After some difficult years with the covid pandemic and the death of Queen Elizabeth II, the Abingdon Air & Country Show returned to this year’s display calendar. 2023 marked the very welcome return of the event to its traditional May slot, albeit a little in the month. The show enjoyed some superb historic participation from both warbirds and helicopters topped by some exceptional support by the Royal Air Force’s Air Mobility Force.
Paul Johnson/Flightline UK reports. All photography by the author.
It really is wonderful to see Abingdon return to the month of May. The show had always felt like a great starting point to the display season and made it really stand out in the display calendar. While global events were the underlying cause of the event’s move to September for 2021 and 2022, it rather took away from the special feel of Abingdon and put it into much stronger competition with other UK and European events. May is now a very quiet month for UK air displays and it really needs more shows like Abingdon. It is a situation not helped by the military display approval dates which over the past decade have been shifting from late April through to late May.
Abingdon is entirely staffed by a small committee of unpaid volunteers though some professional contractors are brought in for specialist services. This makes Abingdon somewhat unusual on the UK display calendar which is dominated by events staged by commercial companies, local councils, airfield operators and museums.
In all, the show now costs in excess of £90,000 to stage which includes the contractors, display teams, insurance, land hire, safety staff and traffic management. All this money and the post-show charitable donations has to come from the show’s income (ticket sales and trade space sales) and some limited local sponsorship.
As well as significant fly-in and flying display, Abingdon presents a superb family day out with a varied selection of arena entertainment and ground attractions. One slightly odd choice of showground layout was the rather packed classic car display which created a bottle neck for the main entrance to the showground.
Ahead of the main flying displays, Abingdon has always hosted a very eclectic fly-in. Some good weather ensured a very impressive turn out of various aircraft including some rare historic types such as the de Havilland Hornet Moth, Beagle Husky, Miles Magister, Fokker S11 Instructor, Dornier Do28 Skyservant and North American Navion. Historic helicopters featured well with multiple examples of the Aerospatiale/Westland Gazelle, Westland Wasp and Westland Scout arriving during morning. Also arriving during the morning was a Grob Tutor T1 from the Oxford University Air Squadron based at RAF Benson. Adding to the aviation action of the day were several impressive radio-controlled model jet aircraft that flew just ahead of the main flying display.
The highlight of the day was the three-hour flying display. Despite losing the RAF BBMF Avro Lancaster B1 and Iain Smith’s Pitts Special solo, the display featured a solid selection of warbirds, classic helicopters and aerobatics in some beautiful late spring sunshine. It was opened by the Hurricane Heritage Hawker Hurricane I R4118 flown by James Brown. R4118 has always been a ‘local’ warbird to Abingdon having been based on a near-by private strip for many years under the ownership of Peter Vacher. Nowadays she’s often seen at another local airfield, White Waltham, with the rest of the Hurricane Heritage fleet which offers various experience flights.
The Hurricane spearhead a superb collection of piston warbirds gathered for the show. Bob Davy gave a superb account of his potent Yakovlev Yak-3UPW which now wears Ukrainian Air Force markings. This aircraft is a relatively modern reproduction of the Yak-3 powered by a Pratt & Whitney R1830 radial engine – hence the UPW designation.
Completing the warbird gathering were a trio of US produced fighters. Fighter Aviation Engineering Ltd’s Republic P-47 Thunderbolt ‘Nellie-B’ made a welcome return to Abingdon and was put through a graceful routine of solo aerobatics before heading back to its base at Duxford. The flying display was brought to close by the pair of North American P-51D Mustang ‘Miss Helen’ and TF-51D Mustang ‘Contrary Mary.’ The two fighters performed a short formation routine ahead of some solo passes in the late afternoon sun.
More fixed wing displays came from a pair of post-war army cooperation types. Kevin Hale demonstrated his Taylorcraft Auster AOP6 showing off the type’s agility and slow speed well within the airfield boundary. Tony de Bruyn has long supported the events at Abingdon with many of the different aircraft he operates. For 2023, he added some international flavour to the flying displays with his colourful ex-Luftwaffe North American OV-10B Bronco – always a crowd favourite.
An aerobatic interlude to all the historic military flying came from the Titans Aerobatic Team of Patrick Willson and Phillip Ansell. Flying the rather unusual combination of the American Champion Xtreme Champion and the XtremeAir XA42, the team are one of the latest display acts to join the circuit having made their first displays in the latter half of 2022. Both aircraft wear very attractive colour schemes inspired by Titan Airways – the company both pilots fly for. Despite the huge difference in aircraft appearance, Patrick and Phillip fly a really eye-catching display of close formation and solo aerobatics.
Abingdon has become something of a hub for classic helicopters displays over its past few editions. Joining the superb collection of fly-in helicopters were solo flying displays from the NavyWings Westland Wasp HAS1, Westland Scout AH1 XR595 and Project Lynx’s Westland Lynx AH7 XZ179. However, the outstanding highlight of the rotary participation was the four-ship of Westland Gazelle HT2/3s from the Gazelle Squadron. The really fill and the sky and provide a nostalgic link to famous military display teams such as the Royal Navy Sharks, Pusser’s Pair and the Army Air Corps Blue Eagles.
It was though the Royal Air Force participation from nearby RAF Brize Norton that stole the show. On static display throughout the day was a 47 Squadron Lockheed Martin C-130J Hercules C5. The RAF’s small remaining fleet of Hercules C4 and C5s is due by the 30th June so this was the last Abingdon appearance for the type. 47 Squadron itself is associated with Abingdon having been based at the Oxfordshire airfield between 1953 and 1967 when it operated the Handley Page Hastings and the Blackburn Beverley transport aircraft. Joining the Hercules just ahead of the flying display was a 99 squadron Boeing C-17A Globemaster III which landed to join the static display. This was the second time the RAF’s strategic transport aircraft has been on static display at Abingdon. Both the Hercules and C-17 are regular sights in the skies over Abingdon which is often used for training exercises together with other RAF and Army units.
The departure of both the Hercules and the C-17 following the conclusion of the flying display was a very apt finale to a very enjoyable day. Hopefully the good crowd that packed in show mean that no only did organisers meet their own costs, but the charities supported by the show also receive some much needed funds.