Reflections on the SBAC 2004 Farnborough International Airshow by Gary Parsons and Garry Lakin
Yes, we did go to Farnborough this year, but haven't published a report until now as we couldn't quite figure out what to say. If we could think of news, it would be pretty old news by now, so you won't find even old news here - not that we could find much of interest anyway... Sure, it was a good airshow from the public's point of view, but that isn't the main reason for its being, nor the Farnborough we used to know and love. It seems as the scenery changes at this famous field in Hampshire, so does the show's style and content. The first you would have noticed this year were the intense security checks as you entered the site, armed police at the entrances, all bags checked and airport-style scanning arches.
To us, Farnborough should be about the latest, the best, the fastest and the biggest. Years back, all the latest aircraft would be on show, with British industry at the forefront of the static and flying displays. Sadly today's Farnborough International is a schizophrenic shadow of its former glories, with high-tech widgets competing for attention with a flying programme consisting of mainly thirty-year old airframes. It seems the days are gone when manufacturers are keen to show off their latest designs - now they run scared, not daring to bring any prototypes for fear of any problems scarring their already paper-thin reputations. Even Eurofighter decided not to send a Typhoon for a 'proper' demonstration by one of its test pilots - the RAF saved the day, and Eurofighter GmbH getting egg on its face, with a restricted demonstration by one of its early in-service airframes.
So where was F-35? F-22? Rafale? Any kind of Russian fighter? It was left to the Super Hornet and Gripen to fly the flag for fourth-generation fighters, competing once more with the evergreen F-16C for foreign sales. Lockheed's finest still stole the show with a polished display from its test pilot, a remarkable achievement for a design that first saw the light of day some thirty years ago, when Lightnings ruled the roost on the RAF frontline.
As we suggested in our last report two years ago, Farnborough needs to decide on its future direction. The airshow offered bore little relation to the trade needs, and it was evident that the 'show' would have prospered equally well without any flying displays whatsoever. Now that the airshow has to fully comply with CAA regulations after being bought from the MoD by TAG Aviation, and takes place over a business-jet terminal and hardstand, not to mention a growing conurbation of Aldershot, the restrictions placed on acts is such that it has become almost impossible to provide any spectacle. Such sanitisation of airshows will inevitably lead to them becoming 'boring', and so fade in popularity with the average enthusiast. A common display line meant that small aircraft such as the Slingsby Firefly competed for attention as far away as the Boeing 747 was allowed - no prizes for guessing which one seemed the most impressive. 'Longer, further, farther' may have been emblazoned on the side of the A340, but it was equally true of the flying restrictions.
The flying displays at this year's four business days were quite sparse - most days the display lasted for barely two hours. There were the usual VIPs in attendance - on Monday there were even two Tony Blairs! One was the Prime Minister, the other a man in a plastic mask carrying two inflatable missiles over his shoulders, although unfortunately he didn't stay to witness the air display due to his arrest. Contrasting with the lacklustre trade days was Friday, now called 'Enthusiasts Day', which saw a vast change in the weather and the flying display content - gone was the businessman's show and, lasting for a whopping four hours, the display opened with the Red Arrows in a glorious blue sky. The schedule contained most of the aircraft from the previous days displays, plus a celebration of Rolls-Royce's centenary - every extra item in the flying programme featured an engine from this most famous of aero-engine manufacturers.
Trade day regulars
American military might was shown off everyday in the shape of a Lockheed-Martin F-16C from USAFE and a Boeing F/A-18F Super Hornet from the USS Abraham Lincoln, both showing off their great agility to the audience of businessmen. There were also flypasts everyday by the B-1B Lancer, B-52H Superfortress and the F-117A Nighthawk. Tuesday saw a bit of a glitch in the display by the B-52H - as the commentator was talking about the upgrade to the B-52's avionics package the aircraft could be seen doing his flypast over Blackbushe in the distance! "Well, maybe tomorrow" was his comment...
A quite amazing display was flown everyday by the Airbus A340-600 - the rules of gravity say that an aircraft of this size should not be able to fly the way it does! Another quite remarkable take-off was performed by the very sleek looking Bombardier Global Express, operated by Qatar Airways. Not flying on the Monday but every other day were a pair of Antonov aircraft, the AN72TK-200 and the AN140-100 feeder liner, the AN72 as always showed off its remarkable short-field take-off and landing. Another impressive smaller airliner on show was the Embraer 190 twin jet passenger aircraft.
Small trainer aircraft were in evidence this year with the Slingsby Firefly and Raytheon T-6A taking centre stage during the display, the latter in a rather fetching US Air Force colour scheme. The Italian Air Force displayed three aircraft for the Italian aerospace companies - the Aermacchi MB339C, Alenia C27J Spartan and the Tornado IDS mid-life upgrade. The only helicopter in the flying display this year was the Boeing WAH64 Apache AH1 Longbow, although there were plenty of helicopters on display in the Westlands-Augusta park.
Friday's show was a precursor to the weekend, with a Chinook HC2 of 18 Squadron from nearby RAF Odiham joining the week's display aircraft as did a Battle of Britain Spitfire, four Sea Harriers (two FRS2s and two T8s), a RAF Hercules C-130J, two RN Lynx (The Black Cats), Kennet Aviation's Jet Provost Mk1, Gnat T1 and Hunter, a Spitfire and Mustang from the Fighter Collection at Duxford and last, but not least, a Boeing 747-400 of South African Airways that performed its remarkable climbing spiral last seen at Duxford's 2003 airshow. However, sod's law dictated this was the only day that Ricardo Traven and the F/A-18F had the day off, except for a customer flight in the early evening.
One must question the relevance of the flying display - it doesn't complement the wares on show in the trade halls, so is it really necessary? No doubt it attracts enthusiasts to the event, but they're unlikely to order a bunch of A380s while ambling around the Airbus stand. Many trade visitors are of the opinion that the airshow hinders meaningful negotiations for three hours in the afternoon, when the roar of afterburners mean discussions are rather pointless. It also means they have to wait until the evening before popping off home in the Lear Jet, thanks to some scruffy American supersonic thingy that no-one can afford wanting to show off. Helitech has discarded its flying displays in the last few years, and seems none the worse for it - maybe SBAC will consider a shorter, more intense show is the way forward. Whatever, it will always be in the shadow of ILA at Berlin with its present slot in the calendar, just two months after the German event. We said it last year and are more convinced than ever that the three top shows - Paris, Berlin and Farnborough - need to rotate on a three-yearly basis, and make them shows worthy of their former reputations.