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Out with the new, in with the old

Kevin Wright reviews Farnborough's 2008 event. Photography by Gary Parsons & Garry Lakin and as credited

This Year 'Farnborough International 08' (FI08) marked the sixtieth year of airshows at this historic airfield and was the forty-sixth SBAC show. As the post-show statistics indicate it was a successful event for business, but what did it have to offer the public and the enthusiast?

In contrast to the sweltering heat of Farnborough 2006 the challenge this year was to find the sunshine and avoid the torrential downpours and showers. FI08 is clearly a trade show, so the sound of popping champagne corks this year should have been truly deafening, given the huge sales announced during Farnborough week 2008. Equally, over the years Farnborough has always had something to offer the public and enthusiasts too - for them perhaps 2008's show was less than sparkling?

Farnboro flyers
Farnboro specials

The highlights of the show were not the modern technology demonstrations or new aircraft types traditionally associated with Farnborough - instead it was veteran aircraft like the Vulcan and DC-6. Why was this year's show disappointing to many? Is it because of the way that the aerospace industry is evolving? Is it the now almost total concentration on show business rather than the public? Or, perhaps some connection to continuing conflicts in the world and economic downturn?

The organisation of the event is undoubtedly slick - ingress, car parking, bussing, security and so on. So much so that during the show week the airshow organisers announced that it had signed an agreement to collaborate with Bahrain's Civil Aviation Affairs (CAA) Department in the planning, management and presentation of an international civil and military event to be called the 'Royal Bahrain Airshow' commencing in 2010.

Civil Business Booms

There was certainly no obvious sign of economic downturn affecting the civil sales sector - in fact the complete opposite. The organisers stated that this year's show was perhaps the most successful ever - and indeed some of the figures quoted are impressive. 'New orders worth approximately $88.7bn (£44 bn) for some 480 aircraft and equipment systems were announced during the show.' This figure apparently doubled the previous 2006 record of $42bn. Had it not been for the reassurance on the press release, cynics would have thought that perhaps it sounded like one of Gordon Brown's old re-cycled public spending announcements.

Among the big contracts were Abu Dhabi-based Etihad Airways, which ordered thirty-five Boeing 787 Dreamliners and ten Boeing 777s as part of its much-anticipated fleet expansion programme. In addition to the Boeing purchases and options, the airline also confirmed an order for fifty-five assorted Airbuses too.

Dubai-based start-up budget carrier FlyDubai ordered fifty-four Boeing 737-800s with deliveries expected to begin in May 2009. Dubai Aerospace Enterprise ordered a total of one hundred Airbus aircraft, consisting of thirty A350-900 XWBs together with seventy A320s. It will be interesting of course to see how these orders develop given the recent problems that airline operations are experiencing with high fuel prices, credit crunches and weakening passenger demand.

Year of the UAV

FI08 must also have been the year of the UAV with its own set of pavilions, and this looks set to be a major feature for years to come as this sector of aerospace seems almost to grow exponentially; therefore it was no great surprise that examples of such projects were a major component of the static displays too. Among them were some making their first public appearances at Farnborough 2008, including the Fanwing UAV and the BAE Systems Fury armed reconnaissance and close air support UAS (Unmanned Autonomous System).

Also on display for the first time was a mock-up of the new BAE Systems 'Mantis'. This jointly funded programme with the UK Ministry of Defence is to develop an Unmanned Autonomous System (UAS). The Mantis UAS Advanced Concept Technology Demonstrator programme is intended to bring together technologies, capabilities and systems to demonstrate the potential of a large unmanned aircraft to support future UK Operational military needs. The design and manufacture of the twin-engine Mantis and the associated ground control infrastructure is already underway. Assembly, vehicle ground testing and infrastructure integration testing will take place later this year, with BAE scheduling the first flight for early 2009.

Clearly military aviation has moved into the UAS technology in a big way and this must shape the future of shows like Farnborough. Heavy investment in this sector is not directed to airframe design for the most part - what is currently required is payload capacity, long loiter times and ever improving means of control. For most of the current generation of UAV developments the real money is spent on the avionics payload, system control, communications, system integration, increasingly armament, infrastructure and support. Thus in the long term although the UAS sector will attract huge investment, attention and continue as an increasing focus, it is of course unlikely to convert into flying demonstrations. Perhaps manufacturers will have to become more creative and present their various systems and products output at the show whilst their UAVs are flying thousands of miles away?

Sustainable Aviation

On Wednesday 16 July, keen to demonstrate the industry's green credentials, SBAC hosted a 'Sustainable Aviation Conference'. A number of keynote speakers made much of the industry's efforts at noise and pollution reduction over the years and as Ian Godden, SBAC Chief Executive said "Aviation is unfairly portrayed as the bogeyman of the climate change debate. Our opponents will not acknowledge that we are a small part of the problem and that we are doing a considerable amount to reduce our impact on the environment while simultaneously meeting the rising public demand to fly."

Public Days

Visitor statistics for the show were also impressive - attracting over some 132,000 business visitors and 153,000 public visitors on the final weekend, an increase of 23,000 to 2006 totals, perhaps swelled somewhat by the cancellation of RIAT?

Enraptured by the Raptor
With the cancellation of RIAT, Monday at Farnborough was the F-22A's only 'official' display in the UK (it did do a couple of rehearsals at Fairford). Major Paul 'Max' Moga is a regular front-line air force pilot, and performed the most remarkable routine seen to date by a regular military pilot, not one using a prototype or test vehicle (such were the Russian thrust-vectoring machines previously seen).

