'Daks Over Normandy' Part 3: Daks Over Normandy

Wednesday 5th June - Friday 7th June 2019

There is much still to be written about the events which unfolded at Caen’s Carpiquet Airport between the 5th and the 8th of June. What ought to have been a highlight of the 2019 aviation calendar instead collapsed into a depressing muddle of incompetence and subsequent acrimony, with disgruntled punters taking to social media to air grievances and (apparently successfully, at least in some cases) seek compensation.

Gordon Duncan travelled to France to take in the main event of the Daks Over Normandy project.

Firstly, the good bits. Yes, there were indeed 'Daks Over Normandy', and lots of them too. With their arrival from Duxford on June 5th being delayed by a good few hours, there was a long but ultimately fruitful wait for the formation to appear. When they eventually swung into view over the drop-zone at Ranville, and even from the airport at Carpiquet (a distance of around 12 miles, as the Dak flies) the subsequent drop provided a magnificent spectacle. With hundreds of authentic WWII-era round-canopy ‘chutes descending onto the fields of northern France and bringing to mind most vividly the events of 75 years ago. Even at this early stage, however, there was a brief foretaste that all might not be well; there were zero facilities set-up at Carpiquet to accommodate the large number of photographers hoping to shoot the arriving Dakotas, and the local gendarmerie were out in force to restrict access to most of the prime viewing points around the airfield perimeter. With a number of VIPs arriving into the area for the official commemoration ceremonies on the 6th this was entirely fair enough, but some prior warning (regarding road closures, for example) might not have gone amiss.

So to Carpiquet and the event itself on June 7th, a day which perhaps appropriately began inauspiciously with grey skies and frequent rain showers. The first murmurings that trouble was afoot came from the event’s own social media pages, which even before the gates had formally opened were inundated with angry complaints that there was no signage directing people to the official car parks. Meanwhile, it was reported that those who had managed to leave their cars found themselves stuck at the car parks; the promised shuttle buses failed to materialise, and when official-looking transport did eventually arrive, those who had waited patiently in the rain described the bizarre spectacle of empty buses turning around and heading back to the airport. It appears that no-one had informed the drivers that an event was taking place, and they were unable or unwilling to ferry a large number of aviation enthusiasts and all their kit back to the airfield. Evidence of such transport woes was not exactly hard to come by; the many cars simply abandoned at the side of the road near the airport (surely constituting some sort of hazard) told their own eloquent and depressing story.

If you were one of the brave souls who refused to give up and eventually succeeded in negotiating the Kafkaesque process of making your way to Carpiquet, you would have struggled to tell that a, supposedly, major event was about to take place. There is, frankly, insufficient space in a brief article such as this to list everything that went wrong… suffice to say that some of the more glaringly obvious faults included insufficient toilet facilities; a grand total of two (yes, 2) catering outlets, both of which predictably ended up with queues stretching back to the outskirts of Paris; and, perhaps most bafflingly and alarmingly of all, a near total absence of rubbish bins on the ‘showground’. FOD-risk, anyone? Carpiquet is a moderately busy municipal airport, for crying out loud.

It’s no easy task to convey in writing just how awful this really was. One was left with the impression that a number of Dakotas happened to be sitting on an airfield in northern France, and the public were admitted to the airfield to look at them, and… that’s it. Hardly any facilities, no organisation, no staff on hand, not even any commentary to explain what was (or more accurately, wasn’t) happening – in short, no ‘event’ to speak of. The lack of commentary was especially galling, particularly as the crowds arriving on-site had, as above, endured a torrid time just getting there, only to be greeted by silent indifference both on the ground and over the airwaves. To compound matters, several Dakotas (ostensibly the reason we were all there) eventually managed to cheat the weather and take to the air. This presented an obvious opportunity for someone to explain what the aircraft were doing, perhaps even provide a brief ‘biog’ of the airframes and the story of their journey to France, their historical significance… something, anything, to inform and keep spirits up after the weather-beaten crowds had endured long periods of nothing happening. Instead the PA speakers – one of few visible signs of any kind of event organisation – helpfully continued to blare out twiddly French jazz even as two lovely Daks circled overhead.

In their meagre public communications since the event, and with remarkably brazen understatement, the organisers behind 'Daks Over Normandy' have acknowledged that all did not go according to plan at Carpiquet, and that some people may have been left feeling disappointed. They have cited both the weather and the unexpected presence of VIPs (including President Macron) at Carpiquet as the reasons behind, for example, the lack of facilities. Well, the weather was indeed grim: strong gusting winds and persistent drizzle are hardly ideal airshow conditions. However – and the point shouldn’t really need to be made – this is northern Europe. Every outdoor event, from Glyndebourne to Formula One, from church fete to the Lord Mayor’s Show, is at the mercy of the unpredictable elements. We have all experienced occasions when the weather has refused to play ball, but the attendees generally don’t end up demanding compensation whilst angrily taking to social media to vent their unhappiness. Something more sinister than mere bad weather appears to have taken place here, and trying to use the weather as an excuse is shoddy behaviour indeed. Besides, for an outdoor event to openly admit to being so susceptible to poor weather as to be unable to provide basic facilities is both illuminating and disturbing; in itself almost an admission that the event was doomed from the outset. One shudders to think what this might have been like had the weather actually been fine, and a significantly larger number of people had turned up...

The word ‘shambles’ is flung around much too easily these days. Relatively minor inconveniences can lead to an otherwise perfectly acceptable event being tarred with the ‘shambles’ brush; as such, the word has lost much of its resonance through overuse and the inevitable descent into cliché. But this? This was much, much worse than a mere shambles. This was an insult: to the public unfortunate enough to be in attendance; to the principles of remembrance and commemoration upon which the event was supposedly founded; an insult even to the basic principles of event management. A fellow sufferer half-jokingly compared it to the infamous Fyre Festival; if you’ve seen the tragi-hilarious Netflix documentary, you’ll instantly understand the reference.

The paying public, indeed the aircraft themselves, ultimately deserved a lot better than this. Whilst it is yet to be determined if this was in fact a 'scam' (as implied by the name of the online support group for those seeking redress), the underlying frustration behind the sentiment remains entirely understandable.