Devon's Carnival Marvel
Paul Fiddian reports from Dawlish's 2008 airshow, held on 14 August
What makes the perfect airshow? Maybe a wide range of UK-based modern, historic, rotary and civilian aircraft? How about international participation? Plus an expansive, sweeping backdrop to view the performers against? Or what about the presence of that increasing elusive yellow, gaseous ball in the sky?
With all of these present in abundance and more, the Dawlish Carnival Airshow 2008 provided one of this year's best days out and, especially given the awful weather experienced at many shows, one at which Mother Nature showed she could be benevolent as well as vengeful!
According to Devon and Cornwall Police estimates, over 85,000 people attended, the majority watching the comprehensive, well-structured flying programme from the seafront. But it was the hillside looking down over Dawlish that provided that extra element - the chance not only to view the flying from a unique, right-angled perspective, but also to be under a great deal of the afternoon's action - a number of the participants treating those gathered up there to a series of unforgettable "phwoar!" moments, and breathtaking photographic opportunities.
Before the programme got underway, the chance came to view the arrival of several helicopters forming the show's static content. Piloted by John Beattie, the Royal Navy Historic Flight's Westland Wasp set the tone for the day, performing a series of flypasts before hovering extremely close to the hill and whipping up a mini grass storm in the process! The Wasp was followed by a Royal Navy Sea King, RAF Griffin and - against the odds - an RAF Merlin HC3A from 78 Squadron at RAF Benson, as technical difficulties made its participation uncertain until the very last minute. Well done Team Merlin! The helicopters were divided up between two areas at either end of the display line - Dawlish Warren and the Smugglers Inn - and, going on the view of the latter, proved popular with the public throughout the day.
The flying began at 12:30 with the Army Air Corps Historic Flight's fixed-wing trio of Beaver AH1, Chipmunk and Auster AOP9, the latter providing the hill-side dwellers with their first overhead pass of the day - nice going!
First jet of the day was raspberry-ripple marked Hawker Hunter FGA9 XE601 from Exeter-based SkyBlue Aviation, flown dynamically by Andy Foan - its fantastic 'blue note' resonating throughout almost the entire display. Andy's final pass in the Hunter was thrilling in the extreme - low, hard and fast! Keeping up the historic quota, the BBMF's Lancaster, Spitfire IX MK356 and Hurricane II PZ865 then entered the arena; the Spitfire, newly repainted in silver, illuminated beautifully by the sun.
The RAF Tucano in the hands of Flight Lieutenant Stew Campbell flew another sharp and precise routine, ending in a fast pass that, visually and aurally, was a feast for the hillsiders (can you spot a trend developing here?), while the training theme continued with Red Arrows-schemed Gnat G-NATY, its zippy performance culminating in another special hillside experience. The Wasp's display followed suite, after which the RAF's King Air B200 solo display machine - not a listed item - carried out a pair of surprise passes, which were extremely welcome.
It was then the RAF Typhoon's turn to thrill the masses - RAF Typhoon 2008 Display Pilot Flight Lieutenant Charlie Matthews' scorching, superlative performances have been viewed far and wide this year, but (this scribe would wager) not seen, heard and felt in quite the way Dawlish's was! Those stood underneath the Typhoon during its initial fast pass and, later, at the end of an inverted-to-inverted run, will probably never forget it!
Slowing down the pace was SkyBlue Aviation's Beech 18, looking lovely in its South East Asian colours and flown by Andy Foan in his second appearance of the day. While the routine was graceful and elegant, low-level work was again in evidence - two passes in particular looking downright spectacular from the elevated viewpoint as he came down to what looked like yacht-mast height!
Apart from an eagle-eyed few that spotted it cruising out on the horizon minutes before, the USAFE KC-135R seemed to catch many out on its arrival, sneaking through from behind the hilltop tree line. It has to be said, though, that the first past offered a little more substance to the legacy of 'undynamic' USAF routines, being both high and a long way from the crowd. By its final pass things had definitely improved; the '135 was nicely on the display line, faster, lower and banked - smoothly done indeed.