Certainly the public areas felt crowded enough with most of the aircraft on static display generally parked as inaccessibly as possible, making photography in most instances challenging and in many instances impossible. Military items in the static were few and far between, apart from the small American enclave (48th FW F-15C, USN F-18F, T-1, C-17 and C-130J). The RAF participation in the static park - a pair of 111 Squadron Tornado F3s and an 11 Squadron Typhoon was almost matched by the Slovak Air Force with their pair of MiG-29s, hemmed in by barriers. A Pakistani-marked Saab 2000 AEW aircraft was welcome, as was the German Pollution Control Do228 and Swedish Coast Guard DASH-8 Q311. By the weekend several of the participating aircraft from the trade displays, including the Israeli Air Space Force Gulfstream G550 CAEW and the RAF Sentinel, had gone.

The sprawling pavilions dominated the public areas and naturally the major companies all had hospitality suites of their own. Notable during the public days was the sparsity of the staffing on many of the trade stands in the main pavilions. Many of the large companies didn't even bother opening up at all at the weekend. No doubt, if the statistics were true, they were content with the business they had done during the week. Whilst they had been keen to entertain defence and military procurement representatives during the week, clearly at the weekend they no longer felt it necessary to give a curious public an opportunity to see what their taxes were being spent on in the aerospace sector.

One surprise was the number of local night club bouncers who must have been doubling as security for the various companies and hospitality pavilions on the site. Fortunately most were so pre-occupied with trying to look like seasoned close protection operatives and cool in their 'shades' and black suits that they provided little obstacle to photography, generally responding well to hand signals and single syllable requests. However, most outstanding in this category was the site that Finmeccanica, major sponsors of FI08, produced for themselves. The area was almost Byzantine in proportions and largely inaccessible for the public. In design it seems that it was more an example of post-modern Italian industrial architecture than a trade stand at an airshow. It was difficult to determine if the Finmeccanica security considered themselves as working functionaries or adornment. Or perhaps it was just another clever piece of Italian 'performance art'? In aviation terms the Finmeccanica site provided a high concentration of civil and military aircraft including NH-90, AMI Typhoon, SKY-Y UAV, M-311, as well as a whole range of civil and military Augusta Westland products (RN Lynx, a large number of AW139 family helicopters -including one from the Irish Air Corps as well as a Danish Air Force Merlin).

Flying Displays

As the industry aircraft for the static displays were significantly lacking, so too were the air displays for the public days. On the opening Monday of the show the USAF F-22A performed, making its sole contribution to Farnborough. Indeed one felt that on the public days had it not been for the historic aircraft displays, the Vulcan (of course), DC-6, Sarangs, Red Arrows, Black Cats and Aerostar YAKs aerobatic teams there would barely have been a flying display at all.

But to attribute this solely to a lack of interest from the aerospace industry would be unfair. The huge cost and ever lengthening gestation times for military and civil projects, the shift towards Unmanned Aerial Systems and the longevity of airframes all have significant impacts on the industry. The huge costs of systems means that fewer and fewer new designs are emerging and those that do are more likely to be UASs. Those new systems that are being built are expected to last longer, be able to accommodate significant internal, and some external improvement as they progress during their service careers. Thus rather than (as in the past) being able to rely on aerospace companies, keen to demonstrate new their competing products, to provide flying display items the organisers are increasingly faced with different challenges. They will have to encourage and persuade the armed forces, who are of course currently subject to pressures of their own to participate. In future they will most likely have to draw upon the pool of expertise in the 'historic' sector to provide the major substance of a flying display. In this respect it seems that the organisers may have to work hard if the weaknesses in this years flying display are to be successfully remedied.

Among the trade display aircraft that did take to the air the A-380 was again outstanding because of its sheer bulk, quietness and manoeuvrability and was a great crowd pleaser. The difficult flying display conditions that exist at Farnborough meant that among the fast jets the M-346 and 52nd FW F-16CJ performances appeared lacklustre with only the usually noisy, high 'G' manoeuvres of the US Navy VFA-106 F/A-18F and RAF Typhoon peaking interest. Even the usually entertaining Alenia C-27J seemed somewhat constrained in its performance. One item that did buck the trend was the Bell/Augusta BA609 tilt rotor, which performed an interesting routine - with certification due for 2009, it is attracting commercial orders and interest as an SAR platform.

Other service/industry displays came from the Red Arrows, Indian Air Force 'Sarang' with its splendidly adorned Dhruvs, a USAF B-1B as well as the Royal Navy Black Cats, an Apache and a solo Indian Dhruv.

As it was during the week's trade days, so it was on the public days; the real star of the show was the Vulcan. Everyone watched for the Vulcan to start, taxi and then perform. Even Lady Thatcher got in on the act, being driven over to see the Vulcan at close-quarters during her Saturday visit to Farnborough. On the Wednesday trade day the Vulcan flypast emptied the trade stands and pavilions and so it did at the weekend. Such a shame that with lavish sums clearly spent on hospitality and an extremely successful week's business behind them that some of those business leaders could not be persuaded at the show to part with some of it to help keep the Vulcan flying. With over £44 Billion of announced orders at the show it makes the sums necessary to keep the Vulcan flying seem like small change in comparison.

Clearly in its primary function, as a trade show, Farnborough is very successful - ever more so in 2008. However, the business patterns in aviation are continuing to shift substantially and the organisers will have to continue to work hard to maintain Farnborough's relevance and reputation. For the public? Certainly in attendance terms it seems to be maintaining, perhaps even improving, its popularity. In terms of quality however, it left something to be desired, especially for such a notable anniversary year, though of course not all of this is in the control of the organisers. More service support would be welcome - Farnborough provides an important window for UK trade and so it should also for our armed services. It certainly looks as if the organisers will have to rely to an even greater extent - for the public days at least - on the historic and enthusiast sectors of the flying community to balance the service and industry shortfalls. Neither should the large defence and aerospace companies forget that even though sales might be their primary goal they still have a significant role to play in public and taxpayer education too.


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