Once home to the 493rd Bomb Group of the Eight US Air Force, Old Buckenham now serves as a popular general aviation airfield attracting high numbers of visitors from around the country. Once a year however it transforms itself into Norfolk’s largest airshow. Adam Duffield attended for AeroResource.

Old Buckenham airfield is well known amongst Norfolk locals. Not only does the airfield Café, Jimmys, offer their wonderful Sinful Sundays menu, it plays host to a number of varied events throughout the year including fly-ins, vintage car and bike rallies and, later on this year, a new event called Military Revival focusing on ground based displays rather than air. Following a break in 2011, the airshow staged a successful return to the calendar in 2012 and attracted large crowds despite the weather conditions and a date clash with the Lowestoft Seafront show on the same day.

For the first time in the shows history, the organising team decided to split the show over two days for 2013 to allow for a relaxed Saturday of pleasure flying for visitors and practice displays with the Sunday reserved for the main display activities themselves. This approach was certainly different to many other small shows and the popularity of the pleasure flight bookings in the preceding week meant that the time allocated had to be drastically increased and the display practices cancelled.

On arrival at the airfield, it was clear the weather wasn’t going to play ball. Strong winds with heavily overcast conditions and short, sharp showers meant that the first 3 hours of pleasure flying had to be cancelled. With a number of stalls, classic cars and military vehicles around the grounds however there was plenty to look at and enjoy in between the rain. Despite the conditions, a local radio controlled aircraft club managed to fly a number of their smaller models in the testing conditions. With 30 minutes of flying a variety of ducted fan and prop driven small aircraft, it was interesting to watch the skilful touch displayed by the pilots despite the winds best effort to ruin it. Back at their stand however it became very clear that the weather had put pay to a display of larger scale aircraft including a very detailed, twin jet engine, Yak-130 capable of consuming 8 litres of AvGas in under 6 minutes of flight.

With a break starting to appear in the clouds just after lunch the scheduled pleasure flights could begin.  A Robinson R44 (G-JBKA) and the Old Buckenham Flying Club’s Piper PA28 (G-LFSC) provided most of these flights running for most of the afternoon and were joined later by the resident Boeing Stearman (G-OBEE) once the wind had subsided a little. Also on frequent flying duty were 3 Pitts S-2’s from the Wildcats Display team who were providing a slightly different flying experience to some lucky sponsors attending the show. The only flying display practice of the day that could be catered for was Matt Summers in his Vans RV-8 (G-RVPL) however, on the ground, a number of the military vehicles braved the returning rain to provide a brief parade on around the airfield towards the end of the day.

On arrival to the second day of the show, it was clear that many more classic cars, military vehicles and stands had arrived to fill gaps around the airfield along with a couple of positioned local aircraft on static display. With the weather conditions on Saturday being so unpredictable, almost all of the display acts had postponed their arrival until the Sunday morning in the hope of an improvement. Early arrivals of the RV8tors, 3 aircraft in formation from Little Gransden and the Old Flying Machine Company Spitfire gave the public a taste of the main display although a couple of very heavy but short showers interrupted the events during the morning. A single flythrough by a Westland Sea King HAR.3 (ZH542) from RAF Wattisham was an unexpected welcome surprise from many.

The flying display itself was only planned for around 2.5 hours length and kicked off just after midday with the RV8tors display team. The pairing of Alister Kay and Andy Hill put on their usual high quality performance of formation aerobatics and it was immediately obvious that the conditions in the air were tough with the aircraft being blown around the sky. Despite this however, they remained close throughout the routine and the new lights fitted for this year really stood out against the black clouds forming in the distance.

A trio of display pilots based at Little Gransden airfield in Bedfordshire provided solo aerobatic displays at the show with three different aircraft. For Adrian Willis, displaying in an Extra 200 (G-EEEK), this was his first airshow display not that you would realise from watching. As part of the British Aerobatic Academy, Adrian is a highly experienced Aerobatic pilot so along with a well thought out display routine the short sharp shower that hit during the middle of his routine, that saw most of the crowd dive for cover, didn’t appear to faze him. Showing the more powerful Extra 300 (G-EXIL) was Chris Burkett. Showing off the unlimited aerobatics manoeuvres the crowd were kept highly entertained as he tumbled and turned through the air often through his own smoke trail. Completing the trio was Lauren Richardson in her Pitts S-1S (G-BKDR). One of very few female display pilots, this was only her second airshow display during her first display season and was performed very well. Putting the single seat aircraft through a number of loops and turns there was always something happening with Lauren showing her hatred of straight and level flight by linking almost every manoeuvre with as many rolls as possible.

