20th Abingdon Air & Country Show

20th Abingdon Air & Country Show

The Abingdon Air and Country Show reached a milestone in 2019 with its 20th event. Entirely run by volunteers, the show has changed throughout its history from a relatively small local fayre into one of Oxfordshire’s biggest community events. Over those years, the event has raised thousands for local charities despite ever rising costs and all sorts of challenges thrown up by various different organisations and of course the weather.

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

‘Abingdon Fayre’ was first run in 2000 and barely broke even. The show however returned in 2001 and is estimated to have cost about £4000 to organise as the aviation content of the event was much smaller. By 2018, the show had grown significantly and even moved around the airfield. The cost of organising the 2018 show was £80,000 with around £27,000 spent on the aviation element alone.

The show has a very loyal following helped greatly by the fact it is one of the first major public events of the year. Though the aviation part of the event is perhaps the biggest draw, the event has always remained true to its ‘Country Fayre’ root with traditional arena displays, vintage and classic cars, steam engines and traders.

From very small beginning, the aviation element at Abingdon has gone through some major changes. From the small fly-in and handful of flying displays at the first few events, the event has grown significantly through the years. The fly-in has always featured a wide range of aircraft from historic and general aviation backgrounds. The military too have been involved with static displays from local Royal Air Force stations at Benson and Brize Norton. The likes of the Merlin HC3 and Puma HC1/2 were once regular sights at Abingdon but sadly operational demands have somewhat restricted Benson’s involvement more recently. Perhaps one of Abingdon’s biggest coups was to attract a 99 Sqn Boeing C-17A Globemaster for static display. It was not just the UK military taking part either with visits from the Polish Navy, Royal Netherlands Air Force and Belgian Air Component.

The flying display too has always been a varied mix of civilian, historic and military displays. Highlights have included an appearance by Avro Vulcan XH558, the SEPECAT Jaguar GR3 solo display plus the Synchro75 display from the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight and a 29(R) Squadron Typhoon FGR4. Perhaps the most notable highlight for organiser Neil Porter was the Lockheed Martin F-16AM Fighting Falcon solo display from the Royal Netherlands Air Force. The show has had to contend with all sorts of challenges with its flying display including the vagaries of the British weather. Despite being held on MoD property, for most of the last twenty years Abingdon’s flying display was run under Civil Aviation Authority regulations but changed in 2016 to come under Military Aviation Authority regulations. One year, the MoD even ruled out use of Abingdon’s runway just days before the event! The development of display regulations brought about perhaps the most dramatic change to the event when in 2017 it moved across the airfield to the barracks side so the flying display could avoid taking place over the populated area of the Army Barracks.

Those flying displays have been overseen by Flying Dipslay Director John Davis. John has long been a major part of the UK Air Display community overseeing many major civilian airshows including Farnborough. Abingdon 2019 was to be his final display before retirement and to mark the occasion he was presented with a beautiful wooden model of a Hawker Hunter by Paaul Beaver of Abingdon’s Flying Control Committee.

For the 20th event, the weather was at least fairly kind with dry conditions if a little cool and grey. The event returned to its traditional May Day bank holiday slot opening the UK air display season alongside the Shuttleworth’s Collection’s Season Premiere at Old Warden. The fair weather did mean that a good number of fly-in aircraft joined the show. Making a welcome return was a Lockheed Marin C-130J Hercules C4 from 47 Sqn based at nearby RAF Brize Norton. Hercules aircraft have become a regular sight at Abingdon as the airfield is used for training flights and exercises. The aircraft was as always a popular attraction with the public offering cabin walk-throughs during the event. Another element of Brize Norton’s air mobility mission was also in evidence in the air as a Airbus DS A330MMRTT Voyager KC2 made a wide circuit to overfly the showground during the morning.

The fly-in saw some lovely contributions from the vintage and general aviation world. Biggin Hill based Shipping and Airlines made a sterling effort to support the show with a cavalcade of classic types which included the de Havilland Dragonfly, de Havilland Hornet Moth, Miles Falcon, Civilian Coupe and Piper L4 Grasshopper. Another highlight of the historic line-up was Hurricane Heritage’s Hawker Hurricane I R4118 which was making a welcome return to Abingdon. Historic helicopters have long been a feature of Abingdon and this year saw examples of Westland Gazelle, Sud-Aviation Alouette II and Westland Wasp join the static display.

