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Farewell to Farnborough Airshow


Farewell to Farnborough Airshow

Added by Keith Bradshaw on 16 September 2019

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After 70 years the organisers of the Farnborough air show have decreed that from next  year there will no longer be a public flying display at the weekend. The event will finish on the Friday trade day to which the public will be admitted. Keith Bradshaw takes a nostalgic look back at an event that was once regarded as the best air show in the world.

For many years a firm favourite at Farnborough was the Harrier which first appeared as the P1127 prototype in 1962 and was  a regular visitor thereafter. Despite the withdrawal of the RAF fleet, the Spanish Navy were still keeping the flag flying at Farnborough in 2014. Seen here at the 1982 show is an Indian Navy Sea Harrier.  Photo: Keith Bradshaw

Since 1948 early September has meant one thing to any enthusiast of aviation. Every year until 1962 and then bi-annually thereafter, this was the month of the Farnborough air show! An event that could trace its origins back to 1932 at Hendon when the SBAC (Society of British Aircraft Constructors) had their first event to show off new aircraft types from the British constructors. Only British-built aircraft were allowed to attend; a requirement that continued until 1966 when foreign aircraft were allowed in providing they had a British engine or a large number of British systems. Their attendance also had to be sponsored by the British company concerned. In 1972 the doors to the show were opened to European-built aircraft and the event became fully International in 1974.

The format of the event rarely changed. Exhibiting aircraft flying demonstration flights took place during the trade days and were joined at the weekend by service aircraft. In latter days civilian aircraft added to the array and produced a public flying display like no other.

One of my first photos at Farnborough shows a happy ten year old in front of a Vulcan fitted with a Blue Steel nuclear stand off missile. This was not my first visit to the show; that had been two years earlier in 1962 .  Photo:Keith Bradshaw

In 1955 there were 61 British aircraft taking part during the trade days. At the weekend the RAF provided a four-ship Hunter aerobatic team then a flypast of 64 more and 12 Valiant V-Bombers ! It was a V-Bomber, albeit a Vulcan, that stole the show when test pilot Roly Falk took off for the show’s first demonstration of the new delta wing bomber and promptly entered a roll! The powers that be frowned upon this saying it was not the done thing to roll a bomber and banned him from doing it again. The Vulcan however had won the hearts of the crowd and many years later when the plane had left RAF service, XH558 of the Vulcan To The Sky group continued to thrill the crowds until its retirement in 2014. It was said that during the trade days when Vulcan flew all business stopped as everybody came outside to watch.

XH558 wowed the crowds not just at Farnborough but around the country for several years before its retirement in October 2014.  Photo: Keith Bradshaw

Awesome sights were the trade mark of the early Farnborough shows and it was a few years later in 1958 that the Hawker Hunter flew itself into the history books. The official RAF aerobatic team at the time was the Black Arrows flying nine Hunters. The nine were joined by 13 others to make a grand total of 22 which proceeded to fly two loops in formation making it the largest number of aircraft ever looped together. A record that still stands today! The RAF, not content with a 22 Hunter loop, included a flypast later in the show with 45 Hunters, 45 Javelins and nine Canberras!

In the 1950-1960s the RAF display teams were drawn from front-line fighter squadrons which provided spectacles such as this 16 ship Hunter formation of the Blue Diamonds .  Photo: Adrian Pingstone

My first visit to the show was in 1962 and although sadly I didn’t take any photos. I didn’t have a camera! There are several things that have stuck firmly in my memory ever since. One was the site itself. Looking down from the hill on the public side one could see Laffans plain at one end and the Black sheds at the other. It seemed like no other airfield, it was special. Sadly in later years this viewpoint disappeared under the tent city that became the huge exhibition halls. Another memory burnt onto the brain’s SD card was the spectacle at the start of the show. All the rescue and emergency vehicles paraded slowly down the runway led by a pair of Wessex helicopters. As a small boy I couldn’t believe that helicopters could fly so slowly !

The emergency vehicle parade was still part of the show in 1980 when this picture of the RAE Wessex was taken leading the convoy down the runway.  Photo: Keith Bradshaw

The final memory from that first visit was the impression left by the Hunters and Lightnings. 16 Hunters were being flown by the Blue Diamonds aerobatic team and they had taken off into the hold. Meanwhile eight Lightnings of the Tigers display team lined up to take off in line astern. As each aircraft rotated on a roar of reheat instead of the usual gentle climb out or tight turn, each pilot pointed his jet vertically into the sky and just disappeared from view like a rocket going to the moon.

The nine Lightnings of the 74 Squadron Tigers aerobatic team at the 1961 show. It was this team that joined forces with the Hunters of the Blue Diamonds the following year.  Photo: TSRL

After the two teams had ‘done their bit’ they all formed up together for a 25-aircraft fly past, a sight not to be forgotten! Not to be outdone, the Royal Navy were also in attendance in force including their aerobatic team ‘Fred’s Five’ made up of five Sea Vixens.

Just one Sea Vixen is impressive, imagine what a formation of five would be like.  Photo: Keith Bradshaw

As well as the military teams, Farnborough 62 gave the public their first view of the new de Havilland Trident and the Vickers VC10. I never dreamt I would still be looking after these beauties all these years later. The most fascinating aeroplane at the show was the P1127 which was the prototype of the plane that would later become known and loved as the Harrier. 44 British aircraft exhibited at the show that year.

