Weston Air Festival

Saturday 23rd June - Sunday 24th June 2018

Held in its usual mid-June slot, the Weston Air Festival once again drew crowds to the tranquil beach-side town of Weston-super-Mare. Home to the world-famous Helicopter Museum, and close to Bristol, the locals and indeed the town itself has some pretty significant historic links with aviation.

Tom Jones reports on the Sunday offering of the weekend event. Photography by the author.

Much like other seaside airshows, the Weston Air Festival offers its own unique charm, and something that makes the trip worthwhile to those in the area. Whilst in the eyes of the enthusiast it will never replace the popular Weston HeliDays for the promise of a wonderful array of rare and exotic foreign helicopters, the Weston Air Festival still manages its fair share of interesting participants. Marking what appears to be its only UK appearance this year, the Air Festival welcomed static participation from a Danish Air Force AS550 Fennec. The drab olive-green machine, cosmetically very similar to both RAF and civilian Squirrels isn't much for the standard airshow-goer to look at, but provided a welcome little gem for enthusiasts. Given the proximity of the Helicopter Museum, other than their welcome influence to the day itself, the Museum provides a secure compound for rotary machines each evening. The benefit of this being that the static machines sat on the picturesque beach lawns during the show fly in and out at the beginning and end of each day, allowing them to be seen in the air by visitors.

As a show itself, the event was free, albeit with a £10 parking fee. Static arrivals started to arrive at 11.00, including the immaculate Westland Whirlwind, the aforementioned Fennec, and the Flying Bulls' Bristol Sycamore. The Gazelle Squadron also attended in the flying display with their blue civilian-schemed model, and their RAF-painted machine flying in and out for static display. Other machines on the small static display were an R44 and another Gazelle, this one not part of the Gazelle Squadron.

Photographically-speaking, the show is pretty difficult; the best lighting is found at the beginning of the flying display, which started at 1.00pm. On the Sunday, this started with the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight's Trenchard formation. As with most seaside airshows, the display line felt like it was a considerable distance away from the gathered crowd on the beach. On the crowd line itself, a quite clear demarcation line was set up, with repeated requests and signage for the public not to cross it. What a shame it was to see this routinely ignored by a minority of families. Frustrating it was to see parents encourage their children breach the line put there for their safety, just after being requested for the nth time not to do it. With just two vehicles covering the vast expanse of the beach, some considerable mileage must have been achieved. How those members of the airshow staff managed to keep their cool after telling the same people again and again not to cross the line put there for their safety is beyond me. Depressingly, other than a comment on the more discourteous nature of some members of our society in this day and age, there is little solution available to the Air Festival to cure this problem, other than, as was clearly lacking during the day, a larger force of personnel, security, or whomever else, to ensure that the crowd line is properly enforced. It would be too easy to blame this problem on the fact that the air display was very far away, but correlation may not equal causation. Those breaching the line, or encouraging their children to do so, seemed to be the ones the most disinterested in the air display itself, and were focused mostly on the temptation for a paddle in the waters of the approaching tide.

Following the BBMF, which had considerable presence with their Lancaster, Dakota, Spitfire and Hurricane in formation, despite offering little in terms of photographic opportunities, items such as the Slingsby T67 Firefly, and the "twirlybatics" of Corinne Dennis in her Pitts Special S-1S were utterly lost. Even the unique helicopter aerobatics of the Red Bull Bo105 whilst enjoyable to watch, by definition was never going to use all of the vast expanse of the beach for where crowds gathered and, regardless of how many flips and rolls there were, began to lose the attention of those on the far reaches of the crowd line.

The Callidus AutoGyro fared better, thankfully displaying considerably closer to the crowd, as did the larger Boeing Stearmans of the former Breitling Wingwalkers, now known as the denture-wobbling "AeroSuperBatics Wingwalkers", and Team Raven, the five-ship team of Vans RV machines. Mark Petrie's Strikemaster display brought further smoke and some much-needed jet-noise into the otherwise quiet mix of participants. In an age where the classic jet scene in the UK is very much at a nadir, Mark's well-travelled Strikemaster fills a hole that most smaller events such as this one would struggle to do these days. There was a decent proportion of warbirds in the schedule, too. The aforementioned BBMF shared the day with the Duxford-based Catalina looking very much in its element over the calm waters of the Severn Estuary, and Peter Teichman gave as excellent a display as one could expect from him in his P-51 Mustang. The most should be made of this man and his machines this year. As is widely-known, Peter will retire from display flying at the end of this season, and the fate of his collection of warbirds is as yet unknown. Teichman supports the UK airshow scene like few others have or will, and rightly drew the most attention from the audience that day, other than the RAF assets.

On the RAF themselves; as per, the Red Arrows had kids jumping for joy and parents putting down their beers and prosecco for a while. I'm amazed, at nearly 55 years old now, that the RAF Aerobatic Team continue to draw such enthusiasm from crowds. It's a glorious thing to behold, and familiarity with the mostly non-enthusiast public at Weston shows no signs of breeding contempt. Closing the show on Sunday was the Royal Air Force Typhoon solo display. We've seen a great many iterations of the Typhoon display over the years, all with their own positives and negatives, almost all considered second-fiddle to jet displays from Europe. Yet, all that said, it feels as if the Typhoon display, garish sticker aside, is a competent one this year. Still not up to the standard of, say, the Turkish F-16 display, or almost anything from France; but in terms of European Typhoon/EF2000 displays, it feels like the current display holds its own alongside the likes of its Spanish and Italian counterparts, both of which used to be considered leagues ahead a few years ago. As it was closing the show, the sun was almost right in front of the crowd, and with the tide in and the display line out, photography from the authorised crowd line was nigh-on impossible.

However, it's not photography that you go to seaside shows for. At least, not on the beachfront (caveats apply to those on Brean Down or elsewhere at similar events). Even (especially?) without the camera, there's something about airshows that make them worthwhile over being sat at home on a sunny weekend doing nothing, or worse, doing those boring chores you keep putting off. Airshows are nothing without the general public, the families, the mums and dads grateful to tear their children away from a television or iPad, and the kids themselves running around in Red Arrows caps and getting selfies with crews. Long may they run, and long may this nation's love-affair with airshows continue. This nation like few others has a special relationship with our armed forces, our Air Force in particular, and airshows in general. It's healthy, and it's a great thing to be a part of. Boil the hardened enthusiast shell away, and you're right back at square one, enjoying the sights, sounds, and smells of a sunny summers day at the seaside. And for that enjoyment factor alone, at minimal cost, the Weston Air Festival delivered it in, ahem, spades.