Festa al Cel, Lleida

Festa al Cel, Lleida

2017 saw a welcome return for Festa al Cel, one of Spain’s biggest airshows of the year. The event had a new home too moving from the coast to Lleida-Alguaire Airport, some 180km west of Barcelona. The event featured a four hour flying display on both days with Saturday’s show running past Sunset and Sunday’s show taking place during the middle of the day.

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

When we last visited Festa al Cel in 2011, it took place along the Barcelona coastline literally a short walk from the centre of the great Catalonian city centre. Since then it has had a difficult few years after it was decided the show infringed too much on the main airport’s airspace. It briefly moved north to Mataró for a couple of years before that town decided it could no longer stage the event in 2016.

However another seaside resort, Santa Susanna, offered to host the event and originally the 2017 event was to be held there. However, the increased security concerns around large events led to this venue being unable to satisfy the requirements of the Spanish civil protection agencies. That may have ended the event but the local Catalonian government saw Festa al Cel as an opportunity to promote Lleida and its relatively new airport.

Lleida-Alguaire Airport opened in 2010 as a regional airport serving the western part of Catalonia with both passenger and freight traffic. Unlike many other Spanish Airports it is not owned by AENA and is instead owned by the local government. The airport is not only a major link for Lleida as it looks to grow its tourist industry, but is also close enough to the Pyrenees providing new links to ski resorts in Spain and Andorra.

Lleida itself is one the oldest towns in Catalonia and has been the site of human settlement since the Bronze Age. The centre of the city is dominated by the Cathedral of St Mary of La Sau Vella which towers over the city. The City itself is home to its own university and is an important business centre.

Linking the Airport to Lleida is the brand new A-14 Highway (so new it’s not even on Google Maps yet!) which means the airport is only a very short journey from the centre of Lleida. The highway takes you into the hills that flank Lleida on its western edges before you reach a somewhat isolated plateau upon which the airport sits. There is little development around the airport apart from some agricultural buildings and the airport’s tall Control Tower dominates the landscape.

Like many new buildings within the region, the architecture of the Control Tower and main airport is very modern with distinctive flowing roofs that curve into the sky around the sides of the control tower with an eye-catching pattern of coloured stripes. Inside the building you’ll find a contemporary small airport terminal with four check-in desks plus a small café-bar area. At the moment, the airport has only a limited flight schedule, though does receive more seasonal traffic. Lleida-Alguaire’s 8,200ft runway has also been used as a training site for local airlines such as Vueling and is also home to its own small aero-club. Lleida is no stranger to public events having hosted the Lleida Air Challenge which was a festival of general and sporting aviation.

Despite the challenges of moving to a new venue, the Festa al Cel organisers were still able to attract a full international contingent of display acts from across Europe. The show took place over two days. Saturday saw a sunset style display which ran until after dark while Sunday’s display took place during the middle part of the day finishing a 3pm. The airport’s apron area provided the showground for the event allowing the public some good access to the display aircraft park with views of the aircraft been readied for the flying display. The late move to Lleida did however mean there was little time to organise too many ground attractions so these were limited to a few trade stalls from participating units plus a small catering area. While there was no formal static display, some of the support aircraft were lined up and visible to the public including a Spanish Navy Cessna Citation II and a French Air Force Airbus DS C295M.

Despite all the changes, it was good see some elements of the normal Festa al Cel show remain. Unique to the event are “Carrusels” by the Fundació Parc Aeronàutic de Catalunya (FPAC) and Aeroclub Barcelona-Sabadell (ACBS). These are essential flypasts by groups of aircraft which circle in front of the audience to highlight these organisers. FPAC’s contribution opened the show on Saturday and was a series of flypasts by two historic Spanish Air Force trainers, the CASA 1-131  Jungmann and the Beech T-34A Mentor. Both aircraft were absolutely pristine in their colourful Spanish Air Force training markings as they passed by. The Aeroclub Barcelona-Sabadell has always been an important part of the Festa al Cel. When the show was based at the coast, the Aeroclub hosted many of the crews as they operated out of Sabedell as well providing their own unique flypast. For Lleida, they sent three of their Cessna C172 & C182 training aircraft for a couple of flypasts.

As well as the flypasts, there other civilian displays representing different forms of sporting aviation. Sunday’s show saw an impressive three-ship display by the Barcelona Paramotors Group who showed off the agility of the canopies through a routine of formation and tail-chasing at very close quarters.

