Top 10 Airshow Moments of 2019
Friday 6th December 2019
Another airshow year over and done with, and whilst we sadly haven't quite been able to enjoy the swelteringly high temperatures and sun-kissed days of 2018, in no way has the airshow season been any less enjoyable. Going forward into 2020, we will see the loss of some much-loved attendees and venues alike; the Shorts Tucano T1 completing its swansong this year with appearances at shows such as Dunsfold Wings & Wheels, it too sadly to be consigned to the history books. It's increasingly unlikely to see new, large-scale shows fill the holes in the display calendar due to the current economic climate, so let's just hope the existing shows continue to deliver on their promises.
Once again RIAT stepped-up to the mantle of being the largest aviation showcase of the year, with a myriad of anniversaries being celebrated to varying degrees of success. The likes of the NATO 70th flypast certainly provided some pleasant hardware for the discerning enthusiast - the four original European F-16 operators being closely followed by a seldom seen French Air Force KC-135R being an incredibly welcome appearance during the Saturday display.
Vying for the very unofficial accolade of most impressive airshow of 2019 however was the newly named "Royal Navy International Air Day" - try saying that after a few gin & tonics! The organising team did a very credible job of delivering a varied show with solid international participation, a special mention going to the crew of the Canadian Air Force CC-130J and their uber-spirited flypasts. Cosford once again built-upon the successes of 2018, despite not having a major anniversary comparable to the RAF100 to prop it up, with a pleasing mix of aircraft both in the air & on the ground.
The warbird scene once again ascended to stratospheric levels that we haven't seen for several years, a round of applause to anyone that managed to attend an airshow this year without seeing at least one type of warbird. But we aren't just talking about piston-powered, World War 2 era fighters, oh no, but the likes of classic helicopters and obscure types such as the English Electric Wren making their first forays into the air for a many number of years being a welcome notion.
One could argue however that the prize for most hotly anticipated warbirds does not go to any recent restorations, but instead the en masse arrival of the various Dakotas, Skytrains (plus an interloping Lisunov Li-2) taking part in the D-Day 75th celebrations. Whilst Duxford formed a key focal point for a number of days throughout June before the 'squadron' of DC-3s et al journeyed south to France, that wasn't to say that other shows such as Old Warden's Flying Festival didn't get a look in either. Interestingly, perhaps somewhat understandably, the Daks Over Duxford event appeared to run rings around the other official Duxford shows this year. The likes of Flying Legends just simply didn't produce any new, interesting or stand-out moments compared to previous years which is sadly reflected in no Duxford shows appearing in our Top 10.
Overseas classic jets are certainly not to be shirked either, so seeing the likes of the Swedish Air Force Historic Flight and Norwegian Historic Squadron make a resurgent return to various shows, particularly those of a sandy nature found by the coast (wink), has most certainly been fully appreciated and bolstered these show's representative line-ups.
Unfortunately, we can't complete a Top 20 or Top 30 airshow moments of 2019, although it hasn't been beyond the realms of impossibility to enjoy some memorable moments at most shows this year. 2020 looks set to touch upon yet more important historical anniversaries; the 75th anniversary of VE Day and the 80th anniversary of the Battle of Britain. 2015 saw some incredible moments for the latter inparticular, so let's hope 2020 can exceed those expectations.
But for now, grab yourself a cup of tea (or potentially something a little bit stronger), open a packet of biscuits and enjoy the UK Airshow Review staff team's rundown of our Top 10 moments from this summer. And if you're not too drunk or eaten too many mince pies, don't forget to let us know your favourite moments of the season by joining the debate on our forums.
10) Orion's Belter
In the past half-decade, the RAF Cosford Air Show has really seen some strides forward as an international air event. Carrying this on in 2019 was no mean feat after the focus on the RAF100 celebrations last year, but the likes of a Swiss F-18 display, Czech JAS-39C Gripen display and L-159ALCA pair, and a super-rare display from a Marineflieger P-3C Orion, which we had to include in this list.
