The UK’s acclaimed Blades Aerobatic Team disband, citing “degradation” of the airshow circuit

The world-famous Blades aerobatic display team of UK company 2Excel Aviation have announced that 2022 was their final full display season, citing the “degradation” of the UK airshow circuit.

The team, which flew four Extra 300Ls and comprised of ex-Red Arrows pilots, was a stalwart of the British airshow scene and one of the main attractions each year at some of the country’s biggest airshows. They were known for their extremely complex, high-precision display – a performance that saw them win the innaugural World Formation Aerobatic Championships in China in 2017. As well as flying airshows, they were also licensed to operate as an “airline”, offering aerobatic experience flights, and fielded a Masterclass race team in the defunct Red Bull Air Race.

The team was owned by 2Excel Aviation, a major engineering, charter and special air services organisation founded by ex-Red Arrows leader Andy Offer and former RAF Wing Commander Chris Norton.

A statement on the team’s Facebook page said: “With heavy hearts, 2Excel Aviation is announcing that 2022 was the final full season for The Blades Aerobatic Display Team. The decision has not been taken lightly. The Blades have been important and iconic for the business since 2Excel was founded. They debuted in 2006 and have been the one constant during the Company’s expansion from just four aeroplanes and five people to the 30 aircraft and almost 500 employees the Group comprises today.

“While it will never feel like the right time to draw a line under this world-class team – the epitome of aerial excellence – the challenges to global economies, the worsening cost-of-living crisis and the protracted hit to disposable incomes this is causing have exacerbated the challenges facing The Blades. This comes amid the continued degradation of the air show circuit, with more and more events being lost, meaning fewer opportunities to display and showcase our sponsors to the public.”

In the light of these challenges, the company said they had concluded the Blades’ business model was “unsustainable”. However, they added that they “are seeking to honour all existing bookings” – suggesting that a number of events may have already booked the team in 2023 and there may be several more performances still to come.

The announcement comes as a particular surprise because the Blades had only recently been considering scaling up and upgrading to the newer, more advanced Gamebird GB1. They also planned an ambitious scheme of expansion which would have seen the team open a second base in the Middle East and go on tour each winter. The purchase of the Gamebirds may have been tied to the planned transfer of their existing Extra 300 fleet to the Air Race World Championship, a proposed air racing series due to start in 2022, which now appears to have collapsed. 2Excel would have maintained the Extra 300s on behalf of the race organisation, while using the Gamebirds for The Blades’ displays and passenger flights.

Andy Evans, the team leader, said: “During the 17 flying seasons the Blades delivered, millions of people saw the team display and thousands have ridden onboard our aircraft. We owe a great debt of gratitude to every one of them. But, most importantly, we must pay tribute to the pilots who have flown with the team and to the ground staff who supported them over the years – especially to those who delivered the final season in 2022 with The Blades’ traditional professionalism and flair. They will be missed.”

Other teams were also quick to pay tribute to The Blades, underscoring the high profile and esteem in which they were held. Rich Goodwin said he was “devastated” to hear the team was disbanding, while Aerosparx wrote that they were “a constant in the ever changing world of airshows, they will be sorely missed.” The Global Stars congratulated their counterparts on their successes over the years, adding: “the airshow circuit and family is a small and close knit community, the loss of this world class display team is a huge one not only to the industry but to UK general aviation as a whole.”

The president of the LAA said the news was “a reflection on the state of the UK airshow industry”, while the president of the French industry body France Spectacle Aerien noted that the team’s demise was partially attributed to a reduction in the number of airshows. Since the pandemic, at least four major UK airshows have been axed, and at least another half dozen face an uncertain future. The Blades’ announcement also comes just weeks after another large and long-standing UK aerobatic team, the Yakovlevs, announced 2023 would be their final season.