Top 10 Airshow Moments of 2017

Monday 1st January 2018

Across the board, the UK airshow scene has been more settled in 2017 than previous years. Whilst some events have still suffered at the hands of last minutes regulatory impacts - The Victory Show at Cosby being a notable example - overall we have seen a year of safe flying, successful events and even some decent weather.

Biggin Hill's move to a two-day event in August attracted significant international participation from across Europe, breaking the mould for civilian airshows of recent times. Duxford's new style of a May "Air Festival" and September "Battle of Britain Show" seems to have been popular too, although a strong line-up for Flying Legends was blemished by a number of incidents, none of which resulted in serious injury thankfully.

Again, the Royal International Air Tattoo provided a world class event, with plenty of stand-out items that could have dominated our listings. The theme celebrating the USAF's 70th Anniversary was well supported with an increased number of USAF & USAFE assets which was pleasing to see. Also on that theme, US bombers also featured at the Royal Air Force's sole airshow of the year, with the B-1B Lancer and B-52H Stratofortress performing in the skies over RAF Cosford. Indeed the B-52's first flypast thundering through as B-17G 'Sally B' repositioned showcased the 70th Anniversary of the USAF wonderfully, and only by the narrowest of margins missed out on a spot in our Top 10. It was such international participation which saved this year's RAF Cosford airshow from what could have been a disastrous event with the Red Arrows and Typhoon relegated to an "alternative display axis", which was also seen at Duxford too. We hope that sense will prevail and these changes, at all venues, will be reversed for future years.

Some events, new and old, will not be returning for 2018, with the recent announcement of a "postponement" of the Scampton Airshow, causing great debate on our forums. Although the inaugural event wasn't perfect, it was enjoyed by most, and with 2018 marking such a significant year for the Royal Air Force, it's absence will be felt. Anticipation for what "RAF100" will deliver is high, with RIAT being a fully 3-day show set to be the official international celebration of RAF100, whilst the Royal Air Force's sole remaining event at RAF Cosford will focus on the historical side of the centenary celebrations. Abingdon, Duxford & Old Warden are all too hosting RAF100 themed events next year.

Overall 2017 has been an enjoyable year for us, and we hope that our members have enjoyed it also. After much discussion, this is our selection of the UK Airshow Review staff team's rundown of the Top Ten Airshow Moments, 2017! Do let us know what your favourite moments on the season are, by joining the debate on our forums. But for now, pour yourself a New Year's drink, sit back, relax and relive the highlights of the summer!

10) Viet-Strong

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Specific themes are somewhat commonplace at airshows nowadays, with these either being relatively generic or directed towards a particular aircraft or moment in history. For the RAF Cosford Air Show this year the former was chosen, with the theme surrounding "Battlefield Support" both in the flying display and in the static park. As part of this, the organisers decided to augment a set-piece surrounding the Vietnam War, with a diverse mix of civilian-operated machinery used to represent some of the belligerents involved.

The circa 40-minute display began with the appearance of the bulky and cumbersome Antonov An-2, masquerading as a North Vietnamese example, performing very slow-speed bombing runs whilst a rather impressive barrage of pyrotechnics erupted along the display axis. Eventually giving chase was MSS Holdings' Bell UH-1H Huey, with this entertaining 'tailchase' reconstructing an actual engagement between two similar aircraft during the Vietnam conflict. Once the An-2 had scuttled away the set-piece neatly flowed into a pairs display by the aforementioned Huey and OH-6 Cayuse, with strafing runs and close dynamic flying aplenty. Eventually rounding out the action was Tony de Bruyn in his unmistakable OV-10A Bronco, the aircraft fulfilling a Close Air Support role with 'boom & zoom' attack runs.

Not only was the variety of aircraft worth complimenting, but the entirety of the display really was a stimulant of nearly all the human senses. Not only was there the sight of unusual aircraft mixing it up with each other, but also the expertly choreographed usage of pyrotechnics throughout the routine. Furthermore, the distinct sound of the Huey and the ground-shaking thuds from the pyrotechnics certainly allowed for all age groups present to really feel the presence of a set-piece very infrequently recognised at shows nowadays. DL

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9) Hip Hip Hooray

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Of all the airshows in 2017 to gain the honour of an aircraft type's display debut in the UK, Biggin Hill was perhaps somewhat of a surprise. However, the South London airport played host to the first ever display in this country by an (in-service) 'Hip' variant, to wit, a Mi-171Sh of the Czech Air Force. The Czechs have sent a fair few of their Mi-24Vs here in the past but never before has an in-service member of the most ubiquitous and widely produced helicopter in the world - of any air arm - performed in the flying display at a British air show (although it must be confessed that manufacturer examples have done so in the past, at the beginning of the nineties).

