Now in its 16th consecutive year, the Abingdon Air & Country Show – under the leadership of Neil Porter and his dedicated team – excelled themselves again by bringing together a fantastic family day out, despite somewhat challenging conditions both before and during the show. Duncan Monk & Adam Duffield report.
The traditional season opener at the former RAF Abingdon in Oxfordshire brings together not only aviation enthusiasts, but the whole family. Despite having an initial aircraft line up many larger shows would envy, there is more to enjoy than just aircraft at this early May Bank Holiday day out. Where else could you find aircraft, falconry, tank rides, ferret racing, Daleks, brass bands, vintage vehicles, craft stalls, a Williams F1 car and Storm Troopers?!
The show donates money to the Thames Valley Air Ambulance which serves Berkshire, Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire. Based at RAF Benson, their aircraft is Eurocopter EC135T2+ G-HBOB, affectionately known as Bob to those whose life’s have been saved by this indispensable aircraft. The service is completely funded by donations and Neil and the team have donated over £53,000 since 2007, with £10,000 being donated in 2014 alone.
Opened in 1932, Abingdon airfield had served the Royal Air Force well during its 60 year history, having been home to many classic RAF aircraft, squadrons and units over the years, prior to it’s handover the British Army and renamed Dalton Barracks in 1992.
Prior to its demise as a Royal Air Force base, the airfield held an annual ‘At Home’ day throughout the 1970’s and 1980’s culminating in a final show in 1990, celebrating the 50th Anniversary of the Battle of Britain with over 80,000 people crammed inside and around the airfield.
As with any show, aircraft cancellations are common place, but Neil seemed to have more than his fair share of bad luck with a large number of cancellations on the run up to the show and on the day itself – mainly due to the poor weather.
The initial line up of aircraft announced was impressive, and included various warbirds; Kemble based Midair Squadron Canberra PR.9 G-OMHD/XH134, Westland Whirlwind HAR.10 G-BVGE/XJ729, Royal Navy Historic Flight (RNHF) Fairey Swordfish Mk.II LS326, Kennet Aviations Seafire Mk.XVII G-KASX/SX336 and the Vampire Preservation Group’s Vampire T.11 G-VTII/WZ507.
Unfortunately due to various issues, all five of these aircraft cancelled but were replaced quickly, bar the Whirlwind which was only ever intended for static display. The Canberra was replaced by Coventry based Classic Air Force’s (CAF) Meteor T7 which subsequently had a comms issue and was itself replaced by CAF’s little seen NF11. The RNHF Swordfish was replaced by increasing the Gnat display Team display from a solo to a pairs display. The North Weald based Seafire was replaced by Kennets own T-6 Texan G-KAMY. The Vampire was replaced by Duxford based T28 Fennec 14113, which subsequently suffered a nose wheel collapse at Duxford on 30th April 2015 and was unable to be replaced given the short timeframe.
The Royal Air Force Battle of Britain Memorial Flight (RAF BBMF) fully supported the show with initially the Lancaster/Spitfire/Hurricane, Dakota and new for 2015 Synchro 75 – Spitfire/Typhoon. Sadly the Lancaster was unserviceable on show day, leaving the Hurricane and Spitfire to display as a pair – although due to issues with its Public Display Approval. the Lancaster would only have been able to perform flypasts rather than a full display.
It seemed fitting that in 2015, the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Britain and 25 years since the last RAF At Home day at Abingdon, the Royal Air Force chose to debut its ‘Synchro 75’ Eurofighter Typhoon and BBMF Spitfire pair at Abingdon airfield. For 2015 Eurofighter Typhoon ZK349 – from 29(R) Squadron at RAF Coningsby – has been painted in a camouflage scheme to represent the markings of a 249 Squadron Hawker Hurricane which was flown by Wing Commander Nicolson VC DFC. Affectionately nicknamed the ‘Hurriphoon’, it was paired with and flown alongside RAF BBMF Spitfire Mk XVI, TE311.
The precursor to the show sees a small night shoot take place on the airfield on the Saturday night. Around 45 photographers paid to attend, braving the wind and intermittent rain to raise £900 for charity. There was a varied selection of aircraft to photograph with the following present; Consolidated Catalina G-PBYA , a pair of Austers, Gazelle Squadron helicopters ZB627/G-CBSK & XZ934/G-CBSI, Gyro Air Displays Gyrocopter G-ULUL, Yak-52 G-YAKI, Bronco Demo Team OV-10B G-ONAA and Short SK.7 Skyvan G-PIGY. It was also announced at the night shoot that the RAF Puma HC.2 had also cancelled due to lack of available serviceable airframes.
The weather forecast on the week leading up to the event had put a lot of people off, but was improving as the week went on. Sunday morning was foul with lashing rain and wind but, as forecast, it relented around 10am and the crowd swelled as the morning went on. Due to the early rain, strong winds and more predicted rain later in the day most of the visiting aircraft flying in cancelled with only five braving the conditions against a booked 65. A high profile display cancellation early on the Sunday was the Royal Navy Sea King HAR.5, which was put down to bad weather at its base at Royal Naval Air Station Culdrose in Cornwall.
