Dawlish Carnival Airshow 2008 Review
Thursday 14th August
The picturesque south Devonshire coastal town of Dawlish has played host to a cracking little seaside airshow each year since 2004. Following chief organiser Kevin Wills and his family's move south from Banbury in 2001, the event has been transformed from what was a simple Red Arrows flypast during the Dawlish Carnival, into the thriving international airshow it is today. The 2008 iteration was unquestionably the biggest and best to date.
reports from the sunny south coast. Additional photography from and .
During the week prior to the show the weather forecast ranged from anything from sunshine and showers through to torrential downpours and 45mph winds. Prospects were pretty bleak as we made our way down the day before the show, with heavy and persistent rain throughout, but upon arrival in Dawlish itself, Kev explained that the venue had a tendency to miss most of the bad weather; the lie of the land causing much of the worst of it to deviate to the north and south. I don't think even the most hardened optimist would've believed just how lucky we'd be over the next couple of days, however!
Our primary photographic location for the next few days would be a hill, some 246 feet above sea level, and located at the southern end of the display line. We met up with another of the organisers, Morley Lester, whose official capacity was that of Press and Public Relations Officer, but in reality his duties extended far beyond that.
With the expectation of the imminent arrival of Flt Lt Charlie Matthews in the 29(R) Sqn Typhoon for his display practice we made our way to the top under Morley's direction. Unfortunately Charlie chose the only fifteen minute window during the whole afternoon where the visibility was anything other than good. The one saving grace with the cloud cover was that it precluded him from performing his rolling routine, and consequently we were treated to the flat display that included a few low-level passes that featured the sea as the backdrop.
Another practice that was anticipated was that of the Royal Jordanian Falcons, but it was clear that the weather at Exeter, to the north was, as Kev had predicted, a lot worse than we were experiencing as they kept slipping past their slot time. When they finally did get airborne they took an almighty battering from the wind; the solo pilot starting his routine on the edge of the display line and ending up getting blown a huge distance further out to sea by the prevailing wind.
The day ended with almost clear blue skies and the local forecasts suggested we might just get lucky with the next day's weather.
With the alarm set for 0600 we awoke to find almost exactly the same conditions as those present the previous evening. Given that we were in Exeter I was slightly concerned that what we were experiencing might not be mirrored in Dawlish, but Morley soon dispelled those concerns.
We joined the rest of the photographic party in the Smugglers Inn car park at 0815 and made our ascent. There were to be two static areas; one in one of the fields at the bottom of the hill, and the other at the northern end of the display line at Dawlish Warren. Naturally they were both only able to accommodate rotary movements.
The first such movement was scheduled for 1030 and came by way of John Beattie, Royal Navy Historic Flight's General Manager, in a privately owned Wasp HAS1. Despite the fact the aircraft would be parking on the Warren, John had been suitably briefed about the presence of the photographers on the hill and he positioned himself and the aircraft beautifully for those present.
Arriving from RNAS Culdrose next was the striking colour scheme adopted by the SAR Sea King HU5 aircraft of 771 NAS. This aircraft, along with the later arriving Merlin HC3A crewed by 78 Sqn, performed a number of air experience flights for local ATC cadets prior to the commencement of the flying programme.
Another arrival for the Warren was a Griffin HT1 from the Search And Rescue Training Unit (SARTU) at RAF Valley. As with the Wasp, another very photogenic arrival was performed, before they headed off to their static location.
Finally, the aforementioned Merlin from RAF Benson arrived and immediately set about doing its thing. Rather bizarrely, while this was happening we experienced a light rain shower, despite a distinct lack of cloud overhead! We later heard that it had been quite heavy at the other end of the crowdline.
Opening the flying display were the fixed wing elements, more specifically the Auster, Chipmunk and Beaver, of the Army Air Corps Historic Flight, based at Middle Wallop. Aside from the Auster they seldom ventured within photographic range of us on the hill, but then we knew that would be the case.
The first fast jet participation came by way of Andy Foan, making the first of his two appearances, in former-ETPS Hawker Hunter FGA9 XE601/G-ETPS, now owned by Skyblue Aviation and a resident of Exeter airport, still resplendant in that raspberry ripple colour scheme it sported during its time at Boscombe Down. It was great to see the Hunter down low over the sea and to hear the characteristic "blue note", almost omnipresent during the routine.
