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Twelve years of Waddington wonders

This year celebrates the twelfth anniversary of the Royal Air Force Waddington International Air Show in Lincolnshire, a major event in the aviation calendar. Jim Baker looks back at the past in anticipation of another year to remember - pictures by the author unless credited otherwise.

Whilst I can't say I've attended every single show, due to holiday and other commitments, I've certainly attended the vast majority over that period, and I thought it would be interesting to turn back the pages and recall just a few of the memorable visitors we have enjoyed over the years. During the weekend of the 16/17 September 1994 RAF Finningley held its last 'Battle of Britain At Home' event, the station being scheduled for closure the following year. Indeed, in April 1995 a formal closing event took place, the aircraft being dispersed to their new homes; RAF Cranwell for the Jetstreams and Dominies, and RAF Leeming for the Hawks of 100 Squadron.

By the end of 1995 the RAF had withdrawn permanently from Finningley, and the debate had already commenced on whether it could be turned into a commercial airport complex. Closure was the catalyst for the transfer for one of the RAF's major airshow events to RAF Waddington, aided by the transfer of the airshow organiser, Sqn Ldr Paul Byram.

From the outset, the show in its new location was known as the RAF Waddington International Air Show, but it was very much reflective of its heritage and whilst the 'At Home' tag, which had been synonymous with all RAF airshows, did not appear in the advertising, it was clear that the organisation was reflective of this heritage and indeed many people associated with the show still refer to it in those terms.

Stars in our eyes

At the time the show moved to Lincolnshire, a problem became apparent in that RAF Waddington, although having similar runway assets as Finningley, presented a smaller gross area, being sandwiched between the A15 and A607 roads, and therefore had restricted parking with its contingent problems. The solution was to plan to retain and improve crowd numbers by making it a two-day event, building squarely on the foundation created by its single-day predecessor at Finningley.

To put this into perspective, the show attracts in excess of 100,000 visitors each year, therefore well over a million people have enjoyed this diverse and exciting spectacular since its inception.

The event is staged by a non-profit making organisation and apart from providing such a spectacle, the major thrust of the airshow is to raise money, divided between three principal charities; RAFA and the RAF Benevolent Fund are obvious beneficiaries, but the RAF Waddington charity committee, a body independent of the airshow, selects local charities that they feel deserve recognition and support.

So, back in 1995 when the show started, the Cold War had been consigned to history, and it was clear from military planning a peace dividend was to be sought by the rationalisation of existing manpower and assets, and so to ensure an exciting and varied airshow was still alive for the people of Yorkshire and Lincolnshire, the term 'International Air Show' became particularly relevant with the net being spread further and support being sought from foreign air arms, NATO countries, the United States Air Force and Russian and Eastern Bloc countries.

For 1995 RAF Waddington attracted the presence of two F-117As from the 37th TFW from Nellis Air Force Base, a milestone event for the inaugural airshow at the Lincolnshire airfield. Not content with this, Paul's team also added to the flying display two SU-27s from the Russian Experimental Flight Establishment at Zhukovsky, near Moscow. Whilst it wasn't unusual to see Russian aircraft performing in UK airshows, to see the United States Air Force state-of-the-art technology in concert with Russian fighters was a unique sight.

Black was the colour that year, the RAF introducing their gloss black display Tornado GR1 ZA560 from the Tri-National Tornado Training Establishment at RAF Cottesmore, closely followed by a further all-black jet in the shape of 16(R) Squadron's display Jaguar GR1 XX116.

Over the next few years RAF Waddington continued to bring variety and originality from the international arena - 1996 was crowned with the appearance of B-1B Lancers from Dyess Air Force Base in the US, supported in the flying display by Swedish Air Force J-37 Viggens and, for the first time, a private Hawker Hunter Jet Team.

The Royal Jordanian Air Force aerobatic team the Falcons were introduced to the show in 1998, flying a superb display with their Extra 300s. So that the jet heritage period was not forgotten, a privately-owned Canberra appeared, WK163 flying an absolutely supreme display resplendent in an all-aluminium silver finish, a simple but effective scheme with a note under the left-hand side of the fuselage reminding the viewers that this was the record-breaking Scorpion Jet-powered aircraft that had gained the world altitude record during a flight on 4 May 1953, attaining an altitude of 63,668ft (20,079m).

