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2013 Middle East Airshows : REVIEW

Al Ain Aerobatic Show 2013, United Arab Emirates

The Al Ain Aerobatic Show returned in 2013 following a brief hiatus which has seen the event switch from its more usual January date by 11 months to early December. This change brings the show in-line with the United Arab Emirates National Day on the 2nd December and the show was Al Ain’s main public celebration of this important date. The Aerobatic Show brings together various displays acts from around the world and this year was no different with the growing home contingent joined by displays acts from Jordan, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, the United States and a very extensive range of acts from the UK including the Typhoon and Red Arrows, both on a winter tour of the Middle East supporting British industry.

Paul Johnson/Flightline UK reports. All photography copyright of the Author or as credited. Video from Al Ain Aerobatic Show.

Al Ain is the second largest city in the Abu Dhabi Emirate and the fourth largest in the United Arab Emirates. It has a long history with the area first inhabited over 4000 years ago around the Oasis which the modern city has enveloped. It is situated on the eastern borders of the UAE with the country of Oman and is overshadowed by Jebel Hafeet (Halfeet Mountain) which makes for a unique spectacle at night with its fully illuminated mountain road. Today, the city is an incredible mix of the old east and the modern west with the ancient camel market and forts alongside the sprawling American style shopping mall.

The massive Al Ain International Airport was opened in 1994. It sports a 13,000ft (4km) runway and is split into a civilian airport and the Khalifa bin Zayed Air College which is essentially the UAE Air Forces equivalent of the Royal Air Force College Cranwell providing training for future UAEAF pilots from basic to advanced jet flying training. Al Ain also has a complement of Airbus A330MRTT Multi-Role Tanker Transports which have just entered service. The civilian airport handles just handful of flights each week mainly operating to other Middle Eastern and Asian destinations.

2013 saw the 10th edition of the Al Ain Aerobatic Show which was first held in 2003. Jointed organised by the Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority and the United Arab Emirates Defence Force and Air Force. The show immediately hit the headlines for some incredible international line-ups which have included the likes of the Russian Knights, a Bleriot XI, American aerobatic stars such as Jim LeRoy, Skip Stewart, the South African Wizards, Breitling Jet Team and more recently the Turkish Stars and Baltic Bees. There are few other airshows in the world who within the same flying display could boast participants from Europe, South Africa, New Zealand and the US!

The showground set-up is slightly unusual, certainly for those used to the traditional airshow set-ups in Europe. The airshow site is actually based around a relatively small apron area to the north of the airport with the display line perpendicular to the north-south main runway which does mean for photographers the sun is always behind you. However there is almost no free space on the main crowd-line. The main public viewing was from an absolutely enormous grandstand which sat alongside the numerous VIP and Sponsors enclosures.

The backdrop however is spectacular with rolling sand dunes surrounding the airfield edges. The dunes provide a multitude of shades of red, particularly as the sun sets from mid-afternoon onwards. The show also made great use of big screens. These were not only linked to ground based cameras but also to a Squirrel helicopter carrying CineFlex cameras which for some items were able to provide aerial views of the flying displays which is something not often seen in Europe outside of Red Bull Air Race.

The showground behind the grandstand contained a number of exhibits including the Abu Dhabi Volvo Ocean Challenge Yacht and all manner of local companies. Standing out was the BAE Systems stand which contained a mock-up of a Tranche 3 Eurofighter Typhoon and a genuine Supermarine Spitifre PR XIX from the RAF Museum. PM651 was initially sent to Kuwait early in 2013 by the RAF Museum to mark the ties between the Kuwait and the Royal Air Force. During the Second World War expatriate Britons and Kuwaitis donated money for 10 Spitfires for the war effort. The Royal Air Force also played a vital role in the 1991 Gulf War to liberate Kuwait from the occupying Iraqi forces. The Spitfire has appeared in one of Kuwait’s most popular shopping centres during the Liberation Day Holidays and has subsequently supported the British Embassy’s Queen’s Birthday Party in June and also BAE Systems at the Dubai Airshow.