Whilst the German P-3s have been pretty regular at airshows on static display, the air arm has very very seldom (if ever!) displayed one of the Cold War machines before in the UK. It's noted that the RAF Cosford Air Show did have a "flypast" pencilled from the type back in 2015, but that sadly never materialised. This year, though, saw as much a display as one could want from the Electra-heritage MPA aircraft. The smokey droning sound of the Orion was great to behold, and marked a very rare occasion to actually photograph one in the air in varying configurations, complete with a high-speed pass and zoom-climb.
Incredibly, for a type that first flew in 1959, the Marinefliegergeschwader 3 fleet of 8 P-3Cs are set to be in service until 2035, another 15 or so years, which, we hope, will allow us to see more flying displays from the venerable smokey droning machines in the future.
9) Czech Mates
With one of the key themes this year being a celebration of 70 years of NATO at the RAF Cosford Air Show, enthusiasts were naturally hopeful of increased overseas military participation in the run up to the show. Building on the legacy of last year's RAF100 show, the organising team did not disappoint with a range of aircraft from a number of NATO and partner countries all participating in the static and flying display.
Amongst them was the Czech Republic, making their debut at Cosford with a single SAAB Gripen and L-159 ALCA pair as part of the flying display. Their participation was made more significant when their attendance was initially confirmed with the organising team highlighting the historic links between RAF Cosford and the Czech Republic. Sure enough, as with last year's Polish MiG-29/Hurricane formation, visitors to the show were again treated to another surprise formation fly past, this year the ALCA pair flying alongside Spitfire PRXI PL983, quintessentially flown by Cliff Spink.
Once all aircraft were in position, the trio performed two passes over the assembled crowd with commentary falling silent on each pass, a fitting tribute to all Czechoslovak airmen who fought alongside the Royal Air Force in the Second World War. The tight formation allowed for great photographic opportunities including a wonderful top-side pass on their first run-in. On their final pass, the Spitfire pulled up and away from the jets to start its solo display, shortly followed by a dynamic and explosive ground-attack display from the ALCA pair.
It has to be noted that, having been party to the planning and preparation for this tribute, it was astonishing to witness the precision, attention to detail and effort that went in to what would seem to most a simple fly past. It was nothing of the sort, with each pilot flying off different references to one another. In addition, the poor weather on Saturday delayed proceedings so much that it was only at the very end of the day that a small window of marginally better weather eventually allowed just one successful practice, and ultimately validation, to be performed.
Each year Cosford goes from strength to strength and with 2020 being the 75th anniversary of VE-Day and the 80th anniversary of the Battle of Britain, we can't wait to see what organisers have up their sleeve next year!
8) Scandi and Chips
None of us could have foreseen at the beginning of the 2019 airshow season that cold war era vintage jets would feature in our top ten chart. We've suffered a dearth of ex-military fast jets in recent years; a scene that was already in decline due to rising costs and bureaucratic demands was dealt a body blow by the Shoreham tragedy. While the historic jet movement has been kept alive by a handful of operators in the UK, on the continent it has continued to grow. British enthusiasts have shot envious glances at some of the cold war heavy metal now active overseas, while we assumed these afterburning machines would never grace our flying displays again.
The Swedish Air Force Historic Flight has a mightily impressive roster, and although they have displayed in the UK before, in recent years they have remained tantalisingly out of reach. Rumours abounded that they were willing to come, and wanted to come, but being unable to comply with the CAA and MAA's regulatory demands kept them away. Their calendar often listed UK events, only for them to evaporate in due course; it was more of a wish list than a confirmed schedule. So when three seaside airshows appeared on the Swedish Air Force Historic Flight's fixture list for 2019 it was taken with a pinch of salt by many.
But, as surprise of the season, it came to pass. Brutal cold war beasts from Sweden, blasting around the seasides of Sunderland, Bournemouth and Southport. Sunderland and Bournemouth got a Saab Draken, while Southport a double header of Saab Tunnan and Saab Viggen.
