Top 10 Airshow Moments of 2018
Monday 29th October 2018
As the days become increasingly shorter, it also brings to a close another UK airshow season. Widely anticipated as a flagship year for airshows, principally to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Royal Air Force, a wealth of events aimed to celebrate the centenary of the world's oldest independent air force, some with better execution than others.
Whilst not an airshow within its own right, we felt the RAF100 anniversary flypast in London deserves a place within our Top Ten. Despite being comparatively small-scale to anniversary flypasts of yesteryear, a combination of incorporating both unique formations and some of the rarely seen types within the RAF's inventory made the flypast one of the highlights of the celebrations.
The scorching hot temperatures over the course of the summer are likely to have strongly contributed in solid attendance figures. Sadly a couple of shows were less than scorching, with the biannual Farnborough Airshow somewhat floundering and Biggin Hill's Festival of Flight not quite encapsulating the same impressive vigour that was demonstrated last year.
Happily a number of shows displayed somewhat of a resurgence; the rectification of The Victory Show's display axis at Cosby being a prime example and made an absolute world of difference. Cosford also provided us with a fantastic representation of all things RAF100, with both a solid flying and static line-up that balanced both unique historic museum exhibits and some exotic attendees. RIAT was also labelled as a centre-piece for the RAF100 celebrations, and whilst it was certainly a fantastic airshow with some particularly good highlights, the show left many with an unusual hollow feeling. Unfortunately cancellations such as the Romanian Air Force MiG-21 and French Navy ATL2 did put a dent in the flying display. But nonetheless, appearances by a B-2 Spirit in two consecutive years and the rare appearance of a JASDF Kawasaki C-2 in the static, for example, should certainly not be sniffed at.
Arguably one of the finest points of the 2018 season has seen the warbird scene grow even stronger, 2017 was a dynamite year but a number of restorations and returning favourites has cemented the UK as one of the greatest locations for warbirds. The Buchon "schwarm" at Flying Legends was a good example, with 3 of the 4 examples being restored within the last 12 months. Sadly 2018 does however bring to a close Peter Teichmann's regular appearances as an airshow performer, a legend of the UK airshow circuit that will certainly be very much missed but will hopefully, fingers crossed, complete the occasional outing in 2019.
So with such aforementioned high hopes surrounding 2018, was the anticipation met? Overall we'd say yes, arguably there were some rough edges to the RAF100 theme but the sublime weather really did provide some vintage airshow moments. So without further ado, this is the UK Airshow Review staff team's 2018 countdown of our Top Ten Airshow Moments. As always, please let us know your opinions on what performances were your highlights by joining the debate on our forums. But for now, grab a cup of tea (maybe a couple of biscuits as well) and look back on the highlights of a scorching summer!
10) Ton Up
The centenary of the Royal Air Force was the primary theme of many airshows this summer; however, the air force’s contribution to such shows has been widely questioned by many enthusiasts on our forums throughout the season. The RAF flypast over the centre of London has been the one universally popular part of the air force’s aviation celebrations of the summer. Before the flypast bridges, rooftops, embankments, The Mall, all were packed with enthusiasts, members of the public travelling to see the flypast and workers on their lunch breaks to see the great spectacle; the reach of the flypast was greater than any airshow through the summer. The excitement for the flypast was palpable, no complacency or boredom for RAF aircraft often shown by enthusiasts at airshows.
Getting over 100 aircraft from the RAF inventory is a great achievement in modern times and surpasses anything staged for any of the regular flypasts over London for the Queen’s birthday seen recently. Each facet of the air force was represented from the trio of Puma HC2s leading six Chinooks in the opening element, a septet from the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight, followed by representatives from the training and transport fleets. Aircraft such as the Sentinel R1, Rivet Joint RC-135W and E-3D Sentry were a real treat to see making a rare public appearance, that are seldom seen at airshows since the demise of the RAF Waddington International Airshow.
The fast jet finale to the flypast saw the real highlight, with a formation of 22 Eurofighter Typhoons marking of a ‘100’ in the sky above London, a mighty sight that will never be forgotten by those who witnessed the great spectacle. Having only just recently arrived at RAF Marham in the month before the flypast three F-35B Lightning IIs joined the flypast to make their public debut appearance since arriving in the country. The flypast was a moment to really be proud of the Royal Air Force.
9) The Fast and the Furyous
One of the most remarkable stories to come out of the Korean War was the aerial victory of a Fleet Air Arm Sea Fury flown by Sub-Lieutenant Brian Ellis over a North Korean MiG-15 in August 1952, rare for being a piston-on-jet kill. Justifiably part of FAA and Royal Navy legend, the event is almost always brought up at any display featuring either type in the UK.
