RAF Waddington International Airshow 2009 Review
Saturday 4th July - Sunday 5th July
Rarely in the history of airshows can an event have come in for so much pre-show criticism, yet also be so eagerly anticipated for a particular display item, only for that item to develop into a saga in itself. Having suffered a technical fault on the Sunday of the 2008 event, hopes were high that Vulcan XH558 would be the saviour of the 2009 show, at what could be described as her 'home-coming' display, with Vulcans sharing much of their history with the county of Lincolnshire, and Waddington in particular.
followed the story. Photography by the author.
The build up to the Waddington International Airshow 2009 had seen many, many screen-inches of the show's dedicated UKAR forum pages filled with angst and derision aimed at the organisers of the show. Just one 'fast jet' was down to fly, that being the RAF's Typhoon, and there was little to support the show's 'International' title. The bulk of the flying programme consisted of civilian display acts, which isn't really what Waddington is about. No disrespect to those taking part - quite the opposite in fact, as all were of the highest quality - but the Royal Air Force's premier 'International' air show really wasn't their 'place'.
Despite the show not boding well for the 'enthusiast' I still planned to attend four of the five days that the airbase is accessible, with one item in particular drawing my attention. XH558 was due in on the Thursday afternoon, a day which sees a few arrivals and some practice displays, plus various operational movements. It also has a habit of seeing the best weather of the show, and this 2009 proved to be no exception. It had been a fairly quiet day with only the arrival of the French display Alpha Jet and a USAF KC-135 being of note, until around three o'clock in the afternoon when the familiar plan form of the Avro Vulcan appeared in the clear skies to the east. With Martin Withers on board, and Kev Rumens at the controls, XH558 carried out a practice display to give Kev his display authorisation, before landing on at Waddington for her starring role in the weekend's events, or so we thought. As Chief Engineer Kevin 'Taff' Stone crossed his arms to bring '558 to a stop and the four Olympus engines wound down, he couldn't have imagined that would be the last noise she would make for a few weeks.
A number of other practice displays followed, including Team Guinot with Danielle Hughes and Stella Guilding carrying out the wing-walking duties, The Blades, the aforementioned French Alpha Jet, and 'local' Spitfire MJ627. The two Guinot Stearmans returned to the sky later in the day to carry out some promotional work for the show, with a TV presenter from the local ITV calendar program on the wing. The boys and girls from Aerosuperbatics are great ambassadors for airshows, attending many pre-event media gatherings and taking some of the representatives aloft, along with other local dignitaries or champions of worthy causes. An F-15C and an 'E' version of McDonnell Douglas' fine Eagle arrived from Lakenheath to help with the quality of the static park. Just prior to their arrival, an event occurred which probably hasn't happened for many, many years and was a reminder of a conflict which saw the Vulcan's only use of bombing 'in anger'. Two Nimrods in the overhead, and two Vulcans on the ground - a very rare sight indeed, and one which may never happen again.
Friday's arrivals day suffered from un-broken, low, gray cloud for the entire day. It also suffered from a lightweight timetable, with little to inspire amongst the long gaps and GA types. A pair of F-16s from each of the Dutch and Norwegian Air Forces, the special tailed Czech An-26, and a USAFE C-21A were amongst a few highlights, but the star of the day, being that their days are numbered, was the brown smudge on the horizon that was the approaching Luftwaffe F-4F Phantom 38+33. Also of note was an Austrian C-130K, which was once in the service of the RAF. All of these were sadly for static display only. At least we had the mouth-watering prospect of the advertised formation of XH558 with two different display teams over the weekend, that being the Breitling Jet Team on the Saturday, and the Red Arrows on the Sunday. Much organisation must have gone into arranging these spectacles, and surely only the weather could spoil what would undoubtedly be a highlight of the whole 2009 display season....
The Saturday morning of Waddington 2009 will go down on record as one of the biggest debacles in airshow history. My own day started in a highly positive mood, with an improved weather forecast, and a national radio station playing through my car stereo speakers. Those who had the foresight to listen to a local station on the other hand heard some particularly devastating news, which then filtered through to us via the PA system once on base. XH558 would not be flying. However unbelievable it might have sounded, her Permit to Fly had expired on the Friday. On the face of it this seemed to be massive incompetence on the part of The Vulcan Operating Company, and clearly they would be coming in for huge criticism for apparently letting down so many people, and not just the tens of thousands attending the show. I approached TVOC's Engineering Director Andrew Edmondson to try to find out how such a disaster could have occurred. It turned out that an item which came to light during XH558's Major Service had been deferred in an agreement with the CAA, who stipulated that it must be carried out before a Permit would be issued for 2009. Although it may have been anger placating spin, Andrew was still hopeful that the CAA would consider deferring it for another extended period to allow the Vulcan to fly on the Sunday. This of course was very wishful thinking.
Avro did not design the Vulcan to see fifty years of service, so stress fatigue on the airframe is very much an unknown quantity. Aviation doesn't allow 'unknowns', so there was a requirement to structurally inspect a number of items to test their integrity. To save unnecessary work and expense in dismantling major parts of XH558 an agreement was reached between their engineering authority Marshall Aerospace and BAe Systems that would allow for the items to be inspected during the intended dismantling and scrapping of Vulcan XM603, owned by BAe and located at their Woodford plant. For one reason or another, XM603 had survived intact, to the detriment of XH558. In the count-down to the required renewal of the Permit, MA apparently reassured TVOC that a further deferral would be forthcoming. Given the importance of the Permit to TVOC's year, and to the undertakings made, you would have thought that they would have put someone on the case, to do nothing else but ensure all of the CAA's required stipulations were met. Sadly this wasn't to be, and the mid-morning of Waddington's first day of the weekend saw XH558 being towed ignominiously through the coach park, passed the ice cream vans and into the static park, where TVOC crew spent much of the weekend answering questions from the sometimes angry public. Many people had come to the airshow especially to see the Vulcan at this base synonymous with its history, and justifiably felt let down. TVOC will have lost a lot of friends this day. Not good for a project relying so much upon public goodwill.