The airshow opened on time at 13:20 with the RV8tors performing in sunshine, but a glimpse to the Southwest saw it wouldn’t last. Rod Dean in the Scottish Aviation Bulldog was next on displaying in a small but heavy passing shower. With the Lancaster cancelled, Skyvan G-PIGY took off with the renegade parachute display team embarked to climb to dropping height, followed by the OV-10B Bronco which put on a spirited display with its day-glo markings standing out against the dark sky.
A unique display not often seen in the UK was from the Gyro Air Displays GyroCopter. Complete with smoke generator, the pilot put his aircraft through a serious of aerobatic manoeuvres, tight turns and spiral climbs and descents which the crowd thoroughly enjoyed and was one of the unexpected highlights of the day.
With a rare gap in the weather and blue skies overhead, the Renegade Parachute display team may have avoided the rain but still had the strong winds to content with. After climbing to altitude and dropping their wooden markers (landing well outside the airfield boundary showing the strength of the wind) the team showed their skill by landing as intended close in to the crowd line.
With Bronco and G-PIGY repositioning to nearby RAF Brize Norton for fuel the two Gnats of the Gnat Display Team arrived to display. As the display started the rain began to fall and the cloud base dropped meaning a very flat show for the Gnats, and a heart stopping moment for the crowd. It was difficult to spot the aircraft form the ground when they split for opposition passes and the general feeling was the weather must have been on the limit. As the Gnat commentator announced the team were about to perform their final manoeuvre, a flat heart, the aircraft turned towards the crowd with the lead turned to the left and the no.2 to the right. However, the second aircraft appeared to be nose up yet getting lower and lower to the point that quite a number of people around the author were heard to say ‘pull up’, ‘no no no’ and ‘holy sh*t! Just when it looked like the inevitable would happen, the aircraft gained height and continued its turn. It was at that point the Gnat Team finished and departed, and the air display was put on hold for about 45 minutes as a large weather cell passed by, which was the correct decision based on what had just been witnessed.
Due to the weather conditions, Lauren Richardson had to cancel her Pitts display whilst on the ground and despite holding for as long as possible, the Jet Provost could delay no longer and had to return back to base. With the Yak 3 failing to get airborne from Duxford earlier in the day due to weather, this was another display that went by the wayside as a result of uncontrollable circumstances.
For many the highlight of the day was to be the Synchro 75 Typhoon & Spitfire display, but with the weather showing no sign of relenting it looked like they too would have to scrub. With the Typhoon holding to the West and the Spitfire on the ground at Brize Norton, the Typhoon informed the organisers that there was a gap in the weather approaching, much to the relief of those that had remained and ridden out the downpour.
Sure enough, the weather broke and the public debut of Synchro 75 was unveiled to the expectant crowd. A number of very tight formation passes were performed before the aircraft split for opposition passes. Considering the dark aircraft schemes, poor light and conditions at the time, the display is very well put together, photogenic, unique and a fitting tribute.
Following on, and top siding in from stage left in beautiful sunshine came CAF’s Meteor NF11 piloted by Jon Corley, which continued to give a polished performance for the rest of its rarely seen display. The Kennet Aviation T6 Texan flown by Lieutenant Commander Chris Gotke appeared as the skies once again darkened, but provided a great contrast in displays after the high powered Meteor.
The two Silence Twisters of the Twister Duo were ideal candidates to perform in the low light conditions with their unique LED lit aircraft. Often performing at night and with pyrotechnics (although not at Abingdon) the illuminated agile aircraft stood out strongly and given the strong winds, put on a very tight and well polished routine.
The second of the RAF BBMF acts to perform was the C-47 Dakota ZA947, which trundled in from its hold out to the Southwest to gracefully display its best features. Kudos to the crewman in the back of the Dakota, who in the pouring rain was still waving to the crowd from the rear door –surely not an easy task to endure in those conditions.
Plane Sailing’s Consolidated Catalina PBY-5A G-PBYA based at Duxford is another of those graceful old aircraft that the UK is lucky to have based on these shores. Originally ordered by the Canadian Air Force it was taken on charge in 1943, and is another veteran of the Second World War. Showing all her attributes, including the raising and lowering of her floats, the Catalina stood out well and prior to departure was blessed to be sat with a rainbow backdrop.
The last display of the day was the final offering from the RAF BBMF in the form of the Spitfire and Hurricane. Initially performing together, the aircraft were a fitting end to the day at Abingdon, with the sound of the two Merlin engines filling the sky. After splitting the aircraft performed individually before joining back up for a final pass prior to departing back to Coningsby. Given the conditions throughout the day you have to admire the RAF BBMF for their persistence to achieve their mission – a fitting tribute to colleagues who fought for their country 75 years ago.
If there are two main things that any airshow organiser cannot directly control, it is the weather and display cancellations. However, it is how both are handled that shows the true mark of the organisation skills and Neil Porter and his team really showed how slick their operation is. Despite all the display cancellations thrown at them, they tirelessly worked to find suitable replacements and kept everyone well informed of the situation as it happened. Even during the torrential downpours, commentator Ben Dunnell continued on, filling the gaps in the air display with the latest updates on conditions and other events around the show ground – a difficult task for 45 minutes straight!
Abingdon Air and Country show may have had its fair share of inclement conditions and bad luck but to still pull off the show in the way it did really is incredible and is testament to the team behind it. No amount of rain will keep us away from returning to the event in 2016!