Sywell Airshow 2006 Review
Sunday 24th September
Take a wonderful grass airfield in Northamptonshire, steeped in aviation history, a fantastically committed and enthusiastic organising committee, and an exceptionally worthwhile charitable cause and you have the basis for a quite superb airshow. That's exactly what Sywell aerodrome, its owner, Michael Bletsoe-Brown and his team, with a little assistance from a fantastic array of aircraft and some of the best display pilots in the country produced, all in aid of the Warwickshire and Northamptonshire Air Ambulance.
spent a fantastic day at the 2006 Sywell Airshow. All photography by the author.
When I awoke on the morning of the show I genuinely feared the worst. Visibility out of the window was almost non-existent, and with the airshow venue being little more than ten miles away, the prospects for the day looked bleak, particularly with a well-known online weather forecasting site predicting rain for the afternoon. Fortunately, as it turned out, by the time I arrived at the airfield at 9am the rain had already arrived, and quite a deluge we had too. By the time the gates were opened to the general public an hour or so later, odd patches of blue sky were appearing off in the distance.
Already on the ground were a number of the participants, thanks in no small part to the aerodrome hosting a special 60th Anniversary of the Chipmunk event the day before, with free entry to the show offered as incentive to those arriving in advance. No less than 32 aircraft had taken part in the Saturday event and over half of them were there to be seen on the show day aswell.
It wasn't just Chipmunks that were present at that stage though. Plane Sailing's Catalina, Historic Aircraft Collection's immaculate Hurricane Mk.XIIa and Spitfire Mk.Vb, and The Real Aeroplane Company's P-51D, "Susy", a former-Sywell resident herself, were amongst numerous others already amassed on the grass. That said, there were still plenty of participants to arrive during the morning, and as they did so the weather continued to improve.
An hour or so before the flying display got underway the star item for many, the whole reason behind the staging of the event to start with, the Warwickshire and Northamptonshire Air Ambulance's Agusta A109 arrived. The crew had been on the ground for little more than 15 minutes when they received a 'shout'. They were timed by the commentator as taking one minute fifteen seconds to go from receiving the call to getting airborne. An extremely impressive feat and further evidence of the need to support this most excellent of causes - a cause that relies solely on donations from the general public and receives absolutely no government funding whatsoever.
2pm arrived and signalled the start of the flying display. First act up was the Utterly Butterly Wingwalkers with a pair of their Boeing Stearman aircraft, complete with trademark yellow and blue lycra-clad lovely atop each aircraft. Some rather moody skies and bright sunshine provided a few rather nice photographic opportunities and gave a good indication of just how close the whole Sywell experience brought the public to the action. This was to be the last ever 'Utterly Butterly' display, with new sponsors having been found for the 2007 season, and whilst no announcement was made at the show itself, it has since come to light that the pink and white house colours of Guinot Cosmetics will adorn the aircraft.
Already in the air by this stage were the RAF Gliding and Soaring Association's Schleiker ASK-21 glider and tug. The pilot putting on a fantastic aerobatic routine and a faultless display of energy management, looping, rolling and swooping whilst trailing pink smoke from smoke canisters on the wingtips of the glider. An extremely impressive piece of flying.
A 'barnstorming' extravaganza followed, with a Steen Skybolt, a pair of Chipmunks and a Thruxton Jackaroo producing some incredibly spirited and spectacular flying, as they ducked down under two sets of 'washing lines' and attempted to burst balloons (largely unsuccessfully!) with their props. They were to return again later with a flour bombing demonstration that was even less successful, but still highly entertaining!
Sadly the light wasn't quite so good for the next few items. Heading them was Taff Smith in The Real Aeroplane Company's Bucker BU-133C Jungmeister. A couple of passes from the Harvard pair of "Fools Rush In" and Delta Aviation's yellow California ANG painted example followed, before the simulated WWI dogfighting kicked off.
The Great War Display Team were the players in this particular battle, bringing with them two Fokker DR.1 triplanes, a SE.5A and a Nieuport Scout, naturally, all four aircraft were replicas of the real thing. After a series of tail-chases the Fokkers started to show signs of battle damage with smoke pouring from the engine cowlings, and it wasn't long before the Allies claimed another two victories. All good fun and nice to witness these seldom seen aircraft on the circuit.
Taff Smith was up again soon after, this time in an aircraft very close to the hearts of the Sywell faithful. "Susy", the striking P-51D Mustang, had been resident at Sywell for many years, initially in storage following the death of her infamous owner Charles Church, before being acquired by the late-Paul Morgan, who himself tragically lost his life on this very same airfield following a landing accident in his Sea Fury FB.11. Following Paul's untimely death, Susy was bought by The Real Aeroplane Company at Breighton and it is from there that she operates today.
