Abingdon Air & Country Show

Sunday 1st May 2016

The long winter off season has seen a myriad of potential changes, industry discussions and regulation alterations predicted to heavily influence the airshow industry for the foreseeable future following the events of 2015. With the Abingdon Air & Country Show having the honour of once again being the opening event for 2016, there was certainly a huge amount of anticipation to gauge how the rest of the season is likely to be affected. Not only did Abingdon have to prove that airshows still provide the same thrill and excitement, making Abingdon somewhat of a metaphorical measuring stick; but it also had to ensure that the show was successful in its own right, in comparison to other years.

Dan Ledwood arrived via air to report from Dalton Barracks on behalf of UK Airshow Review. Photography from the UKAR Staff Team.

It would be extremely difficult for an aviation enthusiast not to notice the rather grey cloud that has hung over the industry for the past few months. Various factors have been altered dramatically in order for airshows to operate in "the safest possible environment", but this has been somewhat perceived as a knee-jerk reaction in order to satisfy the media and increase profit margins - subsequently damaging the airshow industry we, as the paying customers, have grown to love. Despite the multitude of press releases and publications, it is extremely difficult to get a complete grasp on the situation by viewing statistics and documentation alone. Therefore, Abingdon played an important role by visually illustrating how we may expect display acts to perform throughout the rest of the year. Naturally, each venue has its own unique display layout, but by observing a selection of different aircraft types perform at the show it certainly gives an idea what to expect.

Arriving by air it became clear, while overflying the car parks, that the majority of enthusiasts had not been deterred by the potential changes, with a lengthy queue evident prior to gates being opened. On the flip side, it could be argued that the majority of paying customers were not put off attending due to being blissfully unaware of how the regulations have resulted in so much change to displays.

Sadly, in the weeks leading up to the event, the organisers were struck with a plethora of cancellations - some of those being 'star' attractions. Late last year, the promise of the Sea Vixen FAW2 making its debut certainly got metaphorical tails wagging, with further interesting additions including the Global Stars Aerobatic Team, the OFMC duo of Mustang & Spitfire alongside static support by Joint Helicopter Command’s Chinook and Puma ensuring an intoxicating blend of something for everyone. Sadly, for various reasons, all of the aforementioned were forced to cancel - however the unflappable display organiser, Neil Porter, made his best efforts in an attempt to replace acts. Even up until the show day itself replacements were still being sourced, with news released in the morning that the Norwegian Spitfire Foundation’s P-51D Mustang "Sharkmouth" had been substituted for Will Greenwood’s Yak-3M that had developed an oil cooler leak. Sadly, luck did not seem to be on the side of the organisers, with the Mustang suffering from a rough running engine whilst still at Duxford.

The cancellation of both the "Wokka" and Puma can only be described as farcical, with reports that JHC had not obtained the required insurance in order to provide assets. Furthermore, the cost of providing active rotary aircraft has escalated to almost unfathomable proportions in comparison to previous years - a problem not just for Abingdon, but for all upcoming events. It is certainly irritating that the armed forces don’t fully utilise the opportunity to participate in such a valuable PR role, although sadly it appears that taxpayer's money dictates the appearance of military aircraft. Luckily the Belgian Air Force were much more appreciative and provided an NH90TTH "Caiman" for static, a real coup for such a small-scale show.

Despite the smorgasbord of cancellations there were still a number of interesting acts due to attend, with a good handful of fly-in visitors also making an appearance despite a potentially ominous weather outlook for the late afternoon.

With the display starting in earnest at 13:45, after a parachute drop from the rear of Invicta Aviation’s Shorts Skyvan, the start of the airshow season was left in the capable hands of John Romain in the Bristol Blenheim IF. His 2015 display in the aircraft was one that captivated arguably every enthusiast at every event she attended - offering flowing topsides with minimal positioning time away from the crowd. However, presumably due to the newly-enforced regulations, the display seemed somewhat distant despite John still cavorting the aircraft around the Oxfordshire sky in his usual masterclass style. It was certainly concerning to notice that the focal length had to remain almost constantly at 400mm during the display. For an aircraft of relatively large dimensions, it provides a certain level of uneasiness when a twin-engined aircraft does not fill the viewfinder. Nevertheless, it was good to see the Aircraft Restoration Company’s crown jewel making its Abingdon debut, particularly given the last time a Blenheim operated from the airfield is believed to have been at least 70 years ago.

