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Airport inmates

The great escape

Gary Parsons reports from a windswept Channel Island

For a while on Wednesday 14 September it seemed that the following day's airshow was doomed, with low cloud scudding across the island's airport, cancelling flights and delaying others. Incessant rain throughout the evening, combined with a forecast less than positive, left many in the organising team fearing the worst. Many airshow participants had to divert to French aerodromes, while others simply couldn't risk taking off from their mainland bases.

Thursday morning broke grey and misty, with a drizzle setting in that matched the mood of the team and aircrew. The Flying Control Committee, headed by Les Garside-Beattie, prepared version after version of the flying programme as the weather forecast constantly fluctuated. Critical to the day was the cloudbase at Jersey Airport, which varied between 200 and 400 feet throughout the morning - would it lift sufficiently to enable visual departures to be made? Ideally 1,000 ft was required, but dispensations could be made for specific aircraft. With the majority of the display items on the deck, it was critical that the afternoon improved.

Guernsey's airshow is always held in the morning of Jersey's show date, as most of the flying items operate from the larger island's airport. Some items did make the short hop across the water, but strong winds disrupted the show, the Red Arrows finding things particularly challenging. But manage a show they did, and things were looking up for Jersey as the weather improved from the west, the cloudbase lifting as lunch approached. Down in St Aubin's Bay, the airshow arena, conditions were actually pretty good, as it is sheltered from the north-westerly winds and helped break up the low cloud affecting the northern side of the island.

By 13:00 a minor miracle happened - the clouds began to part, the sun broke through and the first act was on - shining brightly in the sky was the Dutch Air Force's PC-7 solo display, its yellow colour scheme reflecting the sunny disposition running through the crowd's mind. It was no less than the entirely volunteer airshow team deserved, as months of planning and preparation in their spare time finally came to fruition.

Led by Display Director Mike Higgins, the airshow operates from the airport's social club building, co-ordinating all activities from aircrew hosting to refuelling of the aircraft with his own brand of infectious enthusiasm. The airshow has grown over the last few years to the point where aircraft parking now takes all the available ramp space at the airport, with helicopters parking on the adjacent grass areas. Despite this, Mike has big plans for the future and sees the airshow as Jersey's biggest tourist attraction of the year, outstripping the 'Battle of the Flowers' event that was previously the island's biggest crowd-puller. "We normally hold the event the same week as Leuchars, so we can share the aircraft," he said, "but if 15 September falls on a Thursday we always make it that date." Jersey Airshow has, for a long time, been heralded as a 'Battle of Britain Day' airshow, any profit from the show being donated to the Royal Air Forces Association, of which Mike is a leading figure in the island. This year had extra significance, being the sixtieth anniversary of the liberation of the Channel Islands on 9 May 1945, an event that is marked with several monuments in the harbour area.

Jersey lad returns home
Educated at Les Quennevais and Hautlieu schools in Jersey, he worked for the States of Jersey, initially as an Engineering Draughtsman and then as an Air Traffic Control Assistant at Jersey Airport. Pete joined the Royal Air Force as a Direct Entrant in 1992 and commenced his Initial Officer Training (IOT) at Cranwell, but owing to a backlog in training it took an extra three years to complete his flying training on the Tucano at RAF Cranwell and the Hawk at RAF Valley, eventually qualifying for his 'wings' in June 1997. He began his conversion to the Tornado GR1 at the Tri-National Tornado Training Establishment (TTTE) at RAF Cottesmore and completed his Tornado Weapons Conversion Unit (TWCU) course at RAF Lossiemouth in February 1998. Postings to 17(F) Squadron and 14 Squadron at RAF Bruggen followed before he was posted to RAF Valley where he completed his Qualified Flying Instructor (QFI) course in March 2001. Pete returned to the Tornado GR4 in October 2003 and was posted to XV(R) Squadron as a QFI, becoming the 2005 display pilot earlier this year. His navigator is Flt Lt Matt Bressani, a native of Goole, South Yorkshire.

With the airshow being important to tourism, it was strange to see headlines in the local press the day after the airshow screaming 'Funding crisis threatens future of airshow'. In the article, concern was expressed over the future of the airshow by the chairman of the Jersey Tourism Board, Deputy Lyndon Farnham, who said: "We are being asked to cut £150,000 from the festivals and events budget and something has got to give. Events such as these are vital to the future success of tourism in Jersey, so it is therefore with a great deal of regret that I must announce the future of this particular event is under threat due to proposed cuts in the Tourism budget." Jersey Tourism is a marketing organisation and visitor services centre with a remit to enhance tourism, promote Jersey as a tourist destination, facilitate bookings and provide relevant information for potential and actual visitors. It comprises a Board of States Members and representatives from the tourism industry, formed in May 2003, and was established to provide the industry with a forum where they could contribute in a meaningful way to decisions that affect them. The Board helps fund the airshow together with sponsors, enabling a free show to be staged along the seafront of St Helier. Reacting to the press report, Mike Higgins said "Jersey Tourism has confirmed publicly that there is no risk to the air display as the money has already been earmarked for next year." Certainly now that the airshow has reached the prominence it has, and with low-cost airfares to the island becoming readily available, it would seem nonsensical to consider withdrawing support - indeed, Jersey should consider the airshow as its greatest asset and increase its support.

Despite the weather, this year's show seemed busier than ever on the waterfront, underlining that it continues to grow in popularity. This is exemplified by some of its volunteers, many of who come from previously deployed military units - they enjoy the experience so much, they return during their annual leave to man medical centres and support services. Royal Air Force Auxiliary No 504 Squadron from RAF Cottesmore is a key supporter of the airshow, as is the Officer & Aircrew Cadet Training Unit from RAF Cranwell, underlining the importance the RAF sees the airshow and a presence in the Channel Islands. One former recruit of such a high-profile presence was this year's Tornado GR4 pilot Flt Lt Pete Griffiths, born and bred on the island and returning for his first public display (see sidebar).

So the airshow went ahead, with the majority of intended acts performing - missing were the RAF Falcons, who couldn't find an spare Hercules; the BBMF, grounded in Lincolnshire due to the weather; Will Curtis's Su-26, similarly stranded at Biggin Hill; and the 'Merlins over Malta' Spitfire and Hurricane, who made it as far as Cherbourg before deciding discretion was the better part of valour. But there was plenty to see - the 'Black Cats' Lynx duo made a last-minute appearance as they had to divert from Guernsey on Wednesday afternoon and splendidly stood in as a reserve act, and highlighting the programme was the first islands display by the RAF's Typhoon, also the last of the season for Flt Lt Matt Elliott, who is likely to return to the airshow scene next year as the RAF's official display pilot. Making a final display appearance was a Harrier T8, flown by Commodore Henry Mitchell, all the Sea Harrier FA2s being required in the build-up to Yeovilton's own airshow a couple of days later.

As the Red Arrows closed the airshow, the weather closed in again and driving rain forced them to abandon their display halfway through. It is believed it was the Reds' forty-second appearance at Jersey, making it the only airshow venue they have appeared at every year since their formation - unless you know different, of course. So Jersey achieved its airshow, held in dry and at times sunny conditions, sandwiched by some of the most unseasonable weather the locals had known - Steve McQueen would have been proud of their great escape! Next year's airshow is confirmed as Thursday 7 September; let's hope that the weather gods are smiling, as Mike hopes it will be the first public display for a certain large tin triangle...

With thanks to the airshow team and Martin Willing for their hospitality

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