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A weekend of contrast
RAF Waddington International Airshow, 26/27 June
Gary Parsons & Dave Eade report that Waddington was a weekend of contrast, with blazing summer skies on Saturday and wet and windy conditions on Sunday, the latter more typical of recent shows. With all the airshow cancellations this year, Waddington provided a much welcomed boost for the aviation enthusiast with a show that was admittedly slightly smaller than before but still had enough content to please most. Paul Byram, airshow organiser for Waddington 99, achieved a very good mix of interest both in the air and on the ground, despite the recent Kosovo situation.
Such is the stature of the show these days that it ranks probably third in size in the UK, behind RIAT and Mildenhall, but is becoming more of a five-day event in the way that these have become in recent years. So, let's take a look at the show, starting from the beginning on Thursday 24 June.
Thursday: First arrivals day & Press Preview day
By now the airfield is in full airshow mode, with the hospitality tents erected and the barriers close to hand. The local police have been busy coning off the surrounding roads and lanes, a no-parking exclusion zone now extends over what seems to be most of Lincolnshire. All is quiet on the WAVE as it is closed for the next five days, a park-and-view facility next to Alpha dispersal provides a chance for enthusiasts to get closer to the action, albeit at a small charge. As the day dawns, no aircraft have yet arrived, but many are expected before noon and the later afternoon practice sessions for the benefit of the local papers and TV cameras. Personnel from many bases have been drafted in to help marshal the aircraft and refuel them, the VASS huts full with unfamiliar faces.
First to arrive is P3C 304 of the Dutch MARPAT, looking resplendent as if newly painted (maybe just a good wash). By midday Bravo dispersal is teeming with aircraft, the Patrouille de France has arrived together with support Transall C160 R157 sporting a new overall grey scheme, a pleasant change from the usual drab olive green. Nearer the A15 road sit two Swedish JA37 Viggens from F16, looking purposeful in contrast to the brightly coloured Alpha Jets.
With the summer sun dodging in and out of the clouds, bursting onto the scene to begin the practice routines of the afternoon is the RAF Tornado F3, direct from Coningsby. Flown by Flt Lt Antony Parkinson and Flt Lt David Hake of 56(R) Squadron, this is a rare chance for them to perform over 'home' territory, being just some two or three minutes flying time from base. Sadly, the chance to paint a display aircraft in an eye-catching scheme has again been missed, but the display tries to compensate with plenty of fast, low-level passes.
After a brief demonstration by Denny Dobson in his Pitts Special, it's the turn of a Patrouille team, this time of the Swiss variety. Each sporting a emblem celebrating 35 years of display flying, the six F5E Tigers perform their routine, finishing off with their trademark firing of flares as they soar skywards. It has only been a week since Exercise 'Norka '99' finished, but unfortunately none of the eight F18s could be persuaded to stay to bolster the static lines. Maybe they could shift their booking next year to co-incide?
An energetic practice by De Havilland Aviation's Vampire T11 'XE920' follows, the distinctive sound of this early fighter/trainer echoing across the airfield as the throttle is pushed against the stop for several high-speed passes. Quite how the ensuing Viggen pilot will match that isn't clear, but we soon find out as the countryside shakes as the Volvo engine is fed full afterburner for the take-off. We wonder why the Swedes want to replace this dinosaur with the slender Gripen as the noise alone is enough to terrify most opponents! Fellow compatriots in Tp84 842 (a Hercules to the great unwashed) achieve incredible angles of bank, the laws of physics being suspended as the lumbering giant performs 360 degree turns tighter than most modern jets can manage, all with some crazy Swede standing on the back ramp waving his arms. Maybe it's Swedish semaphore for "You think I'm mad, you should meet the pilot"?
A short interlude follows, before the arrival of what are probably the jewels in the crown for the enthusiast; two Turkish F4E Phantoms, 73-1047 & 73-1048, from 171 Filo. Landing on runway two-one, as have all the aircraft today, they taxi back to Alpha dispersal where they will stay for the weekend. This just leaves a display from the Patrouille de France to round the day off, the sun notable by its absence by this time, although the promise is for a fine weekend. Final arrivals of the day are the MB339s of the Frecce Tricolori, too late to practice but this can wait until tomorrow.
