Gill Howie/Squadron Prints reviews the first airshow of 2008, the now regular Al Ain Aerobatics Show held over 24-27 January. pictures by the author and Berry Vissers/Squadron Prints
Al Ain Aerobatics Show remains unique in its early January date and its Middle East location - for the sixth year running, it provided four great days of professional and safe flying through competition and entertainment. Not generally an airshow as we Europeans know it, the 2008 Al Ain Aerobatics Show was an internationally-recognised aerobatic competition, offering $100,000 in prize-money.
Al Ain, known as the 'Garden City', is about an hour away from Abu Dhabi and Dubai and is an ideal holiday location. Lush green grass, beautiful gardens and palm tree-lined dual carriageways make Al Ain the 'city' that it is - still boasting its ancient heritage, a bustling business centre yet still maintaining Middle Eastern mystique and traditionalism that the massive cities of Abu Dhabi and Dubai may have lost. With Emirates flying direct to Dubai from many UK airports we took the opportunity to fly direct from Glasgow and stayed in the Al Ain Rotana Hotel. What a fantastic experience that was - I am usually very critical of hotels and after hearing that they were going through an expansion programme I was a little hesitant, but I need not have worried - a superb hotel, well run, great rooms, great staff and fantastic food! This is THE place to stay in Al Ain - beautiful.
So what of this year's show - one thing that is missed is UAE military participation, but this year's event, held under the patronage of HH General Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces, attracted some stunning new acts that are not normally seen in Europe.
With $50,000 being the first place prize, this event attracted eight of the best names in competition aerobatics. The finest judges represented the FAI Aerobatics Committee - Chief Judge, South African Quinton Hawthorne, led the team of three, the others being Graham Bell from the UK and Lors Jorn Arferson from Sweden. Relying on their experience and special equipment, the judges sat in the Al Ain warmth with eyes skywards, ensuring all participants observed the rules when flying a sequence of classic aerobatics against the clock, followed by a three-minute freestyle event. The winner was Spain's Ramon Alonso with the two female competitors, Russia's Svetlana Kapanina and France's Kathel Boulanger, being second and third respectively. The other competitors were Italian Francesco Fornabayo, Mark Jeffries from the UK, Japan's Yoshichide Muroya, American Michael R Racy and ZoltanVeres from Hungary.
Running for four days, the airshow continues to attract some major sponsors who enable the show organisers to attract acts from throughout the world. This year was a little different with each day starting with some stunning flying from remote control aircraft from the local Al Ain Club mixing with the very old 'real flyers' from Sweden, Mikael Carlson bringing his Bleriot XI and Tummelisa, both having been lovingly restored to flying condition. They both used a specially constructed 'soft and sandy' runway prepared in the desert close to the display line.
The modern military was represented by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia's Saudi Hawks aerobatic team led by Lt Col Ahmed Al-Brahim, who was coming to the end of his term as 'Saudi One', and the Extras of the Royal Jordanian Falcons, who are well known in the skies of Europe. One day it is hoped that the Saudi Hawks will display in Europe, but it is not thought that this will be the year… The UAE AF & AD supplied a Cessna Caravan for the paradrops and Ali Ozturk displayed admirably in his Pitts Special. Representing the United Kingdom was Team Guinot with its Stearmans, the wing-walkers being a great hit with the crowd, as was the wing-walking show by Peggy Krantz from Germany.
There were several teams displaying that I personally had not seen before - the South African 'Wizards' showed off their flying skills to the limit with two Pitts Specials and Extras - a great fast-moving show with a combination of flying and parachutists together. The parachutists actually appeared from the front of the Pitts! Another new team for me, which I believe can be seen around the shows in Europe, was the Italian 'Pioneer Team' - four aircraft that are actually micro-lights, flying beautifully executed formation changes and entertaining the public with smoke, flares and precision. Representing Romania, two experimental Yak 52 tail-wheeled aircraft flew a stunning display, expertly flown by Ioan Postolache and Dan Stefanescu.