Granted, it's not a type that necessarily lends itself to a flying display - and this did kind of come through in the show itself, with the much more aggressively flown Hind providing top cover for a much more "genteel" CSAR roled Hip - but even with the opening up of the East in the nineties, with many former Warsaw Pact and later NATO Air Forces employing the helicopter type, it's really a surprise that it's never taken to the air on an airshow timetable here before. Even static appearances are few and far between and tend to make the highlights list of any show they're at.

This just made the appearance all the tastier for the enthusiasts at Biggin Hill. The sight of two Soviet designed helicopters taxiing out at a British airfield, one of which was about to make its debut, generated some palpable excitement. It was superb to be present for a fairly historic debut like this, and it certainly warranted its top billing on the programme. Of particular note, and certainly warranting its place on this list, was their arrival and practice on the Friday before the show, during the new publicly open arrivals day: knowing that the pair of helicopters had to validate before the show weekend, the assembled waited, braved hail and rain and risked getting kicked off the airfield (!) to see these choice items go up for the first time, but, at the last, minute the sun played ball, bathed the duo in some golden light as they went out for their practice, and everyone who'd persevered went home happy. A true enthusiast's moment. SW

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8) The Few, The Tribute

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A quarter of a century has passed since the British public first experienced TFC's annual Flying Legends airshow at IWM Duxford. Having gained the reputation for being Europe's best, perhaps even the world's best, warbird airshow it can be a challenge to provide fresh or unique formations that keep the crowds entertained.

Over the years, Flying Legends has witnessed various iterations of the Battle of Britain memorial formations. However this year, TFC had something special up their sleeve.

In an unprecedented formation, the skies above Duxford were filled with the drone of a Diamond Nine. This was not your normal single-type Diamond Nine formation and was led by no-less than five Hawker Hurricanes - including a pair of debutants, Mk.I P2902 and Mk.II P3717 - representing the largest gathering of the type in the air simultaneously for a number of years. Forming the centrepiece of the formation was the wonderful Blenheim Mk.I and, last but not least, the rear trio consisted of Mk.I Spitfires.

A formation that was not to be missed and is unlikely to be repeated which stirred the thoughts, memories and emotions of those that witnessed it. It would have been remiss of us not to recognise what was, perhaps, the most emotional and technically excellent warbird formation of 2017 as one of our Top 10 moments. AE

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7) Whipping Up A Storm

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Two of the biggest feedback points from the RAF Cosford Air Show 2016: not enough foreign flying participation, and not enough fast jets. The RAF Cosford Air Show dealt with a lot of this criticism with one highlight participant above most others this year. The rare and much sought-after Italian Air Force RSV Tornado display is a display that has managed to attend Fairford a couple of times recently, but seldom anywhere else in the UK.

When news broke that the RAF Cosford had secured the Italian Air Force RSV Tornado display, in its gorgeous special scheme, praise was high indeed. Even more-so when one learns that the Tornado's participation came about as a result of two years of networking. The little-known "Fly Fano" team flew to the RAF Cosford Air Show in 2015, and were not paid a huge amount of heed by enthusiasts, but as one of their pilots became the Commander of the 311° Gruppo, the positive long-term work Cosford put into building relationships paid off.

Yes, the same Tornado appeared at RIAT a month later, but somehow the Tornado stood out at Cosford, whereas for better or for worse (for spoilt, or unspoilt), amongst its peers at Fairford it did not have the gravitas it did in a much smaller setting in Shropshire. Add to that the fact that the gorgeous Tornado IDS filled a noticeable hole at an RAF airshow since the RAF withdrew their Tornado displays, the hype surrounding its arrival, and the sheer amount of work the RAF Cosford Air Show has put into building relationships (hopefully long term ones), and a machine very much in the twilight of its years, this was certainly a moment of 2017, and of the RAF Cosford Air Show's history, to be rightly celebrated. TJ

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6) Cat's Out The Bag

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Following on from the successful 'Fly Navy' event last year, the Shuttleworth Collection planned to put on a repeat display again this year, promising to feature an even greater variety of naval aircraft. However, the build-up for this show was unfortunately hampered by cancellations of a few crowd favourites such as the Skyraider, Seafire XVII and the ill-fated Sea Vixen.