The appearance of various rotary elements in the flying display provided a refreshing change to the dynamics of the show, with the acts able to perform at much closer range to the public. Making a return to flying display duties after a number of years was Terry Martin’s exemplary Wasp HAS1 in HMS Endurance markings. The beauty of not having seen this helicopter display for a number of years was to expect a completely fresh set of manoeuvres. We were certainly not left disappointed. Terry displayed XT787 at close quarters to the crowd throughout and provided plenty of intimacy; the Rolls-Royce Nimbus 103 power plant offering a fantastic soundtrack.

Further adding to the high quality rotary displays was Peter Davies in his pleasing Calidus autogyro and the return of the former Army Air Corps Historic Flight aircraft, the latter now operating under the guise of the Historic Aircraft Flight Trust. The team provided an interesting pairs routine with their Sioux AH1 and Scout AH1, a duo very rarely seen on the airshow circuit. The display could certainly be more polished in areas but further displays and practice are guaranteed to improve the spectacle of this rare two-ship classic helicopter display.

The Twister Aerobatic Team, Abingdon stalwarts for a number of years, also returned with a rather stark "polar-white" colour scheme. Luckily, the introduction of a brand new smoke-winder system (colour choice akin to a popular toothpaste company) provided the diminutive Spitfire-esque aircraft with plenty of presence when performing as a singleton. Conversely, the appearance of Shipping & Airlines' unique Travelair 12W in the hands of the multifaceted Dan Griffith added a distinct splash of colour, as did the sight of an increasingly rare Provost T1 now flown under the care of the outfit previously responsible for the Czech Mates display team.

Sadly Lauren Richardson and her Pitts S-1S display didn’t quite pack the same punch, with her display perhaps being the most distant and severely affected act of the day. It really is a massive shame as her display has progressed into a well-polished and precise routine that could arguably be considered as being one of the best aerobatic displays on the circuit at present, particularly with relatively limited size and power. It would certainly be a crying shame not to see the full potential of Lauren’s display this year.

Abingdon saw military presence in the flying display with the 2016 debut of the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight's fighter duo of Spitfire LFXVIe and Hurricane IIc. The display, albeit very similar to previous year’s performances, did include several pleasant formation topside passes. This is one thing the BBMF display has so desperately needed in order to remain on par with other warbird displays, so it was refreshing to see that the team appear to have taken these requests on-board.

The main surprise was the apparent upstaging of Peter Teichman in his P-40M Kittyhawk by his military compatriots. Peter has been excellent in providing enthusiasts with regular updates into the world of warbird operations and how the new regulations have affected both himself and other key players in the airshow fraternity. One such outcome is that he is now forced to conduct a heavily altered display, with the Kittyhawk’s showing at Abingdon completely devoid of any topside passes and only high and distant gentle aerobatic manoeuvres. One presumes this measure is due to the huge impact a 'one strike' DA suspension could have on the sustainability of Teichman's operation. To see one of the UK’s greatest warbird display pilots reduced to a sedate display is certainly harrowing and equally alarming.

In summary, despite coming under MAA regulation for the first time, Abingdon really was a baptism of fire for how the entire airshow season is likely to be played out. What seemed worrying was that people were not rushing onto social media and forums to offer their opinions of the show. It could almost have been perceived that the show was little more than a fly-in given the lack of chatter. This is not a criticism of the display organisers, far from it in fact, but the lack of buzz that usually surrounds the opening show of the season is one that has not gone unnoticed.

By no means was it a flop - despite the unfortunate losses in the flying and static displays - but there is no denying that people went home scratching their heads as to what we might expect throughout the coming months. One thing that made absolutely clear is that the airshow community cannot continue suffering from displays being pushed further and further into the middle of the adjacent county. The lack of impact and intimate flying drastically needs addressing and it’s the responsibility of the airshow organisers and participants to voice these concerns publically. Unfortunately it is highly doubtful that representatives of the CAA, MAA et al are likely to see these changes as a bad thing, but there is certainly no harm in exclaiming how much of a detriment the changes have had, so far definitely not for the better.

As an aside, the display organisers recently confirmed that the show will once again take place in May 2017 but with a different orientation regarding layout in order to more comfortably allow for jet displays under the new rulings. It is commendable to observe the organisers tailoring the event in order for it to remain a success, but to have to completely alter the layout to allow jet aircraft to attend clearly demonstrates how influential and potentially damaging the introduction of the new regulations are. At present there is certainly no denying that the 2016 airshow season will be a vast contrast to years gone by.