Friday: Second arrivals day
The sun is already high as the airfield opens for the day. Temperatures in the low twenties are predicted, unheard of for a Waddington show weekend. Blue skies abound, hardly a breeze moves the air but the caravan is parked at the two-one end of the runway, ensuring the park-and-view will get two chances of seeing most of the arriving aircraft. Nimrod R1 XV249 returns from an early morning mission and heads for Alpha dispersal, settling beside resident Sentry AEW1 ZH101 in the corner of the vast compound. We learn that the Americans have cancelled all supporting aircraft, except for a RC135 from Mildenhall, so we won't be treated to the sight of a B52 and B1 alongside the Sentry. Cancellations have been a particular curse for the organisers this year, as not long before the Slovakians pulled out, losing the show a Mig-29, Su25 and the White Albatros display team. Efforts to get Eurofighter again failed, the intransigent attitude of the PR machine at Warton defeating the best endeavours of the top brass of the RAF to get their future fighter at their official display for the year. As it will be based in Lincolnshire from 2002, one would think that Eurofighter GmbH would like to show the natives what will be keeping them awake at nights in the future.
Early arrivals include a large French contingent, two Mirage 2000s from EC01.005 accompanied by three Mirage F1s from EC03.033. All are destined for the flying display, so head for Bravo dispersal to join the Viggens near the VASS. Following them down the taxiway are two Danish F16s, 'A' model E-180 of Esk 726 sporting a most colourful tail celebrating 50 years of NATO; most unlike the Danish of recent years! Take note please, mandarins of Whitehall...
Over the day, the static line fills out with a variety of jets, including 'Mig-killer' F16A J-063 from 322 Squadron of the KLu. Looking remarkably unremarkable, a small silhouette of a Mig adorns the fuselage to give the game away. Canadian CP140 140105 sports a wartime RAF roundel and LQ-Y code on the fuselage, heralding its heritage when 405 Squadron flew Halifaxes and Lancasters from the airfields of Yorkshire and Cambridgeshire during the Second World War.
One of the more eagerly awaited aeroplanes of the day would have gone largely un-noticed in recent years; Canberra T4 WJ874 has, after all, been around for getting on forty years now. But this year, to celebrate fifty years of Canberra flying, she is painted as the prototype VN799 in a gorgeous shade of blue with the yellow prototype 'P' emblazoned on her fuselage sides. One of only two public demonstrations this year, it is a rare chance for the enthusiast to appreciate this fine old aeroplane in such colourful circumstances before she is re-sprayed in standard RAF training 'black' at the end of the season. Parking on Delta dispersal with the Swedish Tp84, the unbroken skies later provide a canvas on which Squadron Leader Terry Cairns can paint the 39(1 PRU) Squadron aircraft as he prepares for the weekend displays.
Towards the early evening, an air of expectancy surrounds the base as the 'stars' of the show are due any moment, the famous Su27P Flankers of the Russian Test Pilots Academy. After a four and a half flight direct from Moscow, they launch straight into an effortless routine of loops, tail slides and low passes before Anatoly Kvotchur takes the stage for a solo routine to be believed in such a big fighter. Not only is the flying routine of gymnastic proportions but even the way he dismounts the aircraft is akin to a parallel bar exercise; arms stretched, legs at ninety degrees before alighting on the awaiting ladder!
Late arrivals include the 55th Wing RC135V direct from its detachment at Mildenhall and a 10 Squadron VC10C1K, completing the static park on Alpha dispersal. The absence of the Americans has hurt, as the fighter line is shorter than normal and Alpha is less crowded, but even so there is good line-up including gems such as the Norwegian Bell 412SP. If only the barriers had been better positioned...
Saturday: First show day
The onset of horror was perhaps understandable, therefore, when arrival at the airfield is greeted with mist and a cloud base of around 500ft, the temperature struggling to reach fifty degrees Fahrenheit. Shirt-sleeved early bird photographers try to appear nonchalant, while hoping that the coffee is on the go as they trudge wearily to the press tent to sign in. By nine o'clock the sun is gaining the upper hand and eventually the clouds vapourise to provide that strangest of display days at Waddington, hot and sunny. The Airshow management team have deserved this though, as the weather has not been kind to Waddington since it took the mantle from Finningley and became the home of the RAFs biggest show in the UK. With the regrettable loss of the Leuchars Battle of Britain show, due to operational commitments, it will be the force's only showcase this year other than RIAT.
