Abingdon Air and Country Show has become the traditional season opener for the main UK air display season. Often attracting some of the finest displays from around the country, its ability to ‘punch above its weight’ has often been seen. Adam Duffield and Duncan Monk were there to see how the 2016 show fared against a backdrop of ever tightening airshow regulations.

Now in its 17th year, the Abingdon Air and Country Show raises significant sums of money for local charities with over £75,000 raised to date. Being much more to than just an air display, there is plenty to entertain the entire family including displays by the Thames Valley Police Mounted division and falconry amongst those taking place in the arena and a sizeable classic and military vehicle display that attracted much attention. Interestingly for 2016, the stalls that run along the crowd line appeared to have been moved back slightly, giving a larger viewing area of the main display axis. This gave a much less cramped and more comfortable feel during the afternoons flying.

As has become a recent occurrence on the night before the event, a number of aircraft arrived on the Saturday and formed the basis of a nightshoot event to help raise additional funds. Look out for a follow up piece covering the evening’s antics itself.

The static aircraft display area makes use of the airfield’s cross-runway allowing aircraft to arrive and taxi in to their parking position for the public to view. As well as specifically invited aircraft, a number of the more ‘interesting’ fly-in arrivals visiting for the day are placed within close view alongside the majority of the days display aircraft. For the 2016 edition of the show, there can be no doubting the star of the static display was the Belgian Air Force NH-90 TTH RN-08 taking pride of place in amongst a smaller selection of other rotary types. These included the Thames Valley Air Ambulance Airbus Helicopters H135 G-TVAL (for which a vast majority of the days charitable donations are given) and three aircraft from the Gazelle Squadron in the form of Westland Gazelle HT.3s XZ934/G-CBSI and ZB627/G-CBSK and their dwarfed Guimbal Cabri G-SDTL.

On the fixed-wing side of the static there was one item in particular that has been a regular at the event but was attending its final show. Following the announcement on the March 10, 2016 regarding the restructure of the Volunteer Gliding Squadrons (VGS), 612 VGS who are based at the airfield will be disbanded by the end of the year. It was therefore fitting for them to attend the show one final time with one of their Grob Vigilant ZH266 motor gliders on display, fittingly next to a Grob Tutor G-BYVL – the numbers of which in use with Air Experience Flights is set to increase. A regular visitor to the show was the OV-10B Bronco operated by Tony De Bruyn that now sports tiger markings both on the centerline tank and tail flashes. Other visiting aircraft included a Yak-52 G-YAKI, SIAI-Marchetti SF260 G-ITAF, a Vietnam schemed Helio H-295 Super Courier G-BAGT and a large number of general aviation types from visiting pilots.

From the start of the year the organisers had made it clear that the flying display would be a mostly prop and rotary based affair and, with the early cancellation of the Sea Vixen it was announced that there would be no jet aircraft booked in its place. Sadly, in the days before the show the Yak-3 also cancelled due to maintenance issues however, a strong and varied lineup remained. The forecast weather for the afternoon led to an amount of shuffling of the intended flying programme to ensure that all displays were able to fly in the best conditions available.

Opening the flying display on the day were the Jump 4 Heroes parachute display team putting who dropped from the visiting Short Skyvan – G-PIGY. The team represent the Royal British Legion and with their distinctive poppy schemed outfits and canopies aim to raise awareness of them and help to raise vital funds. Joined for the display by members of the Royal Logistic Corps Silver Stars parachute team, 14 parachutists jumped from around 5,000ft for the display that included a pair of Jump 4 Heroes members bringing a sizeable union flag back to the ground.

Making a return visit to the show was Peter Davies in his RotorSport Calidus Autogyro G-ULUL. His display was just as impressive this year showing off handling and performance of the Autogyro that you wouldn’t have thought was possible. Whilst a small aircraft in itself, the combination of its low display speed and small turning radius kept the diminutive aircraft close to and in front of the crowd line at all times.

The move to a more prop driven display lineup led to a number of different displays at the event including some very rarely seen items. Flying the Shipping and Airlines operated Travel Air 12Q G-AAOK biplane was Dan Griffith for a graceful display. Built in 1931 and the only one of its type to operate in the UK, this particular aircraft undertook a 20 year restoration before returning to the air. Flown by Kevin Hale, Auster AOP6 TW536/G-BNGE made a return to the display circuit with its first Abingdon display. Delivered to the Army in 1946 where it served in the air observation role, the stronger wind during its display slot gave a perfect change to show off some of the slow speed flight that made the type so successful in the role. Demonstrating higher levels of performance and handling that were available only a few years later was Simon Wilson in Percival Provost T1 XF690/G-MOOS. Predecessor to the Jet Provost, the display by the Royal Navy Historic flight pilot started at height to allow effective energy management enabling a number of aerobatic manoeuvers before gradually reducing height.