It was an experience to behold. Draken and Viggen displays bring a spectacle, and a sense of occasion, that is rare in modern fast jets. These fire-breathing machines just command an audience's attention. Here they were, flying aerobatic displays, thundering around the sky, making the ground shake. In Sunderland, and Bournemouth, and Southport. It would have been scarcely credible even when these mighty fast jets were in service with the Swedish Air Force. It would have been an ultra rare treat then. Yet here they were, now, when their appearance around the English coast in 2019 would have seemed so unlikely as to be pure fantasy.
Regulatory obstacles mostly overcome, there were some impositions on the routines flown. It mattered not, because that sight, sound and brutal power of the Swedish Air Force Historic Flight gave us an experience to savour. Also exploding the myth that the seaside event offers nothing to the purist enthusiast, they brought many to their first seaside event, so here's to having them back in 2020, and it goes without saying, they will be more than welcome to bring their friends too - the more cold war fast jets the merrier!
7) Harrier's Homecoming
Harriers! Don'cha just love 'em?
Genuine excitement greeted RIAT's announcement that, for the first time since 2010, Harriers would once again grace a UK flying display line-up (yes, we know about Farnborough and no, it doesn't count - don't @ us). This excitement increased when it was revealed that the Spanish Navy had worked up a pairs routine; not quite finished, the Armada's Harrier unit then batted their slopey-winged eyelashes at Yeovilton, and before we knew where we were, we had Harriers appearing at back-to-back UK airshows for the first time since the late Cretaceous. Well, since the 2000s, which is much the same thing.
It's a mark of the affection in which the aircraft is still held that the displays were a huge hit whilst not being especially brilliant; certainly some distance shy of the fire-and-brimstone Pegasus howl-fest which the RAF's GR.9 solo used to provide. Nonetheless there was just something intrinsically 'right' about seeing Harriers fly at venues like Fairford and, more particularly, Yeovilton - the latter a location forever linked with the type's operational past. Even the slightly daft cobra tail-art, complete with commemorative RIAT wording, didn't detract from the V/STOL thrill, nor did the sudden downgrading of Friday's display at RIAT to a solo instead of the promised two-ship (which thankfully did display over the weekend). Indeed RIAT Friday's solo display provided an unexpected highlight of this memorable visit, the landing 'Matador' kicking up an almighty cloud of spray as it touched down on the sodden Fairford runway.
Harriers! Don'cha just love 'em? Yeah, we do, and it had been far too long since this charismatic little jet last flew at a proper airshow (seriously, don't @ us) in its country of origin. Please don't leave it so long until the next time. Thanks for the memories, and haste ye back.
6) Double Delta
Of the official themes that were declared for the Royal International Air Tattoo this year, 50 years of the first flight of the Concorde was not among them. Neither was a marking of 75 years of RAF Fairford, for some years home of Concorde development flying. Concorde was arguably the most iconic aircraft of all time, and although a regular at Air Tattoos of the past it has now slipped into history and so it seemed that these anniversaries would slip quietly by, unnoticed. So unnoticed in fact, that they may not have even crossed the minds of many during the build up to RIAT 2019.
Such is the legendary status of Concorde in both of its home countries, the national aerobatic teams of the UK and France still commemorate the supersonic airliner in their displays today, both flying formations in honour of the graceful delta.
It was a surprise indeed when it was announced on Friday that the Red Arrows and the Patrouille de France were to fly their Concorde shapes in formation; a surprise that was cancelled out by disappointment when the flying display was to all intents and purposes washed out. Oh what might have been. When the Patrouille de France commentator let slip in the most nonchalant way that they would "try again later" following their Saturday display it seemed scarcely believable. But to the immense credit of both teams, and the show organisers, try again they did, and the result was a stylish and impressive tribute to the much missed airliner.