The United Kingdom was representing in the flying by the GliderFX Display Team with the MDM-1 Fox Glider. During Sunday’s display, Ian Gallacher flew a classic routine of glider aerobatics leaving delicate orange smoke trails against the deep blue sky. Saturday though saw Ian close the show with a spectacular twilight show with a plethora of pyrotechnic effects flying off the glider as it descended to the runway.

The international theme continued with the varied collection of military participants. The Polish Air Force made a very welcome appearance at the show with a solo display by a PZL PZL-130TC-II Orlik. The aircraft was drawn from the ranks of Team Orliky but the full team were unable to appear due to military exercises that were running in their homeland. Nevertheless, the solo display was a very pleasing sequence of flowing aerobatics.

The Belgian Air Force has been a loyal supporter of Festa al Cel for many years and it returned for the new event with the Lockheed Martin F-16AM Fighting Falcon. Pilot Cdt Tom ‘Gizmo’ de Moortel flew on both days with his thunderous display of solo aerobatics punctuated by plenty of flares which looked particularly spectacular during the sunset show on Saturday.

Saturday’s display also saw an appearance by La Patrouille de France with their eight Dassault Alpha Jet Es. In the clear blue skies, the team were able to perform their dynamic full routine painting the sky with their Blue, White and Red smoke trails. Of all the European teams, the Patrouille’s display is perhaps the most photogenic with all manner of sweeping passes for the crowd showing both the top surfaces and undersides of their aircraft – they are also superb smoke artists!

Credit must go to the Spanish Armed Services for the superb level of support they gave to the show. First to appear on both days was the Spanish Army’s flying service, the Fuerzas Aeromóviles del Ejército de Tierra (FAMET), with two of their battlefield helicopters. Their newest utility helicopters, the NH Industries NH90TTH Caimen gave quite a dramatic solo routine of low passes, hovering and a final diving bow to the crowd. The Caimen was joined by the Boeing CH-47D Chinook which had more than one role in the flying display. The Chinook first acted as the dropship for a contingent of the “Almogávares” VI Airborne Brigade known as BRIPAC. The Brigade are the Spanish Army’s airborne forces unit and gave a parachuting demonstration in full battle gear, tandem parachutists and even HALO (High Altitude Low Opening) equipment. After dropping BRIPAC, the Chinook return later in the afternoon for its own solo display which included hoisting an army truck as an underslung load.

The Spanish Navy, Armada Española, is celebrating 100 years of naval aviation in 2017 and brought a pair of McDonnell Douglas EAV-8B+ Harrier IIs to Lleida with one aircraft performing in the flying display. Spain and Italy are the last users of the Harrier in Europe and both field the aircraft as part of their naval forces. As such, even in their home countries they are rare participants at airshows so it was quite a coup for Festa al Cel to host a solo display. The display was perhaps more of a role demonstration with the aircraft demonstrated its speed and turning ability before some jet-borne slow flight and hovering. Such is the rarity of a Harrier display these days, the sight of one of the aircraft hovering in front of the crowd causing everyone to stop and watch in awe – even the other display crews!

The Spanish Air Force, Ejército del Aire, made the largest contribution to the show with three different displays. A favourite amongst the Spanish enthusiasts is the McDonnell Douglas EF-18M (C.15) Hornet solo demonstration from Ala 15. Unlike the other jets, the Hornet operated from its home base at Zaragoza Air Base but a nice touch by the squadron was to send both the display jet and spare for a opening flypast ahead of their main display. The Hornet is always a powerful airshow performer and with incredibly tight turns was able to extract plenty of vapour out of the dry air!

Also flying in from Zaragoza on the Sunday was an example of the Airbus A400M (T.23) Atlas from Ala 31 for a couple of flypasts. Like many other European forces, the Spanish Air Force has started to receive a fleet of these new generation airlifters as they update their air mobility fleets. Known as the T.23 in Spanish Service, the type has been making its first few airshow appearances this year.

The Spanish Air Force’s national aerobatic team, Patrulla Aguila, flew on both days and closed the event on the Sunday. Flying seven CASA C.101 Aviojets, the team are very much the show stars for the Spanish audience and return, the team really up their game with some very spectacular low formation passes plus some dramatic synchronised and solo manoeuvres. On Saturday, the low sun and vivid yellow and orange sunset skyscape made for a really impressive backdrop to their display and perfectly highlighted their smoke trails.

Considering all the difficulties the organisers have experienced, I have nothing but admiration for their commitment to the show and getting it together in such a short timescale. There may have been a few last minute cancellations, but it was great to see some very strong support not only from the home nation but also a relatively large number of international participants. It was a really pleasant and fun show too with some lovely variety and some very rare participants. We really hope the success of this inaugural event at Lleida-Alguaire Airport leads to many more events to come!