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2012 Middle East Airshows : REVIEW

Bahrain International Airshow

The biennial Bahrain international Airshow was the first major ‘trade’ event of 2012. Unlike other shows of its ilk, it is a very exclusive and unique event only being open to a small number of companies and is a stark contrast from the sprawling exhibition halls that typify Farnborough or Paris. The airshow is just one of a number international exhibitions the small Arabian island nation puts on each year and this year the event saw major participation from France, the USA, the United Arab Emirates, Russia and the UK in the air and on the ground.

Paul Johnson/Flightline UK reports. All Photography copyright of Author.

January may seem a long way from the airshow season for the European enthusiast, but it is the perfect time for airshows in the Middle East. In 2012, the Kingdom of Bahrain hosted its second International Airshow which is a very unique take on an aviation trade exhibition. The event is organised jointly by Bahrain’s Civil Aviation Affairs and Farnborough International at the Sakhir Airbase in the south of the small Island nation.

Bahrain is actually an archipelago of 33 islands centred on the main Bahrain Island just off the Persian Gulf coast of Saudi Arabia. Bahrain is self literally means ‘two seas’ and is well known for its pearl and oil trades. Recent years have seen Bahrain build itself as a major travel and financial hub centred on the capital city, Manama. Bahrain’s attractive sandy coast has seen it become a tourist destination in its own right but the National state airline Gulf Air has grown into one of the Middle East’s most important.

Part of the push to make Bahrain an international destination has seen the country hosting several international events with the Bahrain Formula 1 Grand Prix perhaps being the most famous. The Grand Prix takes place at the Bahrain International Circuit which has been built at Sakhir.

Sakhir has seen some amazing development over the past few years like many other places across the Middle East. The first major development in the area was the Al-Sakhir Palace built in 1870, but recently the area has seen massive building projects with the University of Bahrain Main Campus, the Bahrain International Circuit and Sakhir Airbase being built in a relative short time. Further development in underway with more space being constructed for business and entertainment under the banner of @bahrain. Sakhir is dominated by rocky outcrops, the largest of which is one of very few areas of high ground and is peppered with all manner of antennae overlooking the air base.

The airfield has been built specifically as a base for the Bahraini Royal Flight and for the airshow. Dominating the skyline of the airfield is a giant double-hangar capable of swallowing two Airbus A380 super jumbos. Adjoining the hangars are plush terminal buildings and a huge apron.

The airshow occupies purpose built structures overlooking over the apron. The Bahrain International Airshow is fundamentally different to other trade shows. There are no large exhibition halls at all; instead there are 40 chalets, each with their own meeting rooms and hospitality space. These are only open to small number of companies and the emphasis of the event is very much on face-to-face business. The main show site is only opened to register trade visitors who are rewarded with quite superb access to the event.

Unusually, the public access to the show is held at a completely different location 1km away from the main show site on the other side of a secure compound housing the National Guard. The public are treated to more of a general exhibition with displays from various organisations. Farnborough International also shipped in many attractions such as the Red Arrows simulator and others familiar to a UK airshow goer. Aircraft wise there was a small static display from Qatar based Autogyros, a Police Bell 212 and a Bahraini Air Force Bell 212 alongside an MBB Bo105. An extra touch for the public for 2012 was their own morning airshow with the British Army Red Devils, Mark Jefferies in his Extra 330SC, the SWIP Team and the Royal Jordanian Falcons all taking part and centring their displays on the public area. However for the main afternoon display all the acts centred their displays on the main trade exhibition so some of the smaller and lighter acts may have seemed a little more distant than usual!

Back in the main show site, Farnborough’s influence was obvious from the superb organisation behind the aircraft displays to the reassuring smooth tones of Stratton Richey’s informative commentary to the flying displays. The static display was incredibly varied covering everything from the latest business jets to freighters to the latest military hardware. Naturally Bahrain based aviation featured heavily. The state owned airline Gulf Air and Bahrain’s largest privately owned airline Bahrain Air both exhibited Airbus A320s. The former wore a spectacular special scheme celebrating the Bahrain Grand Prix due to be held in March.

