Blackbushe Festival of Flight

Blackbushe Festival of Flight

2017 marks the 75th Anniversary of Blackbushe Airport on the Surrey-Hampshire Border. The airfield has a very interesting history which covers both military and civilian ownership. Over the first weekend in July, the Airport alongside partners from the companies and charities based on the airfield organised the Festival of Flight to celebrate the airfield’s anniversary which brought together live music, classic cars and of course aircraft.

Paul Johnson/Flightline UK reports. All photography by the author.

In 1942, RAF Hartford Bridge opened initially as a medium bomber base equipped with hard runways. Two years later, to avoid confusion with another RAF base in the North of England, the name of the airfield was changed to Blackbushe, the name of a local farm. Post war saw the airfield developed into an Airport serving London. It was common to see some major airlines use Blackbushe when Heathrow was fogged in. The US Navy also had their only UK Land base at Blackbushe during the early Cold War with a hangar situated in what is now Yateley Common.  From the 1960’s, Blackbushe developed into general aviation hub thanks to the likes of Doug Arnold. Today, it used by flying schools and business aviation companies.

To mark the anniversary, the airport hosted a two day “Festival of Flight” which saw a mix of aviation and ground based entertainment. As well as marking the airport’s anniversary, it was also a fund raiser for three very deserving charities, Help for Heroes, the Lt Dougie Dalzell Memorial Trust and Aerobility. The latter are based at Blackbushe and do incredible work in making aviation accessible to all abilities as tool to improve lives.

It had been hoped the event would host a small flying display each day of predominantly lighter types that could fit their displays into a very tight display area. Organising a flying display is a difficult task, and Blackbushe with its limited showground area and surrounding built-up areas was particularly challenging. For example, the car parking for the event would have been north of the main runway under the intended display area and would have had to have been kept clear during all display flights. The Surrounding area too is almost entirely common land and open to the gathering of “secondary crowds” but plans to cope with all challenges had been worked on in the run up to the event. Sadly, due to a number of factors and late changes, this did not happen as time ran out to get permissions through the necessary process with the Civil Aviation Authority.

With the late decision over the flying display, the Festival of Flight organisers decided to carry on with the event. Instead of a flying display, the participating aircraft would either just be on static display, or fly the normal Blackbushe circuit within standard rules of the air. This was a massive disappointment to all involved when it was announced a few days before the event took place. It made the £25 ticket price look very steep and while there have been a few comments post event, it does not seem to have upset too many at the time of writing. In fairness to the event organisers, they did manage to organise a draw for all adult ticket holders to win a flight in a two seat Spitfire as well as other prizes at short notice to mitigate the ticket price somewhat, and there was a lot to see and do on the ground.

On the ground, there was live music and dancing on a stage throughout the day. There was also a large display of modern military vehicles from the Royal Engineers who are based a stone’s throw from Blackbushe at Gibraltar Barracks. Troops from the Royal Engineers also were on hand as event stewards throughout the weekend.  There were also classic cars and static aero engines runs. Aerobility also used their great links with British Airways to add a few different ground shows including a RB211 Turbofan engine from a BA Boeing 747, the travelling BA Flight Simulator and the chance to use an airliner life-vest! The centrepiece of the ground events was however  the ‘History Hub’ which contained an impressive exhibition of photos and memories of Blackbushe Airport from its military inception right through to the modern day incarnation.

With the planned flying display unable to happen, a few of the planned aircraft were also withdrawn. However, it did mean that the audience could see some aircraft that previously couldn’t fly during the display at least take off, land and fly circuits. Saturday also had the added bonus of flypasts from the Royal Air Force Aerobatic Team, the Red Arrows.

There were a wide range of civilian aircraft on show including the likes of the Cirrus CR22T , Czech SportCruiser, Piper Super Cub, Yakovlev Yak-52, Rotorsport Calidus and a Cessna Citation Mustang from Blackbushe based Wijet. There were also a pair of Pitts Specials including a S-1S ‘Ultimate Pitts from Adrian Plant & Peter Roberts plus Rick Goodwin’s familiar S-2S ‘Muscle Biplane.” The modern day Royal Air Force was on hand too with a Grob Tutor T1 from Southampton University Air Squadron not only promoting RAF careers, but also the Air Cadets.

Naturally Aerobility had an impressive showing on the ground showing off their latest Tecnam P2002-JF G-UCAN sitting proudly in front of their offices and flight simulator building. They also brought in some of the display teams that support them with a pair of Extra 300LPs from the Blades Aerobatic Team and the MDM-1 Fox Glider from the GliderFX Display Team.

One item unaffected by the lack of flying display permissions was a parachute drop by the CRWSADERS Parachute Display Team jumping from an Antonov An-2. The four jumpers put on a impressive show of loose stack canopy work jumping from just over 2000ft due to airspace restrictions above Blackbushe.

The collection of historic aircraft gathered for the Festival was most impressive with everything from 1930’s sports aircraft through to jet trainers. Saturday saw an appearance by the Biggin Hill based Percival Vega Gull. The Lasham Based Gliding Heritage Centre also participated on the ground with a trio of gliders including the Yorkshire Sailplanes YS52 Sovereign and SZD Foke 4.

There were plenty of warbirds involved too. Fly Lt Antony Parkinson gave a series of flypasts in Hawker Hurricane IIc PZ865 on Saturday early in the day. Saturday also saw Peter Teichman fly-in in his North American P-51D MustangTall in the Saddle’ joining the Boultbee Supermarine Spitfire IX RR232 piloted by John Dodd. Sunday saw some different aircraft fly-in including Peter Teichman returning in his Spitfire PRXI and Will Greenwood in his Yakovlev Yak-3M. On the ground throughout the weekend were the Biggin Hill Heritage Hangar’s Hawker Sea Hurricane X AE997 and the Norwegian Spitfire Foundation’s North American P-51D Mustang. Transport types were not left out considering Blackbushe’s history and these include the Aces high Douglas C-47A Skytrain, the BAE Systems Heritage Flight’s Avro C19 Anson and Nick Houghton’s Beech C-45 Expeditor.

Perhaps the star of the Festival was the Consolidated PBY-5A Catalina from Plane Sailing. The amphibian dominated the ramp space where visitors entered the showground and was easily the most impressive aircraft when it departed and arrived from local flights.

Cold War classics were also much in evidence. Terry Martin made a welcome return to the avation circuit with his Westland Wasp HAS1. Last year, Terry was force to make a forced landing in a field following a technical problem during a flight and his Wasp has been fully repaired at North Weld over the winter. It looks as immaculate as ever and will hopefully be seen at many more events throughout the summer. The Wasp’s Army equivalent, the Westland Scout AH1, was also present thanks to the Army Historic Aircraft Flight Trust which also presented their de Havilland Canada Beaver AL1.

Completing the classic rotary line-up were a pair of Westland Gazelle HT2 and Gazelle HT3 from the Gazelle Squadron. The two helicopters were in the training colours of the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force and proved to be a popular attraction as the squadron opened the aircraft cockpits for visitors.

The modern day Grob Tutor was joined by some historic RAF training aircraft. These included the Scottish Aviation Bulldog T1 and BAC Jet Provost T5. A further Jet Provost T3 flew into the Festival on the Saturday piloted by Ollie Suckling from North Weald adding some jet noise to the afternoons proceedings.

It was not the event that had been planned or advertised which was clearly a disappointment for all involved and those visiting. However, it was still an enjoyable day in fine weather. Unlike a lot of events it had a very welcoming and laid-back atmosphere with some great aircraft and some unusual and interesting ground attractions.