Gary Parsons reports from rural Northamptonshire on the latest Sywell Airshow, held on 24 September
Location, location, location. And what a location Sywell airfield is - close to Northampton, yet very much a rural setting with the grass airfield sitting atop a small hillock, presenting a photographer's dream backdrop. For those who haven't yet been, it's an atmospheric aerodrome that could quite easily be transported back to the heady days of the nineteen-thirties with its period 'terminal' building and control tower.
The aerodrome, as it is preferred to be referred to, is unusual in having remained in private ownership since its founding over seventy-five years ago. Members of the newly formed Northamptonshire Aero Club, led by the brothers Jack and Geoff Linnell, laid down the original aerodrome in 1928. With the expansion of the RAF in the thirties, flying training became nationally important and Sywell played a key role with the establishment of No. 6 Elementary Flying Training School (EFTS) in 1935 with a fleet of twenty Tiger Moths, operated by Brooklands Aviation.
During the Second World War some 2,500 RAF, Commonwealth and Allied pilots were trained here. Training for the military continued until 1953, from when the aerodrome returned to its original civilian roots.
Although many airshows were held at Sywell pre-war and immediately post-war, Sywell's modern-day airshow is still in its infancy and, for the foreseeable future, will be a biennial event primarily aimed at raising funds for the Warwickshire and Northamptonshire Air Ambulance that has been operating since October 2003. Based at Coventry Airport, this Air Ambulance service has already achieved over 3,500 missions, capable of reaching anywhere in Warwickshire in eight minutes or anywhere in Northamptonshire in fourteen minutes. When needed, WNAA also covers Market Harborough, Milton Keynes, Banbury and other outlying areas. The cost of this life-saving service is over £1.3 million per year, all of which is raised through charity donations.
The WNAA's importance was demonstrated early on Sunday morning when, after arriving to support the static park, the crew were seen running back to the helicopter as a real 'shout' cam through. In less than ninety seconds the chopper was airborne and heading eastwards towards the emergency, carefully avoiding the various light aircraft positioning themselves for landing.
With the glorious summer of 2006 in its final throes, the weather was mainly good, being warm if somewhat overcast in the afternoon. Heavy rain in the morning had obviously deterred the curtain-twitchers, but a healthy crowd had arrived by two o'clock, the overflow car park being put into operation. 4,000 paying punters were needed to break-even, and it is thought that this was achieved quite comfortably, ensuring the WNAA benefited from the day.
Sywell's grass airfield meant that the airshow would consist mainly of smaller propeller-driven aircraft but some warbirds were present - HAC brought along a Spitfire and Hurricane, flown by Charlie Brown and Clive Denney respectively; Peter Teichmann displayed his recently-acquired P-40 and the Real Aeroplane Company's P-51D Mustang G-CDHI, more famously known as 'Susy'. Plane Sailing's Catalina filled the 'heavy' category, making light of the grass runway with its large landing gear.
Entertainment was the name of the game for most of the afternoon, with many of the resident biplanes flying under, over and around ribbons, popping balloons and throwing flour-bombs (with spectacular inaccuracy) at the pseudo-Great War 'hut' facing the crowd. Never has so much flour been used to such little effect! But it provided a great spectacle with the aircraft diving in, pilots' arms flailing in the slipstream with packet of Homepride primed. Also great fun was the Great War dogfight, two Fokker Triplanes meeting their inevitable fate against a SE5a and Neuiport as the Boche got another drubbing from the Allies. One of the Fokkers was new to the airshow circuit, John Day's G-CDXR replica only being finished earlier this year.
Formation of the day had to be Mark Miller's Dragon Rapide with three of the Red Sparrows' Chipmunks - one ship down, the Reds then performed their formation routine at a 'relaxed' pace, but maybe one day there'll be nine! There were more than Chipmunks on the airfield, courtesy of the previous day's 60th anniversary fly-in, which saw several dozen 'Chippys' descend on Northamptonshire. A display of great airmanship was given by the pilot of locally-based Skytech Hughes 369E G-RISK as he picked up a traffic cone with one of the skids, twirled it around and placed it back upright on the ground. Closing the show was Sywell-based based display team the 'Blades', ex-Red Arrows pilots in the main who know how to excel (sorry). The team is looking to add a fifth aircraft for the 2007 display season for an even more dynamic routine.
Sywell's airshow should return in 2008, and deserves to prosper as it's well organised, atmospheric, affordable and a good afternoon's entertainment. The only grumble of the day was the distance of the runway to the crowdline, but this didn't detract from the displays - the management at Sywell is attempting to install a hard runway as part of its expansion plans, so if the imminent public enquiry can be overcome 2008 may see a radically different layout.