Southport Air Show

Friday 6th September - Sunday 8th September 2019

Southport Air Show takes place in a unique setting, with its enclosed showground on sand. So often in recent years it has also been blessed with a backdrop of painted skies and stunning light. Its content, always a solid and varied mix of all that is good about our domestic scene, has offered an occasional gem of a rarity, and this year it did that once again when the Swedish Air Force Historic Flight were presented among a smorgasbord of classic jets.

Nigel Watson travelled to the North West coast to report for UKAR.

This reviewer needs no encouragement to evangelise about Southport Air Show. As a relative latecomer to the event back in 2007 he was quick to see the light and a seaside airshow in the north west of England quickly became a favourite; an annual fixture which is extremely hard to miss. Its stage, with an unencumbered display area, straight crowd line and show ground on a vast expanse of flat beach at low tide, is a one-off. Its west facing location brings lighting conditions that are often beautiful, often dramatic and for us photographers often very challenging indeed. Like many challenges though, it brings a reward.

Naturally, the stock in trade of Southport's flying display is a strong and diverse line up of mostly domestic airshow acts, both military and civilian, from warbird to helicopter and most points in between. It is a variety show, and given the intimacy of the venue, it has rarely failed to entertain year on year. And while its core audience is made up of local, casual day trippers, Southport has also regularly delivered a special moment to the airshow enthusiast. Special formations, notable displays and due to its usual end of term place on the calendar the occasional 'last chance to see'.

I think its true to say that most enthusiasts have a mental 'wish list'. That item or two that crosses one's mind on the journey home, when your imagination allows you to visualise something, possibly unlikely, take to the stage. For many, it's a cold war jet. While we've endured a famine of classic jets in recent years, at Southport we have been able to enjoy the Norwegian Air Force Historical Squadron's Vampires and MiG-15 on a couple of occasions. Nevertheless, it was astonishing when it was announced that the Swedish Air Force Historic Flight would come to Southport with two Saabs - Tunnan and Viggen - hitting that wish list target with a bullseye.

And so interest was piqued among the hard core enthusiast community, and it was clear that many were making plans to visit Southport Air Show for the first time. The flying display line up, featuring not only the Swedes but the Norwegian AF Historical Squadron's CT-133 Silver Star and our own Strikemaster Pair brought a true classic jet flavour to a varied and interesting programme; albeit a programme without Southport stalwarts and local crowd favourites the Red Arrows, who were still on their extended American tour.

The event's kick-off was, as it is for several airshows around our coastline, the Night Launch; a sunset airshow and firework display which, thanks to that west-facing location, takes place in front of the setting sun and with a backdrop that can be stunning in its beauty. Of course, just like any airshow, the weather is our biggest variable and biggest risk. For the last two years Friday evenings have been smiled upon by the weather gods, but unfortunately this year, not so much so. While heavy rain showers before and during the display didn't linger, a thick pillow of cloud sat at an altitude where it provided the background for most of the flying displays, most of the time.

The Battle of Britain Memorial Flight with Spitfire, Hurricane and Dakota were first to display, followed by the first of three displays over the weekend by the RAF's Tucano. Despite a brief appearance by the sun, and a dazzling sunset near the horizon, it was very dark by the time the RAF Typhoon display scorched into the arena, its reheat glowing brightly against the monochrome sky. It was a sky-ripping display, and without doubt a highlight of the weekend.

A very strong and rather chilly on-crowd wind precluded the Tigers parachute team from performing, and it was on to flying fireworks from the FireFlies Aerobatic team, then Brendan O'Brien with his remarkable Schweizer 300C OTTO, to complete the flying display to many accompanying gasps and cheers from the audience. The ground based firework display followed quickly. It seemed everyone was keen to take refuge from that wind. Despite the vagaries of the weather and the challenge for many to get there in time on the Friday night, I heartily recommend the Night Launch: it provides a different and exciting perspective on aerial entertainment.