Bringing a close to the first segment of the flying was a rather special setpiece performed by a number of de Havilland stalwarts. Taking to the air initially was a formation consisting of Mark Miller's pristine Dragon Rapide restoration and three Chipmunks of "The Red Sparrows", a sight that I for one have never witnessed before. The Rapide then broke away and "The Reds" went into their individual routine, at the end of which they were joined by another three Chipmunks in a much looser echelon formation. The Rapide and the Railway Air Services Dragon then performed very graceful individual displays.
Part two was opened by "The Brooklands Formation", a Tiger Moth and two of the brand new Aero AT-3 R100 training aircraft. Brooklands and Sywell are synonomous. Way back in 1935 the company arrived at Sywell with a remit to fulfil pilot training contracts on behalf of the War Department. All the way through to 1977 Brooklands Aviation operated from the airfield, but from that point on a company decision was taken to withdraw from the aviation business and switch its focus to general engineering. With the departure of Northamptonshire School Of Flying in 2005, it was decided that Sywell Aerodrome Ltd would start its own basic fixed-wing training operation and given the long association with the Brooklands name, it was deemed appropriate to resurrect it.
A very graceful display was then provided by the Miles pair, Messenger G-AKIN, a Sywell resident since April 1952, together with Falcon G-AEEG. Some formation work was followed by individual fly throughs with the Messenger then getting in on the act of the returning barnstormers, who on this occasion were attempting to flour bomb the 'RFC Sywell' "building" that had been setup especially for the event.
Martin Lovell provided something of a change of pace with an extremely energetic and impressive display in Skytech Helicopters' Hughes 500E. Amongst other tricks, Martin's main party pieces were a genuine 'sliding' stop and an incredibly skillful piece of precision flying involving a traffic cone. Using the port skid of the helicopter he knocked the cone over, before repositioning himself he went on to pick it up on the front of the skid, all this done without any part of the helicopter coming into contact with the ground. Seldom do you get to see a helicopter demonstrated in this way and his performance definitely won the crowd over, receiving rapturous applause when he exited the aircraft at the end of his routine.
The Historic Aircraft Company were up next with their Hurricane Mk.XIIa and their Spitfire Mk.Vb, in the hands of Clive Denney and Charlie Brown respectively. Special mention has to go to Charlie Brown who flew one of the most impressive Spitfire solo routines that I can ever remember witnessing. Again, the crowd's proximity to the aircraft really added to the impact of the display but it would've still been mightily impressive, whatever the location. Sadly by this stage the position of the sun had really started to come into play and photography had become really difficult, with little on offer other than silhouetted shots.
With just three items left to display it was the turn of Plane Sailing's Catalina to take to the skies. This is such a beautiful aeroplane and despite the less than favourable lighting, some really dramatic shots were possible. The one thing missing from the routine was any sustained glimpse of the topside of the aircraft. In actual fact, it wasn't until it departed for Duxford at the end of the day that I managed to capture any worthwhile shots of this aspect. Why could this not have been incorporated into the display itself?
Pete Teichman's stunning P-40 Kittyhawk was a last minute addition to the list, stepping in after The Real Aeroplane Company's Me-109 Buchon that had been scheduled to display was sold.
Bringing down the curtain on Sywell Airshow 2006 were the resident display team, 2 Excel Aviation's "The Blades", led by former Red 1, Andy Offer OBE, with a typically accurate and tight display. They've yet to fail to impress on the occasions that I have seen them and the Red Arrows 'class' genuinely shines through. With this being the final display of their inaugural airshow season, they bow out with tremendous credit.
With the display flying completed all that was left was the dispatch of the visiting aircraft - one of the highlights of this type of show, and so often the one that offers the best photographic opportunities. This was no exception, though sadly many of the items had long since departed by the time the cloud had broken to leave a beautiful September sunset.
All in all a fantastic day out for all the family. Initial indications suggest that crowd numbers might not have quite reached the dizzy heights that had been hoped for, but the lack of TV media presence at the Press Launch (through no fault of the organisers) the Thursday prior to the event, and the weather on the morning of the show itself will not have helped matters. Neither will the disgusting amount of people who were clustered in the car park watching the display without paying the very reasonable £12 entry fee. For what was a charity event in aid of such a deserving cause, I find these people to be truly despisable. Fingers crossed their actions don't stop subsequent airshows at this wonderful venue from taking place.