Displaying aircraft over water

It isn’t just for operational reasons that aircraft fly over the sea. Throughout the history of air displays for leisure and marketing purposes, the sea has been found to make a wonderful natural amphitheatre.

It is not clear exactly when the first seaside air show took place, but isolated examples can be found more than 60 years ago, with an air display accompanying the Festival of Whitstable in 1951 (itself presumably related to the Festival of Britain). However, the modern era of over-sea air shows began with the first display at Southend in 1986, according to Flightline UK, http://www.airshows.org.uk.

Ray Thilthorpe, a former manager of the Red Arrows, first suggested the idea of an air show along the seafront at Southend as part of a plan to promote the Essex resort. The idea of breaking away from the traditional airfield setting had numerous advantages, which Ray had observed during one-off displays at coastal events undertaken by the Red Arrows.

The Red Arrows are a feature of many seaside displays, as are impressive moisture contrails and curious seagulls

First of all, seafronts tended to have a huge capacity, far in excess of even the largest airfields, meaning that the event could reach a much greater audience than other air shows. Secondly, the existing attraction of the beach meant that families and other visitors with only a casual interest in aviation could be drawn in, potentially creating large new audiences. Ray was aware of the ability the Red Arrows had to reach beyond the traditional air show audience, and believed a seaside air show would achieve similar results. Historically, a few shows, such as the Biggin Hill Air Fair, had managed to become genuine family events, attracting many people who would not typically attend air shows, but these were very much the exception.

Thirdly, the sight of aircraft away from their usual setting promised to provide a unique spectacle, attractive to enthusiasts and non-enthusiasts alike.

The sole flying Avro Vulcan performing with the dramatic backdrop of the Gunfleet Sands windfarm at Clacton’s 21st Anniversary air show

The Southend event quickly proved a success, and quickly became one of the most anticipated events on the air show calendar. Moreover, the show managed to achieve what few others had, attracting huge numbers of people beyond the usual demographic.

Funding the show was more complicated than with conventional events, as there was no entry charge for attendees. Costs were covered by the local authority, recouped in some measure by donations from the grateful public and sponsorship by local businesses. The local economy benefitted significantly from the airshow with thousands of additional people making their way to the seafront over the days of the event.

The seafront setting allows a different style of display, such as this ASR-lifeboat demonstration at Clacton, 2011

Southend’s success has spawned a number of other seaside shows over the years, and these now include Southport, Eastbourne, Bournemouth, Clacton, Lowestoft, Blackpool, Dawlish and Sunderland.

In general, seaside shows have fared better than the general air show circuit during the recession of 2008-12, thanks mostly to their large, enthusiastic audiences and the fact that most have become established events in the local community. Indeed, new events have joined the calendar in this time such as Bournemouth which was first run in 2008 and is going from strength to strength – the show attracted over 750,000 people in its first year, and almost double that the next. Sadly, the established Lowestoft air show will not take place after 2012, but fears that Clacton’s two-day August show would end in 2011 proved unfounded, and Portsmouth is due to join the circuit, planning to hold its first seafront air show in 2013.

Seaside air displays provide a distinctive spectacle to a diverse audience – here the Team Guinot wingwalkers perform in 2008

The sight and sound of aircraft over the sea remains an attractive one. Seafront venues often give better views than traditional airfields, and reflections off the water give sounds a different quality too – Vulcan XH558’s distinctive intake howl is never as impressive as when the aircraft is displaying over water.

Seaside shows also give opportunities for a different style of set-piece – demonstrations of RAF air-sea rescue acting in co-operation with local lifeboats are a feature of seaside events. This year’s Bournemouth show will feature a Second World War air-sea rescue scenario involving a Spitfire, Messerschmitt Bf109 and a Consolidated Catalina flying boat, which promises to raise the bar for seaside air shows another notch.

This Catalina will take part in a re-enactment of a sea rescue of a downed pilot featuring a Me109, P-51 and a Spitfire at this year’s Bournemouth Air Festival

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