Last week, Flightline UK was privileged to be invited to join the SWIP Team to photograph the team’s visit to the Bahrain International Airshow. As a precursor to the main review, I look back at the Bahrain experience!
A dull dark damp working day doesn’t usually get me excited, though Wednesday 18th January was a slightly different story. Rather the ending the day with the same old usual slog to get away from the outer reaches of South London to the sanctuary of the North Downs, I instead headed north to London Heathrow and to my first airshow of 2012.
For the second time, the Kingdom of Bahrain is hosting it’s own take on an International Airshow. The event which is primarily a trade event is held in partnership with Farnborough International which itself takes places later this year.
The airshow was big news in Bahrain. The Airport was been decorated with all sorts of promotional banners for the event which even stretched to a complete make over of the immigration desks! I arrived via Bahrain’s state owned airline, Gulf Air, and was treated to all sorts of video highlights of the 2010 show on the overnight flight from Heathrow.
If that wasn’t enough,I think almost every lamp-post on Bahrain’s roads had a Bahrain Airshow flag alongside the national flag on it or a 6ft high poster advertising the event! Added to that there were numerous bill-boards around Manama.
Manama may not be as iconic as Dubai, but sports an impressive skyline with some dramatic skyscrapers. Bahrain is something of a melting pot of eastern and western culture is one of the Middle East’s most liberal states. Today it is a financial centre and upto 2011 had being growing at a fantastic rate. One thing that immediately strikes you about the Bahrain population is just how polite, friendly and helpful they are when you meet them. However, the local driving skills are perhaps a little less friendly and at times insanely dangerous! It is amazing the trust they have that they will make ‘that gap’ or the cars around them won’t be swerving between lanes as much as them!!! Add in some heavy traffic and chaos ensues with the sides of the roads suddenly become extra lanes or secret short cuts!
However Bahrain is a beautiful part of the Middle Eastl The country is actually an archipelago of 33 islands and tourism is a major part of the countries economy. Major international events are a very important boost to Bahrain tourism plans and the country take great pride in it’s airshow and it’s annual F1 Grand Prix. All of Gulf Air’s fleet have recently received markings advertising the Formula 1 Grand Prix which returns to the Kingdom after a years absence from the F1 calendar.
The reason for that absence was the Arab Spring uprisings. The fact that Bahrain became one of the countries to such such protests came as a surprise to many casual observers and despite changes being promised and implemented by the countries government tensions remain and small protests occur regularly. Though protests were banned in the area of Sakhir, protesters did try and make visual protests by burning tyres and creating large black clouds to the north of the airfield. These fires tended to occur less frequently as the show progressed.
However, this did not take away from the very warm welcome everyone enjoyed at the show from the visitors to the international display crews. I have to say it was an incredibly friendly atmosphere for a trade show. As with many places in the Middle East, the scale and quality of the Sakhir airbase impressed. The base for the lighter acts was the immense hangars for the Bahraini Royal Flight designed to accommodate two Airbus A380s! The chalets are permanent structures and provide very high quality meeting and hospitality spaces. A very long way from the old white marquees at British Airshows!
The show site and layout was slightly strange. The Trade areas, which were only open to registered trade visitors were the centre of the action while the public were enclosed 1km in their own enclosure the other side of a major compound. T0 compensate they did get their own short display in the morning, but having taken a drive up there it seems that this part of the show was poorly communicated as the area was only just starting to opened!
An airshow outside of Europe is always going to promise some very exotic participants for seasoned UK enthusiasts. The Royal Bahrain Air Force maybe small, but it has an exciting array of aircraft. F-16s maybe a little familiar, but F-5 Tiger IIs, AH-1E Cobras and UH-60 Blackhawks are rare birds at airshows back home. Joining the line up were participants from the air arms of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and the United States Air Force and Navy. Farnborough’s influence naturally brought in some UK talent. Mark Jefferies and the SWIP Team both brought in aircraft via shipping containers for the displays while the Red Devils were the sole representative of any British military at the show.
However, the show stars were the Russian Knights making a very welcome and rare appearance outside of Russia with their four Sukhoi Su-27P Flankers. The Knights have been high on my own ‘most wanted’ list and I have to say they did not disappoint with some extremely close and dramatic flying in their imposing long range interceptors.
You may expect the weather to be extremely kind in the Middle East at this time of year, after all England are currently playing Pakistan in the UAE at the moment. However, life is never that simple and while the weather was pleasant for the majority of the time, the final day of the show on the Saturday saw a strong and very cold wind blow in from Iran whipping up the sand off the local topography. This was the “Winter Shamal” but fortunately, it was not quite as strong as forecast meaning the show went ahead but boy was it cold out on the airfield and at times, thoroughly unpleasant to be out in! The display crews all put in some fine flying too to cope with the swirling sands and wind!
So to sum up Bahrain 2012. Well, despite a self-induced lack of sleep (I never did fully get round to Bahrain time!) it was a hugely enjoyable adventure watching some great flying in unusual, but very friendly surroundings. Huge thanks go to the SWIP Team for this amazing opportunity.