Farnborough International Airshow
Monday 16th July - Sunday 22nd July 2018
Every two years, Farnborough airport becomes the site of one the world's most famous aviation trade shows. After big money deals are completed, on the weekend the show opens its gates to the paying public. These public days though have been much criticised over recent years. Is the criticism justified?
travelled to the Farnborough International Airshow to report for UKAR. Photography by the author.
The Farnborough name is very well-known in the world of aviation. It can bring about many recollections for those old enough to have attended shows held at this historic site during the golden years of airshows. For those too young to have attended the Farnborough airshows of old, a look in any aircraft encyclopaedia or aviation documentary will often reveal a rich history of a world class showcase of the latest British aircraft. Vulcan, Hawker P.1127, Concorde - just some of the aircraft that were displayed in front of the adoring crowds at Farnborough, or even moments that have gone down in record books, such as the twenty-two Hawker Hunter loop.
Today though, it's a different story. It's a well-known fact that the trade days of the show which last from Monday to Thursday are completely different to the public weekend and "FAB Friday" by which time the most interesting visiting aircraft have already departed. It is clear the organisers, Farnborough International Limited, know this, having two completely different websites to successfully target its wholly different target audience for the weekend show. But this is exactly where the first assumption that the organisers do not care about the public days can be seen. The public website is, to put it nicely, something to be ashamed of. Calling itself "one of world's leading airshows" one would think a professional and accurate website would be the first step to ensuring a competent look for those interested in attending. Listing the C-130 as a fighter plane and the home web page featuring a child in front of IWM Duxford's flightline walk full of Spitfires are just a couple of the completely bizarre features of the website. The programme, sold on the public show days for a very reasonable £5 also featured this strange composite graphic design. A curious decision indeed, it's hard to imagine any other big show in the UK featuring a photograph from another common airshow location, rather than one from their own event, so prominently on its website and programme.
Nonetheless, the lure of the Spanish Navy AV-8B Harrier II Plus - returning to the flying display at Farnborough after four years - proved too much to resist and was enough alone to secure the author's attendance. Once again however, the website provided some misleading information. Initially stating the Harrier will perform on "FAB Friday" and "Weekend" one may have assumed buying tickets for Friday would have been a safe option. A few weeks before the show though, the website was updated, listing the Harrier as only flying on the weekend days of 21st and 22nd July. Making an enquiry through the website on this mix-up, led to a response saying the Harrier will fly on the weekend but without confirmation of the time, as of yet. Together with the Farnborough airshow app listing the Spanish machine as only flying on Saturday and Sunday, it was safe to assume it would not be displaying on Friday and instead buy tickets for the weekend. Low and behold, as on Thursday evening the details of the Friday flying programme started coming through, with the app and website updated to say the AV-8B will be flying on Friday. If only the show was clearer on their website or in the direct enquiry in response to the author, the team could have had a few extra ticket sales. A bit of a lucky near-miss for the author perhaps, as the general consensus was that Friday turned out to be a very uninspiring show, far from what was advertised.
For those visiting on the weekend, it was a similar story. The flying programme looked quite thin on paper, promising five hours of flying whilst only listing 54 aeroplanes in total - of which every Great War Display Team machine was listed individually. Only around 20 of these 54 aircraft were actually flying acts rather than static, and it was a struggle to see beforehand how this would fill the advertised duration. Compared to other shows such as the vintage aviation enthusiasts favourite, The Shuttleworth Collection, regularly listing around 30 aeroplanes for its busy four hour flying display, there was a clear discrepancy somewhere. And so, it proved on the day. Long gaps in the flying display, almost between every couple of displays made the flying display feel very poor overall, which is a shame as there were a handful of aircraft that really were worth seeing.
