In the first of a new series of articles, Flightline UK looks back at some of the airshows that have disappeared from the display calendar. We start with a look at one of the most popular and extraordinary seaside airshows; the Shepway Festival Airshow held in Folkestone.
The 1990’s were a golden era for airshows. As today, they were extremely popular and coastal resorts were starting to recognise the value of the airshow to their summer tourist season. 1990 was a particular highpoint with the 50th Anniversary of the Battle of Britain proving a popular theme in the south-east of England, particularly Kent. One town keen to celebrate that anniversary was Folkestone which was at the forefront of the Battle – the Shepway Airshow was born. Shepway is the regional name for the area covering Folkestone, Hythe and Romney Marsh. The air display was incorporated into a three day festival, though the main flying displays also provided the finale on the Sunday.
The first event proved so popular that the show was repeated until 2001 before the show took a years break before the final show in 2003. Each event, which was completely free, attracted massive crowds. The main event was centred on “The Leas.” This was the main promenade area for Folkestone on top of the cliffs – 200ft above sea level!! This gave an unparalleled view of the flying displays which very often arrived from below the crowd. As the show grew, so did the flying displays. Later shows saw a short morning flying display before a lunch break and the main four hour afternoon display. The cliff tops were packed with people and trade stands for about two miles. Classic Cars and the odd static helicopter sat in the shadows of Folkestones cliff top hotels. The airshow commentary was mostly conducted by the legendary Jerry Mead who was always very enthusiastic about the flying. In later years Brendan O’Brien and Peter MacNamara also provided the commentary from the cliff top caravan! The aircraft for the show were based at a number of local airfields. Manston used to host many of the military items while Lydd was the main base for the civilian displays.
From the outset, the Shepway was very much a warbird orientated airshow. The show’s flying displays were directed by Jeanne Frazer who puts together Duxford’s flying displays. Duxford warbirds always featured well in the flying displays with the Fighter Collection’s aircraft taking centred stage. The Spitfires and Hurricanes were always popular, but so were the Grumman “Cats”, P-51s and Harvards as well as the RAF’s Battle of Britain Memorial Flight, Army Air Corps Historic Flight and Royal Navy Historic Flight. Classic Jets also featured with Tom Moloney’s Strikemaster and Golden Apple’s pair of T-33 and F-86 being popular participants.
One of the outstanding features of the Shepway airshows were unusual and sometimes large formations. In later years, there were formations putting Tornado F3’s alongside civilian Hurricanes and the Blenheim and there were always interesting warbirds put together. The last show in 2003 had unique formations of Swordfish and Wildcat, and Swordfish and Avenger. The “Shepway Salute” finales were always special – often there were opposing large formations of warbirds lead by the heavies such as the Catalina or B-17G Sally-B.
As with most seaside airshows, Shepway always featured some of the best civilian display acts from Europe. The “Crunchie Flying Circus” and “Utterly Butterly Barnstormers” were regular participants. The shows also featured the likes of Jaques Bothelin’s Patrouille Apache, The Yakovlevs and the Matadors. One of the most unique displays was a hang-gliding display by Judy Leden. Judy was aero-towed in from Lydd Airport by microlight before gliding her way down to the beaches below the cliffs!
Military displays were always popular. The RAF’s solo display teams made regular appearances at the show. Particularly popular were the RAF’s Tornado F3 and Harrier GR7 displays. Not many venues gave crowds the chance to see Harriers hovering at eye level. Amongst the highlights of later shows were appearances by 25(F) Squadron. No 25 Squadron had spent much of it’s career at nearby RAF Hawkinge. The town of Folkestone eventually adopted the Squadron and each year 25(F) would send a quartet of Tornado F3’s for a one-off formation display at the event culminating in a least one of the F3s performing a fast pass and zoom climb.
Sadly, growing expenses saw the end of the flying displays as Shepway District Council could not longer justify the event. It was a truelt unique event and one sadly missed by it’s fans. Today, few airshows have such unique vantage points with perhaps Bournemouth and Dawlish being the exceptions.