2020 Retrospective

Saturday 2nd January 2021

Over recent weeks, the UKAR Staff Team would normally have sat down to agree on our top 10 moments from the 2020 airshow season. This year it just didn’t seem fair to produce our annual article in light of the sheer number of airshow moments that have been missed thanks to the Coronavirus pandemic. Indeed, when we look back to November 2019, no one could have ever envisaged the terrible impact this virus would have on the industry and the hobby it supports.

Andy Evans reflects on a year that has deeply affected our hobby and left us all hoping for a better future. Photography by the UKAR Staff Team.

It wasn’t long until the pandemic began to tighten its grip on the UK and as the implications of this virus began to be realised concern grew on the forums and on social media that global events would inevitably impact the UK airshow season in some form or another. As cases began to increase, the Government began to implement national restrictions.

The first major British event to cancel was the biggest of them all: the Royal International Air Tattoo. A blow for many of us but one, as we noted in our editorial at the time, that was met with admirable maturity by the community. This set the scene as more and more events cancelled, until nothing remained in the calendar. In the space of just a few short weeks, all prospect of the season carrying on with some sense of normality was lost and we were left pondering what we had to look forward to when the lockdown was lifted.

In amongst the lockdown cancellations came an unexpected and unrelated announcement. The annual Flying Legends airshow by the Duxford-based Fighter Collection ranks highly in the reasons why Duxford has a reputation as of one of the premiere warbird venues in the world. It therefore came as a complete surprise when the TFC announced that the event would no longer be hosted at Duxford, eventually confirming that it would move to Sywell. Whilst there are some concerns whether Sywell will be large enough to host a show of this magnitude, the clear losers in all of this has to be Duxford itself. Not only will they lose any revenue from the event but also the world-wide prestige of being the home of Flying Legends. It’s understood Duxford may consider hosting a replacement show themselves in the near future although nothing has been announced for 2021, but in all honesty, any attempt to compete with such a airshow giant may ultimately be futile.

Whilst it's no surprise that the military teams had to cancel their entire seasons, it may have appeared relatively straightforward for civilian display pilots to continue to practice and/or maintain their currency during the period of lockdown. However, to encourage people not to travel, the CAA placed a prohibition on the general aviation community which not only encompassed civilian display flying but saw airfields close for the duration of lockdown. Without the income from the likes of flying schools and other things that the industry, to an extent, took for granted, it was uncertain just when these airfields would re-open. Without the opportunity to maintain currency, many civilian acts risked losing their display authorities. Pleasingly, the CAA recognised this and made allowances by providing exemptions and extensions for civilian display pilots that would have otherwise struggled. After recent years of some friction between them and the airshow industry, it was pleasing to see the CAA go to these lengths, which they were under no obligation to do.

Unbeknown to most, the industry was busy working in the background developing proposals over how airshows could return as soon as possible. The BADA conference on the matter in May revealed a lot of outside-the-box thinking, and there were some big ideas being mooted including controlled-access static parks, remote/virtual shows and even a drive-in format following its success in other industries.

One of the most pleasing aspects of the industry, and the hobby in general is just how the best was made of a bad situation; little things go a long way, and the communal spirit between the (still ongoing) light-hearted photo competitions and "on this day" communal threads brought some nostalgia, some exotica, and allowed the forumites' vast photographic talent to show itself, and it has been wonderful to see people of all skill levels get involved. I know I speak for the staff team when we say we've been hugely impressed by the way the forum has (in an ostensibly dead year) kept itself going, and in good spirits, full of debate, excellent photography, and good humour. UKAR would be nothing without all of you.

Not just the forum, either. Many friends, colleagues, and fellow websites/groups/forums have all done their own thing, and produced some really interesting, funny, and heart-warming stuff, all with remarkable good humour and spirit. There's been quizzes, recce competitions, airshow memories, themed photography, help and assistance, and good debate.

I should also mention the UKAR podcast. Some of the team, along with half the world, re-booted UKAR's podcasting arm. The aim was for "pub-chat", because they're all exactly as dull as they sound. We've been lucky to hear from some wonderful special guests, such as Tim Prince, Ben Dunnell, Peter Reoch, and Sqn Ldr Martin "Perty" Pert, who was, until recently, RAFAT Red 1. The podcast is continually improving, settling, and working on ideas and special guests. The listener numbers are fantastic (despite the Skygod's nuurthern tones being enough to curdle milk at fifty paces), so please do stay tuned, and provide feedback for what you'd like to hear more or less of.

Anyway - airshows. As it turned out, we were very lucky to see some air events take place this year. Headcorn and Stow Maries were both able to host small events and Duxford did attempt to host a full airshow in September - thwarted by the weather and an impending second lockdown. It was the Shuttleworth Collection, though, that lead the charge. Hosting no less than five separate events, they utilised a brand new airshow format; the drive-in airshow. The green open sloping spaces at Old Warden were transformed into five metre square socially-distanced boxes where visitors parked their vehicles inside a box and spent their day within it. As mentioned in our July review, if any venue could make a success of this format, it was going to be Shuttleworth.

