RAF Waddington International Airshow Report

Saturday 30th June - Sunday 1st July 2012

There were many opinions on the UKAR forum as to the strength of this particular Waddington display, "best in years" was one phrase used. Had the Waddington organising team really discovered airshow alchemy, after years of sub-par line-ups?

Trev Collins reports on the Royal Air Force's showpiece event. Photography by the UK Airshow Review team.

Up against a very strong RIAT, it's fair to say that Waddington was under some pressure to deliver and retain its traditional place as one of the biggest UK airshows; on paper the display looked full of rarely-seen participants. One of these displays started the show as the "Home Team" E-3D Sentry went on to perform a very welcome display. The commentators pointed out how it was so impressive to see such a large aircraft pushed into tight turns in a display consisting mainly of horizontal eights over the airbase. There is most definitely something special about a large aircraft being displayed this way at airshows and this routine, which without doubt wowed the crowd, must surely feature again in the future.

The first fast jet display of the show was provided by the RAF Tornado Role Demo. Of course with so much focus on the "Bomber Boys" of the past this year, it was only fitting that the current "Bomber Boys" of the RAF should display. This year the demo was provided by XV(R) Squadron from Lossiemouth. This display was an excellent feature that, as in previous seasons, showed off the platform in typical combat situations. This year though the routine seemed to spend more time in front of the crowd with manoeuvring carried out at speed or while the one of the pair perform an action on the airfield. Further to this it appeared to use more pyrotechnics than in the past, incorporating several strafing runs. All in, it was a spectacle that grabbed the crowd better than in previous years.

In recent years most would acknowledge that the Belgian F-16 display has been better than that of the RNLAF F-16 display. Would this year be different? In what appeared to be a very slow start to the routine, the display pilot Captain Stefan "Stitch" Hutten launched using the minimal runway space and veered straight into a turn away from the crowd line and in to a slow pirouette which, while impressive in itself, excluded much of the crowd - which was to the south of the tower. However despite the slow start the display took a spectacular turn when "Stich" performed the high angle of attack so synonymous with the F-16 at very low altitude while approaching the crowd centre from an angle intersecting the display line. The extremely low part of the display was not over yet though as "Stich" performed an extremely low level max rate turn. Although you would be hard pushed to argue that the whole display was better than that of the Belgians, there was a certain degree of "wow factor" which was different to previous years.

Display teams formed the core of the Waddington Airshow, with nine displays teams in total, seven of them fixed wing units. Out of the military fixed wing display teams the undoubted stars of the show were the Republic of Korea Air Force Black Eagles. If you haven't heard of the story of the Black Eagles transit to the UK; where have you been! The team consists of 8 KAI T-50B jet trainers, an aircraft that appears to be the love child of an F-16 and an Aermacchi-346. Although slated as an advanced jet trainer the T-50 is also being marketed as a frontline strike platform and it's easy to see why - it is a very powerful and nimble platform. The Black Eagles display was outstanding, large tight formations with swift and precise changes. Where they really excelled was when they formed smaller groups and solo exchanges. These were inventive and different to what we have become used from large demonstration teams, while at the same time not forgetting the basics of consistently keeping the crowd occupied. It was indeed a great coup to have them at Waddington this year and became a fine appetiser for those also attending RIAT. As always, the Frecce Tricolori put on a fine display but on the Saturday, at least, lacked their signature manoeuvre where the team perform seemingly random opposition crosses, which is one of the great airshow moments.

The reaction to the Red Arrows performance was such that the team felt it necessary to issue the following statement on their official Facebook page: "Two difficult displays today, one at Waddington and one at Plymouth, however they were both successful despite the conditions. A few negative comments from the 'know best' crowd at Waddington, but everyone has the right to an opinion. We will continue to do the best we can in this difficult year. We hope you were entertained. Many thanks".

Whereas I think that all would define themselves as not being in the "know best" crowd, it is easy to see the Red Arrows display from two perspectives. Firstly it was difficult to argue that they were as impressive or as exciting as the Black Eagles or the Frecce, the routine appeared staid and unimaginative in comparison to these two displays. On the other hand it easy to understand why - the loss of two of the team which has had a profound effect on them, coming at a point where other displays teams seemed to have caught up. Perhaps the Red Arrows needed 2012 to reinvent themselves. Going down to seven aircraft has not helped and has greatly depreciated the spectacle; that said, the display was excellently flown to the precise standards we expect from the Reds. My own conclusion to the Red Arrows in 2012 is simple: they must never be cut to a seven or even five ship permanently, as some have suggested in order to reduce costs, as so much is lost in the spectacle of the display.

The wooden spoon of the display teams must go to the unfortunate Saudi Hawks, although we are of course all pleased to see such an exotic item making the 6,500 mile trip. Allowing for the fact that unfortunately they had fly as a five ship due to the illness of a pilot, the display can well be described as poor. There were long periods of nothing happening in a distant routine which, compared to the aforementioned teams, lacked precision.

Also worth a mention and not something not immediately jumping from the programme, was the Army Air Corps Lynx AH7, which put on a fine, very aggressively-flown show, with a high energy routine that kept the transition between manoeuvres down to a minimum.

With the display also attracting the ever-impressive Boeing 757 of the RNZAF and flypasts from the RC-135 of the USAF and a slightly impromptu appearance by a RNLAF DC-10, further ticks were added to Waddington's score in categories of 'impressive', 'rare' and 'huge' aircraft. Overall though the display of the day must go to that of the F-18C of 17 Squadron Swiss Air Force who put on a fast jet master class. Starting with an immediate ultra low pass along the length of the Waddington runway and into a violent vertical pull back and ascent, the display was flown within the confines of the airfield. That does not mean it lacked vigour, pace or energy - it was full of all three, and is a superb fast jet display.

In contrast was the RAF's latest fighter, the Typhoon FGR.4, which seemed to lack all three. The Typhoon is a real enigma; apparently the most manouverable and powerful fighter this side of the Atlantic, it badly lacks an 'X-factor'. Maybe there are too many slow parts to the display, such as the high angle spirals? Maybe the type just lacks character? Maybe the type of performance that the Typhoon excels in isn't best displayed at low altitude? In comparison to the spectacle of the Swiss F-18 though, it wasn't really at the races.

In terms of the more functional elements of the show, Waddington again scores highly. There seemed to be few long queues for the toilets and the shuttle bus car parks emptying quickly and without huge delays; although some the car parks on base to the south of the tower did experience some delays which for an event the size of Waddington is inevitable.

This Waddington show must be seen as scoring very highly with regard to value for money. For the relatively low entry price just £52 for a family, it is very competitive not only with other airshows, but with any UK entertainment events and Waddington should be roundly applauded for this. Furthermore the flying display was of a very high standard, with few quiet moments. If there is a criticism of the display it may be that there were just too many display teams, nine in total. The challenge for the organisers must be to maybe add a couple more fast jet solos such as the MiG-29 that was seen at RIAT or the French Rafale, or to add to the already impressive large aircraft displays at the cost of fewer display teams. That said this was a very, very good display, just a Gnat's wing span from being great.