Bentwaters Airshow Report

Sunday 13th June 2010

Bentwaters, the Suffolk base formerly prefixed with RAF titles, and housing the might of the United States Air Force Europe and its inimitable A-10 'Warthogs', was the new venue for an airshow for 2010, having previously hosted smaller events. It was very much an unknown quantity, and threw up some nice surprises, though, less surprisingly, the British summer weather tried to put a damper on the day.

Phil Whalley reports from this former USAFE air base in Suffolk. All photos by the author.

The base still sports a vista of hardened aircraft shelters as evidence of its previous life, and though they wouldn't have been there at the time, the base reverberated to the roar of a North American Sabre for the first time in what is thought to be over fifty years, when Golden Apple's F-86A arrived. Its fellow 'A' model Sabres originally arrived at the base in September 1951 with the 91st Fighter-Interceptor Squadron, though serving for only a few years. The later F-86D model also spent time at Bentwaters, with these departing in 1958, possibly the last presence of a Sabre at the base. The airbase closed in 1993, but has thankfully remained reasonably intact, allowing for a resurgence in its aviation usage.

Smaller events had preceded this year's full blown airshow, the organisation of which the home-based Grace family played a major part in. The family have a maintenance facility at Bentwaters, housing amongst others the two aircraft of the Pitts Pair, the new team for 2010, flown by Richard Grace and Dave Puleston. The Pair had previously displayed at a village fete in Colne Engaine, in the Essex countryside, but this was their first appearance at a large show since swapping from their diminutive Dukes of Cassutt three ship. Richard's mum Carolyn displayed in the 'Grace Spitfire', sporting the colours it wore when first restored to flight by her late husband Nick in 1985. This being the twenty-fifth anniversary of that event, it was extremely fitting that co-commentator for the show was daughter Olivia, who was very much at home in the position, alongside FlyPast editor Ken Ellis.

The 'static' offered a number of items not even to be seen at the likes of RIAT, with Everett Aero presenting two Sea Harrier FA2s, including one in the blue and white 'Admiral's Barge' colours, and a delicious Black T8, plus one of the many Jaguars held on the base. Visiting aircraft such as a rarely seen Bronco and James May's Super Decathlon added to the variety. Top Gear's 'Captain Slow' was interviewed during the day, and showed his clear passion for aviation, which has resulted in a number of related television programmes away from the motoring show. Being a fan of the elliptical winged fighter design, James would have been especially pleased to see the Seafire, which was a surprise last minute stand-in for the missing Sally B, the bomber being weather-bound in Denmark.

The display had been opened by the Breitling Wingwalkers in their stunning orange Stearmans, with Danielle Hughes and Sarah Tanner braving the elements, followed by Jonathan Whaley in Hunter Miss Demeanour, and Mark Linney in the aforementioned Sabre. The pair of classic jets made a number of formation passes, followed by the spectacular break and individual displays. Paul Bonhomme made a rare solo 'half a Matador' appearance in one of the Red Bull schemed Sukhoi 26 machines, with Steve Jones joining him later in the afternoon for the full routine which must be as good as it gets for this kind of flying. Continuing the family connections holding the show together, Paul's better half Laura was the event's flying display director.

A bright yellow SAR Sea King carried out a light hearted rescue exercise, in contrast to the East Anglian Air Ambulance which had to depart its spot in the static area on at least two occasions on emergency calls. A sobering thought. Strong supporters of events in East Anglia, Maurice Hammond and his collection added to the warbird content of the afternoon, with both of his stunning P-51 Mustangs - Janie and Marinell - and earlier, the striking light blue schemed Harvard taking to the skies, with the help of regular pilot Dave Evans.

It was a shame that the weather didn't do the show any favours, but at least the cloud base was high enough to allow the parachute team to jump from the Islander. There was a brief glimpse of blue sky during the Matadors' display, but the day ended with quite a heavy downpour for those of us who'd stayed put to see the Bronco depart. I'm sure though that the estimated 18,000 who attended and who mostly left before us did so happy, and dry!

Hopefully Bentwaters will continue to buck the trend of ex-military bases and go from strength to strength in its sustained use as a centre of aviation, and as an airshow venue.