The Classic Jet scene in the UK has faced a challenging period recently but is starting to show signs of a resurgence again. North Weald Aerodrome is Essex is one of the centres of Classic jet operation being home to the Gnat Display Team as well as several other private operators. JetFest first appeared a year ago bringing together aircraft, operators and the public to celebrate Classic Jets in a relaxed atmosphere at the end of the season. The event returned this year to try and build on the success of the previous year.

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

The classic jet scene in the UK has faced mounting challenges for some time. Even without the sad events during 2015 at Oulton Park and Shoreham there had already been a decline in classic jet numbers in the UK. Ever increasing operating and insurances costs plus complying with regulation made it more and more difficult for private individuals and organisations involved with classic jets to keep going.

JetFest was conceived by a number of individuals involved with the operation of classic jets and historic turbine powered aircraft as a public event combined with a forum for all those involved with classic jet operation. JetFest is not an airshow, butis a major fly-in of classic jets, historic turbine powered helicopters as well as other historic aircraft. In 2018 it has been a free event, but for 2019 with plans for more attractions the event was ticketed.

‘The UK Jet Operators Forum’ is an important part of the event for the various operators involved. The Forum was conceived by Mark Petrie and Oliver Wheeldon and brings together the classic jet community to give them a more coherent and unified strong voice to be heard by the Civil Aviation Authority and other interested parties such as the All Party Parliamentary Group for General Aviation. It was first held as part of a British Air Display Association event but has subsequently found its own place as part of the JetFest weekend. The forum does not just concentrate on air display issues, but also all of the other operational and regulatory issues that affect operators, pilots and engineering organisations.

The Forum attendees are encouraged to fly-in to North Weald for the weekend to join the based fleet of classic jets and turbine powered types to create the backbone of the public JetFest event. For 2019, other aircraft were also invited to fly-in to form ‘VintageFest’, ‘BullFest’ for Scottish Aviation Bulldogs and ‘ChipFest’ for de Havilland Chipmunks. Other North Weald residents also took part in the event including Aero Legends and the ‘Save the Skymaster’ organisation. Alongside the aircraft there were a number of trade stalls relating to various aviation activities including the likes of Aerobility and various restoration projects, As well as the complete aircraft, a number of cockpit sections was also on show.

While there were no flying displays at the event, it had been hoped that a number of operators would fly in and out of North Weald during the event and perhaps carry out some local flying. The final published list of participants did look really impressive. However, the weather over JetFest weekend was less than kind with blustery winds and some rain which forced many fly-in cancellations plus restricted any plans for local flights. In my opinion, the pre-event ‘marketing’ rather over-hyped the flying that would take place and perhaps contributed to what was a rather disappointed reaction of many visitors on various social media who properly expected slightly more ‘action.’ However it should always be remembered that any flight should only take place if absolutely safe to do so. Another annoyance was that some advertised non-flying activities didn’t take place and the North Weald based Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-17 (which was advertised as a participant) which is not often seen in public was parked on the far side of the airfield and was unable to be towed across.

Frustrations aside, there still was an impressive line-up of classic jets on display including multiple examples of BAC Jet Provost T3s and Jet Provost T5s, all of the Gnat Display Team’s fleet, an Aero L-29 Delphin, the North Weald based Hawker Hunter T8c plus the pair of BAC Strikemaster Mk82s from North Wales Military Air Services. The star of the Gnat Display Team’s fleet is the Folland Gnat F1 G-SLYR which is currently being prepared for flight. Sadly it wasn’t able to perform a taxy run as it did in 2018 but the aircraft did look resplendent in its more complete Indian Air Force markings. One of the Gnat T1s, G-RORI did fly to close Saturday’s aerial activity performing a few circuits on its return from a local sortie. Saturday also saw local flying from the JetEx operated BAC Jet Provost T3 and also the North Weald based Bell UH-1H Iroquois G-HUEY.

Aero Legends now own the area formally known as ‘The Squadron’ at North Weald and plan to use the Essex airfield as a base for its various flying experience it offers with its fleet of vintage aircraft. They had their Supermarine Spitfire IXT NH431 on display outside their area along with a Boeing PT-17 Kaydet, de Havilland DH82a Tiger Moth and Douglas C-47A Skytrain ‘Drag ‘em oot.’ Plane Sailing’s Consolidated PBY-5A Catalina also made the short hop down from its base at Duxford to appear in the showground. A further heavy on show was the Douglas C-54 Skymaster which was open to the public and receiving some detailing work at the centre of the showground. On Saturday at least, a few lighter types did manage to fly-in. Together with a small gaggle of Vans RVs and other general aviation types were a pair of Scottish Aviation Bulldog T1s. Sadly no examples of the Chipmunk made it due to the weather conditions.

On the Saturday at least, the star of the event was the tiger schemed Westland Puma HC2 from No 230 Squadron based at RAF Benson. The aircraft was open for cabin tours all day and departed during the late afternoon allowing spectators a good chance to see its start-up sequence at close quarters. There were also frequents sorties being launch from the National Police Air Services and Air Ambulance bases throughout the day.

JetFest 2019 had its faults and some really bad luck with the weather which was disappointing for all concerned. However, we hope the organisers are not put off as there is certainly a space for such an event on the calendar. Currently there is no other event in the UK focused purely on classic jets and similar aircraft of that era. JetFest 2019 did have many of the core elements required to develop such an event and we hope to see it back in the future!