2016 saw Clacton Airshow celebrate its 25th Anniversary. Since the demise of the Southend Airshow, it has become the biggest such event in Essex. Despite some lean times, the local council has worked hard to keep the show going and it has now become a sizable event attracting 100’s of thousands to the East Coast resort. 2016 saw the air displays bigger than ever and for the first time included a dusk display on the Thursday as part of the 25th celebrations.
Paul Johnson/Flightline UK reports. All photography by the author.
I last visited the Clacton Airshow some six years ago. On initial glances, little has changed with the same showground layout. However, there has been quite a bit of growth in the hotel market with a large Premier Inn now sitting on the seafront plus several other smaller businesses. The backdrop has also changed significantly though with the completion of the large wind farm off the Essex coast.
It is clear that the local Council have realised the potential of the show in developing the town of Clacton and supporting local business. Clacton Airshow has at times been close to the endangered list of airshows when funding for the event was cut. It was however saved and since then Tendring Council have nurtured the show and its now bigger than ever. Spectators cram the beach front area and the promenade, though some of the best viewing can be had from the Pier or the Martello Tower which bookend the display lines.
On paper, it seems Clacton had booked the very best of the weather too with warm blues skies sitting over the south east of the UK for both days of the show. However Thursday became more and more hazy as the main flying display time approached. As the flying display got underway, the sea mist had fully rolled in and thin layers of low level stratus cloud were blotted all over the display area forcing may items simply to fly through as neither they or the flying control committee had full views of the display area! Friday fortunately seemed to fare much better!
The flying displays drew together a varied mix of favourite display acts from across the UK and Europe. Opening the show on the Thursday were the Tigers Freefall Parachute Display Team jumping from the Headcorn based Britten Norman Islander. Once again they presented something a little different with the lead jumper carrying a string of smokes from his ankles and the Clacton Airshow flag. The rest of the team presented some very skilful canopy work as they dropped into the beachfront area with some of the team making use of the cooler water for a splashdown arrival!
The Royal Air Force sent a large contingent of displays. The Eurofighter Typhoon FGR4 flown by Flt Lt Mark Long was one of the show stars over the two days operating from his base at RAF Coningsby. Thursday saw Mark give a dramatic display over the top of the sea mist just before it became a show stopper.
The Battle of Britain Memorial Flight sent the pair of Supermarine Spitfire IIa P7350 and Supermarine Spitfire PR XIX PS915. The latter was making its first day of public appearances with the flight following a long period of servicing with the Aircraft Restoration Company at Duxford and now appears in the markings of a Hong Kong based PR XIX flown by Flt Lt Ted Powles.
No big seaside airshow is complete without the Red Arrows and naturally they took the top billing closing the main display on Thursday and opening Friday’s display. Despite the sea mist on Thursday they were able to complete just their first half display in spectacular style.
Many of the flying displays were devoted to historic aircraft. Clacton sits on the southern edges of East Anglia which became home to many United States Army Air Force Bomber squadrons during the Second World War. These were remembered during the displays by Boeing B-17G Flying Fortress Sally-B and the Royal Netherlands Air Force Historic Flight’s North American TB-25N Mitchell.
Cold War history too was well represented in the line-up. The Norwegian Air Force Historic Squadron contributed both its pair of de Havilland Vampire FB52 and T55 plus the Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-15UTi. The Bronco Demo Team also took part with their North American OV-10B Bronco operating from their Homebase in Belgium for the event.
As ever, there was a good selection of civilian display teams interspersed throughout the display. Solo Freestyle aerobatics came from the Gerald Cooper flying the XtremeAir XA41.
However, the highlight of the whole Clacton Airshow weekend was Thursday’s dusk display. By the time the evening displays were scheduled the low cloud had abated and the sea-mist moved further out to sea leaving clear skies over Clacton with a spectacular sunset. It was a short affair with just three acts taking part, but it possibly created the biggest buzz of the entire event for the crowd and organisers.
The display was opened by Peter Wells and Chris Burkett in the two Silence SA1100 Twisters of the Twister Aerobatic Team. The crowd seems quite enthused during the early part of their routine which saw them displaying their very bright blue LED lighting systems. However, whe n they first fired their pyrotechnics from their wingtips there was a huge roar of appreciation right around Clacton seafront and Pier – the crowd were spellbound by what they were seeing.
Following the Twisters were the FireFlies Aerobatic Team flying a pair a Vans RV4s. Jon Gowdy and Andy Durston’s displays is quite different from the Twisters. By now the crowd knew what to expect and were eagerly anticipating the fireworks. Once they were fired there wasn’t a single manoeuvre that didn’t an “ooohs” or an “arrrs” as the team flew their elegant aerobatics.
The finale was one of the newest acts on the UK circuit, ‘OTTO’, flown by Brendan O’Brien. ‘OTTO’ is a Schweizer S300C Helicopter and is a legend of the US display Industry. OTTO was the famous ‘clown’ helicopter that performed dramatic near-aerobatic display routines as well as neat tricks with an oversized yo-yo etc. OTTO also has a very impressive set-up for pyrotechnic evening displays and Brendan used this to full advantage to bring the curtain down on the evening flying. With Brendan and OTTO you never know quite what to expect, but it was a thrilling finale with a near-constant barrage of pyrotechnic effect firing from the tiny and helicopter and well as some very bright lights!
Friday’s good weather and Thursday’s stunning evening show certainly made the 25th Clacton Airshow one to remember. The likes of the Red Arrows, Battle of Britain Memorial Flight and Typhoon displays are always natural highlights, but looking at Social Media and the various local media stories, it was the evening flying displays that really stole the show. I was lucky enough to witness the first evening displays at Bournemouth that involved aircraft fitting with pyrotechnics and experience the crowd (and organiser’s) reaction of wonderment of what they were seeing. For Clacton 2016 it was very much the same, if not more so. They were something of an experiment for Clacton, but hopefully the public reaction and business benefits (more people stayed on long into the evening making use of local restaurants and pubs) will mean they will return at future events.