A bumper crowd is fighting its way in, the funfair is in full swing and the craft tent bursting at the seams. To the credit of the organisers and local police, it is always relatively easy to enter the show without queuing for long; similarly, leaving at the end of the day is also quite trouble-free, something that could not be said for the predecessor shows at Finningley.
A line-up of the current equipment of the Royal Air Force is interspersed with NATO visitors that, with a little close inspection, turn out to be better than first thought. For the home team, a pleasant surprise is VIP BAe 125 (ZE395) from 32 (The Royal) Squadron, while a 'normal' version of the venerable Dominie is represented by all-black XS731 from 55(R) Squadron at Cranwell. The necessity of incorporating missions with 'drop-ins' to the party mean that more than one example of a particular aircraft is a fact of airshow life - this is exemplified by the pair of Tornado GR1Bs from 617 Squadron (ZA411/AJ-S and ZA471/AJ-K) and a brace of Tucano T1s from 1 FTS, Linton-on Ouse (ZF136 and ZF341). We should not complain too much however, as this same fact encourages our friends from across the water to visit the celebrations, often having used the UK ranges first, hence we gain a pair of F16s from both Denmark and the Netherlands.
Leave the best to last, they say, and for the press and enthusiasts alike, the positioning of the two F4Es on the Alpha dispersal is the best idea of the day. After so much disappointment last year from the frustrated photographers trying to leave out the bouncy castles and funfair, it is proved this year that they "do listen" and anyone who can't get the shot he wants of these two immaculate Phantoms just isnt trying. That goes particularly to the ignorant example of the type who, in front of children of very tender age, proceeds to vent the entire range of his Anglo-Saxon vocabulary on yours truly, who unwittingly has interfered with his ninety-minute wait for the shot he wanted! Another example of the yob mentality that seems to pervade most British pastimes, unfortunately.
Opening the flying display (which is what we go for, let's face it) are the Falcons parachute team, aiming for the DZ opposite the Station Commander's tent. Immediately afterwards a Hercules provides a tactical demonstration, including the popular 'Khe Sahn' approach over the runway to the 'oohs' and the 'aahs' of the crowd.
Providing much aural nostalgia is Hunter F6A XF515 of Kennet Aviation, the boom of the Rolls-Royce Avon bellowing out that distinctive Hunter sound, much to the delight of some of the older members of the crowd (who will remain nameless). Next up are the RAF Tornado and Jaguar, doing early slots so that they can also fit displays in at Biggin Hill, also on this weekend and sharing many of the acts. Anatoly and his wingman Vladimir Logynovski practice their routine on the dispersal in a balletic movement that Rudolph Nureyev would have been proud of, before stripping to their Y-fronts and donning g-suits in the middle of the tarmac. The vision of the two pilots walking through their display a black line on the concrete their datum line has to be seen to be believed. The likeness to two small boys playing aircraft in the park was overwhelming. On early so as to go to Biggin, Anatoly delights the crowd with a final pass so low as to almost disappear into the dip in the runway near the end of zero-three. Not quite as low as Boscombe '92, but getting there.
Other vintage jet action than the Vampire is provided by Belgian Magister MT36, privately owned L29A Delfin and Gnat G-RORI in an overall black scheme. Somewhat lost in the vast blue, the small jets contrasted with Nimrod MR2 XV236 from 42(R) Squadron which provided a somewhat sedate display compared to recent years. Maybe they don't want to stress them too much, now that Nimrod 2000 is already some eighteen months behind schedule...
Excellent solo performances come from the Mirage 2000C (32/5-OJ) from Orange, the mighty Swedish Viggen and his colleague in the "elegant" Hercules Tp84, all which stay in the mind for a long time after the show. Impressive formation work from the two Mirage F1s of EC03.333 show that this particular type of party piece is still as well performed as ever by the French.
As Lancaster PA474 is still out of action following the engine problems suffered at Southend, Dakota ZA947 ably fills in as a substitute together with the usual Spitfire and Hurricane duo from the BBMF; regarding the latter, it is nice to see LF363 back on the show scene after its seven-year rebuild. As well as Biggin Hill, another venue today is Brough Families Day in East Yorkshire, so flypasts are detached from Waddington to provide some aerial entertainment at the BAe plant. This provides a stern test for the air traffic controllers at Waddington to slot departures and arrivals into the flying display, but to their credit it all flows seamlessly and to time, almost to the minute.