The Royal Bahraini Air Force was present in impressive strength. Despite the countries small size and remit to only protect itself and other Gulf Cooperative Council states, Bahrain boasts an impressive military air arm operating some very exotic types. The main frontline type is the F-16C Fighting Falcon, but Bahrain also operates a fleet of Northrop F-5E/F Tiger IIs in the lead-in fighter role. Advance jet training is provided by a small fleet of six BAE Systems Hawk Mk129 jets while basic training is performed on the Slingsby T67 Firefly. Bahrain also operates rotary fleets with the MBB Bo105, Bell 212, Bell AH-1E Cobra and Sikorsky UH-60L/S Blackhawks available. Examples of each were on show in the static display. Joining them was a Bahraini Royal Flight British Aerospace RJ85.

Aircraft from other Middle Eastern airlines were also on show. Qatar Airways dominated the static park with one its Boeing 777 jets while one of Oman Air’s Embraer E175 jets was also on show alongside an impressive line-up of business aircraft from across the world.

Russia had an impressive presence at the show. On the ground a giant Iluyshin Il-76MD was joined by the 757 lookalike Tupolev Tu-204 airliner. The Tu-204 looked pristine, but the Il-76MD which was supporting the Russian Knights did look like it had spent a few years sat outside in the cold Russian weather!!!

In the static park, the only other Middle Eastern nation represented by a military aircraft was Bahrain’s neighbour Saudi Arabia with one it’s last acquisitions, the Eurofighter Typhoon. Typhoon’s great rival was also on display with a French Air Force Dassault Rafale C parked on the opposite side of the static park! Both aircraft are fighting it out for orders in the Middle and Far East with the UAE and Oman looking to replace their aging fighter fleets. Curiously however it seemed only the French seemed bothered about the security of their aircraft as for much of the day the Typhoon remained unguarded!

Making the biggest contribution to the static park was the United States Department of Defence with an amazing collection of types from the USAF and US Navy. Relatively local participants were the US Navy pair of helicopters which are based on the Military side of Bahrain International Airport. Perhaps the most welcome by aviation enthusiast was a Sikorsky MH-53E Sea Dragon frm HM-15 'Blackhawks'. It was joined by a much later Sikorsky product, a MH-60S Knighthawk from HSC-26 which maintains a detachment in Bahrain. Fixed wing naval aviation saw the helicopters joined by a VFA-22 Boeing F/A-18F Super Hornet from the USS Carl Vinson which was steaming in the Persian Gulf and a Lockheed P-3C Orion.

Standing over the entire US ‘park’ were a giant USAF C-17A Globemaster III from Travis AFB and a Air National Guard C-130H Hercules from Pope AFB. The only USAF fast jet on show was the F-15C Eagle from Kadena AFB in Japan.

The static display was exciting enough, but the flying display was something truly very special. It was opened by the Red Devils dropping in for the second time with the Bahraini Flag but the first aircraft participation came from a very special formation representing Bahrain’s contribution to aviation. An Airbus A330-200 wearing the F1 special scheme was flanked by no less than five Royal Bahraini Air Force F-16C Fighting Falcons and four Northrop F-5E Tiger IIs. It was no just as one pass wonder either with the Airbus making a separate flypast on its own before the Air Force formation returned to further times – if only this kind of thing happened more the UK!!!

Further Bahraini participation came in the form of the parachutists of the Bahraini Special Forces dropping under very patriotic canopies.

The flying display saw very little civilian flying. As well as the Gulf Air Airbus A330, Bahrain Air provided a display with one of its Airbus A320s. On the first day, an Emirates Airbus A380 arrived carrying the King and other representatives of the United Arab Emirates to the show while the last day saw a flypast by a DHL/Kalitta Air Boeing 747-400F Freighter. The only full airliner display was provided by the Sukhoi Su-100 Superjet. Unlike its Farnborough appearance in 2010, it appeared in full airline livery of Armavia rather than Sukhoi’s own scheme. Mark Jefferies provided a further display of unlimited aerobatics in his Extra 300SC. Mark’s displays are now a global attraction and he certainly disappoint the local crowd with some impossible tumbles and eye-catching knife-edge passes. Further Extra action came from the Royal Jordanian Falcons who were making one their final appearances with their current group of pilots. The European shows in 2012 will see the first displays by a new team line-up. Despite being a Middle East based team, they still have to fly the Extras into Bahrain in the back of a C-130H Hercules due to the lack of available avgas between Jordan and Bahrain!