Of course Waddington 2009 wasn't all about the one aircraft. Despite the criticism there was still a full and varied programme to look forward to, and for once the weather, though changeable, was in the main fair. Each day opened with singleton flypasts by the 'home team' aircraft, that being the aircraft of the ISTAR fleet, the Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition and Reconnaissance roles which are the specialisations of the bases E-3D Sentry AEW1, the Nimrod R1, and the Sentinel R1. We no longer get to see them as an echelon formation, which is a shame. Familiar items such as the aforementioned Team Guinot in their Stearmans, the RAF trainer solos of the Tutor, surprisingly agile Super King Air, and the Hawk, along with The Blades with their four orange Extras were accompanied by a variety of less familiar acts. Flying early on both days of the weekend were the Polish display team, Team Orlik in their seven PZL-130s. Despite their lack of performance, the team use their aircraft, which are similar to PC-7s, to good effect, in a well thought out routine. Using their un-powered energy to equally good effect were the two gliders of Team Condor, towed aloft by a pair of Chipmunks. With smoke generators alight they painted pretty patterns in the overhead.
One of the rarer Spitfires on the display circuit (speaking as a 'southerner') is the ex-Irish Air Corps trainer TR Mk9 MJ627, which is based at East Kirkby and flown by former Battle of Britain Memorial Flight Officer Commanding Paul Day, who is clearly very experienced on type! When the current team displayed it was also very pleasing to see the silver painted Spitfire IX MK356 amongst them as I hadn't seen much of this one either, since its roll-out in its current scheme in 2008. Classic jets in the form of Vampire Preservation Group's Vampire T11, and the four Strikemasters of Team Viper added to the mix. Team Viper are a new team on the block, and are a very professional outfit flying their highly 'striking' 'Strikies', in their cosmopolitan colours. The big Antanov An-2 flown by John Calverley and named 'Baltic Bear' was surprisingly agile for such a big and ungainly looking beast.
The military content did offer a couple of rare sights, with a Tristar C2 of 216 Squadron making a few passes out of its Brize Norton base, and four Alpha Jets of the Belgian Air Component making the journey over from Koksijde. They flew in a diamond formation, and also in a kind of loose 'airfield attack', high speed, wide separation scenario. The Alpha Jet was celebrating its thirtieth anniversary in 2009, so it was fitting to see so many of the type at Waddington, with the French also supplying a solo jet performer, and of course the eight ship Patrouille de France, also double-eventing with Koksijde. They enjoyed good weather for their show of colour, which was very impressive, though still not up to the level of the World's best formation team who also displayed, our own Red Arrows. A single Navy Black Cat Lynx HMA8, the Blue Eagles pair of a Lynx AH7 and an Apache AH1, and the RAF Chinook made up the rotary content of the show. The Black Cats as a pair are probably the best helicopter team I've ever seen, but it suffers somewhat with only the one performing. The Chinook on the other hand is always a winner, especially with the non-aviation minded public who don't expect such a big beast to be able to carry out such manoeuvres. Highlight of the military participation in the flying programme by a very long way was the RAF's Typhoon, flown by Sqn Ldr Scott Loughran from 29 (R) Sqn, mostly because of its power and volume, both very much at a premium during Waddington 2009.
A couple of singleton aerobatic acts completed the eclectic mix of display items, with another new one on me being Phil Burgess in his colourful red and white Pitts S1C Special, risquély named G-FCUK! Phil is a serving member of the RAF at Waddington, and did the 'home team' proud with a sprightly show. The similarly coloured Extra 300L of Ultimate High was also put through its formidable paces by John Taylor. On the ground, the static park held a few gems. A small enclave of QinetiQ airframes included the raspberry-ripple Empire Test Pilots School schemed BAC 111 and Gazelle, with a lovely gloss black Alpha Jet. The Hawk T1 with its 'Fly Navy 100' special tail scheme, plus the FR Aviation team of four Hawks flying with two Falcon 20 jets helped to avoid the British trainer type being outnumbered by its mainland European counterpart on home soil! With all the modern machinery on show, it was welcoming to see the award for 'Best presented aircraft on static display' going to the 'Vacher' Hurricane Mk1 R4118. Taking care of the classic warbird over the weekend was volunteer Liz Maxim. Liz said “It's a tremendous privilege looking after R4118 and she deserves all the attention she can get”. R4118 is a veteran of the Battle of Britain, with five 'kills' to its name from that period. It will be a popular sight in the skies during 2010, which is the seventieth anniversary of the Battle.
Waddington 2009 was an enjoyable show, and clearly a success as a public event, with large crowds seemingly happy with their day out. For the enthusiast though, the show fell well short of expectations. It is seen as the Royal Air Forces' show, a shop window for that branch of the armed forces to interact with the people of the nation it serves, and also expect it to attract front-line military hardware from abroad. Of course, all airshows have seen a downturn in both of these aspects as budgets bite, and operational commitments take priority, but this show, as the RAF's 'at home' event, deserves special treatment from on high. It will be interesting to see how the team react to the criticisms when the 2010 show takes shape. We wish them the best of luck.