Seaside Stars

The Airshow Season Starts here: 25 Years of Seaside Airshows

The UK airshow season is punctuated by a number of major seaside airshows. 25 years ago, Southend-on-Sea hosted the first major "seafront" show on the shores of the Thames Estuary. Since then, these events have proved incredibly popular, often attracting in excess of 10 times the audience of a normal airfield- based display. Most seaside shows are organised by local Councils with the assistance of dedicated air display management specialists. The most prolific display management company in the UK is TSA Consulting based in Cirencester. Ray Thilthorpe, Ian Sheeley and Dave Walton organise many of the major seaside airshows around the UK each summer and Paul Johnson/Flightline UK asked them about the various different aspects of putting on seaside events. All Photography copyright of the Author

2010 will mark the 25th staging of a major airshow along Southend seafront. Since its conception, many seaside resorts and towns have held their own seaside airshows, attracting many thousands of visitors. The idea for a major seafront airshow came from Ray Thilthorpe. During his 4 years as the Manager of the Red Arrows (Red 10), Ray had seen the Team perform at just about every seaside venue in the UK, where they were invariably the sole display item. The crowds were huge and admission was free which led Ray to believe that the armed forces were missing a superb PR opportunity of reaching so many more of the general public.

In 1986, While still serving in the RAF, he was approached by Southend-on-Sea Borough Council to discuss how they might improve the image of the town and attract more visitors - Ray naturally suggested an air display. The Leader of the Council and the Town Clerk assumed the venue would be Southend Airport, but when Ray convincingly explained how the town and the RAF could benefit from the enormous and varied family crowds that could be accommodated on the promenade, the first full- blown seaside airshow was born.

Since then, Southend Council has been joined by the likes of Sunderland, Southport, Eastbourne, Clacton, Margate, and much more recently Bournemouth in hosting very large seafront airshow spectaculars. What is the incentive for councils to host these airshows? Ian Sheeley explains:

"The events are generally organised by the Tourism/Events/Marketing departments of the local Council. They generally organise all the activities on the ground and we [TSA Consulting Ltd] are contracted to organise all of the aviation aspects on their behalf. There are generally 2 main aims behind staging the shows: firstly to give their local people a ‘free’ fun day out but also to run it as part of their tourism marketing strategy to attract visitors to the area in the hope that they have a great experience and will then choose to re-visit the region at other times. An independent report commissioned last year after the 2nd year of the Bournemouth Air Festival estimated that some £30m of revenue was generated into the local economy by the visitors to the Festival (reportedly 1.3m people across the 4 days of the event) – certainly trying to book a hotel room or get a seat in a restaurant over the period of the Festival proved a real challenge! Other venues we support have had similar experiences, albeit not necessarily to the same extent! It also puts locations that are not widely seen as ‘tourist resorts’ onto the ‘tourism map’."

"The downside to this though is the budget needed to stage these events. Obviously there is no revenue from tickets as the shows are ‘free’ to the Public and, although the local economy can benefit significantly, this income does not feed through directly to the organisers (the Council) who have to fund the event, except other than by local businesses and individuals being encouraged to sponsor individual display items or buy hospitality. The majority of local Councils are now under a mandate to run these events at ‘zero cost’ to the Council, which sets them quite a challenge in the current financial World we all operate in!"

In terms of the aircraft participating at seaside venues, there is no real difference from "over-land" shows. Military jets, warbirds and civilian teams all appear but we often hear comments on internet forums about the aircraft being much more distant and higher than at airfield based displays. We asked Dave Walton if there were any major differences organising an event over water and whether the crews had to abide to different regulations.

"The same rules generally apply for seaside venues as exist for traditional overland or over airfield venues but with a couple of additions to cover the change in operating environment. In the Flying Display “Permission” issued by the Civil Aviation Authority a minimum height limit is imposed on participants of 100ft over the surface of the water. This means that civilian participants with Display Authorisations to fly below 100ft at an airfield must alter their display to remain 100ft above the surface at all times. In addition to this, some military aircraft also have an increased minimum height of 1000ft when operating at a coastal location when there is no clearly defined horizon, for example on a really hazy day with reduced visibility."

