Airshows: The Golden Years? By Dave Eade
As memories of the airshow season fade, and the thought comes to mind that it is eight long months to the start of the next round, you will perhaps forgive the musings of a sad spotter.
It is always easy to glamorise the "old-days" as far as show content goes, but were they so great?
Introduced to airshows in the late 1950s, I live in the heart of East Anglia, so long the place to be as far as aircraft interest was concerned. In those heady days, one has to remember that World War Two was only a few years ago to many and both the Royal Air Force and United States Air Force in Europe had maintained their numbers to deal with the newly perceived threat from the Iron Curtain. Within a radius of some forty miles, I could, had I the transport, visit no less than ten air bases, all active and BUSY. When one considers the aviation desert that Suffolk has become today, it unbelievable that one could see:
Wattisham: Meteor 8 and 13/14; three Squadrons.
Honington: Canberras and V-bombers of ALL sorts.
Felixstowe: Sunderlands and SAR helicopters.
Shepherds Grove: F84G Thunderstreaks.
Bentwaters: F86 Sabres and F84 Thunderjets.
Woodbridge: F-86, F-84, F-84G.
Wethersfield: F-86, F-84, F-84G.
Martlesham Heath: Various RAF types.
Lakenheath: SAC deployments, B-29/B-47/B-50.
Mildenhall: USAF freighters and SAC deployments.
Times changed and new, more sophisticated, machinery became the norm. Meteors gave way to Hunters, Sabres became Super and took over the role of the F-84s while F101 Voodoos took lodgings at the now twin bases of Bentwaters and Woodbridge.
For airshows, which were of course free in those days, one looked to the Americans at Bentwaters and Wethersfield with occasional flings at Lakenheath and Mildenhall. Cream of the crop was Wethersfield who always seemed to be able to pull in the most remarkable static display and fliers from all over NATO. Aerobatic teams from Italy (Black Lancers) Belgium (F-84G and Hunter team) and France vied with the then Black Arrows for supremacy, although for sheer noise and effect the Americans could always steal the show with the F-100 team of the Skyblazers.
I do not remember the "Mildenhall atmosphere" in those days at shows, but American "Coke" had a treacle texture and the resultant burps were always extremely violent.
From our own RAF, we had to wait until September for the At Home days commemorating the Battle of Britain. I was taken to my first ever display at Horsham St. Faith (now Norwich Airport) to watch processions of formations, some four-ship, others greater, which in those days would be flown around the country visiting all the shows of the day. It should be remembered that ALL or nearly all RAF stations would be open on the Saturday closest to September 15th. I recall four-ships of Lincolns, Attackers and Beverleys (yes Beverleys) at Wattisham, which in later years gave way to formations of the three V-bombers and Britannias. No show was complete without the refuelling demo by, usually, a KB-50J with the "century fighters" represented by F-101 Voodoo, F-100 Super Sabre and F-102 Delta Dagger or F-104 Starfighter in tow. Traditionally, the shows at US bases included a large amount of local participation often a mass launch of F-100s from Wethersfield (20 TFW) or Lakenheath (where the 48 TFW had taken refuge after becoming Persona non-grata in France). Typically sixteen to twenty aircraft would roar off, one at a time, to open the show, provide a mass flypast mid-way through before closing the show with a mass break and landing. I didnt collect serials in those days, but this must have been heaven sent to the number crunchers of the day, particularly those from out of town.
The mention of number crunchers leads me on to talk of security in those days. Readers should be aware that even national shows like Farnborough have not always been as "open" as they are today. Although the early fifties were the heady days for British new types, shown to the air-minded public at the yearly SBAC show, cameras were forbidden. This was true also of the Battle of Britain shows on RAF stations. It is also true of course that the average camera-bod in those days possessed a very simple piece of apparatus, nothing like the total sophistication seen in every spotters hand today. The sight of a 400mm lens would have definitely led to arrest at most USAF bases particularly Lakenheath or Mildenhall, with its frequent SAC B-47 deployment, parked by the road, but surrounded by machine gun toting guards. Sculthorpe was also known in those days as a place NOT to stop.
I make no excuse for referring back to the subject of base participation. Of the shows I have visited this year, Cambrai was the sole example of a base including plenty of local fare. A mock attack by the based Mirage 2000s was both refreshing and spectacular. So why not the same from the F-15Es of the 48 FW at UK shows. The excuse of time to practise is often thrown up, but no practise should be necessary It's what they do every day! Who can recall more than one Jaguar in the sky? We are told they are the business at Ground Attack, so lets see some of it perhaps instead of the solo aerobatics which is well out of character. Leuchars, this year, could provide only one F3 Tornado, and that was the 25 Squadron regular all the more frustrating when the Squadrons offered a formation and were turned down! Added to pilot expertise, in this event, is the exhibition of ground-staff skills in getting a large number of machines in the air. God help us when Typhoon hits squadron strength. We have moved a long way from the sixteen-ship of Lightnings at Coltishall (1971 was it?) or the superb display by five Tornados at the last Leeming bash they knew exactly what the crowd wanted!
So, to return to my original question, yes, I think that the displays of old WERE better. We have become a bunch of moaners who, if there are not fifteen Flankers at Fairford, think we have been ripped off - and if there are fifteen again next year, we complain that it is boring. In the past we were just grateful for what we got, and hadnt forgotten the fact that none of it is our right, its all a privilege.
But who can't wait for Mildenhall 2001?