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Close encounters in the desert!

Gill Howie/Squadron Prints reports from the Al Ain Airshow 2006

Our second visit to the Al Ain Aerobatic show took place between 11 to 16 January, with the hope of more 'Eastern Promise' as we had in 2005. In reality the show was a bit of a disappointment - last year's event was superb, and this year we were told of participation by the Royal Saudi Air Force with its Hawk Display Team and an F-15, but unfortunately neither showed up. Also on the bill were the Turkish Air Force F-5-equipped 'Turkish Stars' display team and the 'Surikan' Team from India - again, neither team was present. The saving grace was that of the 'Russian Knights', who put on a stunning display each day and were kind enough to host us the whole week.

Just deserts

This year we eagerly awaited the daily sight of the new UAE Air Force Block 60 F-16s. Unfortunately the day before we arrived, the UAE Air Force lost one (serial number 3052, ex-US 00-6027) whilst practising for the airshow - this particular aircraft had only been delivered last autumn. The pilot, Dan Levin, a Lockheed Martin Test Pilot, apparently entered a loop too low or had a density altitude problem, but whatever happened the F-16 hit the ground in full burner with a high sink rate - fortunately Dan ejected, but his chute didn't have time to fully deploy so he suffered many broken bones and a punctured lung. The crash resulted in the loss of both the F-16 and the Mirage 2000-9 solo displays.

The first International Air Show of the 2006 season, the Al Ain Aerobatic show is based at the Al Ain International Airport and during the period of the show there are supposedly more than one hundred aircraft on the airfield. Al Ain airport continues with normal operations during the airshow but these are few and far between. There are plans for more flights to this, 'the Garden City', which is an oasis set among the magnificent sand dunes in the Abu Dhabi Emirate and a really nice place to relax and enjoy the surrounding area. Kalifa Air College is also a major part of the airfield and is home to PC-7s, Hawks and MB339s sheltering under their many sun shelters.

This airshow, under the patronage of His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces, attracted many of the world's finest aviators and many micro-light pilots, sky divers and model pilots - be it teams or individuals, they all enjoyed their time in the UAE, but it was hard work. The show was five days long but a day was lost due to a sandstorm, so it was decided to extend the airshow by a day although many people had planned to leave, so it wasn't a full day of events.

There was also the competition side of the event run by the wonderful Haute-Voltige; the programme of competitions was organised and run by John-Louis Monnet, a former Patrouille de France Leader, and Linda Renwick (believe it or not from my home town here in Arbroath!).

So how did this all fit in? Well, it seemed to change daily and by the hour - on one particular day the flying display programme changed three times! Nevertheless the 6,000 seat grandstand seemed to be fairly full daily but to me there did not seem to be as many people as last year. For people who went to see static aircraft - well, you would have been saddened to see that there was only a Gazelle, PC-7, MB339 and a Grob 115TA - all packed in tightly. Had you been able to get there on the Friday there was an Apache, Hawk Mk 63, Hawk Mk 102, F-16E and a Mirage 2000-9. These were then towed away and the static area was used for model flying and ribbon cutting - to me, this seemed to be very close to the crowd line and grandstand, but thankfully there were no accidents - it was definitely too close an encounter for me! Aviation Authority rules obviously differ around the world. The ribbon cutting was terrific, but it all happened less than fifty metres from the crowd. Jim LeRoy in his highly 'souped-up' Pitts Special filled the lens fully at 50 mm - that was how close! It did make me feel uncomfortable and now I fully understand why the rules at home are in place.

So a typical day at the 2006 Al Ain Air Show started in the morning with Remote Control Aircraft and Paramotors - the remote control aircraft were also large in size and I am surprised at how close their display area was to the crowd too, especially on the day that had an on-crowd wind!

Noon saw the world record attempt by the 'World Free Fly Team' representing thirty-two countries, comprising some seventy skydivers, who took to the sky in the UAE Air Force C-130 from 4 Squadron based at Al Bateen Air Force Base. A first time visitor to the show was Dan Buchanan - an extraordinary Micro-light pilot of great distinction and character. Dan, 47, has 2,500 hours flying but is widely known for the fact that he is paraplegic after many sporting injuries, but even better known for his fabulous flying skills and pyros on his aircraft. Unfortunately in the Middle East, Dan's biog seemed to always say he was 'paralytic' - something which amused me nearly every day when I read the daily newspaper reports! There was a Hughes 500 display from Germany, the 'Sasol Tigers' display team flying their L-29 Delfins, the extremely sharp 'Breitling Team' flying their immaculate L-39s and, of course, the 'Russian Knights', flying their beautiful Su-27s. I must admit, I love watching these guys and it brought back many happy memories from seeing them in the UK at Leuchars in 1991...could it ever happen again?

Other military included four F-16s from 1 Squadron, UAE Air Force, based at Al Dhafra that flew past one way, turned and came back again - and that was it. Four Mirage 2000-9s did exactly the same as the F-16s and they too were from Al Dhafra, but this time from 71 Squadron. On one day there was a flypast by four UAE Hawks based at Al Ain - I only wish that they had all flown every day. The UAE Apache did fly every day though and put on a stunning and entertaining display - arriving from crowd rear low over the grandstand, this had to be the surprise of the day for the general public. It was great to watch the public's expressions when this fantastic and dynamic helicopter appeared - just fabulous, but boy was I glad that I wasn't sitting up there in the grandstand - he WAS close!

Another unusual team was the father and daughter wing-walking team of 'Bob Essell Air Shows'. Bob, the pilot and father of Jenny, the wing-walker, was a huge hit and nearing the end of their show they unfolded the UAE flag, much to the delight of the watching crowd. They trailed smoke and at night they did another show with pyrotechnics trailing from their micro-light aircraft. There were other teams there and representing the UK were the Honda Dream Team and their World Record attempt to cut more ribbons than they had at the 2005 Royal International Air Tattoo. It was a great sight but it seemed to be very close to the public…

There were many other single aircraft taking part, plus additional acts, but for the military enthusiast I feel that this year's Al Ain Aerobatic Airshow was a bit of a let-down. The weather, apart from one day, was in the low eighties, with a light breeze. The exhibition area was larger than last year with many companies showing their wares but this is definitely a different show from what we are used to. The highlight for me HAD to be the Russian Knights - I just love them and their flares are simply outstanding - they were flying to European standards and that was obvious compared to the rest of the displays.

So what of the future for Al Ain - well, there is certainly enthusiasm from the on-site military people, but I feel that there is so much more room for utilising their own military assets. A proper static display, again of their own assets, would attract a lot of overseas airshow enthusiasts and tourists plus being able to see the flying participants on the ground would be good. The layout of the small static in the exhibition area seemed to be very tightly packed in for no reason as there was plenty of room. I also feel that they need to release solid information before the event - I only saw one advert in a well known aviation magazine which had a build up of the event telling of the good things that were taking part - sadly, as I said, many were a no-show. If you are going, the weather is great, take your partner as Dubai and Abu Dhabi are each about an hour away - it is a nice place for a holiday!

Thanks to Altas Aerospace for their outstanding hospitality.


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