The return of the Bournemouth Air Festival was another significant moment for the UK air display community. It was the first large seaside airshow to return in full form attracting an audience of 800,000 over four days. As such it boasted some superb support from the UK armed services with large ground exhibitions supporting the flying displays. It was however not without incident with one of the AeroSuperBatics Wingwalkers’ Boeing Stearman performing a controlled ditching into Poole Harbour during the Saturday, fortunately without serious injury to the pilot and wingwalker.
Paul Johnson/Flightline UK reports. All photography by the author.
The return of Bournemouth is something I’ve been looking forward to all season. Bournemouth is always a superb destination for a short break and the Air Festival only enhances that with some great flying and ground entertainment. For the 2021 tourist season, Bournemouth Christchurch and Poole Council (BCP) has been very proactive with schemes to reboot its tourism industry with the ‘Festival Coast Live’ project at its heart. Festival Coast Live culminated with the Air Festival which on its own is estimated to be worth up-to £30 million to the local economy each year and this year extended the summer season into the first week of school term.
New for 2021 was a large STEM exhibition on the East Overcliff featuring a number of participants from the Aerospace and Engineering industry. The STEM exhibition complimented the usual villages hosted by the Royal Navy, British Army and Royal Air Force across the huge festival site which stretches from Bournemouth to Boscombe Pier. Other Air Festival traditions included the Royal Marines performing the ‘Beating the Retreat’ and huge fireworks displays from Bournemouth Pier. Another unique part of the Air Festival was the Sunseeker sail-past on the Saturday. Sunseeker are a local company and celebrated their history gathering 50 of their vessels together from across their history for the parade down Bournemouth beach.
The flying perhaps unsurprisingly was a somewhat smaller than usual due to various factors. Though there was superb support from the armed services on all four days, the civilian acts were slightly down on previous years and for the most part the planned flying displays were very similar over each of the four days and three nights. This was different than previous years where the displays built up over the Thursday and Friday to much larger displays over the weekend. That build-up and anticipation of seeing something different the next day was certainly something that I missed this year. Another blow was the late cancellation of the Belgian Air Force’s A109 Display which would have been a superb addition to the Night Air display – hopefully they will be able to return in future years.
Saturday’s flying was also interrupted following one of the AeroSuperBatics Wingwalkers’ Boeing Stearmans developed technical issues during their display. The team immediately terminated their display but the lead aircraft was unable to maintain altitude and eventually was forced to ditch in Poole Harbour. It was a great relief to hear that both pilot Dave Barrell and wingwalker Kirsten Pobjoy was able to escape their stricken aircraft with just minor injuries and were quickly picked up by a local family who were sailing close-by in their small boat. The incident was met by a quick response from the Coastguard, RNLI and emergency services. However, flying was unable to resume for the rest of the day as much of the Air Festival organisation and supporting agencies were kept busy in response to the incident.
The AeroSuperBatics Wingwalkers had opened the Air Festival on the Thursday and spearheaded a small but select group of civilian airshow favourites. These included The Blades who have performed at every Air Festival, Rich Goodwin and his incredible aerobatic antics in Pitts S-2S Special G-JPIT plus Rod Dean flying the Slingsby Firefly. The Fireflies Aerobatic Team also returned performing both daytime and Night Air displays. The team have become firm Air Festival favourites particularly with their spectacular pyrotechnic shows as part of Night Air and for 2021 Jon Gowdy, Andy Durston, Nigel Ried and John Dodd shared the honours of flying the pair of RV4s over the four days.
While there were no classic jets in the display, there was some really good warbird displays. The Rolls Royce Heritage Flight contributed both its beautiful Supermarine Spitfire PRXIX and North American P-51D Mustang over the four days. But perhaps the standout display of the Air Festival was once again the Ultimate Fighters team flying the Republic P-47D Thunderbolt ‘Nellie-B’, North American TF-51D Mustang ‘Contrary Mary’, Supermarine Spitfire Vc EE602 and Hispano HA1112-M1L Buchon ‘White 9.’ On the Friday, the team also reprised their joint formation with fellow Sywell residents, The Blades, last seen on the closing day of the Air Festival in 2019.
All three armed services were represented in the flying displays on all four days. The Tigers Army Freefall Parachute Display Team have been long-time supporters of the Air Festival and in 2021 performed during the daytime and Night Air displays. The latter saw the team don glow packs and pyrotechnics for eye-catching arrivals into the beachfront arena. The Royal Navy were represented by the solo Leonardo Wildcat HMA2 piloted by Lt Ryan Wotton. The lack of airshows has meant the team have had quite a long wait for their display season to begin with Bournemouth being just one of a handful of full public appearances in 2021.
The Royal Air Force made the biggest contribution to the show. The Red Arrows headlined their contingent displaying on all four days despite some very hazy conditions over the weekend. Squadron Leader Tom Bould, Red 1 Team Leader, said: “A fabulous four days of displays in front of brilliant crowds; truly a highlight for the Red Arrows with a coastline providing the perfect arena to display the best of British.” Likewise, the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight appeared on all four days with the Douglas Dakota III, Supermarine Spitfire IX and Hawker Hurricane IIc.
The RAF Chinook HC6A display team made one of their very few main-land UK public appearance at the Air Festival flying from the Friday through to the Sunday. Due to the lack of other events, the team’s Public Display Authority was only awarded a matter of weeks before Bournemouth and the team have mainly supported RAF Families Day events. As always, the Chinook is an impressive performer showing off some impressive agility for such a large type and bringing some ‘bladeslap’ to the festivities.
The Eurofighter Typhoon FGR4 made an even more significant contribution flying three daytime displays and two Night Air displays. The latter sadly only flown with a standard grey jet really were impressive lighting up the twilight with the bright reheat from the EJ200 turbofans. Flight Lieutenant, James Sainty, Typhoon display pilot, said of his Air Festival appearance: “The Bournemouth display venue is phenomenal. It’s a real privilege and honour to display the union flag livery jet in front of the crowds here, an absolute pleasure to see all the faces looking up and cameras flashing. I can’t wait for next year. Thanks for welcoming us.”
There’s no doubt that the return of the Bournemouth Air Festival was highly significant to airshow community and will hopefully pave the way for the return of other events in 2022. Not only did it prove that large free seaside events can be run safely in the new ‘COVID-World’, the Air Festival proved that big airshows remain very popular with the public. A huge amount of work from BCP Council, some of it completed in just a few weeks before the event, went to making the Air Festival as safe and enjoyable as it possibly could be.
Jon Weaver, Air Festival Director since it first started in 2008, said: “I am overwhelmed by all the immense amount of hard work that has gone into delivering such a fantastic four days of breath-taking entertainment. We have had an almighty year trying to pull this together, with the many restrictions we’ve had to work to and hoops we’ve often had to jump through, to ensure this event could go ahead and I am so pleased we’ve done so.
“I want to thank every single member of staff: from the events team who have worked tirelessly for months to the rangers who know the seafront like the backs of their hands; to the emergency services for their support, the various colleagues within the BCP Council departments, the stakeholders for joining us, the MoD and everyone else who has made this event possible.”
Bournemouth Air Festival will return in 2022 over the weekend of 1st-4th September.