Nonetheless, additional aircraft were drafted in to fill the empty slots, and it was one of these that proved to be the highlight of the day. The UK's sole airworthy PBY Catalina. The flying boat was thrown around the dark grey sky in the typical manner, showing off the capabilities of the aircraft. As the usual display routine was coming to a close, the Catalina started coming in for the final pass from crowd left. The big bird was put into a shallow dive and quickly started gaining speed. What followed, was a surreal experience. The Catalina flew at near its maximum speed, at treetop level, over the small grass airstrip. It took a few seconds for the crowd to realise what they witnessed, as the flying boat climbed steeply away, back to its home at Duxford - leaving behind only the dull drum of its pair of Pratt & Whitney engines.

With the intimacy and ability for aircraft to be shown off to their full potential, it is no wonder that Old Warden is one of the favourite airshow venues in the country for enthusiasts. With two successful editions of the 'Fly Navy' themed shows and a third planned, long may they continue to be an event to look forward to in the calendar. JZ

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5) Marvellous Memorial

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In a welcome change to their displays of previous years, the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight marked their 60th anniversary in spectacular fashion, honouring the founder of the original team. Wing Commander Peter Thompson, DFC, established the Historic Air Flight at Biggin Hill in 1957 and to celebrate this milestone in aviation heritage, the team created "Thompson Formation", a quartet of fighters, to fly at a handful of shows this year.

After a short routine of backtracking on the runway, the fighters took off one-by-one and once formed, they completed a series of leisurely flypasts, led by the Lancaster in its first display of the year having returned fresh from major maintenance work. As if the roar of eight Rolls-Royce engines in the air at once wasn't enough, Thompson Formation - consisting of three Spitfires and a Hurricane - then broke away from the Lancaster and entered a tail chase display. Pushing as much as you would want to with 70-year-old vintage aircraft, the routine was elegant, commanding and dynamic yet retained all the poignancy that the Memorial Flight is about. It is quite remarkable that, although the types and numbers of aircraft the BBMF have flown over the years has changed, two aircraft that were part of the original Historic Air Flight, Hurricane LF363 and Spitfire PS915, were part of the display and continue to be an active element of the BBMF.

One unique characteristic to the Memorial Flight is that their displays, no matter where, are just as much about the sound as they are the sight. The commentary team must be applauded for only speaking when they had to, once the aircraft had passed, allowing the evocative sound of those Merlin and Griffon engines to be appreciated by the huge crowd, many of whom seemed compelled to silence in a moment of remembrance to "the few". IG

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4) Spirit In The Sky

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Appearances of the B-2A Spirit at UK airshows are few and far between. Last seen in 2012, many would be forgiven for hoping that, with its theme of the 70th anniversary of the USAF, RIAT 2017 would once again witness the world's largest flying bat. As the show approached nothing formal had been announced yet rumours persisted that on the Sunday of the event there would be a short appearance by a very important USAF asset. Early on Sunday morning air-band monitors began reporting that "Reaper 11" - a B-2A callsign - had begun to cross the Atlantic and excitement within the ranks of those that had seen the information posted on the internet peaked.

As the crowds began to gather to witness the day's displays, Ben Dunnell began advising people over the commentary that later that day they may witness a surprise visitor in the skies over RAF Fairford. Shortly after lunch an ominous shape appeared in the hold on the horizon - the unmistakable shape of a B-2A Spirit. Joined by a pair of F-15C Eagles from RAF Lakenheath, the B-2 proceeded to treat RIAT to a couple of passes along the crowd line before it returned to the USA.

The second pass will go down in RIAT history. Not only did the B-2 travel the length of the crowd line but also performed it as a complete top side pass - the first at a UK airshow in memory by the B-2. Many were disappointed that this spectacle only occurred on the Sunday, however, the availability of a scarce USAF resource was not under the control of RIAT.

RIAT are to be commended for managing to keep this very special participant secret from the majority of visitors until the last possible moment.

The appearance of the Spirit at RIAT therefore takes a well-deserved place in our Top 10 of 2017. AE

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3) Hurricane Season

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One could argue that IWM Duxford is the immortal home for WWII warbird action, with all three of the Duxford shows frequently delivering setpieces of amazing grandeur. Arguably the most anticipated highlight for the Duxford Battle of Britain Airshow this year was the appearance of six Hawker Hurricanes. This would be the first time since 1951, during the filming of Angels One Five, that this number of Hurricanes had been seen in the air together, with a pleasant mix of variants also in attendance.