The United Arab Emirates were the only other gulf state to be represented in the flying with an impressive contingent of acts. Their headline act was the Al Fursan National Aerobatic Team flying six Aermacchi MB339NAT trainers from their base at Al Ain. The team enjoy strong links with Italian National Display Team, Il Frecce Tricolori. Not only are the MB339NATs modified in a similar way to the MB339PAN, but the layout of their colour scheme, particular on the underside is very similar to the Italian scheme. The team have also received their coaching from former members of the Frecce which still continues. As a result many of their display figures feel very familiar though there are some very original passes such as their take on a ‘corkscrew!” All in all, their display was a very well-polished for such a young team and if their plans to visit RIAT in the summer come to fruition the UK audience is in for a treat.

Joining Al Fursan were a pair of solo fast jet displays from members of the UAE Air Force. First to appear was the Lockheed Martin F-16E Desert Falcon. The F-16E are the most advanced version of the popular fighter with the very latest avionics, but also are very different visibly “wearing” conformal fuel tanks on the top fuselage giving the type a much more aggressive look, particularly in the UAE’s two tone grey camouflage. The F-16 display came complete with smoke-winders and was particularly impressive and noisy. Joining the F-16 was a solo display from one of the UAEAF’s Dassault Mirage 2000-9. The Mirage has always been an airshow favourite in the hands of the French Air Force, and the UAE display draw heavily from the French displays. The addition of smoke-winders just added to the dramatic figures and changes in direction.

Further solo jet displays came from the US Navy with a Boeing F/A-18E Super Hornet from VFA-81. The single seat variant of the Super Hornet is something of a rare sight at airshows outside the USA and the aircraft displayed Sakhir like the static display example came from the US Carl Vinson which was on deployment in the Gulf at the time. The Hornet demonstrated some of the extreme angles of attack the big naval fighter can achieve as well as an impressive turn of speed drawing out the very limited moisture in the air which exploded over the aircraft’s wing!

However the highlight of the main flying display was the first appearance outside of Russia for many years of the Russian Knights and their four Sukhoi Su-27P Flanker jets. The Knights were the star turn of the large Russian delegation taking advantage of the absence of many European countries. Their display was nothing short of outstanding from start to finishing. Their display starts immediately the team get airborne with the first pair performing a loop straight off the runway while the second pair take off underneath; as the first pair complete the loop the team are in perfect position to form up into their standard box formation. Their display highlights the immense power and agility of the Su-27 which has always been regarded as one of the best airshow performers. After an opening formation routine the team split into solo and opposition displays – their overall performance was simply jaw-dropping.

The sun sets fast during the winter months in Bahrain. The final displays of the main each day took place against beautiful Persian sunsets but as the sun finally slipped below the horizon the airshow has one final flourish. Opening the evening entertainment was the return of the SWIP Team, this time fitted with their wingtip pyrotechnics that have been proved such a hot at European events. They were followed by the third and final drop by the British Army Red Devils, this time equipment with glow sticks on their jumpsuits and more pyrotechnics attached to their feet. Even more they performed the same stunning formation canopy work they did during their daytime shows.

The finale to each day’s activities was a superb firework display with the glowing Sakhir Tower of the Bahrain International Circuit as a backdrop. It was a glittering end to a supremely well run event. It must be added that everyone involved in running the event could not have been more helpful or friendly to visitors or participants alike. It is very clear that the ‘exclusive’ nature is very attractive to the companies that take part and although the show may never compete with some of the larger trade airshow, it certainly deserves its place amongst the world’s premier international airshows.

Thanks to the SWIP Team

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