Bournemouth Air Festival

Bournemouth Air Festival

The Bournemouth Air Festival is one of the biggest, brightest and most innovative seaside airshows on the calendar. It has achieved many firsts over the years including the Night Air dusk flying displays and some truly unique formations. This year, even without the Red Arrows, the festival attracted more than 800,000 visitors to the Dorset resort for four full days of very high quality international flying action as well the ever impressive array of supporting ground entertainment.

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

In a short time, Bournemouth Air Festival has become one of the crown jewels of the UK air display scene. The beautiful venue with its sandy beaches over-looking the dramatic white cliffs of the Isle of Wight to the east and the beautiful topography or Purbeck to the west is very important to the event’s success, but so it the atmosphere of the event itself. It is always a great deal of fun for everyone involved and that keeps people coming back year after year.

Another central pillar to success has been innovation which keeps the Festival feeling fresh each year. Perhaps Bournemouth’s most notable innovation was Night Air which brought together the first twilight pyrotechnic display acts. This has become a major highlight of the Festival and though other seaside airshows have taken the idea for their own events, no-one else does them on the scale of Bournemouth. Away from Night Air, other innovations and firsts are brought in each year with special formations plus themed ground events.

The flying displays take place along Bournemouth’s seafront each afternoon. This year, the first three days saw the main afternoon flying display divided into two sessions with a 30-45min break in the middle. This was to allow people to move around the seafront during the afternoon but also gave the flying display team some much needed flexibility during Saturday’s display when a short, but disruptive line of rain passed over Bournemouth. Items affected by the low visibility were able to be rescheduled later in the day allowing a full flying display to be presented.

Key to the success of the Air Festival has been the enthusiastic engagement from all three armed services. The Royal Navy, Army and Royal Air Force all contributed large exhibition ‘villages’ for the ground show with a variety of equipment on display and some new interactive exhibitions. This year, the Army and Royal Marines had their exhibitions on the beach while the Royal Air Force and Royal Navy were both found on the East Overcliff area. Out at sea, the Royal Navy continued its tradition of supporting the Air Festival with its ships with the supply and support ship RFA Lyme Bay and Frigate HMS Argyll anchored just outside the display area. It was a shame however the HMS Queen Elizabeth didn’t sail closer to Bournemouth during Friday’s display when she was seen on the far horizon!

2019 also saw the Royal Navy make a welcome return to the flying displays with the Black Cats Helicopter Display Team presenting a solo display from a Leonardo Wildcat HMA2. Lt Chris Rebbeck’s routine is very punchy highlighting the agility of the maritime helicopter and looked even better against the backdrop of Royal Navy ships.

The Tigers Army Parachute Display Team have supported the Air Festival since the first event and are always a crowd pleaser jumping onto the central beach area. They jumped on each of the three days they were scheduled to demonstrating various canopy work and displaying various flags during their drops. Saturday’s weather meant the team rescheduled their drop for the early part of the Night Air display when conditions were perfect for a full freefall display. Saturday evening also saw the Red Devils Army Parachute Display Team perform a full night jump. The sight of their team of jumpers appearing out of nowhere in the dark night sky wearing bright LEDs is quite spooky. As they open their canopies the start to ignite fireworks on their feet which illuminates their distinctive red, white and black canopies. The first jumpers were under special high speed canopies and made a stunning arrival into the arena ahead of the rest of the team under more traditional chutes.

With the Red Arrows on their North American tour, it was left to the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight and three of the Royal Air Force’s solo displays to take a starring role in the flying display. The BBMF displayed on all four days with Supermarine Spitfire IX MK356, Hawker Hurricane IIc PZ865 and Avro Lancaster B1 PA474. The Lancaster was particularly eye-catching during the flying flying low against the Purbeck Hills and the white cliffs of the Needles!

The Shorts Tucano T1 appeared over the first three days in the hands of Flt Lt Liam Matthews. It was the final time the Royal Air Forces basic fast jet training aircraft would appear at the Air Festival as the type is due to be retired at the end of the year. The team have had a busy season and have been supporting the Royal Air Force Benevolent Fund during its centenary year which is celebrated on the underside of one of the display aircraft.

The Boeing Chinook HC6A is always a popular addition to the Air Festival and Flt Lt Jon Turner’s display didn’t disappoint the crowd. Seeing such a large aircraft dance around the display area with the loadmaster waving from the side and rear doors is still one of the most impressive sights on the display circuit.

However, it was the long-awaited return of the Eurofighter Typhoon FGR4 to Bournemouth skies that was one of the high-points of the show. Flt Lt Jim Peterson’s rip-roaring displays captivated the crowd but it was his Night Air display on the Friday that stood out. The slightly quieter seafront, cooler conditions and the orange and purple hues of the clouds made for an outstanding and memorable setting for his display.  Jim said of his time at the Air Festival: “It’s been amazing – definitely in my top five air shows!

The Friday also boasted some international military participation with a very rare flying display appearance from a US Navy Boeing P-8A Poseidon maritime surveillance aircraft. The aircraft came from Commander Task Force 67 based at Sigonella on the Italian island of Sicily. It flew directly to and from its Mediterranean based for its two flypasts at Bournemouth which showed off the aircraft at high and low speed.