However, until this year circumstances dictated that the Navy T.20 and MiG-15 were never able to fly together - in 2015 the now regular but making its debut then Norwegian Air Force Historical Squadron MiG-15 had to cancel, and when it made it to the show in 2016 and 2017, both of the Navy’s Sea Furies were unserviceable. Fortunately, the planets aligned this year and saw both aircraft flying at the show and in a move that has been a long time coming, and consequently the organisers were quite proud to announce that they had arranged to put the two together as to mark the famous victory in Korea. On the Norwegians’ part also their excitement was visible on social media, and it was clear that it was something both parties had been looking forward to.
The pair opened with a tail chase, demonstrating the famous dogfight and its conclusion, the Soviet fighter leading with the ridiculously powerful Sea Fury having no trouble keeping up at all. The pursuit flowed over the base before drawing in to a much closer formation that flew a figure of eight over the show, producing a really quite extraordinary sound to boot. This formation was almost certainly the first time the two aircraft have flown together since the Korean War and produced a superb recognition of that extraordinary victory in 1952.
8) Rotorro Rosso
With the anticipation of the RAF100 celebration slowly growing in the build up to the season, the RAF Cosford Air Show made a completely unexpected announcement in late January which would become one of the highlights of the year: the Flying Bulls would be bringing their newest aircraft to the UK for a summer tour of the UK airshow scene, the first British helicopter to receive airworthiness certification and the RAF's first British built operational helicopter, their Bristol Type 171 'Sycamore'.
Arriving in the UK on the 9th June, the day before its public debut following its journey from its home base in Salzburg, Austria. Taking in the sights of London on its way to the Midlands airfield, this was to be the first flight of a Bristol Sycamore in the UK for 46 years after its retirement in 1972 from RAF service. The mini tour was not to be all about the Sycamore though, as joining its stablemate would be one of their quite frankly bonkers Messerschmitt-Bölkow-Blohm GmbH Bo105C aerobatic helicopters, which fills the gap that was left after the German Army retired their machines.
Starting the first of their UK displays at the only RAF show left on the calendar, in absolutely perfect weather conditions the B0-105 wowed the crowds with its aerobatic prowess that would put some fixed wing types to shame - think of the start of 007's Spectre - but on steroids! With the Sycamore's radial engine making a sound that is unique to the helicopter world, its display was somewhat more sedate, but that is not to take away from the historical significance of the type's return to the UK skies.
After their successful displays at RAF Cosford, the pair flew to the Helicopter Museum in Weston-Super-Mare - one of two Sycamore production facilities - to be based there until their participation at RNAS Yeovilton, with both machines again taking part in the flying display before then moving onto the second of the production sites, staying at Aerospace Bristol for a few days before attending RIAT for its final static appearance before the long journey home.
Looking back, some may say the official RAF100 celebrations did not live up to the expectation that was built up at the beginning of the season, but seeing these aircraft throughout the UK in near enough perfect summer sun at every show they attended was a real coup for the centenary celebrations.
7) Long Live The King
When Westland Helicopters extended its existing licensing agreement to build Sikorsky helicopters to the burgeoning SH-3 which had recently made its first flight in 1959, few could have imagined the success of what was to become the “Sea King”. In the hands of the Royal Marines, it was a rough and ready troop carrier, in the RAF it was a Search and Rescue platform, and for the Royal Navy it carried out a plethora of duties, including anti-submarine warfare, its own search and rescue capabilities, and airborne early warning.
It was the zenith of the latter variant that turned out the be the final survivors of the much-loved breed, following retirements from RAF and Royal Navy service of the HAR3, HU5 and HC4 in 2015 and 2016. The rare-as-hens-teeth ASaC7s soldiered on until September of this year, and but for a small final flypast around the tip of Cornwall, there were very few chances for the public to catch a glimpse of the Sea King for a final time, but this year's Yeovilton Air Day secured a flying display by the RNAS Culdrose-based 849 Naval Air Squadron. Rushing a machine back from duties in the Persian Gulf, the once familiar model marked a poignant and final public appearance by an in-service Sea King in the UK. The type has soldiered on through the Falklands, the Balkans, Bosnia, Iraq, Afghanistan, and countless other operations during the type’s nearly half-century of operations. As a type that will forever be remembered as one of the more significant aircraft operated by the UK, this rare and final flying display of the type will be recorded in history – a top airshow moment if there ever was one.