It must be mentioned that whilst organisers up and down the country work tirelessly to put together an interesting, varied and continuous flying display for their own shows which are often held annually, FIA was very mediocre in this aspect, especially when you consider Farnborough have had two years to formulate its flying display. There surely is no excuse for not filling the programme to the brim at an airshow the size and fame of Farnborough. Farnborough's advertising, which promises so much of an airshow that delivers so little, just compounds the frustration; the entire airshow appears to be one put together with no self-scrutiny, and Farnborough seem completely oblivious to not only what is going on around them at other airshows in terms of content and pricing, but also of the wider perception of their own event. Often, it is too easy to criticise airshows for including too many 'filler' items in their flying display, especially if is one of the big UK shows. We usually read about burgers being too expensive or car parks being a nightmare to get out of. Compared to Farnborough airshow this year though, those minor things really do seem trivial when for £42 visitors had to endure such a disorganised flying programme. For those that travelled from as far as Australia or Canada, it must have come as a shock to visit this famous site of British aviation and experience such a dreary display. And sadly, although rightly, this incoherent flying display is what 2018's show will be most remembered for.
Due to the gaps in the flying display, Farnborough organisers scheduled the Red Bull Air Race and Pacific Air Forces' F-16 Demonstration Team to appear twice. Although this gave punters something to watch when otherwise it would've meant an empty sky, this was certainly a big embarrassment for the show. Aircraft displaying twice at an airshow is just unheard of at shows around the UK, let alone any of the larger ones where it would be considered a disaster. Combined with the premium price of £42 in advance (£50 on the gate) for an adult, it is therefore impossible to consider this show good value for money. A full price RAF Cosford airshow adult ticket is £29, RNAS Yeovilton Air Day is £30 on the day, and arguably these shows offer way, way more than Farnborough. A £64 weekend ticket, coming out at £32 per day, clearly was better value for money, and would have also been a more reasonable price point for a one-day adult ticket.
The show this year dearly missed items such as Boeing's F/A-18 Super Hornet display, and the Typhoon display from BAE Systems. Even some support from the RAF in their centenary year to bring some more noise to the flying programme would have been welcome. It may be argued that there was nothing the organisers could have done if there was no BAE Systems Typhoon demo this year and no other RAF allocated displays apart from the Red Arrows, but these were not last-minute cancellations that left a hole in the display, or cancellations in the week leading up to the show due to technical issues or unforeseen circumstances. The organisers have had two years to prepare this show. This is plenty of time to book exciting aircraft from around the UK or Europe.
As it came, the only afterburning jet that performed in the flying display was the aforementioned, PACAF F-16 Demo Team. Flown in a Spangdahlem-based machine complete with mission markings under the canopy, after some technical issues in the week leading up to the public weekend, the PACAF Demo Team provided a very energetic display and brought the noise that the crowds craved. Choregraphed with well-chosen music and informative commentary, which regrettably did lose its impact when performing for the second time during the day, it was a pleasure to witness the team in UK skies. The same can be said for the AV-8B Harrier II Plus from the 9th Aircraft Squadron of the Armada Española. Debuting at the show in 2014, complete with external drop tanks, the display seems to have been polished out by the Spanish Navy since then. Removing the external drop tanks possibly has had some benefit, enabling the pilot to fly an excellent demonstration, showing the general handling of the AV-8B, its slow speed capability, before concluding with a hover in front of the crowd. Some credit must go to the flying display director and organisers of the show when on Sunday, the Harrier experienced some technical issues. Taking the second airframe out from the static park and onto the north side of the airport enabled the display to be rescheduled and flown later in the day. Unquestionably, the only advantage of having planned gaps in the flying programme.
The other notable displays on the weekend came from the larger aircraft present at the show, not usually seen at any other shows around the UK. The Airbus A350, Oil Spill Response Boeing 727 and Red Bull's DC-6 all provided interesting and varied displays of these airliners, almost showcasing the evolution of air travel. The A350, although the biggest flying aircraft on show at Farnborough this year, proved to be one of the quietest and demonstrated what the future holds. The DC-6 and Boeing 727 were flown most impressively, with the Oil Spill Response aircraft even helping to water the very dry grass around Farnborough. Whilst watching the displays of these huge airliners though, one could easily question the regulations surrounding Farnborough airshow. When these huge aeroplanes can perform engaging manoeuvres up and down the length of the crowdline, yet other displays such as the Flying Bulls WWII contingent and ARCO's Blenheim and Spitfire are restricted to performing some very high and distant turns at only one certain point above the airport, there clearly is something very wrong with the rules. Of course, airspace restrictions and so forth can limit what pilots can do, but even extending the Flying Bulls' flypasts to the whole length of the crowdline would have given them more impact in their displays.
