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My First Airshow...

Tom McGhee recalls Air Fete '81 at RAF Mildenhall, Suffolk, on Sunday 24 May 1981

Well, for a young and keen (but talentless) photographer and spotter, the first few winter months of 1981 dragged slowly by. I impatiently awaited the start of what was to be my first serious year as an aviation enthusiast - I had read the magazines, checked the schedules and decided that the USAF base at Mildenhall in Suffolk was to be my first airshow outing.

Held over the Bank Holiday weekend as usual (so almost certain to be struck by typical British holiday weather), but only thirty-odd miles away from home made this seem like a good choice. I had absolutely no idea what to expect, but packed the usual kit of camera/lenses/binoculars etc, and as my pals and I set off without a care in the world, 'Stand and Deliver' by Adam and the Ants was blaring out of my Vauxhall Chevette's tape deck.

Mildenhall magic

Surprisingly enough the weather looked good that morning, and our early departure appeared to be paying dividends as the roads around the base were soon getting clogged up with traffic. The USAF police, who were directing traffic into the car parks with extravagant hand gestures and bellowing instructions, always seemed to be smiling, as did the seemingly thousands of other staff who were selling tickets, taking money, selling calendars and brochures, even before we managed to get out of our car. I must admit it was a bit intimidating, but all added to the atmosphere.

Within seconds though, this holiday atmosphere took on a most fantastic aroma, and we were almost dragged unwittingly (but very willingly) to the first of the numerous barbeque stands, smoke rising like a beacon to guide you in. One 'wet' burger each later and we reluctantly decided to set off to the static area. With the sun shining favourably we roamed the static park, noting down the types and serials, and snapping away merrily. For me, there was no real star of the show because it was all a new experience, and what an experience it was. Being able to get this close to such a variety of hardware, in such a friendly atmosphere, was a real treat. The American hosts couldn't do enough for us - each barbeque stand was competing with its neighbouring one, trying to out-do each other with noise, colour and entertainment. There was a multitude of stalls where aviation books and models and magazines could be bought, and it appeared everybody there was having a great day out, with at least a passing interest in aircraft.

The static park was dominated by the huge size of a USAF Lockheed C-5A Galaxy (66-8304) from the 436th MAW. This had its massive nose raised to reveal a positively gargantuan opening, and this allowed the public to walk through its cavern-like interior to the open rear clamshell doors. People were also allowed to walk through the Lockheed C-130 Hercules which was parked adjacent to the C-5, but though I'm sure it is an impressive enough aircraft in its own right, seemed a bit insignificant alongside the truly massive Galaxy. Next of note was a B-52D Superfortress (56-0694). This USAF bomber has eight engines and was widely used during the Vietnam War. Its wings are so long that it has little outrigger wheels outboard of the engines to prevent the wingtips from scraping the ground. The large static park contained many of the usual types we regularly saw - Buccaneer, F-111, F-4, F-5, Mirage V, Lightning, etc, but a brand new type was making a welcome appearance. A Belgian Air Force General Dynamics F-16B (FB-07) looked like some sort of futuristic spaceship, with its bubble canopy and gaping air intake, and no discernible join between fuselage and wing - this looked like the plane of the future!

The flightlines were an interesting area, as here you could get very close to the aircraft as they started up and taxied out to perform their flying routines. The Red Arrows were here with their recently delivered Hawks - these seemed quite a bit larger than the Gnats I'd seen them display with before, but the routine they flew was still very spectacular, although perhaps not quite as 'snappy'. My favourite item in the flying display was the Royal Navy Sea Harrier display - three aircraft from 800 NAS displayed the unique (and noisy) characteristics of vertical take-off aircraft with a superb aerial ballet of moves. Other flying display teams included the Belgian SF-260 display pair, and the spectacular Canadian Forces CF-104 Starfighter team. The Americans performed some routines too, with the MC-130 performing a demonstration of its Fulton recovery system. A pair of scissor-like arms are extended from the nose of the aircraft, ready to snatch a cable which is suspended from the ground underneath a small balloon. Attached to the cable is some package or equipment which is rapidly raised skywards, then reeled into the open rear ramp of the Hercules.

The verdict? I had a thoroughly enjoyable day, took plenty of pictures, ate too many burgers, and saw a fascinating array of aircraft displays. I just wish I could do this again...

Click here for a log of the aircraft present.

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