This wasn't simply a processional flypast. There was panache in the presentation which will live long in the memory as one of those 'I was there' moments, especially for an aerobatic team fan like this writer. Running in from the West end, two Concorde formations in line astern, arcing their pass, showing their topside. The red, white and blue streamed from the Red Arrows, white smoke from the Patrouille de France. The formation then turned steeply to the left to approach the crowd head on, the teams swapping smoke duties, as the tricolour streamed from the AlphaJets while the classic formation shapes were shown in plan form, in a double Concorde bend. National anthems were exchanged and commentary duties shared.
National aerobatic teams are the pinnacle of the airshow world, the blue riband item in any flying display. Here we have two of the world's best giving us something truly unique, in tribute to one of the finest flying machines there's ever been.
This was a fine example of working together and getting something done, just as the building of Concorde itself was. We must extend our congratulations to all that made it happen, but above all to whoever had the idea in the first place, because it was a brilliant one. Magnificent/magnifique.
5) The Magnificent Seven
In case welcoming seven Dakotas at the Bedfordshire airfield a month prior did not set the bar high enough, the Shuttleworth Collection promised a mass gathering of Hawker Hurricanes at its Military Pageant airshow. With the worldwide Hurricane population expanding year upon year with new restorations taking to the air, the programme promised a sight of seven Hurricanes, though with serviceability and clashes with other shows, it remained to be seen whether all would make it.
Visitors arriving at the airfield in the morning were greeted with just a pair of Hurricanes on the ground - the Collection's Sea Hurricane and Hurricane Mk. I P2902. The anticipation amongst the crowd could be felt throughout the morning, with everyone wanting a closer look at Sir Sydney Camm's construction and patiently waiting for the remaining machines to arrive.
As the airshow got underway, a recognisable purr of the Merlin engine could be heard every so often, as the remaining five Hurricanes arrived from commitments elsewhere and interrupted the show to taxi and park in front of the adoring crowds. The record, set by Duxford at a total of six, was well and truly beaten when towards the end of the afternoon, pilots mounted their machines and a puff of white smoke appeared from each of the Hurricanes. A sight not seen since 1946, the seven warbirds taxied, line astern, to the end of the runway. Onlookers were transported to 1940s wartime Britain as the aircraft hopped along the grass, lifted their tail off the ground and scrambled into the air.
The seven Hurricanes, led by the Collection's Sea Hurricane and flanked either side by P3713 and P2902, were followed by R4118, P3700, V7497 and the BBMF's PZ865. After a flypast of all seven, the BBMF Hurricane split away from the formation and performed a short yet sprightly routine. The remaining six flew past one more time before proceeding into a tail chase. Mixed with Vic formation flypasts and solo aerobatics from P2902, this display segment showed off the Hawker aircraft to perfection.
This historic gathering included all the UK's airworthy Hurricanes at the time, except Biggin Hill's machine. Together with BBMF's second example which was unserviceable, this has left room for nine Hurricanes to be seen together at some point in the future, and maybe even ten counting the 'Hurribomber' currently being converted into a two-seater. Nonetheless, the sight, sound and smell of seven Hurricanes was truly an emotional experience for all attendees and the organisation that went into this should be applauded.
Making the historic occasion even more memorable, was the attendance of one of 'The Few' - Archie McInnes. A wartime Hurricane pilot, Flt Lt McInnes seemed to be ecstatic, being personally driven around the seven aircraft on the ground before watching them in their element. He sadly passed away later in the summer, on the day of his 100th birthday; the mass gathering, a perfect tribute to his life.
4) Alfred the Great
The UK has had a fantastic surge in the classic helicopter scene in the last few years, fortunately filling the void left by both the classic jets and the old timers in the military with the last Lynxes and Sea Kings having finally been retired in the last two years. Being a traditionally overlooked section of the private airshow industry it's fantastic to see classic helicopters getting their time in the limelight, as they tend to carry neither the veteran grandeur of the WWII types nor the glamour and excitement of the classic jets. Helicopters have always filled a role of silent workhorse, and rarely has thought been given to preserving them for the flying scene after they are inevitably retired from service.