The UAE Air Force also had a large exhibition of equipment in the showground. Al Ain is home of a number of training aircraft with pilots starting their flying career on the Grob G115T, a much more powerful version of the familiar Grob Tutor able to cope with the high temperatures and low air density of the Middle East. Pilots then graduate to the Pilatus PC-7 Turbotrainers for experience of more powerful machinery. The latest edition to the UAF AF training inventory is the Pilatus PC-21 advanced turboprop training aircraft. These potent aircraft are just entering service wearing their attractive two-tone grey camouflage schemes. The example on show sported under-wing smoke generators and was seen in the week before the show carrying out low levels turns and aerobatic figures over the military side of the airfield so is perhaps a type we can look forward to seeing in air displays soon.

Also on show were two examples of the UAE’s rotary fleet. The country has used the AH-64 Apache for many years and on show this year was one of their newer AH-64D Longbow Apaches. Alongside it was the familiar bulk of a Boeing CH-47D Chinook.

The UAE has two very advanced fighters protecting its airspace. The Dassault Mirage 2000-9 and F-16E Desert Falcon may look familiar, but both are perhaps the most advanced versions of their respective designs. The F-16E in particular stands out from earlier version sporting the conformal fuel tanks and the latest generation of avionics under its skin.

A big change for Al AI this year was addition of temporary light aircraft hangars at the show site. In previous years all aircraft have operated from military hangars, but this year saw all the lighter aircraft operate from in front of the crowd. Getting light aircraft to Al Ain from around the world is no easy task. The lack of AVGAS in the Middle East means even the Royal Jordanian Falcons have to bring their aircraft in pieces via a C-130 Hercules! For the rest, most aircraft arrive via Shipping Containers following month long sea voyages. Therefore the week before the show sees plenty of activity as aircraft appear from numerous containers and are rebuilt for the show with the reverse happening as quickly as possible post show.

For visitors from the UK or Europe, many of the display acts would have been very familiar with a large British gathering of display teams. The Twister Duo (previously known as the SWIP Team) brought their newest aircraft out to the UAE with Silence Twister G-SWIP joined by the orange G-JINX. The team. Led by Peter Wells, also wore the colours of the one of the show’s main sponsors, Chinese communication technology firm Huawei. The team performed twice daily, first their traditional daytime aerobatic routine before appearing in the closing dusk display with their stunning “pyro” display with fireworks streaming from their wingtips.

Another UK duo performing over the desert was the Matadors Aerobatic Team. Paul Bonhomme and Steve Jones are no strangers to Al Ain but were making their first appearance at the show with their new Xtreme Air XA41s. Their fast-paced close formation and solo aerobatic routine drew audible gasps from the crowd in the grandstand who loved the close opposition crosses and their heart.

Also very popular, particularly on National Day itself, were the Breitling Wingwalkers. The team are no stranger to winter tours of late visiting China and Australia last winter. At Al Ain the team presented their standard pairs routine with pilots Martyn Carrington and Dave Barrell joined by wingwalker Danielle Hughes, Freya Paterson and Stella Guilding. Performing towards the end of the afternoon, the desert sunset really made their orange Boeing Stearman stand out almost glowing against the deep blue sky. The team also took full advantage of the Cineflex helicopter producing a stunning promotion film for Breitling.

Completing the line-up of civilian displays from the UK was Hawker Hunter F58a Miss Demeanour flown by Jonathon Whaley. The Hunter was the only civilian aircraft to fly in to Al Ain with ex-Team Viper pilot Mark Southern flying the transit from the aircraft St Athan base through Europe and the near Middle East. Al Ain saw Jonathon’s final public displays as the owner of Miss Demeanour and they were as enthralling as ever with Miss Demeanour looking amazing in the strong desert sunshine. The final day saw Jonathon sign off in style zooming vertical into the blue sky until he almost disappeared from view!

The Royal Air Force was making its Al Ain debut with the Typhoon FGR4 flown by Flt Lt Jamie Norris and the Red Arrows. Both display teams had been on tour in the Middle East in support from UK industry and the potential sales of Typhoons to Middle East countries, in particular the UAE. Typhoons are already in service with the Saudis and have also been ordered by Oman to replace their aging SEPECAT Jaguars. Shortly after the show, it was announced that the UAE would not be ordering Typhoons at the current time though potential sales to Bahrain and Qatar are still possible.

For the show, the Typhoon was based out of Al Dhafra air base which regularly sees deployments of RAF Typhoons on exercise. Jamie’s display of the Typhoon was as impressive as always highlighting the enormous power and agility of the fighter in the gin clear blue skies over Al Ain.