Returning to Abingdon for this year was the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight fighter pairs display featuring Supermarine Spitfire Mk LF XVIe (TE311) and Hawker Hurricane Mk IIc (LF363). Piloted by Officer Commanding Andy Millikin and Squadron Leader Mark Discombe respectively, this was one of the best pairs displays by the BBMF that we have seen for some years. Starting with some lovely, close formation turns before splitting in to solo display of the Spitfire followed by Hurricane, the two fighters rejoined for a further two formation passes before disappearing onwards to their next commitment. Following shortly afterwards was the beautiful Curtiss P-40 Kittyhawk operated and flown by Peter Teichman. Whilst a more aerobatic display than that of the BBMF, the Kittyhawk appeared somewhat more distant during its display although this could have been due to additional height within the sequence for the maneouvers. Regardless, it is a wonderful aircraft to see in action with the aerobatics providing a contrast to the previous item.

In terms of fully aerobatic displays there were two very different designs showing off their capabilities. Peter Wells has been a regular at the show with the Silence Twister featuring not only as a solo display but also as part of the Twister Team. In an all-white aircraft (G-TWST), the display featured an impressive triple smoke setup with the more traditional white smoke system in the center from the exhaust whilst wingtip systems gave red and blue smoke on the port and starboard sides respectively. Featuring even more advanced aerobatics was Lauren Richardson in her Pitts S-1S G-BKDR. With rolls, loops and tumbles aplenty alongside some lovely precision snap rolls, the smallest of the Pitts family made the most of the skies available. In a similar manner to the Piston Provost, the display started high to make the most of the energy available before finishing with some lovely passes lower and closer to the crowd.

The largest of the aircraft on display both in the air and on static was that of the PBY Catalina G-PBYA. With an impressive wingspan and distinctive looks, the aircraft was originally built for the Royal Canadian Air Force where it was operated as a Canso. Just over 10 years ago, after transferring to the UK and the British civilian register, the aircraft was painted to represent USAAF OA-10 Catalina 44-33915 which was disabled by enemy fighters following a sea landing to rescue a P-51 Mustang pilot with its crew abandoning to dinghies and eventually making it back to safety some days later.

In terms of highlights of the flying display, those plaudits must be handed jointly to three different displays – two rotary and one fixed-wing. Making a most welcome return to the flying display circuit was the Historic Aircraft Flight Trust (Ed note: more of which can be found here – https://www.aeroresource.co.uk/news/historic-aircraft-flight-trust/) with a pair of their helicopters. Formerly the Army Historic Flight, many thought that their aircraft might not make a return to flight but have thankfully been proved wrong with the pairing of Agusta-Bell Sioux AH Mk1 XT131/G-CICN and Westland Scout AH Mk1 XT626/G-CIBW bringing historic Army aviation back to the forefront of the public’s minds. In a similar vein, a historic Royal Navy rotary type was on display in the form of Westland Wasp HAS.1 HT787/G-KAXT flown by Terry Martin. Originally developed from the Westland Scout, it is another example of the historic types that have been making a welcome return to the UK’s display scene over the last couple of years. It was especially great to see all three of these rotary aircraft on static at the northern end of the airfield after their arrival accompanied by a wonderful backdrop for photos. Representing the fixed-wing highlight was another recent return to display flying in the form of Bristol Blenheim Mk1 L6739/G-BPIV. Making a return to UK circuit in 2015, it is thought that the Blenheim’s arrival and landing at Abingdon may have been the first of the type since the Second World War ended and its inclusion in the flying display was one of inspiration. An almost poetic segment of flying amongst the odd glimmer of sun, the Blenheim proves that you do not need large, noisy jets to draw attention with the crowd line visibly denser during its display.

Abingdon Air and Country Show 2016 certainly had a different feel to those that went before it, but also shows how displays can be adapted. Recent regulation changes may have stopped smaller shows from booking some of the more energetic jet displays which, with them, bring further restrictions but that doesn’t mean that makes it less of an airshow. The variation and quality of aircraft on display just goes to prove that despite the hype, airshows are not dead, they can continue just as successfully as they did before albeit in a slightly different manner (which will, no doubt, take some adjusting to). The ability for such a show to pull off the attendance of the Belgian NH-90 show should also not be overlooked and was a terrific addition to the static. With the organisers looking at a potential change of date for 2017, it would be a shame to lose Abingdon as the traditional season opener however it’s easy to see why a later date may appeal to some and allow display acts more of a chance to prepare for the season ahead. But, whatever happens, Abingdon is both an event and venue that continues to provide excellent value for money (just £12 for an advance ticket for 2016) and we look forward to seeing what may be in store for 2017.