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Southport delivers

Mark Broadbent reports on Southport's Beach Airshow, held on 6-7 September. Pictures by Kieran Lear, Alex McKenzie, Chris Roche, Neil Bates and Neil Bury

She may have triumphantly returned to the airshow circuit at the appropriate venue of RAF Waddington, but there was one area that wanted to see Avro Vulcan B2 XH558 display more than most - North-West England.

Roy Chadwick's design classic was conceived, designed, engineered, built and test flown in the region at Woodford, south of Manchester. It was therefore fitting that this most elegant Cold War warrior played a starring role at the region's only remaining major airshow in Southport on the first weekend in September.

Southport shots
RAF's Role Demonstration

Yet she almost didn't make it. Operating from RAF Brize Norton, XH558 was initially scheduled to appear on Saturday only, going on to appear at Duxford on Sunday. The terrible weather across the UK on the Saturday, however, put paid to that. The revised plan for the second day was for the Vulcan to appear early in Southport's programme, then head to Duxford as originally scheduled. Then the weather intervened. Heavy thundery showers straddled across the UK blocked the Vulcan's path to Southport; the Mighty Delta's appearance was uncertain, but thanks to hard work from air traffic control a transit route was found that enabled XH558 to avoid the worst of the weather and make it to Southport.

Cynics pointed out that the Vulcan's appearance at Southport was only made possible due to a southerner's intervention - Eddie Forrester from Aerobytes Ltd provided the largesse - but there were few grumbles to be heard as the Vulcan displayed, adding a touch of majesty to proceedings in the late afternoon sunshine. Short its display may be, but this is compensated by its sheer presence. Indeed, this was a something of a sporty performance by Dave Thomas, Martin Withers and Barry Masefield - the aircraft generating decent amounts of vapour as she swept across Southport seafront.

There was, though, more to Southport than the Vulcan. In numbers terms, it may not have matched others - there were no warbirds or classic jets on the programme, save XH558 - but Southport always does what good airshows should do: present a balanced display, high on spectacle and with the highest-quality performances.

The RAF Role Demonstration has matured for the 2008 season to be an impressive evocation of operational flying - and Southport provided a unique location for it. For those unfamiliar with the venue, Southport is not a seafront show in the classic sense. The town is renowned for low tides and a huge expanse of sand stretching away for miles, meaning it is quite literally a beach airshow. From a spectator's perspective, the sands add an extra dimension to the displays, which look more expansive. Illusion, of course, but the location definitely added something to Operation 'Summer Lightning', with the Tornado F3 and Hawk dogfight, high-speed Tornado GR4 attacks and Apache AH1 strafe all looking especially impressive. Furthermore, the sand creates a perfect base material for the huge amount of effects used by Charlie Adcock's Event Horizon during the Role Demo - as evidenced by the particularly dynamic explosions!

The Demo certainly seemed to impress visitors. Southport, of course, attracts a good number of people for whom this is the only airshow they'll visit every year. This is the audience being targeted by Squadron Leader Andy Pawsey from the RAF Events Team. He certainly seemed to have achieved his job judging by the crowd reaction around the author, "Incredible" and "Wow!" were just two comments heard. Speaking to the author after the show, Andy himself seemed pleased with the way things had gone over the weekend, despite the Demo being flown in poor conditions on Saturday and bad weather to the north and east of Southport affecting the aircraft holds on Sunday.

The armed forces always support Southport well. Besides the Role Demo, the RAF provided its full cadre of solos - Tutor, Tucano, Hawk, King Air, Chinook and Typhoon. Flt Lt Charlie Matthews in the Typhoon delivered sound and fury with his imposing routine, and the training aircraft and Chinook always provide punchy displays. Unfortunately, the BBMF's Dakota and two Spitfires did not appear, turning back to RAF Coningsby after encountering foul weather on the transit north.

The Army Air Corps weighed in with solo performances from the Apache and a Lynx AH7, the latter proving to be one of the displays of the weekend. The Lynx has always been very sprightly in the Blue Eagles display, but this year's solo is something else - multiple loops, back-flips and rolls (the head-on roll on the B-axis looks particularly dramatic). The Royal Navy's contribution was a Lynx HMA8 - it should have been the Black Cats, but team leader Lt Cdr Alun Read's absence meant his number two, Lt Dave Lilley, had to give a solo display.

Away from the military, it was unfortunate that Team Guinot and the Great War Display Team's replicas could not make it through the weather to attend, but two other top civilian teams entertained. The Blades are this year flying an inventively choreographed routine, and despite the strong on-crowd wind they gave a typically polished display. Meanwhile, the Swift Aerobatic Team attended with the Swift S1, Pawnee tug and Peter Wells' Silence Twister. Guy Westgate's smoke-delineated Swift aerobatics are always enchanting, and he also managed to set a new (unofficial) World Record on the Sunday, flying no fewer than 11 consecutive rolls while on-tow with the Pawnee!

The Swift Team generated extra interest for spectators, since they also operated from the beach (albeit only on Sunday due to the sands being so sodden on Saturday). This year, for the first time, a runway was rolled in the sand, enabling take-off and landing operations - something of a rarity at a UK airshow! The organisers had also planned a gathering of historic light aircraft on the beach (there is a distinguished history of pleasure flying from Southport sands stretching back to the 1920s), but unfortunately only a Piper Vagabond was able to make it due to inclement weather elsewhere. As always, the local Model Aero Club provided activity in the morning with various impressive model displays from the beach.

Southport may not be the biggest event nor one hardened enthusiasts will be queuing up to attend, but it always presents a solid line up. Airshows should be about spectacle and entertainment - and this Southport always delivers.


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