At a point when the crowd had all mostly left, disappointed not to have witnessed a full Red Arrows display which was not fully communicated by the organisers beforehand, following the Boeing 727, both Saturday and Sunday of FIA 2018 were closed by the show's "brand new headline display act"- The Blades. Certainly, a tight formation display, but frankly, a display that would not be a headline act at any other show around the UK and let alone Farnborough. It is quite astounding that organisers of one of the world's most famous airshow had the boldness to make this their headline act. Calling themselves "the world's best airshow" repeatedly on social media and making The Blades their main act, it is shameful. It appears the organisers are trying to keep the prestige (and prices) that comes with the Farnborough name, whilst rebranding themselves as a family show. This essentially shows how far the show has fallen in recent years. Surely it would have been far better to just stay quiet and focus their marketing on other acts that are more unique to Farnborough? For sure, it was also a bizarre decision to put this headline display act on last in the programme when picnics and chairs were packed away and exhausted families were already on their way home some hours ago. The accompanying pyro display would have perhaps offered a nice little spectacle for children if the display was scheduled earlier.
All in all, FIA featured a few real gems in the flying display that could have been the highlights of any show in the UK; Harrier, Flying Bulls, A350 and Boeing 727. But, with the Farnborough name, come massive expectations. It is unreasonable for the show to keep its extortionate prices whilst rebranding itself as a family-orientated airshow with what was on offer this year. There could be many more negative things to mention in this review, but such a disjointed flying programme at a major show is, absolutely, unacceptable for the price tag. Overhearing members of the public discussing the show at the end of the day and reading comments on various social media platforms it is clear many were disappointed or have had enough. It has reached the point where it is not only the enthusiast that is disappointed with Farnborough airshow - it's the public. Even those that aren't seasoned airshow-goers, are starting to realise that Farnborough airshow is simply not worth attending. Especially when other shows around the UK offer so much more and strive for improvement year on year. Even the local press had picked up on just how badly-received this airshow had been, with a Farnborough PR spokesperson issuing a generic statement. In fairness, FIA did send out a customer survey to its visitors with all the right questions, though this was not strongly advertised on social media, where most of the negative comments were to be found.
It is one thing to seem to do the right thing, but another to actually do it. With the show held every two years, it may be all too easy for the public to forget about the shortcomings this year, and likewise the organisers to ignore any feedback and count the money made from big-money deals during the trade days. FIA may be very quickly running out of time to fix their public days, and without even issuing a genuine apologetic public statement to address the hundreds of critical comments, one must assume the organisers simply do not care. With Farnborough's history as an airport and public airshow, it would be a sad shame to see this airshow go, but without a major rethink and overhaul of the public days, perhaps it would be the most honourable thing to do rather than to keep tarnishing the famous Farnborough name.
Following the negative reaction in the local press, on social media and on the UKAR forums, the author reached out to Farnborough International Limited to ask if the organisers would like to issue a statement to address the criticism the show has received. Tellingly, the PR team at FIA appeared utterly oblivious to any negativity, to the extent that we had to send them example quotes and screenshots taken from their own social media pages to illustrate the extent of the discontent! After several phone calls and emails, we were ultimately issued an identical PR statement to that which had appeared in the local newspaper, which we include here for completeness:
"We want our visitors to have the best possible experience at the Airshow and it's important that they enjoy a great day out. We host a diverse visitor base, from avid plane enthusiasts to young families, and a lot of work goes into ensuring there is the right mix of attractions and exhibitions to entertain all those visitors.
"Whilst we have also had positive feedback and comments, it is disappointing to hear that this year's show fell short of some people's expectations. There are aspects of the show that are beyond our control but we understand that expectations of Farnborough are high, so we will be listening to customer's feedback and ensuring we shape the 2020 Airshow to try and address them."
Farnborough International Airshow