Tickets sold out very quickly using a per-car pricing policy that encouraged families or “bubbles” to attend. It was a pricing policy that disadvantaged the solo airshow visitor, a situation acknowledged by Old Warden on social media but with fewer visitors on site the show needed to make a profit. The complete sell out of the first few shows seemed to prove that the organisers had priced their offering accordingly, without the need for any form of solo passenger discount. Those that chose to attend this first of a kind event were treated to a traditional Shuttleworth airborne spectacle, made all the sweeter in this year of airshow-drought. It also provided many display pilots with their only public displays of the season. As Scott stated in his review “Forward thinking, whilst looking after the past, this was Shuttleworth at its finest” particularly when Dave Walton revealed to us that Shuttleworth went out of their way to provide feedback on what they learnt from these events to the rest of the industry. The Shuttleworth Collection really carried a weight in 2020, not just for enthusiasts needing a fix, but they explored a brand new concept, at an affordable(ish) price, and safely delivered a number of separate events, and fed that valuable experience back to the wider industry. A fantastic effort for the Collection, and one that should be commended at all levels within the airshow and aviation industry.

There was debate on the price, though - changing from the simple format of £50 per car, the organisers moved to a pricing structure of £50 for the first two passengers then £20 per extra passenger. As Jakub’s review highlighted, this sadly meant that the format and what was on offer became justifiably questionable to some, and it was notable that visitor numbers were down as a result. Hopefully, if matters require the return of the drive-in format in 2021, which the Collection has stated that it anticipates, we will see a return to the original pricing structure, it certainly attracted more visitors.

We should also mention the introduction of the virtual airshow, particularly in an effort to raise money for charities that usually benefit from events. The first to try this was the Armchair Airshow on behalf of Aerobility, using archive footage for their displays their panel of experts chaired by George Bacon provided live commentary throughout the day. As a first attempt at this format, the show went down well and provided a sentimental look at displays performed around the UK over the past few decades but it was clear the format had more scope than just archive footage.

This is contrasted to the RAFCTE announcement that they were going to broadcast their own online show. Hosted by the regular RIAT commentators Ben Dunnell and Grp Capt Mark Manwaring, the “Virtual Air Tattoo” used archive footage and intermixed this with guest interviews together with unique displays recorded virtually in flight simulators specially for the event. In particular, one segment saw a virtual Red Arrows display being commentated on not only by their own team member but also critiqued live by Sqn Ldr Adam Collins (Red 10). The entire two-day event had a TV show quality about it.

A mention must surely go to Planes TV. Throughout this year not only have they helped entertain enthusiasts via this new format of digital airshows but regularly streamed airshows from their archive DVD collection together with publishing their own video chat/podcasts. Their contribution to this year’s airshow season cannot be understated and they deserve the thanks of every enthusiast that has tuned into any of these events or live streams in order to get that much needed aviation fix, albeit from a screen.

As the year draws to a close there are the first cautious hints of a brighter future on the horizon. Many events have decided to skip 2021 and return in 2022, and who can blame them as there are still so many unknowns about 2021 that for the financially smaller event the risks are just too great. Some venues may not be able to physically comply with COVID regulations too so are waiting for regulations to be relaxed before going ahead again. However, it's gratifying to see the Abingdon Air and Country Show announce participants and, likewise, the hobby went crazy when the A-10 Demonstration Team was announced at ICAS as the first RIAT participant next year. We will wait to hear more on that event, and other calendar events like the RAF Cosford Airshow, or Flying Legends, and the first event at its new home.

The safe bet is to assume that we are likely to see a year of smaller than usual events being held in a COVID-secure manner - that could mean drive-in only, or no static display, it could also mean the extremes of being allocated a grid space on the crowd front. Shuttleworth have already announced that they will be bringing back the drive-in format for 2021 and RAFCTE Chief Executive, Paul Atherton has already warned in his Christmas message that at RIAT there “may well be changes to the event in a number of areas”.

It seems to me that there's two ways of looking at airshows in 2020. On the one had it's been absolutely pig-awful for so many well-publicised reasons. We haven't had an airshow year, but I prefer to remember 2020 another way: the way that the industry, from enthusiasts, to websites, to airshow organisers, to the BADA and CAA have gritted teeth, faced a huge and unpredicted challenge, and met it with admirable gumption and spirit. If you stop for a second and consider everything that has been on offer, 2020 has really shown the passion, drive and love of airshows and air events up and down the country. Never before has there been such a complete rebuttal to the argument that the airshow industry is in decline. That's what 2020 was to me, and it's that spirit, drive and determination that we should remember and credit going into the greener pastures of 2021 and beyond.

I wish you all a Happy New Year from all of the staff team at UKAR. May 2021 bring you health, happiness, and the Swedish Historics.