Luckily, Saturday dawned with less cloud and more sunshine than the day before. There was less wind too, although still a significant on-crowd breeze. But with the knowledge that the Saabs were in place and ready at Blackpool airport, there was much anticipation in the air when the Tigers launched what was a non-stop and entertaining seventeen item line up for Saturday afternoon. A notable debut was made by Rich Goodwin, who displayed his brand new Pitts S-2S Special. Marked with unmissable titling of 'Jet Pitts', it advertised its yet to be fitted supplementary jet propulsion. Goodwin seemed a little higher than usual, understandable caution under the circumstances, and no doubt also taking the on crowd wind into account, as would many throughout the programme.

A solo Wildcat from the Fleet Air Arm, and daylight appearances by the FireFlies and OTTO were followed by the Aerosuperbatics Wingwalkers, the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight and the RAF's Tutor display. The Gazelle Squadron brought a pair of classic helicopters dancing in the wind. Perhaps it was the shining sun and big cloudscape, maybe the venue itself and its intimate feel, or even maybe the brisk on-crowd breeze bringing clouds of smoke over the spectators that made the show so engaging and entertaining. What may be considered 'filler' by some was undeniably absorbing here.

Its a little hard to believe that we are set to lose yet another type from the RAF's inventory when the Shorts Tucano retires in October. Its a barely palatable prospect that we also may have seen the last solo aerobatic display from an RAF Flying Training School aeroplane; displays that from the very earliest days of airshows have been among the finest exponents of the art of aerobatic display flying. The Tucano's swansong appearance on the display circuit this season has been truly appreciated, and as it went into its final weekend of the season at Southport all that were present were determined to make the most of those final displays. Flt Lt Liam Matthews had the honour of flying the final displays, and he did so as he has all season with panache. It was fitting to see the Tucano accompanied on a couple of passes by the Blades Aerobatic Team, apt as both carry the roundel of the RAF Benevolent Fund, and as several Blades pilots are ex-Tucano too. It was announced during the Blades display that they are on the cusp of change themselves, retiring their Extras, with a new mount arriving for next season and the beginning of a new chapter for them.

Possibly, the soon to be a classic Tucano may re-join the airshow circuit in private hands. A few short years ago it would have been scarcely believable that the headliners of Southport Air Show in 2019 would be five classic jets, each put through impressive aerobatic routines. Many an enthusiast had given up hope of seeing a British airshow based around classic jets again. But here, in 2019, they represented a significant theme, and were presented back to back which served only to heighten their impact.

The Norwegian CT-133 was first to take the stage, a truly classic shape in the sky and one that has been much missed in its absence. The display showed the aeroplane's grace and aerobatic ability to a tee. The Swedes, having overcome obstacles to them displaying in the UK, at least at seaside venues, brought both the Tunnan and Viggen. They did seem to remain subject to some restrictions, yet still brought that 'X factor' that a true airshow star possesses. The Tunnan, fast and aerobatic, zoomed around the sky in fashion completely mismatched to its portly and somewhat ungainly stance on the ground. The Viggen, managing to be brutal yet elegant at the same time, the archetypal cold war era beast that forces your attention. It was a bonus indeed that the jet presented was the two-seat splinter camouflaged example. It was a rare sight when in service, and now here we have it thundering around the Lancashire sky, a sight for sore eyes and a truly thrilling experience.

As the Viggen rumbled into the distance it left a hard act to follow, but all credit must go to Mark Petrie and Ollie Suckling for a captivating pairs display in their Strikemasters. Action packed, tight and graceful. After a delightful aerobatic interlude by P-47 Thunderbolt 'Nellie B', the low sun glinting off polished metal, it was back to jet noise and to the RAF Typhoon of Flt Lt Jim Peterson to once again rip into the sky, and close the show.

It may be tempting to suggest that this show felt like a turning point for classic jets in the UK, but it must be conceded that different rules apply over sea and that the three of this show's classics came from abroad. Nevertheless, if not a turning point it was very gratifying to enjoy something so close to home that seemed in the realms of fantasy not so long ago.

All in all, Southport came up trumps yet again. The show may have felt the absence of the Red Arrows, and they were missed. But the sizeable crowd were entertained with some great flying, and some very special aircraft. Hopefully those that visited for the first time were as enthused as the author was back in 2007, and can be tempted to return one day. Travelling home, glowing from either sun or wind burn, the author's thoughts turned to that 'wish list' once more. Big old classic helicopters alongside the classic jets perhaps?