The pace was throttled back a notch or two once more for the next couple of items, with the ever popular Battle of Britain Memorial Flight, featuring Lancaster, Hurricane and the recently refinished Spitfire Mk IX.
Flt Lt Stew Campbell, 1 FTS's Tucano display pilot for 2008 had been out of range for most of his routine, but he blew everyone away with his pièce de résistance, diving down over our heads for a low-pass before the crowdline! It was the most impressive thing I've ever seen from the Tucano during a display!
Making a welcome return to the display circuit was de Havilland Aviation's Red Arrows schemed Gnat, XR537/G-NATY. The aircraft had been placed on display at Bournemouth's Aviation Museum and her future looked bleak until DHA commenced the three-year restoration in 2005. Not only is she an original Red Arrows Gnat, her pilot at Dawlish was Justin Hughes, himself a former "Red 2".
John Beattie then put the Wasp through her paces, even finding the time to pay us another welcome visit.
An unscheduled participant making a couple of passes in his airborne office was Flt Lt Leon Creese, the inaugural 45(R)Sqn King Air Display Pilot. Unfortunately he wasn't able to run through the full routine, but it was nice to see him making an appearance on his way back from RAF Valley's photocall.
It goes without saying but the Typhoon display was one of the most hotly anticipated routines on the programme, and Charlie, able to perform the full rolling display in the day's far superior conditions didn't disappoint. The atmosphere was tangible, particularly as he pulled out from a dive directly over our heads and plugged in the burners! Rapturous applause from what must have now been around 500 people on the hill accompanied his parting manouevre, as he climbed vertically into the ether and departed.
Andy Foan was back next with one of the nicest looking aircraft of the day, in my humble opinion, Skyblue Aviation's Beech 18. A lovely sweeping display against the beautiful Devon coastline worked wonderfully.
In addition to the Jordanian Falcons, international participation also came by way of the KC-135R from the 100th ARW, USAFE, from RAF Mildenhall in Suffolk. A series of four passes in various configurations were performed. Now if only they were cleared down to 200ft!
Conditions were much more conducive to the display of the Royal Jordanian Falcons on the show day itself than they had been a day earlier, and thankfully they were actually able to perform their routine for the assembled crowds - the first time that had happened since they arrived in the country in early July!
Thanks to the tremendous efforts of Sqn Ldr Andy Pawsey and the RAF Events Team, Dawlish was fortunate enough to have almost the full Role Demo compliment present, with just the rotary items and pyro's missing. It worked exceptionally well in the coastal setting and again went down supremely well with the hordes on the hill. It would be great to think that a return visit for this set piece might be on the cards for 2009.
The final rotary display of the day came by way of a SAR demo from the 771 NAS Sea King, involving some winching demonstrations and interaction with the lifeboat.
Bringing the curtain down on a superb display were the Royal Air Force Aerobatic Team, the Red Arrows, led by Wg Cdr Jas Hawker for the 2008 season. The team had earlier arrived at Exeter airport for fuel, and unfortunately "Red 5" suffered a birdstrike on departure from there, prompting a seldom seen eight-ship routine. The light by now was just lovely, and the backdrop punctuated by some dark, contrasty clouds. The formation elements looked great, but it was the solos and smaller formations that worked best from where we were - many passes being exited directly above our heads. It gives a completely different, thoroughly exhilarating take on the whole display, and once again the whole crowd loved it.
The whole team at Dawlish have my utmost respect. Their dedication to the cause is quite extraordinary and the support they received from the various organisations and individuals responsible for helping to put on such a cracking line-up bears great testament to that. What's even more remarkable is that this is essentially a free airshow, surviving only on donations and local sponsorship, and that receives zero financial backing from the local council to hold. It beggars belief that none of the commercial operators at Exeter airport have stepped forward to offer some kind of sponsorship deal, particularly when official Devon and Cornwall Police estimates suggest in excess of 85,000 people were in town for the event.
If there's a better location to hold an airshow in the UK, I've yet to see it. The interaction with the aircrews is superb in every respect from their arrivals, the access afforded to their aircraft in the static parks, and even during the evening events. It doesn't take a genius to understand why the crews love coming back to the place. Add that backdrop and the atmosphere into the equation and it has to rate as my best UK airshow experience in an awfully long time.
There's no two ways about it; the 450-mile round trip simply has to be undertaken again next year, and what's more, I can't wait!
The 2009 show will take place a week later, on Thursday the 20th of August.