RAFBF 90th Anniversary Airshow, East Kirkby


East Kirkby Higlights
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It's 8.30am on a drizzly, cool August day at RAF Halton. The airfield is slowly coming to life for another day of flying. Aircraft are being pulled out of their hangers to be readied for the day. In one corner of the airfield, one of the RAFGSA's Super-Chipmunks and the Swift Team's glider are being prepared for another busy weekend of display flying starting off with a new airshow held at East Kirkby. Paul Johnson/Flightline UK joins the Swift Team. Photography copyright of the Author.

The weather forecast was not looking too great for the 1st August 2009. A weather front was bringing in low cloud and rain over much of the UK from the west. From RAF Halton, Paul Moslin and Mike Newman were in a race against time to beat the weather that was about to envelop the Chiltons. Mike had been at the airfield quite early, cleaning and polishing the glider and doing a host of checks. Paul was also kept busy doing his final preparations to the weekend's tow-plane, Super Chipmunk G-BCCX. The team's normal tow aircraft, the single seater Piper Pawnee G-BDPJ, was busy at an inter-service gliding competition at RAF Keevil in Wiltshire so was substituted by the venerable "Chippie", with a spare seat for an intrepid reporter!  Baggage had to be stowed in every possible place on the aircraft, fuel tanks filled on the Super-Chipmunk and the smoke pods on the S-1 Swift glider fitted and electrically connected. Just a stone's throw away, Peter Wells and Guy Westgate were going through the same process at Zuluglasstek’s private strip, preparing both Silence Twisters for the weekend's flying. Mike was due to ferry the Swift by aerotow, while Guy flew a second Twister in order to familiarise himself with the aircraft in anticipation of displaying with Pete in a new display act in 2010 - the Twister Duo.

Before takeoff at Halton, the glider had to be towed out to the launch point on the grass airfield but by now drizzle had set in. It wasn't long before we were taxying down the airfield in the Chipmunk. The launch point team helped Mike connect the rope between the aircraft and we were soon away bouncing down the grass runway, rain pouring off the wings.

East Kirkby is 85 nautical miles to the north east of Halton and the transit took us near to Bedford and Peterborough. Soon the Milbrook Vehicle Test Centre was disappearing below us and the Cardingtton airship sheds slipped by. We soon outran the weather, and settled into the cruze with lots of cloud but good visibility. During transits the team use a discrete radio frequency to stay in touch and we were soon in contact with the Twister Duo.

An hour later, we were just arriving over the top of East Kirkby. Below us, Dennis Neville's Flying Circus and Nigel Wilson in his Yak-52 were breaking in to the Kirkby Circuit. We circled above to let them clear before Mike released from the towrope and started his glide down to land. There's the slightest lurch in the Chipmunk as the load is released, but for most of the aerotow transit it was all to easy to forget we were towing another flying machine. Afte landing ourselves, we were marshaled in to the display park and shut down in front of the crowdline. The glider took a little manhandling to position and a few minutes later, the Twisters arrived into the circuit along with Adrian Hatton's fixed undercarriage version G-TWSS to make an impressive line up of the type.

The first port of call for the Team was the pilot's tent, in time  to meet the other crews, airshow organisers and get a cup of tea.  The Flying Display Director (FDD) for East Kirkby was Mike Wood. Mike looks after several airshows around the UK such as Little Gransden and Silverstone and is also involved with the Aero GP. With the first of the rain reaching East Kirkby, the display crews huddled in the small tent while Mike Wood conducted his display breifing standing on a chair! The brief covered all the important aspects of the show. A roll-call was followed by a weather forecast, emergency procedures and the running order for the display. The brief often sees last minute changes to schedule to help coordinate airbourn deconflictions, taxi arrangements and depature slots.

The weather brief confirmed that the forcast did not look promising, and we should plan to night-stop at East Kirkby and transit for the the next show at Bruntingthorpe the following morning. The organisers had not organised overnight accommodation for the crews as many of the acts were local and planned to get home.

