Mixed seasons in Essex
Southend-on-Sea's seafront airshow, 25 & 26 May
Damien Burke reports from the seafront on Sunday. Photography by the author unless stated otherwise.
Scheduled as usual on the bank holiday weekend in late May, the Southend airshow pulled no surprises this year, offering much the same line-up as it has always done - a selection of UK military offerings plus a smattering of civilian types ranging from warbirds to modern aerobatic types.
The weather was kinder than on previous years, though Sunday's crowds were variously lashed with cold wind, rain, bigger rain, even bigger and wetter rain, and some glorious sunshine. Sadly whenever the more interesting acts were on, ruddy great clouds hid the sun from view... and when the sun was out, it was right in your face making photography a tricky proposition regardless of the weather at any given moment.
Sunday's show was opened by the Red Arrows, limited to a flat show by a gloomy sky. The advertised RNLI demo didn't seem to occur, but a Pitts Special did drone across for two straight-line passes, barely noticed by anybody. The rest of the flying wasn't to be for another hour or so, with the first act - an air ambulance - also failing to appear. The RAF Falcons Hercules finally broke the boredom, drifting in and out of grey clouds and going round time and time again until it looked like they'd given up. But no, a patch of lighter grey was sighted and the lads went for it, sadly just as the heavens opened and the crowd disappeared beneath a sea of umbrellas. As a result I didn't see the parachutes beyond the first few seconds of the jump but I think I can safely say they did touch down a few minutes later!
The Herc came back for its traditional low and fast(ish) pass, but the rain kept the camera firmly under cover. Also unrecorded lest the camera get soaked was the Tutor display, lost somewhat in the vast expanse of Southend's extensive seafront. Star of the day for me - I thought - was the first public appearance of the Sea Vixen in her new 'Red Bull' colours. Unfortunately the sky was still doom-laden so the new colours were wreathed in shadows for much of the un-expectedly sedate display routine. Gone are the topside passes and high-G manoeuvres of last year - hopefully a temporary situation while they get back into the swing of things?
The RAF Tucano put on a fantastic little show of how it should be done next, which would have made an interesting contrast with the Spitfire that should have appeared next. Only it didn't... and the commentary was whipped away by the wind so nobody knew why. In its place we had that rather spiffy T-33, which was meant to be on later in the day. Much more energetic than the Sea Vixen, and blessed with sunshine too. The programme got back on track with the RAF solo Hawk display, somewhat different to last year's routine with one notable bit being a slow-motion loop - I was wondering if he was going for a stall turn at one point! An RAF Sea King put on a SAR demo to about fifty people at crowd centre while the rest of us wondered where he'd got to (ah well at least he gave us a good fly-by to start and finish his routine with).
The Air Atlantique Canberra was meant to be up next, but failed to turn up (yet managed to display at Duxford the same day, where there wasn't even an airshow on!). However some compensation was provided in the form of our first warbird - P-51 'Big Beautiful Doll', whistling through the skies with some gusto. A much less pleasant noise followed, with an Su-26 display that appeared to rely mostly on that big engine to carry out repeated helicopter emulations, and such a limited use of the sky that the display was firmly out of sight for the vast majority of the crowd. As a result most people on the beach had pretty much lost interest in the flying by the time the Su-26 finished, and the gap between this display and the next act further deepened the crowd's lethargy.
So kudos to the RAF Jaguar pilot for arriving at high speed with no warning whatsoever from crowd left, when everybody else had been arriving from crowd right. Watching thousands of people jump out of their skin and burst into laughter was something else! The buzz that went along the beach was really amazing - what a way to wake everybody up. Of course it helped that everybody was expecting the rather quieter Aerostars team. The usual copious use of reheat in the Jag display kept everybody's attention and the vapour from a couple of the high G pull-ups into a zoom climb was also impressive. Probably the best display of the day for me.
act should have been the T-33, but as it had already displayed, we skipped
onward to the Aerostars and their motley collection of Yak-50s and -52s,
in various colour schemes. Clearly aiming to be the Red Arrows, only with
prop jobs, it was a varied and polished routine and they succeeded admirably.
The Utterly Butterly Stearmans were on next, though advertised as 'Girls on the Wing' for some reason - sponsorship deal on its last legs perhaps? Anyway more schedule swapping followed, with the RN Lynx pair displaying next followed by the RAF Nimrod. The Lynx pair display was another display aimed at crowd centre and neglected most of the crowd as a result - but their varied flirting and circling was still fun to watch from a distance. But please, please, stop raining... and wahey, it did, so the RAF Nimrod got to roar around in majestic fashion against a impressively dark and threatening sky - awesome stuff. The BBMF followed, skirting more nasty grey muck and ending with a round of applause from the crowd.
With only two more acts due - the Extra 300 pair 'Extreme Team' and the Tornado F3 - it was time to pack up to try and beat any car park mayhem. But what's this... an F-86! Apparently sent along as a Canberra stand-in (which I guess made the P-51 a Spitfire stand-in), the black smoke trail from this dirty little beast stood out well against the grey skies and the silver airframe sparkled occasionallywhen the sun managed to peek out through gaps in the cloud. Always nice to see a jet leaving its mark on the sky! Finishing off the day were the two Extra 300s, beginning with some nice formation work before moving on to each do pretty much their own thing, and then the RAF Tornado F3, not quite as impressive as last year's display and having to work hard to keep up with the Jaguar, oddly enough! Still, that final pass was a scorcher - unlike the day itself.
Apparently it was sunny all day on Monday. Typical! Bah, the chips with burger sauce were nice anyway. And so was the ice cream. And you can't beat this show for value for money - just a parking charge, less than three quid. Keep it up Southend!
Next year I'll try and make it to the airport for the Vulcan taxi run... if only they'd schedule one for earlier in the day so you could have a chance to watch that and then attend the display on the seafront on the same day.