Ordinarily, we would be approaching the height of the 2020 air display season. The RAF Cosford Air Show would have just taken place this weekend and we would be looking forward to the really big aviation events of the year in July. Sadly the restrictions in place to prevent the spread of COVID-19 mean it will still be some time before we can enjoy air displays once again. However this enforced time off does present opportunities to get your airshow fix in other ways.

Paul Johnson/Flightline UK reports. Photography and Video as credited.

May was undoubtedly a frustrating month for anyone involved in staging air displays and for those attending them. The weather was near perfect for weeks! June has seen the weather worsen slightly but I still miss shows as much as ever.

In lieu of live events, many organisers and organisations have been putting together ‘virtual’ events through online streaming. These started with some American based productions in April such as the ‘Socially Distant Airshow’ and here in the UK Planes TV have done sterling work each Saturday re-running some of their livestreams from recent years as well as a few more unique retrospective programmes. The Wings TV Channel have also joined in streaming some Flying Legends productions via their Facebook feed. There is also more to come from the virtual world with UK based charity Aerobility presenting its really impressive looking ‘Armchair Airshow’ next weekend plus the Royal International Air Tattoo presenting the ‘Virtual Air Tattoo’ with some further twists.

The ‘downtime’ has also provided the opportunity for photographers to look back at their own image collections and dig out some gems from the past. I’ve been looking back in the main at the 2003 and 2004 display seasons, the first at which I used a digital SLR camera. My own experience, camera technology and processing software have moved on greatly in the intervening years so subsequently it’s quite easy to lose a few hours reprocessing images. It certainly gets quite addictive with the likes of Italian T/F-104S Starfighters, the duo of Swiss Air Force Dassault Mirage IIIRS, French Air Force Mirage IVPs plus a whole host of classic Royal Air Force and Royal Navy types emerging from the archive. The warbird scene has also changed significantly over the same period so types like the F7F Tigercat, the Blenheim IV and Grumman Avenger flying at airshows in the early 2000s plus some really impressive big prop-liners. We’re putting many of these images online throughout the summer season as part of Flightline UK’s ‘RELOADED’ series on our Facebook, Twitter and Instagram feeds.

However, it is some of the nostalgic on-demand airshow films that have really caught my attention. In particular, Planes TV’s on demand service has a growing collection of programmes from the 1990’s onwards. The earlier productions are fascinating not only for rekindling memories from those earlier shows, but also for exploring venues and events that I never had the chance to attend. Once such event is the Alconbury Air Tattoo which the then Aviation Action covering in 1991 and again in 1993. It is a place that I’ve driven past often over the years and often wondered what it was like. Overshadowed by the much larger Mildenhall Air Fete, Alconbury still put on a large and very varied display and the based United States Air Force supported the event very well. The event was also able to attract the odd super-star act such as the Portuguese A-7 Corsair II solo covered in these productions. Also well worth watching is the Mildenhall Air Fete programmes from the early 1990’s. It was a completely different event to what we have now with no commercial support and a tremendous array of types on display.

Equally entertaining are the civilian shows. At Blackpool Airshow 1993 (then at the airport) the programme features the live recording of the show commentary and you can enjoy a classic airshow commentary from the late great John Blake as well as some fine flying by a number of teams and aircraft we don’t see today. Another voice of airshows past features in the 1996 recording of Duxford’s Classic Jet and Fighter Show with Jerry Mead. The show featured the Heathrow Airport 50th Anniversary Flypast as it made its way out of Stansted and routed through Duxford. Unfortunately for two participants, their navigation goes awry and they miss Duxford by several miles to the south much to the consternation of Jerry!

These recordings do however show just how much shows have changed in thirty years. The reduction in types and scale of military participation is all too clear to see. The MiIdenhall programmes certainly left me feeling nostalgic for the days when the USAF Bombers plus the likes of the C-5B Galaxy and KC-135E/R Stratotankers actually participated in flying displays. From a civilian and preservation side things have on balance got better since the 1990s. We certainly have more historic piston types flying that in the 1990s and I think they are much better presented these days with more accurate and authentic colour schemes.

Having the time to look back and reflect on airshows past has been one of the small benefits of recent weeks but I can’t wait to get back to some real airshows soon. In the meantime, stay safe and hopefully it won’t be too long before things are back to something approaching normal!