For the Red Arrows, their stay at Al Ain marked the not only the end of a very successful tour of the Middle East, but also the end of a very long 2013 display season. The team, as well as displaying the Dubai Airshow, had displayed a many iconic Middle East venues such as the Abu Dhabi Corniche and the Dubai and Doha seafronts with the spectacular backdrop of the modern skyscrapers. It was also a unique opportunity for the two new members of the team, Flt Lts Stewart Campbell and John Hourston, to train in the good weather of the Arabian Desert! It was not only a novelty to watch a Red Arrows display in December, but the teams display looked superb over the rolling dunes that surround Al Ain.

Though the display may have been dominated by British acts, Al Ain also attracted some great acts from South Africa, Hungary and the United States.

Representing South Africa were the Goodyear Eagles, one of the most original formation display teams I’ve ever seen. The team have been in existence for nearly 30 years and are very popular in their home country. They were also the first team from South African to perform outside the country displaying in Kenya in 1993. The team have gone on to display in Swaziland, Mozambique, Namibia and Zimbabwe. They have also performed at Al Ain on multiple occasions, formally as the Wizards and as the Goodyear Eagles following the welcome addition of sponsorship in 2009. As the Goodyear Eagles, the team fly four classic Pitts S2B Specials which today marks the team out from the rest with their monoplane aerobatic mounts. The team pilots are all very experience aerobatic and display pilots with an excess of 60,000 flying hours between them. The team performed two very different displays at Al Ain. Led by Glen Warden, pilots Neil Trollip, Johan Von Solms and Neil Hopkins put on a very original and face-paced four-ship routine in the Pitts Special. The started their display as pairs performing an opening opposition pass which really set the scene for a fantastic display which included formation and solo aerobatics plus the unique “double-heart” at the end of their display.

The Eagles second appearance saw two of the aircraft take to the air minus their canopies for a very special and extraordinary inverted skydiving display. Team owner and reserve lead pilot Dennis Spence took the lead of the pair. The parachutists were Graham Field and Amy Shaw. Graham leads the Skydiving Team for the Eagles and has over 26 years’ experience or parachuting as a coach and competitive skydiver. Amy was new to the team for Al Ain and started skydiving at the age of 16. She has performed over 700 skydives and 400 base jumps in 26 countries. Amy is the first female skydiver to perform the inverted skydive with team marking another first for the Al Ain Aerobatic Show. For the display, the two Pitts specials pitched in from the crowd’s left pulling into a half loop before holding inverted at the top. While it sounds simple enough, there is a great deal of trust between the pilot and skydiver as the aircraft has to provide a stable drop platform and the skydiver has to negotiate the confines of the small Pitts front cockpit and all its various obstacles to jump clean away from the aircraft. Together, the displays from the Goodyear Eagles were the highlights of the show for me and amongst the best displays I’ve seen anywhere in recent years.

Zoltan Veres from Hungary is an Al Ain regular and it is almost impossible to imagine the show without him. He’s performed some truly memorable displays there over the year including twice winning the Aero GP event there and setting a World Record for the most consecutive rolls over the Al Ain desert. This time he brought a Giles 202 aerobatic aircraft specially modified with all manner of lighting effects including lasers for the show finale on the first two days. Zoltan is a regular fixture at events in the UAE and keeps some aircraft in the country to support events such as the Dubai Skydiving Festival alongside the Fazza Skydiving Team. Displaying the rapidly diminishing light, the lights created a great effect for the crowd, particularly when the lasers caught the smoke behind the aircraft.

However, for many, the really memorable star of the show was not actually an airborne act! Al Ain regular features car demonstrations and 2013 was no different with Mercedes giving a very noisy demonstration of AMG SLs and SLSs. It was however the US based Indy Boys that provided the outstanding memory with ‘School Time’, a School Bus powered by a 42,000bhp General Electric J79 engine!! It absolutely looks the part too with what appear to be normal bus wheels and even three passenger seats too! What set the Indy Boys apart from other ‘jet-car’ displays was the showmanship – ‘School Time’ was easily manoeuvred in front of the crowd blasting smoke and flames from the rear of its engine providing a lot of theatre before heading off to the end of the display box to perform its high speed run. The bus is capable of reaching speeds of 367mph thanks to its J79 which releases one hell of thump when the reheat engages which you not only hear but feel in every bone of your body! It was an insane display and one that you simply could not forget in a hurry!