Historic Helicopters' Westland Wessex HU5 saw one of the country's most iconic types return to the air hot on the heels of their equally thrilling Whirlwind, making its public display debut at the Royal Navy International Air Day at Yeovilton with whom Historic Helicopters have had a strong relationship since inception. Ever since their Whirlwind graced the scene they've slipped morsels of information out to the public about their growing stable, and when it transpired that they not only had a Wessex but planned to fly it, appetites were whetted.
A type most had probably never expected to see again, the Wessex was very much top billing this year and was given a good deal of time, opening the show in formation with two Westland Wasps, two Wildcats and a Merlin HM2 before going into a full-blown solo display that showed the Wessex's design off superbly. It was quite strange to see a machine that has been so familiar in a museum setting actually in the air but for a first outing it was no slouch traversing the display line and giving the crowd a good look all round the type.
The Wessex served the UK for over forty years and was always taken for granted, even when forming part of the mass flypasts and demonstrations that were so popular over the years. It formed the backbone of the helicopter forces for all three branches but has since retirement, until now, largely been consigned to the dustb...uh...museums of history, its stalwart service somewhat forgotten.
For those of us who were never around to see these types in service the chance to see such famous helicopters is fantastic and the work of the people behind them has to be applauded. Having any historic aircraft take flight again is always a cause for appreciation but when it's a whole type that hasn't flown in nearly twenty years it sets the enthusiast scene alight and many will have travelled to catch a glimpse of the Wessex. It can't be overstated how meaningful it is for these old types to be brought back to public attention and their history to come to the fore again, and with another Wessex and a Sea King in the pipeline, Historic Helicopters could make our Top Ten list for a few more years to come.
3) Flying the Flag
RIAT has a penchant for celebrating anniversaries with 2019 being no exception to the rule. If marking the D-Day 75th, NATO 70th and *ahem* Airbus 50th anniversaries didn't quite butter the public's parsnips, then the British Airways' centenary flypast with the Red Arrows most certainly got the juices flowing for many of those in attendance.
Formed on 25th August 1919, Aircraft Transport & Travel Limited (AT&T) became the world's first airline to introduce a daily international air service. Fast forward 100 years through various route expansions, name changes, fleet modernisations and we arrive at the modern-day British Airways - a gleaming fleet of 'Union Flag' clad aircraft numbering circa 300 airframes.
In order to mark the historic milestone, British Airways repainted four aircraft, one Airbus A319 and three Boeing 747-400s, with retro schemes from various points throughout the airline's illustrious history. And what better way to further mark such an important anniversary than to show-off one of these retrojets at RIAT?
BA are certainly not unfamiliar with attending RIAT shows of yesteryear - the numerous Concorde visits throughout the late 20th Century making it an almost regular attendee. More recently we have been treated to the likes of the 'Babybus' A318 on static in 2015 and the Airbus A380 in 2013, which memorably gave it the full stonks following its impressive flypasts with the Red Arrows.
Of the three 747 schemes to choose from, the specific airframe to be utilised for the flypast was G-BYGC - looking resplendent in the BOAC gold, white and blue livery worn by its 747-100s predecessors during the 60s and 70s.
As the huge aircraft orbited over RAF Brize Norton to formate with the Red Arrows, the formation eventually trundled towards Fairford before banking left to perform a mightily impressive topside pass, then returning for a straight & level pass. Naturally, the nine Hawk T1s trailed the signature red, white and blue smoke under the grey-hued skies in a showcase of British pomp and circumstance that could have arguably only been bettered if boxes of tea were being thrown into the crowd.