Transits in poor weather are one of the biggest risks for a display team, particularly as most aerobatic aircraft are not equipped with blind flying instruments and fly VFR (Visual flight rules) . It's far better to be on the ground wishing you were in the air than being in the air wishing you'd stayed on the ground! The wing of the Chipmunk quickly became an office for Mike as he phoned through a list of local numbers for accommodation,  looking for enough rooms to cover the team.

As well as the main pilots’ breif, the Team also held their own briefing as the display got under way. Each display venue has it's own obstacles and the weather conditions can make every display different, sometimes needing the display sequence to be changed slightly, so it's important to brief for the day. 

The airshow at East Kirkby was a brand new event this year and marks the first time a full airshow has been held at the Lincolnshire Aviation Heritage Centre, the home of Avro Lancaster NX611 "Just Jane". Fred and Harold Panton restored the Lancaster and created the Aviation Centre to commemorate their brother Christopher who was killed on a Nuremburg raid in March 1944. Keeping it in the family, Fred's Grandson Andrew is the centre's event organiser and the brainchild of the RAFBF airshow.  As well as taxy runs by the Lancaster, the airshow featured a number of popular display acts from the East Anglia area and the Royal Air Force. The show was opened by Maurice Hammond's pair of P-51D Mustangs and included further heavy iron action from Peter Vacher's Hurricane I. As well as these popular warbirds, there were some more unusual historic types such as Justin Needham's O-1 Bird Dog and the Fairchild Cornell - the latter joining up with Nigel Wilson in his Yak-52. There were also a couple of displays from todays Royal Air Force with the Tutor T1 flown by Flt Lt Bill Ramsey and the extraordinary Chinook HC2 display flown by Flt Russ Norman. Other popular displays included the Taylor Titch, an Autogyro, Dennis Neville's Flying Circus, RV-8 pair, Pitts Special and a quite incredible display of aerobatics by Gerald Cooper in his CAP-232.

The Swift Team completed their display mid way through the flying programme. Once again, the glider was pushed to the end of the grass runway while the Chipmunk and Twister taxied out during the RV-8s dual display. The towrope was connected and the team then waited for the RVs to complete and land before taking off into their display.

From the ground it always appears to be a smooth operation, but the pilots are in contact with each other throughout the display, making radio calls to keep the whole team coordinated.. The view from up in the air confirmed the fears about the weather, with a wall of rain and low cloud marching in from the west of the airfield. Back on the ground, Mike was kept busy helping the main airshow commentator Ken Ellis. The team's glider display is so unique, commentators can struggle to follow the action so Mike's inside knowledge is always appreciated. The advancing cloud bank stayed away just long enough to allow the team to complete a full sequence without too many difficulties.

After the display flight, there was still work to do. Covers for the tug, the Twisters and Swift glider and that elusive accommodation was stil causing problems for Mike.

The banks of rain skirted around the airfield until the flying was complete, and with a slight improvement to conditions, both Peter Wells and Adrian Hatton decided to fly back to base and soon departed. Meanwhile, back at Kirkby Mike eventually tracked down a farmhouse bed and breakfast - but now the team faced the problem of getting there! A volunteer driver soon appeared in the form of one of the RAFBF fund raising team, Rosie Gibbons. The B&B owners too turned out to be the real stars of the evening, providing lifts to the local pub and then back to East Kirkby the following day, as well as cooking a cracking breakfast!

The next day, the work continued. The glider had to prepared for another display at Bruntingthorpe. Guy fitted new smokes to the wings while the rest of the team dried the wings of the Swift and Chipmunk. With the minimum of delay we were off, the overnight downpours now well behind us it was going to be a beautiful sunny day - typical!

It's often hard to imagine the hours of hard work behind the scenes of a display act which often lasts just a few minutes.  For many of us, we turn up at an airshow and expect displays to appear without appreciating this work and all the little problems and snags that can make the simplest of fligts a challenge. The professionalism of the pilots and ground crews often mask the effort. Next time you are at an airshow, spare a thought for those air and ground crews that are responsible for an entertaining afternoon of displays!

The author would like to thank Guy Westgate, Mike Newman, Peter Wells and most importantly Paul Moslin for the opportunity to join the team for the weekend.

The Swift Team's Day
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