Mick Britton soaks up the Tyneside sun
Attracting an estimated audience of one million, the Sunderland International Airshow, funded by the local Council, is possibly the country's largest free air show. This year's, held on the weekend of 29/30 July, was the eighteenth such event.
With the Red Arrows headlining and also featuring all the other RAF display teams (except the helicopters) it was a very strong flying programme, bolstered by significant Royal Navy participation (Sea Fury, Merlin and Black Cats Lynx Display team) plus international participants from the RNLAF and the Belgian Air Component. The former provided the Pilatus PC -7 solo display and a rare Search and Rescue display by one of the Leeuwarden-based AB 412 helicopters, working in conjunction with the local lifeboats. This was quite a convincing display, ending with a nice piece of showmanship in the form of a flypast with all flags flying.
The Belgians have been strong supporters of the event for many years and this year sent the Fouga Magister trainer once again which gave a particularly graceful aerobatic display in a perfect summer sky on the Sunday (conditions on the Saturday being somewhat overcast). Sadly this was the swansong of the type, as the few remaining are shortly to be retied after forty-five years faithful service. In a year which has just seen the retirement of the Canberra after fifty-five years service this must be the only aircraft type still active with the military in Europe with a record that comes close. Lt Col Rorive, the pilot, has displayed the type at Sunderland for the last five years, each time reportedly being the last - only this time, they mean it!
Heading the civilian participation was the 'Blades' Team, which seem to be this season's omnipresent act, having found a definite niche in the airshow scene (it's many years now since the demise of the last four-ship civil team that flew Pitts Specials and were sponsored by a leading cigarette brand). Warbird participation was somewhat thin with just B-17G 'Sally B' (appearing Saturday only) in addition to the RNHF's Sea Fury and the BBMF. The latter failed to appear on the Saturday owing to poor weather conditions en-route and were minus the Lancaster, which is likely to be out of action for some time as it is apparently undergoing an engine change. The only jet warbird was the De Havilland Sea Vixen, which put on its usual impressive display and tended to reinforce the Naval theme of the display, further underlined by the presence of the RFA Wave Knight anchored offshore, providing an impressive backdrop.
If a cheap and cheerful, but still credible, airshow appeals then why not give Sunderland a try next year? Organisation is excellent and the coastal setting is very scenic, though hard to work into the photos as the aircraft display over the bay. Whilst they operate out of Durham Tees Valley airport some of the crews do put in an appearance on the showground and, when they do, the commentator advertises this to the crowd so that you can go along and see them if you wish. The well-produced programme is good value at £3 (RIAT take note) and the commentator would put some of those at more established shows to shame. Obviously if you're a rivet counter who likes to get up close to the aircraft, or someone who likes to view the display from their car then this is not the show for you, as there are no static aircraft and the Park and Ride is the recommended option. However, there was surprisingly little traffic on the A19 south of Sunderland en-route (the bulk of the traffic seems to come from the direction of Newcastle) and hence the ease of access and egress was a pleasant change. All in all a most enjoyable show at a Yorkshireman's popular price and here's one happy tourist who'll be returning next year.