Airbourne, Eastbourne International Airshow

Airbourne, Eastbourne International Airshow

The East Sussex resort of Eastbourne hosts one of the UK’s biggest annual seafront airshows. The four days of Airbourne are always very popular and the unique topography of Eastbourne and the surrounding downland not only offer a superb backdrop but also a number of different views of the four day flying display. This year saw the Eastbourne debut of the Breitling Jet Team who flew on all days along with an exceptionally varied mix of other displays.

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

Since it began in 1993, Airbourne has always been a highly popular event. It has rapidly grown into the one of the UK’s biggest airshows attracting huge crowds to the East Sussex resort. Like other big seafront airshows, it has become much more than just the flying displays and side entertainment runs throughout each of the four days well in the evening. The entertainment has changed over the years and for 2019 there was live music at the Bandstand plus open-air cinema screenings following the daily flying displays.

It is fair to say the weather in 2018 was less than kind to Airbourne, and for a time it did seem like 2019 would see a repeat. It was a relief that as Airbourne progressed the weather proved to be much kinder that first throught though some strong winds did prove quite testing for the display participants at times. The daily flying displays vary from day to day with the length and content gradually growing into the weekend. On the Sunday, the event was brought to a close with an evening flying display and fireworks from the beach.

Airbourne is a major event for the UK military and the central showground area on the Western Lawns is transformed in a major military village. Though all three services are represented, it is the Royal Air Force that takes the lead with various trades on show and new for 2019 a virtual reality area allowing Airbourne’s visitors to experience the F-35B Lightning, In the air, nearly all of the RAF’s displays appeared during the weekend with solo displays from the Eurofighter Typhoon FGR4, Shorts Tucano T1, Grob Tutor T1 and Boeing Chinook HC6A. The Battle of Britain Memorial Flight completed the RAF contribution with not only the standard three-ship display of Avro Lancaster B1, Supermarine Spitfire Vb and Hawker Hurricane IIc but also a solo display from the flight’s Douglas Dakota III.

The British Army is traditionally represented at Airbourne by the Tigers Parachute Display Team from the Princess of Wales Royal Regiment. The Tigers are one of the most adaptable parachute display teams on the circuit displaying a wide range of parachuting skills and are always popular with the crowds. Despite the winds the team managed to display on three days of Airbourne landing into the water which was an incredible effort. Friday’s display was a little too dramatic for one member of the team who spiralled into bushes between the promenades. Amazingly he only suffered minor cuts and bruises and walked away though was taken to the local hospital for a check-up. It was a heart-stopping moment but handled very well by the team plus the St John’s Ambulance, emergency services and marshals.

Alongside the military displays were an impressive cast of civilian operated displays covering all forms of aviation. The Aerosuperbatics Wingwalkers have been supporting Airbourne for as long as I can remember and their efforts in the strong and turbulent winds on all four days was greatly appreciated by the crowds. The Blades Aerobatic Team are another act that are long standing supporters of Eastbourne appearing at every event since their formation in 2006. Even in the bumpy conditions the team of Andy Evans, Ben Murphy, Mike Ling and James McMillian put on a superb demonstration of precision aerobatic formation flying on all four days ably supported by team commentator Arthur Williams on the ground.

Some dramatic solo aerobatics came from Rich Goodwin in his Pitts S-2S Special who literally filled the Eastbourne with noise and smoke while further formation aerobatics came from the locally based Fireflies Aerobatic Team. For 2019, the team has some new pilots on charge with Nigel Reid and John Dodd supporting the founding pilots Jon Gowdy and Andy Durston. Eastbourne was the debut performance for the new pair of pilots who gave a really graceful display of formation and synchronised aerobatics over the weekend. The team also returned for evening flying on Sunday, this time with Jon Gowdy leading Nigel Reid for the team’s trademark pyrotechnic display.

However, it was historic displays that dominated the Eastbourne flying programme. As ever there were some superb warbird solo displays over the four days. Thursday and Friday saw John Dodd give a wonderful account of North American P-51D Mustang ‘Miss Helen.’ The Norwegian Spitfire Foundation’s Hawker Sea Fury T20 also put in a powerful performance during Sunday’s display with Stu Goldspink at the controls.

If there was a standout display from the weekend it was the Ultimate Fighters. The team flies four different warbirds; the Republic P-47D Thunderbolt, Supermarine Spitfire IXT, Hispano HA1112-M1L Buchon and North American TF-51D Mustang which are flown by Jon Gowdy, Dave Puleston, Richard Grace and Andy Durston respectively. They opened their display with some close formation aerobatics which alone was a stunning sight and sound. However, the second half of their display saw the formation split with the Spitfire and Buchon performing a short dogfight sequence before a graceful duo from the American warbirds. Their display is like a mini-warbird show combining all the best elements of warbird flying into a beautifully presented package. Unsurprisingly it proved very popular with event organisers and spectators alike.

Cold War Era military hardware was also very much in evidence. The Gazelle Squadron made their Eastbourne debut with a pair of Westland Gazelle HT2 and HT3 training helicopters. Classic jet action came from both North Wales Military Aviation Services and the Norwegian Air Force Historical Squadron. NWMAS presented displays from BAC Strikemaster Mk82s on all four days with solos on Thursday and Friday and pairs displays over the weekend.

The Norwegians this year presented some very new for the Eastbourne audience. They’ve added some very striking markings to their their Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-15UTi ‘Red 18’ for a new display alongside their Lockheed/Canadair T-33 Silver Star. They’ve dubbed the duo flown by Kenneth Aarkvisla and Martin Tesli ‘MiG-Alley’ recalling the early all-jet dogfights of the Korean War. As well as the simulated air combat, the pair also performing some elegant curving passes as a pair and rounded off their sequence with solo displays from both jets.

Eastbourne’s headline act was the Breitling Jet Team who were making their first appearance at the four-day festival. The six Aero-Vodochody L-39 Albatross jet team flew on all four days of Airbourne thanks to title-sponsors Ginsters. The Jet Team’s flowing sequence of beautiful flowing formation and synchronised aerobatics went down well with the crowds gathered on the beaches and promenades with the final burst of flares drawing huge rounds of applause.

While the Red Arrows were certainly missed from Airbourne this year, it was heartening to see Eastbourne Borough Council rise to the challenge of missing their biggest crowd puller. The likes of the Breitling Jet Team and Ultimate Fighters added some real star power to what is always one of the best, most unique and enjoyable airshows on the calendar.