a short but high quality flying display. As with last year some of the arriving aircraft arrived in style, applause being aimed in particular at the Delta Jets pilot who brought in Jet Provost XW422 - the very first jet to land at Abingdon since the RAF departed and the station closed to be turned over to the Army. This historic event was marked with a low go-around and passable Lightning zoom-climb imitation.
First arrival however had been Denny Dobson in his Extra 300, followed shortly afterwards by Martin West in Denny's support ship, a PA.28 (the limbo poles don't quite fit in the Extra for some reason). Denny had beaten us by 41 minutes despite taking off from Little Staughton after us - no prizes for guessing that a Grob 109 doesn't quite have the performance of an Extra 300 then! Big Splash Aviation's Yak-52 had also just beaten us to the airfield. Back to here and now, and with Martin Willing's T-28 and Pembroke arriving overhead and breaking into the circuit, things were shaping up nicely. Other photogenic arrivals included an ex-Hong Kong Auxiliary Air Force T-67 Firefly, piles of Chipmunks and Austers (including a rare appearance from Husky XW635), a Miles Messenger, Peter Teichman's utterly gorgeous Beech Staggerwing and a solitary Tiger Moth. A respectable vintage line-up for such a small-scale event. A small gathering of microlights from the Isle of Wight had also made the long trip from the South coast for the day.
Once again an RAF Merlin had been attracted from nearby RAF Benson, and another notable rotary wing visitor was Terry Martin's ex-Royal New Zealand Navy Wasp, which also acted as camera ship for some aerial photos. Having had all my fillings shaken loose and snapped a few views of the airfield, I bid a happy farewell to Terry and companion because it was time to race back to the crowdline and watch the first display item - Martin Willing's Pembroke. It had previously disappeared off to display at Duxford but soon came back to display at Abingdon as well. This ex-VIP transport certainly put on a sprightly display of piston power.
Next up was Peter Hellier's Hunter F6 XF516, flown by Brian Grant (who is also the Sea Vixen display pilot these days). All eyes to the left then, except for me, used to the sneaky antics of most Hunter pilots - and sure enough in he came from the right! Not quite a blue note, but he pulled up into one of the best Hunter displays I've seen in a long while. Lots of topside passes for the photographers among us, and possibly the most graceful and elegant demonstration of jet flying to date. There was, however, a dissenting voice from a Jack Russell that was clearly unimpressed, particularly when a further fast pass produced the much-anticipated blue note. Lots of barking, and several attempts to leap into the air and bite the Hunter whenever the canine critic thought it was close enough!
piston power was next, with Martin's T-28 Fennec
hurtling round the sky clearly unaware of its own bulk. You don't realise
quite how big they are until you're stood next to one and realise the
flaps alone would
More quality aerobatics were to follow, with Pete Metcalfe taking to the air in Pitts Special G-BIRD (coincidentally one of Denny's previous mounts). Pete mostly displays in Northern England so this was a rare appearance South of Watford. A gentlemanly and polished display ensued, and if I hadn't met Pete (69) beforehand I'd never have believed it was the same chap putting on such a display - plenty of G and bags of fun. Unfortunately it was to be followed by disappointment, with the news that the BBMF were unable to take off from Coningsby due to strong cross-winds. Understandable, but doubly unfortunate as they had also cancelled at Abingdon the previous year for the same reason. Thankfully Martin "BoB" West stepped into the breach and once again (as in 2002) displayed his PA.28 to fill the gap in the display line-up. Hardly designed for the job, Martin manages to bring out the best in his aircraft and it's a smooth display including a slow 'dirty' pass thrown in to confuse the ATC guys as to whether he's finished or not.
And that was that! Time to get back to my ride home, strap in, and depart. Once again the visibility was superb, with a water tower near Little Staughton being visible shortly after take-off, despite being forty-odd miles away. Bit of a bumpier ride on the way back, the sun-soaked ground giving up lots of heat in thermals that would have kept the average glider pilot happy for hours. The Grob, being a motor glider, was going up like a lift at times and we spotted a few gliders circling ever upwards on the way back. All too soon though Thurleigh hove into view and after a bit of sight-seeing by Grafham Water it was time to land... and go to the pub. This is, most definitely, the way to go to an airshow.
Of course if the show had been rubbish, maybe I wouldn't have been so happy at the end of the day but happily Neil had once again pulled off a great show - and all for the grand sum of £4 per adult and all proceeds to charity - compare with the ever-increasing prices at larger shows and all the traffic hassle and crowdline fighting they get you involved in! Small is beautiful... here's hoping next year's Abingdon Fayre is as much fun, and that the wind calms down a bit - not only did it mean the BBMF cancelling, it also resulted in some of the aircraft parking arrangements being less than ideal for photographers unless they fancied a long walk to get round to the side of the display acts line-up. I've never been a fan of commentary personally but the PA system at the event was so limited in range that most people simply couldn't hear it so were left in some confusion as to why the BBMF did not show up - I'm assured improvements will be made in this regard next year.
With many thanks to Malcolm, Neil, Terry, Denny, Sandra and last but definitely not least, my other-half-to-be - Catherine. She had to drive there and back, so volunteers to give her an airborne lift next time, please form an orderly queue!