Southport Airshow

Southport Airshow

The annual Southport Airshow is unique amongst UK shows. Though effectively a seaside airshow, the event is held during the lowest tides of the year meaning the display site takes place over the extensive sands of Southport beach with the Irish Sea almost completely out of site. This year the show fell close to the end of the UK display season with many acts making the final public appearances of the year.

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

In many ways, Southport is a classic seaside airshow aimed at supporting the local businesses reliant on tourism by boosting the numbers of visitors to the town over the weekend. However, what sets it apart from many other events is the location for the show which also has a bearing on the timing of the event. Unlike other shows, Southport rarely sticks a regular calendar date as the timing of the evet is dictated by when very low tides occur. This allows the event to be staged on the huge area of sands the lie off Southport’s seafront. The beach area forms not only part of the showground but also a parking area for the events visitors. Southport Airshow is also the only UK seaside airshow that charges an (a very modest) admission fee to the showground which all goes to help keep the event running.

Like other similar shows, Southport has added an evening flying display line-up to its weekend activities. Taking place on the Friday night, Southport’s opening displays this year included three of the Royal Air Force displays plus two civilian performers. With the crowd looking west, the flying is set against the setting sun over the Irish Sea. Combine that with an imposing cloudscape and you have just about one of the most dramatic backdrops for any flying display!

The sandy display area also lends itself very well to some creativity from some of the events support staff. The display-lines are marked by harrowing the sand by tractor but they often add other messages into the sand. Over the past few years “Mind the Pier” and “It’s coming Home” (In reference to the 2018 Football World Cup) have appeared in the sand. This year the sand celebrated the participation of two of the Royal Air Force participants at the show. ‘It’s #PhoonTime’ and ‘#BringTheNoise’ marked the return to Southport of the Eurofighter Typhoon FGR4 display. Flt Lt Jim Peterson flew during all three displays but his Friday night appearance was just about the most memorable and menacing Typhoon display of the year. Some very dark clouds rolled in off the sea as Jim started his display forcing a flat display, but in turn those clouds meant the reheat appeared really bright against the threating clouds which were interspersed with golden islands of light.

‘Farewell Tucano’ was another message harrowed into the sand. Southport was the last weekend of public displays ever by the Shorts Tucano T1 of 72(R) Squadron. It has been great to see the squadron mount a final hurrah for the RAF’s Basic Fest Jet Training aircraft which will be retired in October. Flt Lt Liam Matthews and his small team have taken the Tucano around the UK and Ireland during the 2019 presenting a very polished routine of aerobatics at venues large and small. In part to celebrate the aircraft’s final display weekend and also the Royal Air Force Benevolent Fund which the team supported throughout the season, Saturday saw a special formation with the Tucano leading the four Extra 300LPs of the Blades Aerobatic Team. For the Blades too, Southport marked an end of an era as the show was their last using the Extra 300. Over the winter the team will convert to the Gamebird GB1, a brand new two seat aerobatic aircraft designed by Phillip Steinbach who was behind the incredible Sbach/XtremeAir XA41/42 family of aerobatic aircraft.

Completing the line-up of Royal Air Force displays were the Grob Tutor T1 and the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight. For Flt Lt Neil Owczarkowski, Southport was his final display weekend of the season. Neil’s display is something very different from previous Tutor displays with a very tight and punchy aerobatic routine with very few gaps between aerobatic figures. The BBMF appeared on all three days with the Douglas Dakota III leading the Supermarine Spitfire PRXIX PM631 and Hawker Hurricane IIc LF363.

The Royal Navy have traditionally been very good supporters of Southport. They returned this year with the solo Leonardo Wildcat HMA2 from the Black Cats Helicopter Display Team which was supported by some ground pyrotechnics. Completing the UK military line-up were the Tigers Army Parachute Display Team from the Princess of Wales Royal Regiment. On Saturday the team jumped with a series of flags including their very impressive 2000 square foot regimental flag!

The Friday evening flying display concluded with two civilian pyrotechnic displays. The FireFlies Aerobatic Team have had a very busy season supporting many of the seaside airshows with their beautiful twilight sequence. Their new white, blue and silver colour scheme really stood out in the twilight as it was illuminated by the sunset and the trail of sparks from their wingtips. Friday was brought to an explosive conclusion by Brendan O’Brien in OTTO the Helicopter. OTTO’s evening antics have to be seen to be believed with over a 1000 different pyrotechnic effects being fired off the little helicopter in a very short space of time. It is a beautiful cacophony of colour and noise. Both the FireFlies and OTTO also performed daytime shows over the weekend too, though OTTO wasn;t quite finished with his fireworks!

Rich Goodwin debuted his new Pitts S-2S Special G-JPIT. This striking little blue biplane very different animal to his more familiar mount with different wings and in the future will be fitted with two small jet engines. Like his more familiar Red, White and Blue mount G-EWIZ, G-JPIT produces some very impressive smoke! More colourful biplanes and smoke came from the Aerosuperbatics Wingwalkers with one of their traditional orange and white Boeing Stearman joined by a Red, White and Blue example.

The solo civilian warbird in the display was Fighter Aviation Engineering Ltd’s Republic P-47D Thunderbolt ‘Nellie-B.’ The P-47D has been a very popular addition to the UK display circuit and pilot Jon Gowdy had a busy weekend in the mighty ‘Jug’ supporting not only Southport, but also the Victory Show at Cosby.

Much of Southport’s flying display centred on Cold War heritage. Historic rotary flying came from the Gazelle Squadron flying a pair of Westland Gazelle HT2/3s. The team have been at the centre of the growth in historic helicopter scene which is certainly adding a number of interesting and colourful aircraft to the airshow circuit.

A feature of many past Southport Airshows has been role demos and ground pyrotechnics. This tradition was continued during the display by Mark Petrie and Ollie Suckling in the pair of BAC Strikemasters which concluded their display with some strafing and bombing runs.

Adding to the Classic jet line-up were some international participants. The Lockheed/Canadair T-33 Silver Star flown by Martin ‘Tintin’ Tesli has become a familiar shape at UK shows this summer thanks to the extraordinary support of the Norwegian Air Force Historical Squadron. Though this aircraft first appeared at Duxford in 2012 very briefly, 2019 has marked the aircraft’s first full display season and it has been a welcome addition to the classic jet scene.

However, the highlight of the Southport line-up was the Swedish Air Force Historic Flight which displayed two unusual and potent jets. The small and tubby SAAB J29F Tunnan is always a head-turner with a very impressive turn of speed for a jet which was designed in the 1950s. Ole Noren’s display at Southport was very energetic and fast-paced with the little jet covering a great deal of airspace.

Joining the Tunnan was the latest jet to join the flight, the SAAB Sk37E Viggen flown by Stellan Andersson. This is the two seat conversion training variant of perhaps SAAB’s most famous jet fighter design. Unlike the Flight’s other single-seat Viggen, this example wears the iconic green, brown and black splinter style camouflage that many Swedish Air Force aircraft wore during the 1980’s and 1990’s. The Viggen is a big imposing fighter and Stellan’s smooth display left the crowd in no doubt about its thunderous power

Southport enjoyed some really good weather for airshow weekend and that was reflected with a large audience on both days despite the lack of Red Arrows. The displays on all three days were thoroughly entertaining (even if Friday night was cold and damp for a time) and some rare aircraft and interesting mixed formations were very memorable. It has been heartening to see many of the UK’s seaside airshows go the extra mile to bring in some very attractive and enjoyable flying displays from across Europe this year and we hope that theme continues for future years.