Airbourne: Eastbourne International Airshow is one of the biggest free airshows in the world and always a highlight of the summer holiday season. In 2022 it boasted approximately 50 displays of aerial entertainment over four days which brought in bumper crowds to the East Sussex resort. The event faced several challenges after a three-year absence, not least ever-increasing costs and impact of industrial disputes on public transport.
Paul Johnson/Flightline UK reports from all four days. All photography by the author.
It is a difficult time for the big seafront air displays which are organised by local authorities. As costs increase and funding becomes ever tighter, they are faced with the difficult challenge of making their events almost completely self-funding. However there is pressure to keep free seafront airshow going as they are incredibly important to the local hospitality businesses which dominate seaside resorts like Eastbourne. In the local media in the run up to Airbourne local restaurateurs and hoteliers repeatedly said a good airshow was essential to them having a good year filling the gap between the International Tennis tournament and Eastbourne’s Christmas season, particularly after two difficult years due to the COVID pandemic.
Airbourne (at the time of writing) costs in the region of £400,000 and to ensure the future of the event, Eastbourne and Lewes Borough Council started their fund-raising campaign early in the planning cycle with various initiatives including VIP upgrades, grandstand seating and supporters club. All this was on top of the more traditional sources of event income through selling trade space, sponsorship and car parking. During the show, there were the usual bucket collectors too and donations could also be made online through SaveAirbourne.com. Money raised does not just support the airshow but also goes to local charities which for 2022 included the Samaritans, the RNLI and the Children with Cancer Fund.
The quite intensive fund-raising campaign does at first glance seem to have been very successful and was no doubt helped greatly by four good weather days. On the Monday after the show, the local BBC radio station was reporting that the organisers were quietly confident that they were able to run a show in 2023.
There is is also pressure for all events to be more sustainable and Eastbourne was very open about many of the initiatives the event has to reduce its environmental impact – not least the zero-emission vehicles used for aircrew transport, reclaimed vegetable oil for event generators and carbon offsetting schemes.
Much of Airbourne 2022 was very similar to previous events. The Western Lawns and area around the Wish Tower were given over to a ground show including all the usual military exhibition and local companies. As well as the usual displays, Airbourne highlighted cleaner aviation with OHM Energy, NEBOAir and Fly About Aviation showcasing the Pipistrel Velis Electro on the ground. One noticeable change over previous events was less entertainment specific to Airbourne after the flying such as movie screenings and music. Instead, there was much more significant promotion of the town’s own entertainment including the theatres, cinemas and restaurants.
As in previous editions of Airbourne, the flying displays built up over the four days with Saturday and Sunday seeing the largest flying displays. This was exacerbated this year by some unserviceability, particularly on Thursday and Friday which reduced the planned number of displays somewhat. There was also the sad loss of the planned Belgian F-16 solo display through a combination of last-minute paperwork and logistical challenges which was a great shame.
However, none of the difficulties diminished what was four really good days of aerial entertainment. Many Eastbourne favourites were back including the Tigers Army Parachute Display Team who opened the show on Thursday. For Eastbourne they were joined by some of the Royal Logistics Corps Silver Stars team and performed some really dramatic descents onto Eastbourne beach with a combination of solo parachutists and some eye-catching Canopy Relative Work (CRW).
Equally daring were the Aerosuperbatic Wingwalkers who have supported Eastbourne for as long as I can remember. Due to aircraft availability, they performed a solo routine on the Thursday and Friday and their more traditional pairs display at the weekend. More smoke and dramatic aerobatics came on Saturday and Sunday courtesy of Rich Goodwin and his Pitts S-2S Specials. Rich’s commitment to the display world cannot be understated and he really went above and beyond after he suffered a technical issue with G-JPIT during Saturday’s display. By Sunday, he had brought in his other Pitts G-EWIZ over from his Gloucester base in time to make his display slot and ensure Airbourne enjoyed a full programme on its final day.
2022 sees locally based pilot Rod Dean celebrate 50 years of display flying having started as the RAF Strike Command Hunter display pilot in 1972. At that year’s Air Tattoo Rod won the award for best solo jet display. Since then, he has displayed a wide variety of aircraft including many different warbirds and classic jets. He is still displaying aircraft like the Harvard but for Eastbourne gave a very elegant and precise aerobatic display in the Redhill based Slingsby T-67M Firefly.
Eastbourne flying displays always feature a good selection of historic aircraft. The Rolls Royce Heritage Flight sent both their Supermarine Spitfire PRXIX and North American P-51D Mustang for displays over the weekend. The Spitfire however suffered a technical issue on the Friday which meant that it only made an appearance on the final day of the show. A further civilian operated Spitfire appeared during the Saturday’s display. This was the Aircraft Restoration Company’s Supermarine Spitfire PRXI flown by John Romain who has often displayed at Eastbourne at previous events. His display at Eastbourne was held in memory of Clive Lambert-Beeson and was made possible thanks to a donation by his wife Anne Lambert-Beeson and friend Jayne Howard. Clive served with the Royal Air Force was a World Rowing Masters gold medallist, winning his last gold at the age of 59 in Adelaide in 1997. However, he was also a much-loved member of the Airbourne volunteer family as a display team transportation driver shuttling aircrews between the town and their operating airfields for many years.
Another highlight of the flying was a solo display by Andy Durston in Air Leasing operated Hawker Fury FB11. Andy put on a tremendous display of the big piston engine fighter’s performance particularly during Saturday afternoon’s gin clear blue skies powering high into the sky with delicate condensation trails streaming from the Fury’s wingtips.
Classic jets also featured well. All four days of the Airbourne saw Ian Brett display BAC Strikemaster Mk82 G-RSAF from North Wales Military Aviation Services. Saturday and Sunday saw the Norwegian Air Force Historical Squadron join in with Kenneth Aarkvisla sweeping around the Eastbourne skies in the Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-15UTi (PZL-Mielec SB Lim-2). The MiG has been a popular performer at previous Airbourne shows and now wears the markings of a USAF operated MiG-15 captured during the Cold War.
However, the biggest supporter of the Eastbourne flying displays was the Royal Air Force. The Red Arrows gave Eastbourne a welcome boost with displays on all four days of the show. They were joined by the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight plus solo displays from the Eurofighter Typhoon FGR4 and Boeing Chinook HC6A. Sunday’s display also saw a rare airshow appearance by a RAF Benson based Airbus Helicopters Puma HC2 which conducted a flypast along the seafront.
However, what made the Royal Air Force participation so special this year were the special formations. The Battle of Britain Memorial Flight Spitfire II joined with the Eurofighter Typhoon FGR4 between their displays from some memorable passes during Friday’s and Saturday’s flying displays.
The Chinook wasn’t left out of the special formations either joining up with the Blades Aerobatic Team ahead of their separate displays. The rather eye-catching formation highlights the Royal Air Force Benevolent Fund which have partnered with both teams for the 2022 display season. The Blades also had a slightly different look for Eastbourne with Blade 1 Andy Evans flying the all-white Extra 300LP G-OFFO while one of the team’s other aircraft is in maintenance.
The organisers of Airbourne well and truly rose to the challenge of returning the event to their summer calendar despite all manner of ups and downs. They were rewarded for their efforts by the truly massive crowds that descended on the East Sussex resort for the airshow. Despite the lack of trains on the Thursday and Saturday, the seafront and surrounding downland areas were packed out by spectators who enjoyed a highly entertaining and varied flying display. On the evidence of 2022, Eastbourne’s International Airshow has a bright future ahead of it.