The Royal Jordanian Falcons continue to face criticism among much of the enthusiast fraternity - perhaps it's just the fact that we see them so regularly? In any case, what with their appearances at Yeovilton and Culdrose being no-shows due to the prevailing conditions, and with RIAT's cancellation, Dawlish achieved not only a first in having the team there at all, but also a first in terms of UK flying appearances this year. They started slightly disappointingly, with the momentum created by a nice, unexpected arrival from crowd-rear dissipating away as they disappeared off into the distance (in contrast to the immediate entry-into-display of the Red Arrows and the Blades), but they soon returned to put on their usual, highly polished routine.
A late addition to the programme was the RAF Role Demo - not the full version, but one incorporating the fast jet elements (Tornado F3s, GR4s and Hawks) and E-3D Sentry. While stunning in its own right, Dawlish put it into an entirely new context, with low runs from the Tornados in particular raising the neck hairs like nothing else! Penultimate display of the day came from the RN Sea King, with a nice, if slightly long search and rescue demonstration.
Reduced to an eight-ship formation after Red 9 suffered a birdstrike, the Red Arrows closed the show and put on - in this writer's view - one of their most polished and slickest routines ever. That, by itself, might have been enough but, at Dawlish, the experience of watching their display was just fantastic - the main formation, Gypo, Enid and the Synchro Pair passing directly overhead again and again - awesome! The show-closing 'Vixen Break' elicited a large round of applause from the watching crowd who, by this time, had enjoyed a flying display lasting nearly five hours and - sorry to repeat myself, but it does deserve reiteration - in summer-like conditions!
The airshow at Dawlish has grown in stature in a short time, with 2008's edition undoubtedly offering the best line-up to date. This writer - a first time visitor to the show - left with an overwhelming desire to come back next year - a view shared by many, going on the reactions heard afterwards.
According to Dawlish Airshow Organiser, Kevin Wills, feedback from the general public was, indeed, "Almost universally positive." Similar expressions of contentment were evident also in the reactions of the participating pilots and aircrew with, according to Kevin and Morley Lester - Dawlish Airshow PRO Officer - a number of them requesting to come back in 2009 almost immediately after the show had ended!
"I think this year's show went that one step further", said Kevin - "Each year we have raised the mark and steadily increased, but this year we went truly international. Of course, the Red Arrows and Typhoon are without doubt show stoppers, but the huge round of applause that the BBMF got for just arriving has to been seen to be believed."
"The Role Demo received a rapturous ovation as well. It's an awesome spectacle of noise and speed and is well choreographed this year by Sqn Ldr Andy Pawsey and the display crews. Its a shame we didn't have enough time to include some pyros, as that would have been truly spectacular. However, all the display acts are great in their own way and collectively made the show the success it was. From the Royal Jordanian Falcons with their dynamic mix of tight formation flying and sharp snappy aerobatics, to the graceful, nearly silent flypasts from the largest aircraft in show - the USAFE KC-135R - and who can say they don't love that haunting howl from Andy Foan's Hunter."
"Although I think we can probably make some small adjustments and slight improvements to a few things, generally I think we are now at a point that we are fairly comfortable and happy with. We had a five hour flying display, supported by several static helicopters, so taking in to account funding issues along with the size of the venue, if we can continue with a quality show at this level - keeping the show an International event and building on this year's overseas participation - I think we will be more than satisfied. I like to keep a personal feel to the show, a kind of 'party' atmosphere. I think that the show should be a great day out, not only for the public and spectators but for the participants as well. I think this is reflected in many of the positive comments received back by the crews complimenting the show's organisation, location, crowd size, variation of display acts and most of all, our hospitality."
Dawlish - for this writer at least - has put Devon firmly back on the map of UK counties hosting high quality airshows - a geographically-themed point raised by Morley Lester. "I think we probably have, by sheer hard work, given Devon a 'proper' airshow again", he said. "It would be nice though if the local authorities would finally wake up and realise what we are actually doing for the local area and its economy and maybe offer us a bit of help and support."
Under these kinds of conditions, the efforts of the organising team - operating on a very limited budget - are nothing short of extraordinary, and Dawlish is a magical, glittering gem of a show that deserves to continue expanding and prospering. If you've yet to experience Dawlish, add it your list of 'must-dos' and mark 20 August 2009 in your diary!
The perfect airshow? Pretty much so.
Thanks go to Morley Lester for organising and shepherding a group of us up to the viewing location of all viewing locations, and again to him and Kevin Wills for providing the comments used in this report.