6) An Historical Hundred
There was an air of expectancy around the RAF Cosford Air Show 2018, which promised to be very different from previous years. Being the only official RAF air show of the year organisers were bullish and optimistic, promising 100 static aircraft for every year of the RAF’s existence in this, their celebratory year.
Updates from organisers during the build-up to the show were eagerly anticipated and, right from the start, they did not disappoint with the announcement early on of the RAF Museum’s Bolton Paul Defiant, transported in by road from Hendon. One may have seen this plan of 100 aircraft as a little over-ambitious, however, as more updates trickled through it soon became apparent that this show would really be one of the highlights of the 2018 season. Aircraft from all over the country were transported in, including English Electric Lightning ZF580 from Cornwall and F-4 Phantom XV582 “Black Mike” from RAF Leuchars, both warmly welcomed by enthusiasts.
The worry soon became one of not whether this feat would actually be accomplished, more of how the static and flying displays could both be covered in one day! Thankfully the showground layout was exceptionally well thought out with much more of the airfield being used to place aircraft in four key zones, each representing an era in Royal Air Force aviation history; Policing the Empire, World at War, The Age of Uncertainty and The New Millennium.
As such, the static display became much, much more than a collection of aircraft to complement the show. It was a show in itself; a walk through time, not just through the history of the Royal Air Force but also the last hundred years of Great Britain itself. Aircraft ranging from The Shuttleworth Collection’s WW1 fighters, to Cold War jets, through to the desert pink trio of Buccaneer, Jaguar and (specially painted) Tornado were established within detailed set pieces, some complete with enthusiasts in period costume, helping to create an atmosphere “of the time”.
Not since perhaps RIAT 2003, on the hundredth anniversary of the first powered flight, have we seen such a multitude of aircraft assembled in celebratory fashion. Cosford 2018 made every effort to celebrate the history and passion of the last hundred years of British military aviation and absolutely nailed it.
5) Merlin Magic
The culmination of a season’s commemoration of the RAF’s centenary was the Imperial War Museum Duxford’s Battle of Britain Airshow in September. The event presented a cavalcade of history in the air, thoughtfully curated, taking the audience from the earliest days through to the future of the Air Force. The Red Arrows appeared as the penultimate act, and as the smoke of their giant ‘100’ drifted over the sky an unmistakable exhaust note rose to fill the damp air. This airshow had a very special finale, and a most appropriate one. At the aerodrome where 19 squadron took delivery of the very first Spitfire into service in 1938, there were to be nineteen Spitfires airborne.
A mass launch of so many Spitfires is a spectacle to behold in its own right. Once airborne, eighteen aircraft positioned away from the airfield to formate, while John Romain performed an exquisite aerobatic display in Mark Ia, N3200. Ben Dunnell’s commentary, together with archive recording of veteran ace George Unwin put this most iconic of warbirds into context. A beautiful aeroplane, but also a lethal weapon of war which, thankfully, had an immense bearing on the course of history.
Brian Smith in MH434 led a formation of eighteen Spitfires in from the M11 end and as Romain cleared, the audience fell silent in anticipation. A balbo is not such an unusual sight at Duxford, but this was the largest formation of Spitfires in modern times, and with the uniformity of those perfect elliptical wings and pure Rolls-Royce soundtrack, there was a rare symmetry in this one.
Romain again took centre stage before the formation passed once more, before recovering with a stream of run and breaks. This was aerial theatre at its best, and was affecting without a doubt. Taxying back, seemingly close enough to touch and accompanied by the stirring soundtrack of Elgar’s Nimrod Variation, it was clear that the pilots were as touched as the audience were moved by this fitting finale to the RAF 100 season. A masterpiece of showmanship indeed.
4) Polish Storm
The Polish Air Force MiG-29 solo display has been no stranger to the UK for a good number of years, and is always one of the highlights of any show It attends. Yet despite numerous other UK appearances, and nearly making it to the West Midlands airshow in 2015 before being removed from the list, 2018 was the first time that the venerable Soviet-designed fighting machine made it to the RAF Cosford Air Show. Just securing the display itself, would have been enough for nominations for this list. However, one of the stars of the RAF Cosford Air Show was made brighter by some pretty obvious thinking. Commemorating the RAF’s 100th Anniversary, recently-restored Mk I Hurricane P2902 performed a flying display at the Air Show, and was then joined by the smoking Soviet fighting machine. The jet itself bore the face of Merian Cooper who was a member of Kościuszko's Squadron, 7th Escadrille, this in turn inspired the namesake 303 Squadron of the Battle of Britain. The MiG-29, commemorating the venerable Battle of Britain-fighting 303 Squadron and its forebears, in formation with a Battle of Britain-era (if not veteran of) Hurricane has been a long time coming to the UK, and was a welcome salute to the Royal Air Force’s brothers in arms.