Perhaps one of the biggest recent changes to Al Ain and other airshows in the Middle East is the increased amount of displays teams based in the Middle East and particularly the UAE. Both the Royal Jordanian Falcons and Royal Saudi Air Force Saudi Hawks display teams have been established for a number of years and both were present at Al Ain. In Europe we are very used to seeing the Royal Jordanian Falcons but the desert backdrop and short display line added something to their display which really made it stand out more than perhaps it does at the Royal International Air Tattoo. The crowds certainly loved their formation breaks and close opposition passes.

The Saudi Hawks too have twice visited the UK. With their patriotic green painted BAE Systems Hawk Mk66s, their display is much more balletic than the Red Arrows and perhaps lacks something of the drama and flair of the Reds. However, they do put on a fine display providing some great formations and sky-writing moments recreating some of the national symbols of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

However, the UAE themselves have provided the biggest boost to airshows in the region. The UAEAF now has two dedicated solo fast jet displays. First to appear over the weekend was the Dassault Mirage 2000-9 flown by Captain Masoud Al Falahi. With the end of French Air Force Mirage 2000 displays, the UAE is thought to be the only nation with a dedicated display of the type. The Mirage 2000-9 is the most advanced variant of the French fighter produced and in the UAE Air Forces serves in the strike role. As with other UAE displays, the UAEAF has managed to attract advisors from the French Air Force and the display is uncannily like the classic Mirage 2000 displays once seen at RIAT and Farnborough complete with smoke-winders under each wing. The display contain any of the signature manoeuvres such as the crazy flying pass which sees the aircraft pitch and roll rapidly or the high-alpha slow speed pass and some very aggressive turns.

The second of the UAEAF solo displays is the Lockheed Martin F-16E Desert Falcon (or F-16 Block 60.) These are the most advanced variants of the F-16 yet produced sporting Active Electronically Scanned Array Radars, conformal fuel tanks and a more powerful GE F110 powerplant. Like the Mirage, the display F-16E was equipped with smoke-winders on the wingtips and presented a very European style of display routine with flowing aerobatics and the traditional slow speed pass. Despite not wearing a special display scheme, the UAE F-16s wears an attractive two-tone grey camouflage which really makes them stand out from the blander schemes worn by the NATO and US F-16s we often see in the UK.

For the first two days of the show, both the Mirage 2000-9 and F-16E Desert Falcons performed again towards the end of the flying displays alongside the spare airframes to provide some burner passes against the backdrop of the desert sunset.

The final day of the show also saw the Al Ain based Horizon Flying Academy take part in the flying display with seven Bell Jetrangers providing a flypast in front of the crowd. Each aircraft had the name of one of the Emirates on its left hand side as a patriotic salute to the UAE National Day. National Day also saw two flypasts by an Airbus A330-200 from the national airline Etihad based in Abu Dhabi.

The UAE National Aerobatic Team, Al Fursan, made their first flying appearance at the Al Ain Aerobatic Show on the opening day. Despite being such a young team, they’ve already established themselves on the international display circuit with visits to Bahrain, Italy and the UK. Flying the Aermacchi MB399NAT, the team have spent time with the Italian team Il Frecce Tricolori and have ex-members of that team as advisors. Their first season saw the team perform many of the figures associated with the Italian team but two years on they have developed some of their own original manoeuvres making great use of their coloured smoke to paint the UAE colours in the sky on the National weekend.

The change of date for Al Ain certainly provided the Aerobatic Show with a very special atmosphere. It was a weekend full of colour and patriotism with the crowds enjoying every display and enthusiastically waving their UAE flags as the display teams taxied past before and after each display. It did however mean that the home based military displays were rather stretched with commitments across the UAE throughout the weekend which meant that Al Fursan and the Mirage only displayed on the opening day and no UAEAF displays appeared on the final day which was the main National Day which was a little disappointing for some.

However, Al Ain 2013 was a hugely enjoyable event. For visitors from outside of the Middle East, the novelty of an airshow in early December with the stunning backdrop of sand-dunes in near perfect weather is a great attraction as is a unique mix of displays from across the globe.

Thanks to The Twister Aerobatics Team and TSA Consulting Ltd

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