Crowd-pullers today are the display teams. As an enthusiast, you may find that boring, but as we often extol in these columns, thats the name of the game today. Waddington has to be congratulated in pulling the best of Europe together in the shape of our own dear Reds, the Patrouille de France, their Swiss compatriots and the flamboyant Frecce Tricolori, whose commentator is beginning to sound a bit like a certain Turk of similar ilk. On a near perfect day, it gives the crowd an opportunity to see how national characteristics are evident, even in aerobatic displays. From the Gallic charm of the team from LArmee de lAir, the Latin gusto of the Frecce (down to an nine-man formation because of illness), the sheer brilliance of the Reds to the precision of the Swiss, they are all here to be seen. It is wrong to compare or try to create a league table; they should all be enjoyed in their own right. For us, the Swiss take the honours on this occasion for their flare-shooting climax, which although difficult to capture on still film, just adds a unique touch, and reminds us that they are the team that flies big fighters, not trainers.
Closing the show after a blistering day is the Frecce Tricolori. Always a colourful display, just how they get away with their final crossover manoeuvre is a constant source of amazement to many! Finally, the spectators drift away, but the weather has been glorious and the flying entertaining. A crowd of 75,000 has certainly had its money's worth, the biggest Saturday attendance to date in Waddington's short airshow history.
Sunday: Second show day
How fickle can the English weather be? Low clouds scud across leaden skies and the wind has turned through 180 degrees, now cutting down from the north. Thunderstorms are predicted, but this looks like a more constant area of low pressure keeping the sun well out of sight. Visiting today is the Chief of the Air Staff, Air Marshal Sir Richard Johns, a 32 (TR) Squadron BAe 125 settling down on the runway just prior to the start of the flying display.
Many of the participating aircraft have stayed the night at Biggin Hill, so the live side of the airfield has a slightly empty look to it, and the display programme is mostly a reversal of yesterday. The crowd is thinner, the forecast reducing the number to some 50,000, but even so it is a good turn-out. Newly arrived in the static park on Alpha ramp is Hercules XV292, an old airshow campaigner ever since her days as the 25th anniversary ship back in '91. Otherwise, all is much as yesterday, only the sun is missing. For the flying, 'flat' or 'rolling' displays are the order of the day for everyone except the Flankers, who do their own thing as usual.
Midday showers start to play havoc with the display, a particularly dark and threatening cloud preventing the Patrouille de France from taking their allocated slot; it doesn't deter the Frecce Tricolori though, who take to the air with their usual abandon and disperse the low cloudbase with their antics. Suitably encouraged, the French team tiptoes to the threshold and humbly goes about its business, although somewhat upstaged. All this leads to a half-hour delay in proceedings, resulting in the cancellation of the Canberra and Tornado F3, the former a particular disappointment to many. Personally, I would have cancelled the Jaguar instead, as there will be other opportunities to see it display this year, but only one more for the Canberra. The pilot of the F3, airborne from Coningsby, is disappointed too, making his feelings clear to the control tower.
All too soon it is the last act of the weekend, suitably the 'home' team of the Red Arrows, direct from Cranwell. The new arrival formation, 'Big Battle', is certainly a good opportunity to get that topside pass, it would look great in the sun...
Some aircraft will leave tonight, notably the Flankers, but not before they have collected their bundle of cash for the weekend's work. Incredible as it may seem, a suitcase of dollars is passed over, and off they go back to Russia! How much is classified, but it will certainly buy a Vodka case or two...
Monday: Departures day
Also 'FOD plod' day for the servicemen and women of the base. The park-and-view area is open once again, for those that still want more. A hectic period of activity follows as one by one the visiting aircraft are fired up and marshalled to the end of the runway, all departing before midday. A couple of G222s arrive to pack the Frecce's bags, but soon normality returns to this usually quiet base.
Another successful show, all the more remarkable given the pressures created by the Kosovo situation. One must congratulate the organisers and the RAF for their commitment in producing an event almost up to the usual standards, despite the loss of participation from many air forces. Disappointments it seems churlish to mention not to see the home base aircraft in the air, but with three Sentries detached to Eastern Europe crews were hard to find. The lack of USAF presence was understandable, as the majority of American aircrew in Europe had just stood down from flying the heaviest mission concentration most of its pilots could remember over three months duration. They wanted, needed and deserved a rest and to go home. They can always come back next year with a pair of Spirits to make it up to us...
Waddington's International Airshow has cemented its place as one of the premier airshows of the year, so leave your diaries free next June!