Gary Parsons reports from Waddington's International Airshow 2004, held over the weekend of 26/27 June
Waddington's 2004 airshow was all about Typhoon - it's been ten years in the waiting, ten years since it first flew and this, the tenth airshow by the organising team. Previous requests were always met with disappointment, Eurofighter GmbH deciding to send its prototypes to trade fairs and foreign shows where sales may be possible in the future.
So, almost exactly one year to the day since the RAF accepted Typhoon into service, it made its first public display in the county where it will become fully operational within the next few years, and very welcome it was too. A throwback to the good old days when brute strength and power were primary, the displaying jet set car alarms off by the dozen in the best tradition of awesome airshow acts - we've got plenty to look forward to in the future!
It was the first time that an RAF Typhoon had operated and displayed at the same venue - Cosford's display had to come from Shawbury due to runway limitations. With another example on static, the two jets represented the RAF's biggest presentation of the aircraft to date, proving that the rumours of being unable to operate effectively away from Warton were unfounded. 29(R) Squadron's Commanding Officer, Wing Commander Jon Hitchcock, explained: "We're operating with the assistance of BAE Systems here this weekend. We don't need any specialist ground support equipment, just a datalink to Warton to interrogate the software - this is achieved by a LAN connection." Jon flew the demonstration on Sunday, but stressed it was not a display as such: "It's not the aircraft that is limiting us, but the experience of the pilots. We haven't had time to devise a proper display routine, so this is very much a demonstration of the aircraft's abilities through flying advanced circuits."
29(R) Squadron currently has just two pilots fully qualified, Jon and Squadron Leader Will Hockenhull (who flew the demonstration on Saturday), but will shortly be joined by two more to form the core three Flight Commanders. It is intended to train up to ten aircrew before the move to Coningsby takes place in mid-2005, by when enough instructors and aircraft will be available to commence formal courses - ultimately 29(R) Squadron will comprise twenty instructors. In the meantime 17(R) Squadron will move to Coningsby to join the Fast Jet OEU and release extra space at Warton for pilot training.
Currently 29(R) Squadron is operating as part of the 'Case White' evaluation programme, with over 1,000 hours flown to date. This won't prevent further airshow appearances, as Jon will be displaying at Leuchars and possibly RIAT and Farnborough as well. Serviceability has been excellent and the pilots are thoroughly enjoying their new mount, but at the same time frustrated they can't show its full potential as yet - their time will come.
Although 29(R) Squadron personnel flew the displays at Waddington, the two jets were from 17(R) Squadron as the two current 29-painted aircraft were due to leave for Singapore on a sales trip, flown by the more experienced 17(R) Squadron pilots.
Singapore is evaluating potential replacements for the RSAF's Super Skyhawk fighters, the Typhoon competing against France's Dassault Rafale and Boeing's F-15 Strike Eagle. Two Typhoons left Warton on Sunday 27 June for a five-day journey to Singapore, where they will undergo a two-week evaluation. "The deployment should take approximately five days, and we have a rather a leisurely route down through the Mediterranean, the Middle East and Asia, en route to Singapore," said David Chan, Wing Commander, British Royal Air Force. "We've only been operating this aircraft for about six months so we wouldn't normally be undertaking a deployment of this complexity, this early. It's a fantastic opportunity for us to look at and learn about the aircraft's supportability and employability, certainly in hot conditions, and in humid conditions a long way from base."
"We think the Typhoon has an excellent export potential worldwide," said BAE Systems' Ian Malin. "It's been selected by Greece and we have an order from Austria and for Singapore of course, we have been selected into the final phase of the competition from six down to three."
…was a phrase the Airshow Office came to dread in the weeks preceding the airshow. One by one many previously confirmed acts cancelled, including many of the more desirable items. Even the base's traditional opening flypast had to be scrapped, due to the unavailanility of both the Sentry and Nimrod R1. Each year it becomes more difficult, and it is apparent that many air forces are implementing a 'one country, one airshow' policy regarding participation - naturally in the UK this means RIAT at the expense of all others. Consequently while Fairford will host up to fifty US aircraft, Waddington enjoyed exactly….none. Efforts were made to attract last-minute items from the off-shore USS Enterprise, but despite the Rear Admiral being keen, the Pentagon said "no" - so much for the 'special relationship'.
It was clear that even the draw of the Red Arrows official 'birthday party', foreign teams were thin on the ground. Both Patrulla Aguila and Frecce Tricolori pleasingly made it for the weekend, but notable by their absence were both the Patrouille de France and Patrouille Swiss, each of which has just celebrated forty years, too. It was a marked contrast to the 25th anniversary event held at Scampton in 1989, just showing how the military 'peace dividend' is impacting on Europe's air forces.
To mark the Reds' birthday, a special flypast was organised with Chris Hudson's Gnat T1 tucked in behind the vee, flown by ETPS test pilot Willy Hackett. It was the first time in a very long while that a Red Arrows-painted Gnat had flown with the team, as although a similar formation was flown at Kemble, this had been with Delta Jets' 4 FTS marked example. Rumours of the Reds' demise in the forthcoming Defence Review are simply that at present, and it would be a Public Relations disaster of epic proportions if the axe did finally fall. They are the face of the RAF for ninety percent of the tax-paying population, as well as being the best sales vehicle for the Hawk overseas, which still has excellent sales potential. BAE Systems was a major sponsor of the show, and had hoped to have an up-to-date Hawk on display in transit to the South African Air Force, but in the end had to make do with a plastic example of its Advanced Jet Trainer.
…Was one question being asked by many enthusiasts. A mini-JP meet, no less than nine Provosts and Strikemasters were on show, fifty years to the day that the prototype XD674 made its maiden flight from Luton. This under-rated performer is a popular choice on the civilian register, with many ex-RAF aircraft retaining their military markings and looking for all the world part of the current inventory. Some, though, have more 'interesting' paint schemes…
Despite not being a vintage Waddington line-up, the crowds still arrived in force, especially on the Sunday, which again had the best of the weather. It seems the Midlanders' appetite for airshows is undimmed, with 125,000 turning up over the weekend, but Waddington deserves much better co-operation from both its own air force and that of its NATO partners. No doubt a healthy profit will be made for the RAFBF, but with ever-shrinking static lines despite extensive behind-the-scenes efforts, it deserves more. Next year's show will be 2/3 July.