A specially commissioned act for this airshow was the 'Bird Show'; beautiful feathered 'aerobatic champions', belonging to the Sheik, flew around the sky chasing their prey being towed by a remote controlled aircraft. The crowd attending the show cheered loudly as the birds captured their 'lunch', a stunning show involving these very expensive birds of prey! Another stunning 'bird' to watch was the 'Red Bull' Bo-105 zipping around the sky, showing off the many skills and manoeuvres particularly associated with this helicopter. Zoltan Veres had the most colourful and different ribbon-cutting display - the ribbon was held by two very large inflatables and when the ribbon was cut a cascade of coloured balloons spilled from them, resulting in gasps and cheers from the crowd.
The USA was represented by Greg Koontz's 'Alabama Boys' - a highly entertaining 'show', it's amazing what they can do with a 1946 Piper J-3 Cub. The comedy routine begins with an announcement from commentator Tim Callaway asking for 'Clem Cleaver' to come to the commentary position as he has 'won' a flight - down he comes from the grandstand, explaining how delighted he is to have won, as he had never flown before. Later in the show, he 'steals' the plane and takes off solo, with the rest of the crew chasing him. His brother tries to shoot him down, but only shoots off a tyre! It's amazing the way that Greg flies this aircraft and if you get a chance to see this show it's certainly not one to be missed. Eventually he lands the plane and it is caught and stopped by the rest of the team - totally hilarious and highly entertaining. Also keeping the US flag flying was Skip Stewart, showing off his Pitts with some exhilarating manoeuvres - it was 'plane' to see that Skip was highly skilled in his art of flight.
'Tin stix of dynamite' - the overwhelming finale of the Al Ain Aerobatic Show. Rich's incredible pyrotechnics certainly set up some stunning explosions with Jurgis Kairys in his Su-31 and Skip Stewart in the Pitts dog-fighting around the skies, powering through fire and smoke creating a mind-blowing finale with a wall of flame exploding in front of your eyes - you feel the blast, you feel the heat and you FEEL the excitement. The Al Ain Aerobatics Show certainly ended with a bang, leaving the crowd in stunned silence at what they had just witnessed. Then they realise it is over and they erupt in rapturous applause. Job done!
Yet again the organisers pulled out all the stops to put on a great show - there are still areas that could do with some improvement, but all in all a great time was had by all. Unfortunately this year the clear blue skies were not in view, but it was warm. Perhaps the most enjoyable part of the show for me was the end of airshow gala dinner set out beautifully under palm trees with great food and traditional singing, held in the grounds of the 'Old Fort', the landmark of Al Ain - the event had a great atmosphere. Once the formalities were over and everyone relaxed, it was a joy to see many of the competitors join in with the entertainment and fabulous to see so many of the participants attend in national dress. Grateful thanks to all concerned once again and I look forward to retuning to the Middle East in 2009.
Tribute, tears and breaking hearts
On the final day of the airshow, 'Tin Stix' was not the last event. On 28 July 2007 the world of aviation lost a true performer and entertainer - Jim Vernon LeRoy, a great friend of Al Ain, died doing what he loved - displaying. Only 46 years old, Jim will remain in our hearts and minds as one of the greatest aviators of our time. As a mark of respect, a formation of five aircraft, led by Jim's fellow aviator Skip Stewart, flew towards the crowd. As they reached crowd centre, everyone attending the show stood in silence as one aircraft pulled high, heading towards the heavens. Watching this 'missing man' formation in the company of Col Pilot Mohammad Abdullah Bin Barrak Al Dhaheri, General coordinator of the airshow and the Flying Control Committee, headed by Lt Col Abdullah Hadher Kamis Al Amimi, was Jim's wife Joanie and their young son Tommy. Hearts were breaking all over the airfield, tears were running down the cheeks of the most hardened and experienced pilots, but there was immense pride of the fact that all the people watching had been proud to know such an aviator who had brought smiles and excitement to millions of people attending airshows around the world. RIP Jim Leroy - you are sorely missed. The proudest moment for me was to see young Tommy LeRoy in national dress at the gala dinner, still quite shy, but I am sure his dad would have been extremely proud of him.
Thanks to Gill & Berry at Squadron Prints we have three prizes to give away - 1st Prize; Al Ain Airshow 2007 DVD, 2nd prize; Al Ain Book and 3rd Prize; Al Ain Key Ring.
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