Another stand-out feature of the Air Festival flying programme this year were the number of warbirds on display with a large number of civilian operated aircraft joining the BBMF. Rolls Royce sponsored an appearance by the Biggin Hill Heritage Hangar’s Supermarine Spitfire IX TA805 flown by the engine manufacturer’s chief test pilot Phil O’Dell. Phil flew his lyrical solo display across all four days of the Air Festival as part of the daytime and evening displays. More Spitfires formed part of the epic displays from the Ultimate Fighters Team who also flew on every day of the Festival. The first three days saw their standard four-ship the Republic P-47D Thunderbolt ‘Nellie B’ leading Supermarine Spitfire Vc EE602 or Spitfire IXT ML407, Hispano HA-1112M1L Buchon ‘White 9’ and North American TF-51D Mustang ‘Contrary Mary,’ However for the final day ML407 stood in for the P-47D for a slightly different routine which saw the Mustang and Buchon perform a dogfight and a duo aerobatics routine from the Spitfires. Adding to the collection of powerful piston engine fighter was the Norwegian Spitfire Foundation’s Hawker Sea Fury T20. Pilot Eskil Andal’s routine really showed off the power and the speed of the re-engined Fury tearing up the blue skies at a tremendous rate!

Some lighter piston power came from the colourful selection of civilian teams gathered for the Air Festival. Rich Goodwin returned for a second year with his Pitts S-2S Special with his gravity defying, stomach churning routine of high powered gyroscopic aerobatics. Over the weekend, the higher cloud-base also allowed Rich to indulge a little sky-art painted large ‘smilies’ over Bournemouth prior to his display.

The Blades Aerobatic Team, like the Tigers, have been a part of the Air Festival from the very beginning. They are crowd favourites with their precision formation skills coupled with exciting breaks and cross-overs. This year however they along with the Ultimate Fighters were responsible for one of the most memorable Air Festival moments of all time when they flew a big eight-ship formation with the four warbirds on Sunday afternoon. Not only was it a spectacular sight and iconic moment for the 2019 season, the formation represented an incredible cross-section of display pilot experience with the likes of Andy Evans, Kirsty Murphy, Mike Ling, James McMillian , Jon Gowdy, Dave Puleston, Richard Grace and Andy Durston involved.

Another team getting in on the special formations were the FireFlies. Pilots Jon Gowdy, Nigel Reed and John Dodd shared the duties over the weekend which saw the team fly four daytime shows and three pyrotechnic displays during Night Air. It was during the Friday and Saturday Night Air performances that they flanked the Spitfire IX flown by Phil O’Dell for a special sunset flypast. Further pyrotechnic fun came from O’Brien’s Flying Circus which flew an unusual duo display of OTTO the Helicopter and a Piper J3 Cub. OTTO flown by Brendan O’Brien carries more fireworks than any other aircraft and together with the Cub piloted by Alex Garman created with the team call the ‘Skygasm’ – a burst of colourful and noise in the sky like no other!

Strong classic jet participations has become a hallmark of Bournemouth Air Festival. The pair of BAC Strikemasters flown by Mark Petrie and Ollie Suckling were very welcome returnees flying on all four days. At the weekend, the Norwegian Air Force Historical Squadron also continued their association with the Air Festival but with their brand new pairing of Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-15UTi and Lockheed/Canadair T-33 Silver Star which was great to see.

The star turn of the Air Festival however was the SAAB J-35J Draken from the Swedish Air Force Historic Flight. The CAA introduced a display validation system for the 2019 season which has paved the way for the Swedes to participate at some mainland UK seaside shows. They made their first 2019 appearance at Sunderland in late July with the two seat Sk35C Draken which had previously been seen at the Waddington airshow in 2014. Bournemouth however saw the first mainland UK flying display appearance by the flight’s single seat J-35J SE-DXR. Piloted by Lars Martinsson, the Draken had everyone’s attention with its dramatic double delta looks, the jets extraordinary conical flame of reheat and thunderous noise. Lars also enjoyed the attention he and his aircraft received over their stay in Bournemouth: “What a fantastic venue. I have loved displaying in Bournemouth and hope you’ll have us back next year!

The 2019 Bournemouth Air Festival had all the fun and atmosphere of previous editions of the event. The Red Arrows certainly were missed, but the line-up that the Air Festival team put together really was first class full of colour, noise and exciting flying. Many clearly thought the same with over 812,000 attending across the four days and all the seafront hotels buzzing with guests. Chris Saunders, BCP Tourism’s Head of Operations, said: “We’ve enjoyed yet another hugely successful event with impressive displays, good weather and, most importantly, thousands of smiling faces. Night Air is always popular, and this year was no exception with spectacular performances set against glorious sunsets creating must–see displays light up the skies. The festival is a great celebration of everything this stretch of coastline has to offer. With action on land, at sea and in the skies, we’re proving that Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole really is the coast with the most!”

The Bournemouth Air Festival will return in 2020 over the 20th-23rd August.