Southport Air Show

Friday 6th July - Sunday 8th July 2018

During the summer months, many seaside resorts around Britain's coastline come alive with the spectacle of an airshow. Amongst them all, Southport stands out as being very special indeed.

Nigel Watson visited the Lancashire riviera to find out what makes Southport shine. Photography by the author.

An airshow enthusiast's outlook is full of prejudices. Even if we don't intend it to be. Can a seaside show, in the north, and full of 'filler acts', be worth our time? As a rather cynical airshow purist, your author certainly carried those prejudices. One visit to Southport several years ago changed that view in an instant, as the setting is utterly unique.

There are three key things that make Southport stand out as a venue. Firstly, although a seaside location, it's a long way from the sea, which is several miles out. There is a pay-to-enter showground, with on-site car parking and a crowd line any visitor familiar with an airfield venue would recognise, which is on firm sand, not grass. Secondly, this expanse of sand affords display pilots an unencumbered and uncomplicated display box and straight display lines, which in turn brings the spectator as close a view as is possible to get at any airshow. There are no bays, cliffs or secondary crowds to drive the show into the distance. And thirdly, for photographers challenging and rewarding in equal measure, Southport has a quality of light which year after year provides a backdrop of drama and beauty. It is the perfect stage for an airshow.

Southport Airshow traditionally occupies a September slot on the season calendar, where the afore-mentioned light has a special autumnal quality, the air moist and generous with vapour, and the sun dropping to the horizon early in what last year provided the Friday night launch with an idyllic sunset scene. However, the timing of the event is dictated by the pattern of the tides. This year, in order to protect the showground from the Irish Sea the show took place in early July, bringing higher sun and longer daylight hours, not to mention sweltering summer temperatures; all unfamiliar to regular Southport Airshow audiences. The show line-up too, had a slightly unfamiliar feel. A date clashing with the Fleet Air Arm's RNAS Yeovilton Air Day and the British Grand Prix restricted the RAF's contribution to single day appearances from Red Arrows and Typhoon, opening and closing the event respectively. Other than the RAF's Grob Tutor and the Army's Tigers Parachute Team, there were no other military participants. It is tempting to compare to previous years when the event has been so well supported by our armed services, and to wonder whether the move to high season had affected the programme.

Nevertheless, any airshow is about what is there, not what isn't. And above all it is about entertainment, and spectacle. Friday's night launch provided that spectacle in spades. Kicked off at 19:30 by the Red Arrows, the low sun glinted off the nine red jets and brought a rarely seen texture to their thick smoke trails. Its rare to see the Red Arrows in a new light, in a way that is unfamiliar. The Battle of Britain Memorial Flight followed bringing an even greater element of poignancy to their display than usual. The Blades drew appreciation from the crowd with their overhauled display sequence, before Peter Teichmann, such a lover of Southport's open spaces, swooped and rolled around the sky in his immaculate P-51D 'Tall In The Saddle'. As the sky darkened the flying display continued with fireworks. The Tigers, the Fireflies with their Vans RV4s and Brendan O'Brien's Flying Circus proved that entertaining a crowd isn't just about a parade of aircraft, rather its about showmanship. The load of fireworks shot by Otto the Helicopter and O'Brien's Piper Cub must surely have taken all day to rig, and five minutes to discharge. A musical fireworks display provided the finale to the evening, and the audience cheered and applauded in an atmosphere more like a music festival than an airshow.

The weekend show days proper were far more conventional in their approach, naturally. However, once again, the organisers must be given credit for making the most of the assets at their disposal, and for holding true to the core value of any show; to keep the audience entertained. The Norwegian Air Force Historical Squadron's two Vampires and MiG-15 played out a noisy, pyrotechnic battle before their aerobatic displays. The Tigers parachute team flew a vast flag, against a sky that matched their regimental colours perfectly. The Red Bull Matadors - Steve Jones and Paul Bonhomme in two XtremeAir XA41s - flew some astonishing aerobatics, synchronised to perfection and clearly demonstrating the intuition the pilots share as a duo. Jones and Bonhomme returned to the flying display later in the afternoon in Spitfires Vc EE602 and IX MH434 respectively. Following an entrance in formation with Blenheim I in the hands of John Romain the Spitfires were put through an exquisite performance of close, precise aerobatics. Once again, this was more than a procession of aircraft.

Perhaps the show did lack some of the variety of previous editions. There were few helicopters, and few jets. But without doubt it remained tremendous entertainment, and ultimately, great fun to watch.

Even this most hardened of airshow enthusiasts will never tire of white smoke in a blue sky, and will never lose that raw excitement that a flying display delivers. Sometimes, it's the most unlikely of events that remind us all just why we do it. Southport Airshow is now very hard to miss, and comes highly recommended.