Held at the end of the summer holidays, the Bournemouth Air Festival returned for the 15th time in 2023. Despite poor weather on the first day curtailing much of the flying, the Air Festival drew massive crowds to the Dorset resort across four days. Flying wise, the Air Festival boasted a line-up full of airshow favourites with some new acts joining some familiar names.
Paul Johnson/Flightline UK reports. All photography by the author.
The Bournemouth Air Festival is the largest of the seafront airshow events of the UK season with four days of entertainment in the air, on land and at sea. Like many council-run events, it has come under scrutiny recently as local authorities battle with diminishing budgets. However, much of Bournemouth’s economy is reliant on tourism and the Air Festival is seen as an essential part of Bournemouth’s tourist season. A look at the various hotel booking websites provide some very basic evidence of this with very few rooms available during the duration of festival in Bournemouth and the surrounding area. It helps enormously that the display site is based on the East Cliff, home to many, many hospitality businesses who really buy into the event with special packages and running pop-up bars and catering over the four days.
There has always been a special spirit at the Bournemouth Air Festival and it has often led the way for the wider display industry with some of its innovations. Other venues may have had smaller evening displays before Bournemouth, but the Air Festival really moved the concept into a new era encouraging various display teams to develop pyrotechnic spectaculars. This year, it was the turn of the beachfront experience to be developed with the usual Air Festival Hospitality joined by additional pop-up restaurants and entertainment available to all. This was backed up by the usual offerings such as the beating the retreat ceremonies, Royal Marines Unarmed Combat demonstrations and outdoor movie screenings in the town gardens. On the East Cliff, the Air Festival also showcased the Aerospace and Engineering Industry in an impressive exhibition sponsored by Ultra Energy as well as the Armed Forces village.
Sadly, poor weather on the Thursday wiped out much of the flying display. The RAF Red Arrows did try but thwarted after just three passes by the low cloud. Over the rest of the weekend they did however enjoy beautiful conditions with three full displays under clear blue skies. Anyone who doubts the appeal of the Red Arrows should just watch the East Cliff around their scheduled display times and witness just how the crowd goes to ‘standing-room’ levels and the hotel parties go quiet as all eyes look skywards.
Joining the Red Arrows were most of the Royal Air Force’s other display teams. If there is one item that challenges the Red Arrows popularity at Bournemouth, it is the Eurofighter Typhoon FGR4 solo flown by Flt Lt Matt Brighty. His very dramatic and pleasing display is always popular, but was only a whole different level during his Night Air ‘Encores’ on Friday and Saturday with the Blackjack-schemed jet beautifully lit by the sunset and the reheat lighting up the darkening skies!
Saturday’s audience also got to see the stunning tribute to the 80th Anniversary of the Dambusters Raid which saw the Typhoon join up with the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight’s Avro Lancaster B1. The BBMF also brought their Supermarine Spitfire IX MK356 and Hawker Hurricane IIc PZ865 for their Bournemouth displays which started on the Friday with an early evening display in golden light.
Bournemouth was the penultimate display weekend for the 2023 Boeing Chinook HC6A display captained by Flt Lt Jim Hobkirk. The Chinook’s incredible presence and distinctive bladeslap always captures the attention and it is wonderful to see so many waving back at the display loadmaster with his giant orange hands!
Completing the RAF contributions to the flying was the RAF Grob Tutor T1 display piloted by Flt Lt David John-Gibbs. The Tutor may be small, but DJ’s superb flowing display in the Yellow and Black Tutor was greatly appreciated by the crowds on the East Cliff who offered a round of applause after each of his displays.
The British Army’s Tigers Army Parachute Display Team have been favourites at Bournemouth ever since the very first Air Festival in 2008. This year they jumped on all three flyable days including a special night jump on Friday with pyrotechnics streaming from their ankles.
Given the Royal Navy’s presence at previous Air Festivals, it was disappointing only to see some small P2000 patrol boats moored with the multitude of civilian craft during the flying displays. Neither did the Navy have any current flying assets in the air displays. However, the NavyWings Heritage Flight did step up to showcase the senior service with the lovely ‘Taranto Formation’ featuring the Fairey Swordfish I and Westland Wasp HAS1.