The VC10 Prototype G-ARTA at the 1962 show shortly after its first flight, bought by Laker airlines it had several operators before it was scrapped at Gatwick in 1973 following a heavy landing.  Photo: TRSL

At the next show in 1964 I came equipped with my mum’s Box Brownie camera with two 12 shot rolls of film. It’s fair to say these pictures will not win any prizes and also a Box Brownie is not the best camera for air show photos but I will include this one as it shows the BAC 221 which was a rebuild of the speed record holding Fairy Delta 2 with a new wing shape which developed into the Concorde ogival delta. This BAC 221 can now be seen at Yeovilton museum alongside the prototype Concorde it helped to develop.

The BAC 221 was a rebuilt Fairy Delta 2, lengthened with a new wing to enable research into the flying qualities of the shape of wing that would later be fitted to Concorde.  Photo: Keith Bradshaw

Also at that year’s show there was an appearance by an aerobatic team using Folland Gnat trainers, the RAF having stopped using large fighters for their display team. The Gnats were painted yellow and the team were known as the ‘Yellow Jacks’ .They returned again at the next show, only this time their Gnats were red and they had changed the team’s name to the ‘Red Arrows’. The rest, as they say, is history.

A Folland Gnat in the colours of the Yellow Jacks, the forerunners to the Red Arrows. The Arrows continued to use the Gnat until 1979 when they re- equipped with the Hawk.  Photo: Keith Bradshaw

At the ‘64 show, the last before foreign aircraft were allowed to exhibit, there were still around 40 different types of British aircraft on display for the world to buy. By the first fully International show in 1974 around 78 different types from around the world exhibited with the majority coming from abroad. Only 18 were British built. However the Red Arrows (still in their Gnats) were the only aerobatic team displaying having been joined at the previous show by the French national team, The Patrouille de France, with their V-tailed Fouga Magisters and also the Italian aerobatic team, The Frecce Tricolori, using Fiat G91 aircraft.

With their national colours written in smoke the Frecce Tricolori perform a break with their Fiat G91s.  Photo: Keith Bradshaw

The British service participation in the flying displays was somewhat reduced from its heyday in the 60s with just eight Harriers and four Jaguars in addition to the Red Arrows.

By 1980 the British star of the show was the prototype AEW Nimrod, designed to be a much more capable aircraft than its American competitor the Boeing AWACS. History now shows us that the project failed to live up to expectations and was cancelled by the government in 1987 after huge amounts of money had been expended. Of the 90 different aircraft exhibited that year only 21 were British.

Massively over cost, over time and with major problems with the radar installation, the Nimrod AEW finally had the plug pulled in 1987 with the RAF forced to buy Boeing AWACS instead.  Photo Keith Bradshaw

By the mid 80s International joint projects on aircraft such as the Tornado and later the EAP/Typhoon, Westland helicopters working with Augusta and takeovers and mergers had limited the number of pure British built aeroplanes in 1984 to the Hawk, Jetstream, Skyship airship, Nimrod, Skyvan, SD330, SD360, HS748 and the HS125 business jet. There were a number of light aircraft from Edgeley and NDN and finally Westland showing their Sea King., Lynx and civil WG30 helicopters.

The Hawker Siddeley HS748 series 2 was flown at the 1980 show and led to orders from all around the world for this 44 seat Turbo prop.  Photo: Keith Bradshaw

Newcomers to the show in 1984 were the Russians who arrived with a couple of aircraft including the Mil Mi-26 the world’s largest helicopter.

By the 2000s the balance of the show had swung away from military and towards civil markets with both Airbus and Boeing having a large presence at the show. Indeed by the time of what we now know to be the last public weekend show in 2018, Airbus were exhibiting A380, A350, A330, A220 and the military A400M Atlas. Boeing responded with the B787 Dreamliner, B777, B737 Max and the P8 Poseidon Maritime patrol aircraft. Other airliners from around the world were also on display along with many private jets and freighters such as the Boeing 747 and Antonov An124.

In 2008 Airbus brought the world’s biggest airliner the A380 to the show. Just over ten years later orders had dried up for this super jumbo and production is now coming to an end.  Photo: Keith Bradshaw

Despite the British share of the show becoming smaller, the show as a whole continued to grow and the exhibition halls needed to be enlarged year after year. This ate into the space available for car parking for the growing crowds at the weekend public shows. The solution was a park and ride scheme which was OK for the staggered arrival of visitors but failed to work too well after the show. Getting everybody back to their cars caused much frustration and long delays in getting home. Another problem arose at weekends with many exhibitors resenting  the cost of having their aeroplanes at the show for two days on which they knew they would not be making any sales. Some of the larger companies, especially those from the US, starting packing up and flying home on the Friday much to the disappointment of the public

In 1984 Boeing exhibited its latest version of the 737, the world’s best selling jet airliner. This was the new-300 model which featured new engines and avionics and became a big seller for Boeing. They were to return 34 years later with another new variant the 737 MAX, which did not have such a trouble-free entry into airline service and at the time of writing is still grounded by the authorities following two crashes due to problems with its flight control system. Photo: Keith Bradshaw

To fill the spaces left by departures from the flying programme the organisers began to book more civilian acts to fill display slots, watering down the special atmosphere of the Farnborough show.  The final nail was the CAA report following the Shoreham crash which introduced new rules regarding the space required for the ‘Air show flying box’. This had become so restrictive at Farnborough that even the Red Arrows could no longer offer a display and stay within the rules. This adverse affect on the public flying, the ever-increasing ticket prices and the parking misery caused a flood of complaints after the last show in 2018 and led the organisers to call time on the public air show weekend.

I am just thankful I was around to see over 50 years of this once great event, especially the highlight of the RAF display teams and the Red Arrows. Farewell Farnborough public display days.  You will be much missed.

Seen here in 2014 the Arrows were a crowd-pleasing fixture at Farnborough for decades.  Photo: Erin O’Shea
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