Whilst visibly almost identical to Lauren’s S1-S it’s not until you look a little closer that you start to realise that Rich Goodwin’s Pitts S-2S (G-EWIZ) is a little different to normal. This particular example has had a number of modifications to it recently that not only makes it look slightly different but also enhance its performance. This was immediately noticeable with its incredible take off roll and subsequent display where the noise of the tuned engine and exhaust really stood out as noticeably different from the other Pitts examples in attendance. With further modifications planned for next season including revised wings to improve roll rate this brilliant display can only get better.

After his debut performance at last years show, Matt Summers returned this year for another display in his Vans RV-8 (G-RVPL) demonstrating the solo capabilities of this home build aircraft very well. Rod Dean, in a Scottish Aviation Bulldog (XX543/G-CBAB) also put on a wonderful display and showed that flowing aerobatic displays don’t always have to be about aircraft size or power.

With his display in the RV8tors complete, Andy Hill had left earlier in the afternoon and collected the only jet display aircraft of the day from Duxford – Jet Provost T5 (XW324). With added noise and speed, the display was well performed keeping close to the airfield at all times. With damp air conditions, the rare sight of streamers from the wing tip tanks was also seen during a number of turns and pull ups adding a few different opportunities for photographers.

One of the most publicised acts at the show this year was Brendan O’Brien’s Flying Circus. Many of us will have seen him perform over the years with his unique trailer top landings in his Piper Cub (G-BPCF) however his attempt to complete this at Old Buckenham would have seen him take a Guinness World Record. With the runway being only 800 meters in length this would have secured Brendan the record of shortest trailer top landing. Despite several valiant attempts, including a couple where both wheels were on the trailer, the strength of the wind scuppered the plans and the record went unbroken. Rest assured that the team at Old Buckenham will be trying again to get this record and no doubt the request for next years booking is already on its way.

The airfield is lucky enough to have its own resident display team in the form of the Wildcats. AeroResource spent time with the Wildcats towards the end of last year and heard snippets of information on their plans for winter and the 2013 season. Last year, operating a Pitts S-2A and S-2B (G-ZIII) flown by Al Coutts and Willie Cruickshank they have now been joined by British Advanced Aerobatic Team member David Jenkins in his Edge 360 (G-EDGJ) to form a unique 3-ship team. With the superior power of the Edge, Al has also replaced his S-2A with an S-2B (G-DIII) which has had some serious attention over the winter. Their display was one of the most anticipated of the day, being the home team, and they didn’t disappoint. From the initial 3-ship ‘Wildcat Break’ and throughout  the display there was constant action as the pair of Pitts battled the wind to stay in close formation and interchanging in 2-3 minute intervals with David tumbling around the skies in his Edge.

For many however the highlight of the day may well have been the Old Flying Machine Company’s Spitfire Mk.IX MH434. Originally planned to be flying a formation routine with Ferocious Frankie, the Mustang had to pull out of the event due to engine coolant issues. Despite this and a slight delay due to another sharp shower, the glorious sound of the Merlin engine soon rang around the airfield as Steve Jones displayed the aircraft to its best.

Whilst the quality of the display acts themselves was high, there were a couple of minor negatives that affected the show in general. The crowd line for viewing is mostly to the left of display centre due to various buildings and hangars restricting access to the right. Although this is signposted as ‘premium viewing space’ a number of stalls and military vehicle displays had either setup or abandoned equipment right up against the viewing fence line obstructing quite a significant proportion of  especially for those wanting to be at the midpoint. The other is the price of entrance to the show itself. Old Buckenham is one of the few remaining shows that charges per car rather than per person and, while £25 per car represents astonishing value for money for a full car of 5 people, it is very expensive for a single adult wanting to visit and may well have kept some paying public away from visiting.

If you are looking for a show with a long air display full of the latest and greatest fast jets and military participation then this is certainly not the show for you. However, if you are looking for a friendly, welcoming airshow with display bookings of quality over quantity then you certainly cannot go wrong with Old Buckenham. The use of the two days to allow pleasure flying was a brilliant idea and certainly helped bring in visitors on the Saturday. With two years of poor weather in a row, the organisers must be due a perfect conditions show next year and no doubt they will attract the same quality of display acts.