Southend Airshow 2006 Review
Sunday 28th May - Monday 29th May
Southend - an airshow of two halves. Whilst the seafront draws in gigantic crowds to watch the aircraft dance in the skies, the local airport also opens its doors for a closer look at the participants. Although it's generally accepted that the airport is the better place to be for the photographers amongst us, the seafront does have some merits of its own. In this report of two halves, we'll show you everything that the Southend Airshow weekend has to offer.
braved the showers at the seafront whilst stayed near shelter at the airport! All photography by the authors.
Let's begin with some good news. Now into its 21st year, it was feared that this may be the last airshow to be staged over the Thames Estuary, as the airshow was coming under fire from local authorities and the sponsorship agreement with the Westcliff Casino was up for renewal. Thankfully, they've extended their deal until 2008, which means at the very least, we can expect Southend to host the first major event of the UK Airshow calendar for another two years.
In the build-up to the show, not only were there doubts about the show's future, but also one or two questions were being asked about the present too. Details of participants weren't coming through particularly fast, and by mid-April we only knew of a handful of provisionally booked performers. This wasn't helped by the fact that the RAF dates weren't published until fairly late, but the list looked a lot healthier once the military participation had been announced.
Aside from the usual suspects like the Utterly Butterlies and Will Curtis' Road Angel team (formerly the Honda Dream Team), additional civilian participation came from the new 2Excel sponsored aerobatic display team 'The Blades', flying a four-ship of bright orange Extra 300LPs, led by former Red 1, Andy Offer. Finally, from France, came the 'Patrouille Reva' flying a trio of unusual Acroez aircraft, or 'coat hangers' as they were affectionately dubbed by fellow UKAR representatives at the airport!
In addition to the BBMF, further warbird content came from Duxford, with OFMCs P-51D 'Ferocious Frankie' teaming up with fellow resident B-17 'Sally B' and Hardwick based Mustang 'Janie'.
The only planned classic jet that managed to make it to display came in the shape of the Red Bull Sea Vixen. Unfortunately, the expected Hunter had run into some problems when she was about to get underway (more on that later), and the Canberra that had been on the provisional list in the weeks before the show sadly had to be scrubbed.
Being as this is the local show for both of your reporters, it would be rude for either of us not to attend both days, but whilst Dan spent the Sunday and Monday at the airport, Phil went half and half and headed out to the seafront to watch the show proper on the Monday.
The weather forecast for the day wasn't great, and whilst walking towards the 'front it started to drizzle - not a good start! Added to the weather problem, a number of aircraft wouldn't be showing up. Southend airport has become somewhat of a graveyard for the BBMF's aircraft, with the Lancaster damaging its tail wheel on landing on the Sunday and unable to take part in the display, continuing a tradition that has seen many of the Flight 'enjoying' a prolonged stay by the seaside. Also missing was Hunter FGA9 XE601 which suffered a split tail pipe when attempting to depart its home base for the show. This ETPS liveried classic would have been one of the highlights of the show, and one would hope that we get to see her at future events after a hopefully short termed repair.
The RAF Falcons decided to jump early before the incoming tide encroached onto their drop zone, which turned out to have been an inspired move as the cloud base dropped soon after they'd collected their chutes. As a rough guide, if the chimneys on the Kent coast opposite are not in view then the viz is outside of limits. No chimneys to be seen! As the kick-off time for the display proper approached an extreme downpour seemed to empty a lot of the clag onto the crowd below, the large erections opposite appeared through the mist, and a civilian Islander appeared from the left. We have a show! The Islander was towing a banner instructing us not to 'Drink and Drown'. At some points during the day this was a serious risk to anyone looking upwards!
A sweet display by the Tucano was followed by another one from the Golden Apple's F-86A Sabre substituting for the Hunter on the Monday only. Best of all, the clouds had given way to blue skies with a background of towering fluffy stuff which made for some nice photo opportunities. Two of the RAF's large units proved that big can be beautiful. The Hercules C4 and Chinook always like to defy their size, and this they did with their usual aplomb. The phrase from one extreme to the other hardly describes the difference in proportions to the following act. The Patrouille Reva's tiny Varieze (or Acroeze) 'coat-hangers' could have displayed inside either of those transports!
More 'standard' Airshow fair - in the shape of the Road Angel Pitts Special, the Tornado GR4, Sally B and the two Mustangs - continued the high quality program as the weather closed in temporarily, before we were apparently witness to some terrorist activity. Some dashing Marines had to fast-rope down from a Sea King HC4 Commando to rescue a police launch from the bad dudes. Hurrah!
The Yaks of the Aerostars made the best of a spell of blue skies, with the sun picking out the strong colours of the team's mounts - as it did with the Sea Vixen. Classic jet star prize must once again go to Brian Grant in the Red Bull sponsored de Havilland beauty. The Thames estuary setting was the perfect backdrop for the twin-boomed jet's immaculate routine, which includes some fantastic top side passes and rolls, and even managed to drag some streamers from the air. Absolutely stunning. As G-CVIX was going to depart back to her home base after displaying, Paul, the crew chief had to be on-board for the display. He hates flying in it! Maybe that's why this display seemed to me to be even more dynamic than usual!
Further acts taking advantage of the increased viz were The Blades, the specially marked Hawk, and the Utterly Butterly's four-ship. The Blades were giving their first public display and are currently sporting St. George crosses on their undersides which they'd previously displayed to the England football squad over 'Beckingham Palace'.
The Black Cats and Harrier GR7 were as tight as always as the light levels dropped once again. The rain returned, and we were hit by a Typhoon - that of the canard (appropriate given the conditions) wielding variety! Southend was honoured to host the debut of the young fighter's single seat F2 model. With burners lighting the dark sky I was surprised how little vapour Matt Elliott managed to produce for us. I was also surprised how few re-heats he produced, with one of them appearing to go 'tech' towards the end of his routine.
So that was that. All that remained was to walk the couple of miles back to the airport in the pouring rain, contemplating on the day's show - and why the hell hadn't I taken the chance of heavy traffic and driven down!
The other alternative that Southend provides is of course the airport open weekend, and unlike last year we were charged for the pleasure this time around; a very reasonable £6 for adults and £4 for young-uns. Granted, the seafront is free, but few other days out on the calendar will offer you as much "bang for your buck" as the airport manages to.
Even with the increase in the ticket price at the gate, the airport authorities couldn't (or wouldn't?) stump up the cash to pay the fuel bill that would have enabled XL426 to make a high-speed blast down the runway, so she spent the weekend parked up for cockpit tours. An opportunity missed, it has to be said.
Aside from the P-51 pair, Sally B, the Aerostars and the RAF SAR Sea King, everything in the flying display was to be found operating from the airport, which means there's almost always something happening to keep the crowds entertained. The military helicopters also spent the weekend going up and down like yo-yos, taking Air Cadets up on short flights.
There are plenty of other seaside airshows where you don't have such a viable alternative, and I prefer to take advantage of the opportunities the airport provides which won't be repeated throughout the rest of the show season, unlike the displays themselves which I'll invariably see many more times over the coming weeks and months!
Whether you head for the seafront or the airport, Southend is an established show on the calendar and year on year the organisers turn out a solid lineup. This year, even without some of the rare participants the show could once borrow from Air Fete, there was still in excess of 10 hours of varied flying over the two day event, and that puts it right up there with some of the bigger "family shows". It's certainly the king of the seaside shows!