Southend Festival Of The Air 2009 Review
Sunday 24th May - Monday 25th May
The Southend Airshow - the great granddaddy of the free UK airshow scene - returned for its 24th consecutive year of flying high-jinks. The event was only made possible after Southend Borough Council stepped in with the funding for the event after the ending of the sponsorship contract with the Westcliff Casino. To coincide with Southend Council's re-branding of all the towns' special events under the 'Feast of Festivals' banner, the airshow has become the Southend Festival of the Air. With the change of name came a reduction in the scale of the show. There are fears that 2009 could be the last show at the seaside venue, but it could be argued that the scaling down of the event could help to ensure its continuation. We shall see.
Guest writerreports for UKAR. Photography and additional text by .
Over the last couple of years the weather has been less than kind to Southend with heavy rain and low cloud devastating the flying schedule. Despite this the aircrews and organisers still managed to put on a show, so much so that amazingly for the two show days last year Southend put more into the air than RIAT did! Not bad for a seaside show. The big question was; would the weather play ball this year?
The answer was a show organisers dream, well for at least one day anyway. The weather forecasters predicted a great day Sunday but with apocalyptic weather for Monday (more on that later). As predicted, Sunday dawned bright and warm, with not a cloud to be seen in the deep blue skies. With just the slightest of breezes, climbing temperatures and with a visibility of 18miles! From the cliffs by the Casino (display centre) the wartime Thames Forts and the Kentish Flats wind farm were clearly visible in the Thames estuary off Whitstable, Kent.
Taking into account the poor weather of the previous years, Southend Council had cut back on the stall holders and instead went for more things to do and see, from a Typhoon cockpit to a Challenger tank, from a reverse bungee to a laser shoot-em-up tunnel maze. The new look ground entertainment proved very popular. In the hour or so before flying started the RNLI undertook a sail-past of its four vessels based at Southend, which is one of the largest & busiest stations in the RNLI fleet. The RNLI also undertook a rescue demonstration.
On to the flying; with a limited budget the flying programme was reduced but the quality of the acts and the flying was still as high as ever. Sunday's flying was kicked off by the the RAF Search and Rescue Sea King demonstrating its winching of RNLI crewmen off of the Southend Lifeboat, a regular training situation for both crews. This was followed by Peter Teichmann in his North Weald based P51 Mustang 'Jumpin Jacques' in a very spirited display. The Vampire Preservation Group's lovely WZ507 - also from 'The Weald' - was next up, with Matt Hampton giving a lively display of classic jet aerobatics. Both operated from their home base, a situation which contributed to the shortage of attractions at Southend airport. The airport has for many years been the centre of attention for the 'true' aviation enthusiast during the airshow weekend, giving unparalleled viewing access to the movements during the day. In years gone by, the normally placid airport would be a hive of activity, with RAF and vintage fast jets, warbirds, helicopters, and civilian display teams all vying for apron space. In 2009 only the two Hawks (the display aircraft plus a spare), the BBMF fighters, Team Guinot, and the Black Cats would have been of much interest. The Vulcan Restoration Trust opened the cockpit of XL426 for inspection by the visiting public, having a much more successful weekend than in 2008, during which the atrocious weather destroyed their sales stand. In the past, pairs of Tornado GR1s and F3s, Jaguars, and Harriers, plus examples of Hercules and Chinooks would have been the norm. Obviously Southend is not the only airshow to suffer, but the reduction in this instance was very marked.
What followed back at the seafront was a string of airshow favourites from the daring aerobatics of the Black Cats Lynx team and the Red Bull Matadors, to the Girl on the Wing (just the one Guinot Stearman on the Sunday), the Tutor and the Hawk. Paul Bonhomme had recovered from a back injury he suffered during the Red Bull Air Race series in San Diego, which had resulted in him leaving his partner Steve Jones to display as a singleton at Duxford the previous weekend. It really is the most amazing display of aerobatics that you will ever see as a team act. The Red Bull schemed Sukhoi 26s also look very pretty on a sunlit day.
The thought provoking growl of the Merlin engines then filled the air as the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight took centre stage, followed by a Gnat which demonstrated the classic Red Arrows aircraft prior to their conversion to the Hawk, before the current steed of the Red Arrows arrived on the scene - nine of them in fact. The Gnat should have been a pair, but one remained on the ground at North Weald with a technical issue.
Having just arrived back in the UK from winter training in Cyprus on the Saturday, the Reds Arrows had landed at Manston, their airfield of choice for displaying in this area of the country. As Southend was their first UK airshow of 2009 - the team's 45th display season - and with the weather matching that of Cyprus, Southend was in for a bit of a treat. From the start of the team's arrival from behind the crowd, to the final split, not one face looked away from the sky. One of the Hawks did develop a technical fault and had to break off its display to return to Manston where it landed safely. The aircraft's ram air turbine appeared to have deployed. Once the Reds had completed their display, three aircraft that have not been to Southend before came into view, however only two had engines! The Swift Team arrived with their Silence SA180 Twister, and the lovely little Piper PA25 Pawnee towing the S-1 Swift glider. A superb little display was put on by the team with the Twister performing aerobatics whilst the PA25 towed the glider about the sky, naturally a release of the glider was not possible with no runway within a safe distance, but that did not detract from the display, in-fact it made it unique.
The peace and tranquillity was then quite literally ripped apart by the arrival of the mighty Typhoon, as the only after-burning fast jet of the day, before the other extreme of the RAF Falcons parachute team closed the show with a drop onto the beach from a Headcorn based Islander.
On to the Monday. The weather forecast for apocalyptical weather had not changed much just that the storms would arrive mid afternoon, when all hell would break loose with thunder, lightning, high winds and hail expected to track across from France. Whilst conditions had closed in from Sunday's remarkable conditions, the sun was soon burning off the worst of the clag and by the time flying started blue skies were back but a sea haze had reduced visibility somewhat. The conditions were still at a level to permit most of the display acts to perform their full displays. Again the action started predominately on the water with the Royal Marines performing in a seaborne rescue scenario, with one of the Black Cat Lynx helicopters 'fast roping' troops onto a 'rigid' inflatable speed boat in an anti-terrorist situation. The same Lynx had also spent morning of both days giving air experience flights to the local Air Cadet Squadrons from the airport, who were also supplying 'manpower' for the airport's open day.
The flying program ran pretty much as per the Sunday listing. Team Guinot flew with three 'Stearmen' - as opposed to the single machine on the previous day - with newcomer Stella Guilding making her UK airshow debut. The 21 year old from Elmore, Gloucester, beat hundreds of applicants for the chance to wingwalk with the team. She will be hoping that a new sponsor will step in to support the team after the Guinot backing ends this year. I'm sure all male aviation enthusiasts will be feeling the same too!
However the weather began to close in again about midway through the display schedule, with the Gnat pair (two this time), Hawk, Matadors and Typhoon reduced to flat shows. Indeed as the skies blackened, streaks of lightning cut across the gloom to the east. By the time the RAF Falcons were due to jump, conditions had deteriorated to such an extent that the RNLI Hovercraft which was on standby for the Falcons jump was itself in need of rescuing after a strong gust of wind blew it onto a 'groyne' breakwater. The weather also played a major part in the Falcons cancelling their jump with the strong wind, and heavy low cloud rolling in. The crowd didn't delay in setting off home as the rain started to come down, very soon leaving an empty seafront.
Overall a fantastic show and well done to the organisers, aircrews, ground crews and biggest thanks to the weather! Thanks are also due to Southend Council for their decision to continue with the show despite lacking a sponsor. Hopefully funding will be found for the show to continue for many more years to come.