Adding to the aerial nostalgia were displays from the Rolls Royce Heritage Flight with the Supermarine Spitfire PRXIX and North American P-51D Mustang. The Bournemouth Air Festival is a special event for Rolls Royce and it has supported the event for many years with either its own aircraft or chartered a Spitfire display. In 1910, Charles Rolls died while flying a Wright Flyer at nearby Hengistbury Airfield during a flying display. He was the first civilian pilot to be killed while flying a powered aircraft in the UK.
The Norwegian Air Force Historical Squadron made a very welcome return to the Air Festival during Friday’s display with a solo display by Martin Teslii in the de Havilland Vampire FB52. It was a shame that weather and other commitments reduced their contribution as they are always popular with Air Festival crowds.
Incredibly, 2023 saw the first Air Festival appearance for the Bronco Demo Team! Tony de Bryun flew displays on all days in his distinctive North American OV-10B Bronco which look superb in the bay area framed against the Bay and the surrounding topography. He also enjoyed all the attractions of the Festival with his wife Edith with numerous social media posts and wandering around the East Cliff meeting the crowds.
As ever, Bournemouth had some really exciting aerobatic acts. The Starlings Aerobatic Team were another new team for the Air Festival with Tom Cassells and Michael Pickin giving a superb display of close formation and solo aerobatics across the Saturday and Sunday flying displays. Another new act for Bournemouth were some elegant solo aerobatics from Paul Farmer flying a Yakovlev Yak-50. Paul has a long association with Bournemouth Air Festival having first attended as the RAF Chinook display captain in 2012 and 2013. He then supported TSA Consulting Ltd, Bournemouth’s Air Display Management specialists, as a member of the Flying Control Committee.
Alongside the new acts were some favourites from previous years. Rod Dean gave lyrical, flowing displays in the little Slingsby T67M-160 Firefly on all three flyable days. But it was once again Rich Goodwin that had jaws heading to the ground with his jet-assisted Pitts S-2S Special. While we’ve enjoyed his displays all year, there was something quite incredible about watching his displays from the East Cliff with the elevated view making Rich’s hovering torque rolls look all the more dramatic with the jet noise bouncing off the hotel walls!
While the daytime displays attracted the biggest crowds, it was the Night Air displays that provided the standout memories of the Air Festival with Friday and Saturday enjoying spectacular sunsets and evening cloudscapes. The FireFlies Display Team of Nigel Reid and John Dodd had a busy weekend flying by day and in the evening. But it is the latter in which the team really come into their own with their brilliant colour LED systems and pyrotechnics.
It was a very special weekend for the team from Pilots of the Purple Twilight led by Brendan O’Brien. They presented OTTO, a little Schweizer S300C helicopter that can fire an incredible array of fireworks and other pyrotechnic effects. On Friday, Alex Garman flew a display at Bournemouth for the second time having made his debut in 2022. Alex has working with Brendan for many years supporting him on the ground preparing the aircraft (and paperwork) and building display experience under Brendan’s mentorship. However, it was Saturday’s display by Brendan that was the most special as it marked (perhaps) his final Bournemouth appearance as a pilot. In salute he arrived to his favourite music, Fortunate Son by Creedance Clearwater Arrival. As the pyros started to fire the music then switched to Queen’s Flash Gordan as a nod to Brendan’s nickname amongst fellow pilots of ‘Flash!’ There also was just the hint of some extra pyros with OTTO almost disappearing at times in a maelstrom of colour, smoke and noise – a wonderful way to end the show! Brendan is not disappearing from the display scene either but will be supporting Alex and OTTO at public displays and flying the odd private display!
It may have started under a cloud on the Thursday, but from Friday onwards the Bournemouth Air Festival was back on form with its outstanding array of entertainment that ran from Morning to late night!
We sincerely hope that the powers that be on BCP Council fully appreciate the very special event they have created and nurtured since 2007. It has become a leading event for the UK display community with its innovation and extraordinary warm welcome for all of the acts that have participated across the 15 festivals. It is not only a showcase for Bournemouth and Dorset, but also a highly valued event on a national level demonstrating the very best of the armed services and engineering industry in a fun, friendly atmosphere that is completely unique.