Southend 'Air Festival' Report

Saturday 28th May - Sunday 29th May 2011

Previous UKAR reports on the variously titled Southend airshows has included coverage of both the action at the sea front and the associated operations at the airport, thanks to their open days up to 2009, and then the Vulcan Restoration Trust organised viewing area in 2010. The major construction work currently taking place at 'London Southend Airport' meant that any similar facility for 2011 would not be possible, but despite that there was one very special event at the airport location which will be covered by UKAR.

Phil Whalley reports for UK Airshow Review from the Essex seaside.

Traditionally held over the late May Bank Holiday Sunday and Monday, the 'Air Festival' of 2011 had been altered by the local borough council to the Saturday and Sunday, thereby saving on the additional costs involved by the Monday's overtime pay structure. Notoriously hit by bad weather, the show hasn't enjoyed anything like ideal show conditions for many years. Of course, as can be guaranteed with any such decision in the aviation world, the Monday proved to be perfect weather for an air display after another terrible weekend! The Saturday in particular remained continuously overcast despite the extremely strong and gusting winds, whilst the Sunday fared slightly better with odd breaks in the cloud, though the wind remained.

Being an early show in the season has allowed Southend to be host to a number of debutants over the years, and 2011 was no exception. Additionally, since her return to flight in 2007, Vulcan XH558 has not been available to display due to financial and servicing constraints. It had long been hoped by everyone at the VRT that it would one day be possible for '558 to visit Southend and XL426 in some capacity, and the news that the Vulcan was ready and able to display and had been booked for the show soon had various people making phone calls to make the necessary arrangements. XH558 closed the show on the Saturday, and as promised, on completing her display, turned towards the airport and XL426. She made three passes over her sister ship, honouring the work of the VRT in keeping '426 alive. Both aircraft had ended their respective RAF careers as the display Vulcan at the time, before heading into civilian owned retirement - temporarily in XH558's case. The VRT have aided in the Return to Flight campaign in a number of ways over the years, so the appearance by '558 was a fitting gesture, and greatly appreciated by the team at Southend.

The VRT took one other part in the weekend's event by looking after the Vampire Preservation Group's WZ507, supplying ground power to start the classic jet for the Sunday slot. Matt Hampton was at the controls for the weekend.The RAF has always been strong supporters of the Southend airshows, and 2011 was no exception. A late addition to the display season - and making its debut at the seaside venue - was the Tornado GR4 role demo. Consisting of a number of pairs passes and opposition wide radius turns, it brings back to the airshow scene some much missed power and speed, and noise! One-time Tornado pilot and now flying the 2011 display Hawk, Flt Lt Juliette Fleming was hoping to debut the specially painted jet trainer from the airport at which she had gained her PPL. It had gone 'tech' on the Saturday but the engineers managed to get it ready to make that debut on the Sunday. It was joined by the solo Tucano and Tutor, a SAR Sea King and the Navy Merlin and Lynx. The BBMF were once again stifled by the strong winds and unable to appear, as were the Falcons parachute team, whilst the Red Arrows made their UK show debut with their closing show display on the Sunday.

The civilian content at the show was unusually made up entirely of teams, opening with The Blades and continuing through the RV8tors, the Breitling Wingwalkers and onto the SWIP Team in their Twisters. All the teams did exceptionally well in contending with the conditions, as it was clearly a struggle and probably very unpleasant for the girls on the wing. Warbird content was down on previous years. BBMF cancellation aside, it was unusual not to see either Sally B or the Plane Sailing Catalina. Instead Southend received a double dose of Peter Teichman and his Hangar XI collection. He had intended originally to just bring P-51D Mustang 'Jumpin' Jacques' to display but then also debuted the exquisite blue Spitfire PRXI as a last minute stand-in for the missing BBMF on the Sunday. Displaying the Spitfire first, little over half an hour had elapsed before Teichman reappeared in the Mustang. The Spitfire was a great surprise, and a real highlight, especially when viewed from atop the cliffs whilst the warbird passed low above the notoriously muddy Southend 'beach'.

The airshows at Southend have managed to survive the changing times and available funding issues, the weather and indeed local politics, and long may that continue as it often throws up some special moments and surely deserves one day to bask in more favourable conditions. There is a small group of people for whom the Saturday evening at the airport will live long in the memory, and perhaps given a fair wind of the less literal kind circumstances might allow for a wider audience to witness a very special reunion. 2012 'Olympus Year'? I'm sure tickets would be far more readily available!