REVIEW: Abingdon Air & Country Show 2019

WORDS: ADAM LANDAU | PHOTOS: ALEX PRINS

Over the last two decades, the Abingdon Air & Country Show has built a solid reputation as the first major event of the British airshow season, and a firm enthusiasts’ favourite after the long winter months.

Sadly, though, after a rapid transformation from a small country fair to a fully-fledged airshow, this year’s Abingdon Air & Country Show was to be the last in its current format, with rising costs and tightening regulations forcing the organisers to drop the flying display from future events. It was apposite, therefore, that dozens of aircraft and around 10,000 spectators gathered at Dalton Barracks on Sunday 5th May to give this much-loved element of the show a fitting send off.

As usual, the flying display stood out for securing acts that may not be major crowd-pullers in their own right, but are notable for their rarity on the airshow circuit. This included such aircraft as the North American NA-64 Yale, the forerunner to the T-6 Texan, which made its flying display debut at Abingdon.

A second display debut came from Paul Freeland in his SIAI SF-260 Marchetti, a stylish Italian training and light attack aircraft more often seen in military colours. This specific aircraft, though, has never seen military service, being only the second aircraft off the production line. Paul, who gained his Display Authorisation last summer, performed a graceful and polished non-aerobatic display with plenty of topside passes – although he hopes to add aerobatics to his performance in the future.

A third significant debut came from the Historic Army Aircraft Flight, performing their first four-ship display since their aircraft were transferred to the civil register. Taking part were two classic helicopters, the Bell Sioux and Westland Scout, and two fixed-wing aircraft, the Auster AOP9 and Beaver. The display started and ended exceptionally well, with both helicopters hovering alongside the runway as the fixed-wing aircraft took off and landed in front of them, and the bulk of the performance itself was also pleasing, with the two helicopters generally flying as a pair and the fixed-wing aircraft performing individually. The result was non-stop action with no dead time, but the routine could perhaps benefit from the addition of a four-ship formation pass. A flyby in a loose trail formation was the closest we got to this.

Also in Army colours was the Fairchild Argus, flown by Richard Ellingworth, participating in the Abingdon flying display for the first time. While appreciated as a somewhat rare performer on the UK circuit, this particular display did feel like it could benefit from being slightly shorter.

Several more common staples of UK airshows were also present. The AeroSuperBatics WingWalkers put on a typically polished display with two Super Stearmans, but, similar to the Argus, the team’s 20 minute slot seemed excessive. Also flying in a biplane – albeit a much more aerobatic one – Rich Goodwin proved immensely popular in his Pitts S-2S “Muscle Biplane”. Rich not only impressed with his dynamic solo routine, which is perhaps the most entertaining display of that genre on the British circuit, but also with his low-level routine involving an Audi R8 performing high-speed runs along the runway. The Gazelle Squadron also entertained the crowd with a Gazelle HT.2 and HT.3 pairs display, which included some pleasing formation manoeuvring.

Also immensely enjoyable was the Little and Large duo, comprising Chris Burkett in a full-sized Extra 300S and a 40% scale radio-controlled model Extra flown by Mike Williams. The display begins with excellent passes in which the aircraft appear almost to be in formation, with the pair turning around at each end of the runway by means of synchronised stall turns or lomcevaks. Later in the display, the pair even perform a break and an opposition pass, before Chris shows off his own aerobatic prowess by performing vertical gyroscopic manoeuvres, the model appearing to orbit his position.

The Royal Air Force have traditionally supported the Abingdon Air & Country Show, and this year was no different. As well as a C-130J Hercules in the static display, the show also saw the “first last” display of 72 Squadron’s newly-reinstated Tucano T.1 solo display in the hands of Flt. Lt. Liam Matthews. It was the first time the Tucano had been displayed since 2014, with the type due to be retired later this year. While the display was perhaps not the most polished of the day, it was very pleasing to see the Tucano back on the circuit – seeing such types at UK airshows is likely to become very rare after the end of this season.

Abingdon’s early date makes it too early to host most of the RAF’s main display teams, but the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight also managed a brief appearance at the start of the display programme (technically a flypast, rather than a display) with a Spitfire Mk.XVI, which included some very impressive topside passes. Sadly, no flypasts of current RAF aircraft were provided – a great shame, particularly given departing Voyagers from nearby Brize Norton came tantalisingly close on several occasions.

Aside from the Spitfire’s impressive, if fleeting, appearance, a trio of WWII warbirds gave full flying displays towards the end of the flying display. These included Will Greenwood in his Yakovlev Yak-3M, John Dodd in P-51D Mustang “Miss Helen” and – most impressively of all – Richard Grace in P-47D Thunderbolt “Nellie”. The latter was by many accounts the most memorable display of the day, mixing powerful aerobatics with close topside and belly-up passes. Richard’s startling abilities behind the controls of heavy warbirds certainly makes good his decision to disband the TRIG Team last year to focus on warbird operations.

While the flying display was full of rare displays and memorable moments, it is perhaps sad that some of the new regulations that caused the show’s change in direction had already started to take affect during this year’s event. Chief among these were new insurance regulations from the Military Aviation Authority, which mandated that any aircraft taking part in the flying display should have at least £50 million Public Liability Insurance cover. This needlessly excessive figure was out of reach of some acts, and was perhaps part of the reason that several of the advertised displays (Bob Grimstead’s Fournier RF-4, the Stampe Formation Flying Team and the Aerosparx Display Team) were not present in the flying lineup, although the latter did instead participate in the show’s nightshoot the evening before the main event.

Encouragingly, though, 2019 is not seen as the end for the Air & Country Show, and the organisers plan to keep the aviation element very much alive. Next year, the venue will move to the western side of the airfield – the side generally preferred by most visitors – and will feature an all new helicopter meet. The fly-in is also expected to double or triple in size, with hopes that over 100 aircraft will take part. Fly-ins and pleasure flights, including in two-seat warbirds, are also expected to be on the programme.

Organising the final full airshow at Abingdon was no mean feat, and was probably one of the biggest organisational challenges in the show’s 20-year history. The dedicated volunteer team behind the event can certainly look back proudly on what was a highly appropriate finale to Abingdon’s days as one of Britain’s most significant flying displays.