"In terms of lateral separation distances from the crowd, the Regulations are the same as for overland shows. However, the challenge here is determining the position of the crowdline so that you can then position and mark the display lines. The main factor being that there is no long and well defined runway and crowdline for the display pilots to use as a reference. In place of this we need to mark the display line and display datum, usually using buoys or moored vessels, and also ensure that the crowdline is marked and stewarded to ensure that it remains the regulation distance from the display line. This can be difficult as uniquely the crowdline can move as the tide comes in or out and just how far can swimmers get out to sea as the display line has to be measured from the furthest forward point that the public can get to! The aim is always to position the display line as close in as the Regulations allow, to maximize the spectacle of the displaying aircraft, but when the coastline isn’t straight, or there is a Pier that is open to the public, or it is a lovely day and it would be impossible to attempt to keep people out of the sea, then these all have to be taken into account in positioning the display line. Fire cover does becomes slightly less important at a seaside venue, but rescue boat cover and Coastguard and RNLI support and coordination becomes essential. Concentrations of large seabirds can also be common at seaside venues, particularly close to low tide and this can pose a risk to displaying aircraft."

"Finally, coastlines offer good navigational features and can be popular transit routes for General Aviation aircraft so it is essential to coordinate with the Civil Aviation Authority regarding restricted airspace and NOTAMs to protect the display pilots during the flying display."

With the reduction in size and funding, the UK's armed forces have rationalised their "engagement strategies." While many airshows have seen military participation reduced (including several of the military's own events), seaside based events seem to have prospered, attracting even more in the way of military assets than they did a few years ago. "The major attraction for the armed forces, particularly their recruiting teams, is simply the numbers of visitors these events attract and the fact that the visitors may not be necessarily aviation or armed forces minded," Ian Sheeley explains. "This gives the recruiters the opportunity to interact with the public and perhaps sow the seeds for future interest and careers in the Armed Forces. Having such an audience also presents the ideal opportunity to explain the role of the current armed forces, adding further value to the commentary of the flying display items."

Seaside airshows have provided many season highlights over the years. Sunderland has seen the F-117 Nighthawk and Southend benefited from a close association with Mildenhall Air Fete which saw appearances by the Frecce Tricolori and an Austrian Draken over the water. Much more recently, Bournemouth has seen impressive Commando Assaults on the beach by the Royal Navy and Southport was the only coastal venue to host a full version of the Royal Air Force's Role Demonstration. Eastbourne has always had something special in it's flying display from World War II dogfight re-enactments to formations of the new and the old such as last year’s formation with Dutch F-16 and John Romain’s Spitfire T9. However, no event can really sustain its popularity by staying the same. Evolution is key to the continued success of any event. We asked Dave Walton if there were any developments planned to the format of the seaside airshow:

"As the majority of seaside shows are free to the public the evening show allows a great opportunity to open up the event to a different audience to those who may come out on the weekend to spend a day watching the flying. In Eastbourne there has traditionally been an influx of spectators on a Friday afternoon to watch the Red Arrows, particularly if they can be scheduled after 1600hrs as people leave work early to watch the display. In the past Eastbourne Borough Council organised a Sunday evening concert accompanied by a Spitfire display and even had evening displays from the Harrier and Nimrod when they were still on the display circuit. The Friday evening event includes live music and a different style of commentary to appeal to a post-work audience or those who may be starting an evening out in the town."

"Sunderland Airshow also did a Friday evening event last year to launch the 21st birthday show at the weekend. In low light levels the spectacle of the RNLAF F-16 role demo displaying with reheat and then releasing flares was a new one to most of the audience and was a natural lead in to the firework display that followed; so evening displays are certainly a potential area of growth for seaside events."

"For 2010, one of our events is looking at our suggestion of running a ‘twilight show’ on one evening of the event for the hour up to darkness with a mix of display items that will look particularly good in (hopefully) the setting sun!"

"I am also really pleased with the results we have achieved at Southport over the last couple of years by using the beach as a landing strip for participating static and display aircraft and this is certainly something that would be good to expand on in the future. Also we hope to use the expanse of the sands to introduce more set piece displays to the programme, and whilst a return to the ‘Beach Battles’ of the past is unlikely, I am hopeful that we can put on a historical scenario that will involve air and ground assets to tell a story."

The success of the seaside airshow should keep them a regular feature of the airshow calendar for years. Enthusiasts may sometimes gloss over these events, but the unique backdrops and vantage points make seaside airshows all the more interesting. With their unique holiday atmosphere, they certainly should not be overlooked. Here's to the next 25 years!


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Seaside Stars