The popularity of RAF Waddington's airshow had steadily grown and in June 1999, blue skies heralded the display days, something that had been in short supply the previous years. The Canberra theme continued, but this time it was a Royal Air Force T4 in its all-blue livery carrying the serial number VN799 in tribute to the prototype aircraft of some fifty years earlier. Old favourites turned up again including the Swedish Viggens, one of which put on a stunning flying display, demonstrating a full reverse powered turn round on the runway to show the manoeuvrability of the aircraft in confined spaces, underlining the intent to fly the aircraft off public roads and motorways in the event of it being used in anger. Also in 1999 the skies over Waddington were graced with no less than three national aerobatic teams - the Patrouille Swiss in their Northrop F-5 Tiger II aircraft were joined by the French Air Force Patrouille de France in their Alpha Jets and the stunning Frecce Tricolori flying ten Aermacchi MMB/339s in outstandingly close formation. At that time the Frecce included a boxed formation landing, not undertaken by any other national team as part of their display. For the static line-up, probably the most famous post-war fighter aircraft turned up in the form of two F-4E Phantoms from the Turkish Air Force.

Everyone who is interested in airshows knows that the rumour mills start months in advance and people will speculate regarding which aircraft will be present at the show. RAF Waddington has had its share of this in the past - during the 1998 season a Lockheed Super Constellation had been brought over from the United States of America to Europe and it was hoped that this aircraft would make an appearance. Clearly the feat of bringing such a large piston engine aircraft half way across the world and then maintaining it for flying displays was an immense engineering undertaking, not to mention the cost and fuel requirements. Due to delay it didn't make the airshow and the disappointment was expressed by local wags who dubbed it the Lockheed 'Super Cancellation'.

In 1999 another aircraft suffered the same fate - a De-Havilland Sea Vixen had been brought back into flying service and again the rumour mill had gone to work, but the aircraft failed to appear during the arrivals days and it was quickly renamed the 'No See Vixen'!

For the millennium year event Paul's team again pushed the boundaries for the static display when a pair of A-4 Skyhawks were the stars of the weekend. These aircraft had been on a long-term deployment to Cazaux on the French Atlantic coast as part of an eighteen-aircraft advanced jet training detachment, and the Singapore Air Force was persuaded to provide two examples, a feat which I think has not been equalled by any other airshow organiser in the UK since. On Alpha dispersal the Skyhawks were joined by a Mirage 2000 from the Hellenic Air Force, and we also had appearances by Italian Air Force F-104S Starfighters.

Display teams were again in evidence but this time it was the F-16s of the United States Air Force Thunderbirds Team - their aerial demonstration is unique, comprising extremely close flying but in a different style to European teams. It's emphasised as being an aerial demonstration, not an aerobatic display, however the Star and Stripes shone over Lincolnshire that day with close flying that's the envy of the world. Not satisfied with one aerobatic team, the organisers also attracted the Spanish Air Force national team 'Patrulla Aguila' with their Casa 101 Aviojets, so by now the regular airshow watcher had the opportunity to see and compare six national aerobatic teams in a very short period of time.

The enthusiast is always keen to see a rare bird - something going out of service, something coming into service, something not seen yet, or something from a region that is delicately balanced and therefore has a reluctance to display its military might in the public arena; so as far as the enthusiasts are concerned, 2001 was the year! In past years there have been rare appearances from support aircraft of the Israeli air Force - understandably they are very sensitive about displaying their military in public, the security of the pilots and ground crew being the overriding cause for concern.

So the appearance of three Israeli air force F-15Is from 69 Squadron, nicknamed 'The Hammers', was kept very low-key, information provided on a need-to-know basis. In fact there wasn't any public announcement of the plan to have these aircraft at the 2001 display, but the rumour mill soon started in earnest. On the Wednesday before the airshow two IAF Boeing 707s, one providing tanker support and the other carrying ground crew, arrived over the Waddington approach with the three F-15Is. Unfortunately, the 707s, a rare sight in themselves, did not stay for the airshow, but following their departure they were quickly replaced by a C-130 from 131 Squadron (Special Forces). This contingent provided static and flying exhibits for the weekend with the Hercules in particular parked prominently on the north side of the airfield to welcome the visiting crowds.

