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Super Sunderland...usually!

Mick Britton looks at 2008's non-event and the history of this flourishing airshow

The old saying about pride coming before a fall appeared to ring true at 2008's Sunderland International Airshow, which was justifiably looking to celebrate its recent achievement of winning an 'Enjoy England award for Excellence' for 'Best Tourism Experience', but instead fell victim to unusual local weather conditions as fog rolled in with the tide each day to preclude any flying, doubly unfortunate as this was a landmark twentieth anniversary year.

The airshow has gone from strength to strength since its conception as a small event forming part of the River Wear Festival in 1989 - that show was only a local attraction featuring the RAF Falcons parachute team and the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight, as well as various warbirds including the Catalina, Grumman Tigercat, Yak 50 and the Crunchie wing-walking team - whilst I knew of it, the programme content was not sufficient to tempt me to make the journey up the A19 from my home in York. However, enough people obviously were attracted to make the show such a success that it was decided to make it an annual event (the first RAF fast jets in the shapes of the Tornado and Jaguar appeared the second year) and then three years later it expanded into a two-day event.

Naval themes throughout the years

By the mid-nineties I was beginning to receive favourable reports about it from work colleagues and decided it was time to check it out so I attended for the first time in 1997 and was impressed by the size of the crowd. I'd been in some pretty big crowds at football matches and air shows before, but this was on a different scale altogether. The seafront was just a mass of humanity as far as the eye could see. Whilst I do not recall the show being much out of the ordinary, two highlights that I do recall were the Plane Sailing Catalina landing on the sea and Royal Marine Commandos entering the cliff top arena in spectacular fashion, by rope from a Sea King. Apart from these highlights it was pretty much a run-of-the-mill programme containing a number of warbirds, a couple of RAF fast jets (Harrier and Tornado as I recall) and the three RAF display teams (Red Arrows, Falcons and BBMF). I returned the following year but the content was much the same and a chill wind off the sea caused an early departure. That unmemorable show combined with its re-scheduling in successive years to clash with RIAT led to it dropping off my radar, but I gather that it did rather well out of the clash with RIAT getting appearances from one or two aircraft which it would not otherwise have had, such as a USAF F-117A Stealth Fighter in 2001! It would seem that these were the years when the show stepped up a gear, attracting such star turns as Russian test pilot Anatoly Kvotchur in the Su-27 Flanker.

I returned to Sunderland just a few years ago when a house move to the North Yorkshire coast brought me within easier reach. As it was now just ninety minutes drive from home and a nice sunny weekend I decided to pay another visit and see how it had developed. I was pleasantly surprised to see that the programme now had a much stronger military content including good Royal Navy participation (extended to one of its ships, the RFA Wave Knight, being anchored offshore - a practice that apparently began with a visit from Sunderland's adopted ship HMS Ocean in 2003). Also to demonstrate its genuine international credentials was foreign participation by the Dutch and Belgians; the former with their Pilatus PC-9 trainer and AB 412 SAR demo, and the latter with the Fouga Magister. For some reason these two nations have formed particularly close ties with the show and endeavour to attend every year. Dutch participation started with F-27 Troopship in '93 whilst the Belgians joined in two years later when they sent both the Fouga Magister and F-16. In 2007 both nations sent their F-16 display teams and the ship anchored offshore was HMS Albion from which the Royal Marines of 6 Assault Squadron performed an assault on Seaburn Beach and the 'Best Tourism Experience' award was obviously won on the strength of this. It really was an unusual and impressive spectacle, although some air activity would have made it even more exciting, so I was eagerly anticipating 2008's show, which promised the excitement of the RAF role demo combined with a beach assault covered by a Type 42 Destroyer sailing offshore. Alas, it was not to be. However, because the fog had wiped out the flying programme, it was decided that this event would go ahead in some form if only to treat the crowd to a pyrotechnic display, so the Marines made a land assault of the beach supported by a single pass by a Tornado GR4 (which went unseen).

Despite 2008's setback, there are a number of things to applaud about Sunderland's Airshow that makes me wonder why it always seems to be ignored by the aviation press. Firstly, the organisation by Sunderland City Council is very slick and needs to be seen by those many people who delight in knocking Local Government on the basis that their own Council couldn't organise the proverbial booze-up in a Brewery. The Council prints the excellent programme itself, selling at just £3 (as it has for the past ten years). It even goes to great lengths to allow the public to meet the aircrew by installing them in a tent during their down-time to sign programmes and hand out posters and stickers. However, it is not necessary to queue up to meet them as I chanced upon Captain Ralph Aarts, the Dutch F-16 Display Pilot, on the sea front (recognising him from a TV News interview of the previous evening) and he was pleased to chat with me and hand over a couple of stickers. When asked why he liked coming to Sunderland he replied that whereas at airshows you can see that you are performing in front of a lot of people, at Sunderland when you see the people amassed along the whole length of the boulevard you feel like you're performing for the whole nation. Regularly attracting an estimated audience of one million people over the two days it really is the world's largest free airshow and one that every aircraft enthusiast should experience at least once.


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