It’s hard not to wonder, given the Polish MiG’s attendance at UK shows over the years, how such a simple yet evocative gesture has been overlooked. Yet regardless of how or why this hasn’t happened in recent years, the RAF could not have properly celebrated its 100th Anniversary without acknowledging the gargantuan commitment played by other nations in its rich history and for the RAF’s only airshow to pull off a formation such as this in such a significant year speaks volumes, and rightly earns a place on our list.
3) Out With The Old, In With The New
With the RAF’s centenary celebrations taking centre-stage across the country this year, it would have been easy to overlook the (nonetheless significant) occasion of 617sqn celebrating their 75th anniversary. Having only been reformed in April of this year after a four year stand down, it was apt that the squadron was able to mark this milestone with the RAF’s newest and most capable aircraft at hand, performing the tribute with the BBMF’s Lancaster and a Tornado GR4 at both RIAT and IWM Duxford’s September show.
No one really knew this was was going to happen beforehand, other than a formation of the three aircraft, but the tribute proved that surprise really does work at airshows as following the formation pass the group split. Those on the ground were treated to a fast, noisy, wings-swept pass from the Tornado, but it was the F-35 that stole the show by coming into the hover at crowd centre, briefly turning to the crowd before heading off again. While it’s not the first time that the F-35 has hovered at a UK show, nor was it some kind of dynamic routine, it was the unexpectedness and seeming spontaneity of it that really raised the smiles of those watching and gave a glimpse, if it wasn’t there the rest of the year, that the RAF still has a bit of adventurousness and character left. That moment of realisation that the Lightning II was coming in for a surprise hover will be favourably remembered as a great tribute to an historic squadron.
More poignantly, the event at Duxford marked the last time that we will be able to see an RAF Tornado at an airshow. Aside from any kind of retirement event, flypast or other kind of send off the fleet will be retired before the season starts next year. Quite fitting that one act should see a farewell to one of the RAF’s hardest working aircraft and usher in the next generation at the same time.
2) Father's Day
2018 should have seen the Royal Air Force virtually explode with an abundance of special formations and commemorative displays to mark their centenary. Sadly the opportunity was largely missed. There was, however, at least one unit that went on to provide a spectacle befitting of the occasion. In commemoration of the father of the RAF - Lord Hugh Trenchard, the first Chief of the Air Staff, the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight performed a unique formation known as Trenchard Plus to the joy of those assembled on the Saturday at RIAT.
It is rare to see a large contingent of the BBMF together in the air but to see virtually the entire squadron airborne simultaneously in formation was a sight to behold. Led by the Lancaster, the formation consisting of two Hurricanes, three Spitfires and the Dakota which performed a precise and professional display that has certainly stuck in our minds as one of the highlights of RAF100.
The Trenchard Plus formation was quite rightly recognised by RIAT who awarded the King Hussein Memorial Sword for the best overall flying demonstration to the BBMF, and now it also deservedly reaches the number two position in our 2018 countdown.
1) Millikin The Applause
Looking at this list, it's fair to say the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight have had a season to remember, walking away with the top three places in our countdown. The Lancaster and Old Warden are a match made in heaven, and following on from a spirited mini-display at Shuttleworth's season opener, Avro's "Big Stick" was back a fortnight later for a show-stealing cameo, even upstaging a glorious return to airshow flying for the Collection's Spitfire at the same event.
The advertised "flypast" actually consisted of three steeply banked passes around the famously curved crowd-line, delivering what will have been for many the best sequence they're ever likely to see from one of the nation's most treasured aircraft. Given the stunning repaint at the hands of ARCo last year, it's fair to say PA474 has never looked better, and in sunlight to die for under perfect clear skies that was certainly true of the views on offer this springtime evening.
As the season wore on, evidence was mounting that the showmanship and panache that have seemingly blossomed at the BBMF under the leadership of Sqn Ldr Andy Milikin was no fluke. Several repeat performances for the Lancaster at Old Warden followed, as well as solo Spitfire performances at events like Headcorn's Battle of Britain Airshow that put civilian owned and operated warbirds in the shade. At last, we're seeing this collection of warbirds shown off to their best, and long may it continue.
Do you agree with our choices? What do you consider to be the most memorable moments of last season?