Marking the opening of the show in earnest, following a parachute drop by the RAF Falcons Display Team, the evocative sight of these six machines idling on the grass runway under sunny conditions certainly felt like a step back in time to a 1940s wartime Duxford. The six aircraft eventually performed a streamed take-off, positioning to the west before running in to perform a number of formation flypasts in two vic-three formations. Whilst not an aggressive or punchy display, the sedate pace and tight formations were a wonder to behold, with several figure of eight patterns performed under almost total silence from the airshow commentary team and also the crowd. As the aircraft continued to flow across the Cambridgeshire all that could be heard was mostly the clicking of cameras and the distinct purring of six Rolls-Royce Merlins.

Eventually, the display came to end with the aircraft breaking-off from their respective formations to settle back onto the runway. The pilots and crews of these machines must be applauded for providing a masterclass in warbird formation flying, especially with all six Hurricanes being privately-owned examples. Sadly the Hurricane has almost being regarded as an under-appreciated aircraft, particularly during the course of Battle of Britain and the emergence of the Spitfire, but the formation served well to showcase that the Hurricane really did play an important part in the history of Britain. DL

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2) Gallic Grandeur

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Great displays can raise a smile on your face. Fantastic displays leave you grinning at the end. And the very best displays can keep you grinning many months afterwards, every time they come to mind safe in the knowledge that they'll be long, long remembered among your all-time favourite moments.

Just so does the Aeronavale Rafale M pairs display that headlined RNAS Yeovilton Air Day this year. Rarely does a performance exhibit such raw excitement, pure adrenaline and showcase just what it is that makes fast jets so damn cool as the French Navy's offering in the summer. It really was a routine that made you feel like a kid again and not even the commentators could contain their joy at seeing some of the most imaginative pairs work take to the air - from the opening formation zoom climb, to the perfectly timed sneak passes, the airfield beat ups, the heaving great topsides, all the way til the very end when the magnificently painted White Tiger jet performed "bolters" in front of the waiting RAF Typhoon, not a moment of the performance was wasted, not a moment was dull, and not a single person there wanted it to end; it was organised chaos of the very best kind, and rarely are you genuinely disappointed that a display has to actually finish, wishing it could just go on for the rest of the day. You could almost hear the crowd cheer when the lead pilot lit his reheat for one final go around! And yes, just sitting here writing about it is making me grin like a kid in a sweetshop.

The most remarkable part is that it was literally their only display of the year. A display that will never be forgotten by those that were there will only be remembered by those that were there - it was never even performed in their home country and was worked up solely for Yeovilton's show, a mark of recognition and respect from one naval air arm to another. True effort and appreciation from the Aeronavale, at the very heights of passion that we've come to expect from the pilots across the channel. SW

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1) Perfect Storm

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Ukraine's Su-27 Flanker was, unarguably, the star of the Air Tattoo this year. Rumours piled on rumours, hype sustained itself, until the very last minute when the show organisers announced that Sukhoi's giant fighter would take to the air over Fairford. It has to be said that the display wasn't the most technically incredible on the programme, but for rarity, beauty and enthusiast excitement, it was totally unmatched.

Then the rain came. Right at the end of Sunday's flying display, with the Su-27 closing the show, the weather took a turn for the worse - the few acts beforehand braved the inclement weather but everyone was taking shelter from the downpour and it looked, sadly, disappointingly that the last chance to catch the Flanker in all its glory would be marred, potentially even scrubbed altogether, by the dreadful conditions that had been the scourge of many an act at RIAT over the years. But suddenly - patches of sunlight appeared in the distance. Voices began to sound hopeful. The rain - lessened, lessened, then stopped - it was dry. The clouds were lifting! Hoods came down and rain covers were removed while Colonel Oleksandr Oksanchenko taxied his brutish fighter onto the runway, as a golden light crawled the length of the runway and lifted the hearts of so many.

And he waited. The hearts of tens of thousands of people were in their mouths as the Soviet jet stood at the end of the runway, unmoving. Had he gone tech? Was he still not happy with the conditions? Had we lost the most serendipitous moment we'd have that whole year? Prayers were uttered to the heavens, lucky rabbits' paws were clutched as an entire crowd held its breath. And then, over scattered scanners, came the beautiful words:

"Cleared for takeoff."

And the star of the show rolled down the concrete, lifted into the air, and an unforgettable moment of fortune, wonder and a little bit of magic was created. It couldn't have been more perfect. SW

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