Bournemouth Air Festival, 3 September 2023

The RAF Battle of Britain Memorial flight flying at the air show

The festival

The Bournemouth Air Festival is one of the blue riband events in the UK airshow calendar. Not just because of its reputation as an internationally diverse display, but because of the stunning amphitheatre in which it all unfolds.

Amidst the backdrop of the Solent, the Isle of Wight and it’s award winning beaches, Bournemouth is a beautiful venue for an air display. The Thursday of the 2023 show was a washout but the Friday and both weekend days more than made up for that.

My initial thoughts in the days leading up to the events were that the program looked a little thin. A sign of the times maybe, but these fears proved unfounded on the day.

There was a nice mix of familiar favourites, overseas stars and some unique formations I’ve never seen before.

The flying displays

Sunday was the fourth and final day of flying at the Festival, opened by Bournemouth regulars the Tigers Parachute Display Team. The six-man formation showcased the best they had to offer with a colourful and dramatic descent on to the beach with some nice canopy work culminating in their leader landing with an enormous Army flag.

Piston engine aircraft featured strongly in the flying program throughout the afternoon. Paul Farmer’s elegant Yak 50 preceded further solo routines from Rod Dean with his T67-M Firefly and Flight Lieutenant David – John  ‘DJ’ Gibbs in the RAF’s elementary two-seat trainer, the Grob 115E Tutor. The Tutor was put through its paces in an energetic and punchy routine full of twinkle rolls, half Cubans and high octane aerobatics. The little aircraft’s bright and eye-catching canary yellow paintwork brought a flash of colour against the backdrop of Bournemouth’s gin clear blue skies. The piston engine segment was brought to a close by the Rolls Royce pairing of Mk.19 Spitfire and the throaty growl of the North American P51D Mustang, always a popular item in any flying display. The classic East Midlands based fighters were a regular sight over Britain during WWII and evoked memories of yesteryear with a beautiful pairs routine. The two vintage warbirds rounded off their combined sequence with their own solo performances flown by Dan Griffith in the Spit followed by Alastair Williams in the big American single seater.

New additions…

One of my favourite displays came courtesy of the Royal Navy. Naval participants are a sadly rare presence at airshows now, so it was a significant coup for Bournemouth to get the Yeovilton-based pair of the Fairey Swordfish, of Bismarck-sinking fame, and the small but no less impressive Westland Wasp anti-submarine helicopter. The Dorset coastline was one of only a handful of venues you can see these unique and historic aircraft in the UK this season.

Navy Wings formation of Westland Wasp and Fairey Swordfish in a rare formation at the Festival.

The pair, two aircraft from very different eras, arrived in formation and performed several passes, with the little Wasp tucked in on the biplane’s right wingtip in line astern before breaking off into their individual routines.  It’s been many a year since I saw the beloved Stringbag in the air and I’ve never seen a Wasp before so this display added a nice historic touch and something different to what was at times a very familiar list of participants..

Captain Tony de Bruyn brought an international flavour to the Jurassic Coast with a dramatic demonstration of his OV-10 from the Belgium-based Bronco demo team. His display showcased the excellent manoeuvrability and impressive roll rate of the light ground attack surveillance turboprop on its Bournemouth debut – it’s always good to see an aeroplane you’ve never seen before and a relatively new arrival on the air display circuit.

And old favourites

The Royal Air Force were, as ever, out in force over all four days of the festival. The Chinook’s display calendar is truncated this year and consists of only eight displays, but the Air Festival was lucky enough to be one of these. It’s always amazing to see how agile and manouevrable such a massive helicopter can be as the mighty twin-rotor heavy lifter brought it’s unmistakeable ‘Blade Slap’ for further rotary wing action.

The Red Arrows have been virtual ever presents at the Air Festival and performed on three of the four days with the Thursday completely washed out. The eight-ship team endured a difficult 2022 but provided a much improved showing here which even included a few new additions to their otherwise familiar fare’. The Battle of Britain Memorial Flight arrived early in the day with their full and regular compliment of Lancaster flanked by the fighters of Spitfire and Hurricane.

The Firebirds and Bournemouth debutants the Starlings filled the void left by The Blades – now sadly no more – whilst Rich Goodwin returned in another highlight of the day. The bizarre spectacle of this tiny biplane roaring like a jet was really quite something with aerobatic champion Goodwin having added two jet engines to the fuselage of his highly modified Pitts Special. Because, well, why not? The jet noise only added to Goodwin’s already magnificent display of rolls, knife edge passes, gyroscopic tumbles, the ‘Tower of Power’ and even a hover!

But Bournemouth really did save the best until last. I had hoped to leave a bit early to beat the crowds but in an impressive piece of marketing, the organizers followed the old adage of good things come to those who wait.

A fitting finale

With the highly anticipated appearance of the Vampire having sadly fallen by the wayside, the only solo jet on the schedule came right at the end in the early evening light. But, boy, was it worth the wait. Flight Lieutenant Matt Brighty released the kraken and opened the throttles as he closed the Festival in magnificent style with a loud and virtuoso display in the Typhoon. Brighty brought the beach to a standstill and held the spectators completely in thrall as he put ‘Blackjack’, and it’s 40,000lb of thrust, through it’s considerable paces. Matt’s vertical climb out into the wide blue yonder saw him depart to a standing ovation as I too headed for home – though not nearly as quickly!

Final thoughts

To reflect on the day, I definitely did enjoy my trip to Bournemouth for the airshow. There weren’t nearly enough jets and too many single engine piston aircraft, but that’s more a reflection on the current economic situation rather than any slight on the show itself. It was nice to see some new additions alongside the old favourites and, Thursday aside, the show was blessed with strong attendances and excellent weather. There are rumours we have seen the last of the Air Festival, but let’s hope that’s not true and this marvelous event continues for many years to come.