It is standard practice in the UK that aircraft visiting that intend carrying out a flying display do so prior to the show, and that the display is approved by the appropriate committee to ensure it is safe and within acceptable limits for public appearances.

So, in compliance with these requirements, IAF F-15I 269 taxied to the Waddington runway on the Thursday before the airshow, to demonstrate to the air safety committee his intended routine. We were treated to low-level aerobatics by this huge fighter with a stunning display, concluding with the release of a series of flares dispensed around areas of the airfield! Nearly setting fire to the grass, the display committee vetoed the flares for the weekend, ensuring those present on Thursday witnessed a unique event.

The McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom began its service life in 1963 with the US Air Force and Navy and still serves today with several European air arms - the Turkish and Greek Air Forces will be among the few who will continue to fly this aircraft in the coming years.

The show for 2002 had particular treats for F-4 enthusiasts - although the RAF retired its F-4 fleet in 1992, many were retained as decoys or gate guards and a number of these aircraft had been taken to RAF Coningsby in a non-flying condition. One of these, XV497, had been brought to Waddington and repainted in the colours of 23(F) Squadron, the unit now operational on the Sentry AEW1. On the Thursday press preview day XV497 was basking in the sun, canopy open, looking as if it was a brand new aircraft just delivered and waiting for someone to start it up and taxi out. Modern-day flying examples were provided by the Turkish Air Force from 172 Filo, but the best marked Phantom of the year was unquestionably the contribution from the Luftwaffe! F-4F 38+74 arrived at Waddington for the static park, and as the airshow coincided with the football World Cup the Germans had decided that the South American country that they were going to play in the final on Saturday didn't really provide major opposition, so the fin of 38+74 was inscribed in orange, red and black lettering announcing 'Soccer World Champions 2002'. The match took place late on Saturday afternoon, and of course was won by Brazil - Sunday morning witnessed the long-faced German aircrew with a pot of grey paint!

The US Air Force had been a supporter of the show over the early years and 2002 was no exception - the aircraft was something unique again. J-STARS came to fame in the Gulf War by using its ground-mapping radar systems to track the movements of Iraqi tanks and had been instrumental in directing American ground forces. This aircraft, with its distinctive front fuselage canoe fairing carrying the sensing equipment, again served to underline the immense variation of aircraft types at the show.

Inevitably, whilst welcoming new aircraft and display teams in the huge variety that has been synonymous with the show there have been a number of farewells for aircraft and units going out of service.

In 2002 the Luftwaffe displayed both static and flying examples of the Mig-29 for the last time, prior to these aircraft passing to the Polish Air Force. In 2004, a specially-marked German Navy Tornado in a multi-coloured orange and white scheme stole the show as far as paint-jobs were concerned, but this was to be the last time the Germans provided a display aircraft. That same year the Royal Navy showed its Sea Harrier for the last time, and while Waddington had seen many of the type on ACMI over the years, this time the aircraft was painted in a commemorative blue livery for its last year of public displays.

At the same time, we were at long last able to welcome the Typhoon, examples appearing from 17(R) Squadron for both flying and static, a treat which had been awaited for many years.

The 2006 show was an opportunity to welcome the Sentinel R1 for the first time, a brand new aircraft in RAF service, displayed alongside its ground communications equipment. However, at the same time it was sad to see the Canberra leaving RAF service, a specially-marked PR9 from 39(1 PRU) Squadron was a reminder to all of the glory days of British aviation.

So we look ahead to 2007 - this year should see the first-ever participation of the Indian Air Force at a British airshow with Sukhoi Su-30s together with IL-76 Candid transport and IL-78 Midas tanker support arriving to participate in Exercise 'Indra Dhanush 07' immediately after the airshow, an event equal to that of the Israeli participation in 2001. Waddington may also be the first public display for the resurrected Vulcan XH558 that last flew in 1993, and will commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Falklands Conflict. It promises to be an event to remember, let's hope the weather is as kind as 2006!


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