The flying display did see last minute changes. While being held on Ministry of Defence line does mean the show avoids quite a few of the CAA charges, it doesn’t mean they avoid other bureaucratic challenges. This year a number of the advertised acts could not satisfy new MoD insurance requirements which have increased the minimum liability carried by any civilian aircraft carrying out display activities over MoD land. It is an issue that affects a number of the lighter display aircraft and is perhaps most damaging to the Families Day events which rely on civilian participation. However, despite the insurance difficulties the flying display was still a very full and entertaining one.

The display was opening by a series of flypasts by the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight’s Supermarine Spitfire XVI TE331 flown by Flt Lt Andy Preece. Further Royal Air Force participation came from the newly reformed RAF Tucano Display Team. The Shorts Tucano T1 is in its final year of service and credit must go to 72(R) Squadron for putting the type back on the display circuit to say farewell. Since the Tucano entered service in the 1990s it has been a popular airshow performer with some crisp aerobatic routines. Flt Lt Liam Matthew’s display continues that fine tradition for the aircraft’s final display season before basic fast jet training is taken over by the Texan at RAF Valley.

Abingdon 2019 attracted an eclectic selection of civilian flying displays with several returning favourites alongside some brand new displays. The Renegades Parachute Display Team provided a welcome break from powered aircraft action dropping in from an Antonov An-2 towards the start of the flying programme. Rich Goodwin and his Pitts S-2S Special also returned bringing back his jaw-dropping routine alongside an Audi R8 supercar on Abingdon’s runway. Rich also brought in his new Pitts G-JPIT which is currently undergoing its test programme which was on show in the showground. The Aerosuperbatics Wingwalkers are always crowd favourites and appeared towards the end of the flying display. Since they last visited the show they have rebranded and Abingdon marked their first display of the year and a first public display by wing-walker Gemma. A brand new display for Abingdon was that given by Paul Freeland in his SIAI-Marchetti SF260. Paul made a series a elegant flypasts in the sleek two touring and training aircraft showing off its stylish Italian lines.

There were also a number of historical gems in the flying. Richard Ellingworth flew his Fairchild Argus for the first time at Abingdon having previous been a fly-in participant at the event. The Army Co-operation theme was continued by the Historic Army Aircraft Flight. It was a significant day for the flight as Abingdon marked the first time they had performed a full four-ship routine since the aircraft have been civilian registered. Their display saw the de Havilland Canada Beaver AL1 and Taylorcraft Auster AOP9 represent fixed wing army aviation while the Agusta/Bell Sioux AH1 and Westland Scout AH1 demonstrated the rotary side. In the hands of Boeing test pilot Rich Pillans, the Sioux in particularly gave a punchy account of itself. It was also good to see the Gazelle Squadron back at Abingdon with a two-ship routine from their Westland Gazelle HT2 and HT3 aircraft.

The most eye-catching historic aircraft for enthusiasts were the North American NA-64 Yale ‘3349’. The aircraft has been a long-term resident at Duxford and was often seen in the hangars but was never seen flying under previous ownership. Now under new ownership, the aircraft has been made available for flying displays and made it public display debut at Abingdon. Developed before the famous T-6 Texan or Harvard, the Yale is a very similar shape in the sky. However, it has a fixed undercarriage and is powered by the earlier and slightly less power Wright Whirlwind radial engine.

Three powerful warbird displays provided the climax to the flying display. Heading the parade of heavy metal was Will Greenwood display his Yakovlev Yak-3M. The Yak-3 proved to be a popular type with the Soviet Air Force on the eastern front and was more than a match for the Luftwaffe. It was lightweight, agile and very fast and Will showed off these qualities to great effect under the grey skies. Following the Yak was Fighter Aviation Engineering’s mighty Republic P-47D Thunderbolt ‘Nellie-B’ piloted by Richard Grace. The P-47 has an incredible presence in the sky, particularly fully wound-up on its initial run-in for display. Richard gave a superb account of the heavy fighter showing off the power and enormous profile of the ‘Jug.’ Closing the flying was another famous American fighter, the North American P-51D Mustang ‘Miss Helen.’ Now owned by Robert Tyrell, Miss Helen has become a popular addition to the display circuit appearing at events up and down the country. John Dodd’s fine solo display provided the perfect end to the display against laden skies.

It was a great sad at Abingdon nut perhaps tinged with a little sadness at the news this was likely to be last full air display at the event. The Abingdon Air and Country Show still has a bright future aviation wise as Neil Porter’s team plan to extend and enhance the fly-in which will be on a much grander scale. Without having to work to the confines or costs of a display area will certain ease event planning and free up funds to develop the event and keep it sustainable. As well as fly-in aircraft, there is scope to have more pleasure flying in historic aircraft and perhaps some helicopter displays. We look forward to seeing the results.