Whilst formations of this nature are nothing new on the airshow circuit, the opportunity to see a large commercial aircraft perform in a public flying display is becoming increasingly rare nowadays. More to the point, seeing an aircraft that usually plies long-haul routes at incredibly close quarters is worthy of recognition in its own right. Nevertheless, commercial aircraft will still undoubtedly grace the skies of Fairford in years to come, although the spectacle of seeing the classic 'jumbo' in such a timeless livery will be a difficult act to supersede.
2) LanceR Lot
Ask any enthusiast what their RIAT wish list would be each year and it's likely that a Romanian MiG-21 display would feature somewhere on it (as shown by the said threads on our forum)
This year marks thirty years since the Berlin Wall fell, and since the end of the Cold War the slow creeping westernisation of European air arms seems to be almost complete. There are precious few militaries on our doorstep that are able to offer us the delights of Soviet-era goodness, and for those that do have such equipment left, retirements, safety concerns, and serviceability issues all seem to keep the dwindling fleets at home.
In recent years, we've been lucky enough to see displays from the Polish Su-22s and MiG-29, and the welcome now-regular appearance of the brutish Ukrainian Su-27 is always a highlight. But the MiG-21 always seemed to be just out of reach. In the past ten years, there have been some nearly-but-not-quite moments, but 2019 saw the first attendance since 2005, and first flying attendance since 2001 of the Romanian Air Force MiG-21 LanceR.
Two machines attended, (and only just, given that they ran out of fuel on the taxiway!) from the 71st Air Base at Câmpia Turzii, together with a C-27 in support. The display felt considerably less clinical and precise than modern aircraft, and was all the more charismatic for it. The rocket blazed around the sky with its trademark afterburner, and it felt much like the displays of old; of man and machine, and, boil away all of the corporate or strategic "visions" or overly-businessy wording of press releases, and at its core, this is what RIAT was and is always about, and why it is loved by so many.
This display has been one of *the* items on the enthusiasts' wish lists, even though most had probably reconciled themselves (like me) to never seeing its display. It was therefore a true joy to welcome the charismatic little machines back to Fairford, and appreciate them in the air, and on the ground. Let's hope we're fortunate enough to see them a few times again before their time is up, and they are replaced fully by the nation's ongoing F-16 procurement.
1) Union Dak
With 2019 seeing the 75th anniversary of D-Day being celebrated, Dakotas were always going to be featured somewhere in our top 10, weren't they, but with events planned across the country the question was which event was most memorable to make our list?
Since 2017 and the announcement that 'Daks Over Normandy' with a claimed participation of over 30 aircraft from across the globe would start in the UK out of Duxford before moving onto northern France (23 aircraft made the final journey to Cambridgeshire), it was near enough a foregone conclusion that the 2nd - 5th of June at the historic airfield would be it.
However, leading up to their Flying Festival on the 2nd June The Shuttleworth Collection threw a spanner in those works with the announcement that 9 aircraft from Duxford would make the short trip to Bedfordshire to be on static display at the small airfield, albeit it was 7 aircraft that made the trip the day before the airshow, taxied en masse and parked up in the paddock area to be opened to the public on the morning of the show.
Approaching Old Warden from Biggleswade village and seeing the machines littering the airfield was a real sight to behold, after parking up and wandering around the (free entry!) paddock, with the sun shining, the sound of 1940s swing music filling the air, classic era military vehicles spread around the Dakotas of which many were open, our American friends happy to show off their prized aircraft, talk about their epic journey to the UK and their aircrafts' history, it was clear so much effort had been put in at such a short space of time creating an incredible buzz & atmosphere not felt at any other airshow or D-Day event. You knew it was a special day when the collections Spitfire and Hurricanes were being totally ignored!
Let's not forget a Dakota's wheels had never before touched the grass of Old Warden's runway until a month prior to this show and with this level of access, the intimate setting of Old Warden & the incredible atmosphere created on the day were what gave Shuttleworth the edge over the other UK D-Day events and gained it our number 1 spot.
Do you agree with our choices? What do you consider to be the most memorable moments of last season?