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Why the world's top airshow disappointed me

Last updated on: August 02, 2018 09:28 IST

'For a show that has been going on since 1948 one expected a certain standard of showcasing and showmanship, besides variety and a show of skill.'
'At the same time one felt pretty good about the standards of our own efforts -- Aero India -- at Bangalore once every four years and in business only since 1996,' says Group Captain Murli Menon (retd) after a visit to the Farnborough Airshow.

The Red Arrows, the Royal Air Force Aerobatic Team, are joined by a Spitfire at the opening of the Farnborough Airshow, in Farnborough, July 16, 2018. Photograph: Peter Nicholls/Reuters

IMAGE: The Red Arrows, the Royal Air Force Aerobatic Team, are joined by a Spitfire at the opening of the Farnborough Airshow, in Farnborough, July 16, 2018. Photograph: Peter Nicholls/Reuters

Whilst on a holiday to London I was fortunate to visit the biennial Farnborough Airshow 2018 on a business day.

One had heard great things about the event since my days in the Indian Air Force. Britain's first powered flight by Samuel Cody took place in Farnborough and Frank Whittle undertook most of his jet engine research at this location.

For a show that has been going on since 1948 one expected a certain standard of showcasing and showmanship, besides variety and a show of skill.

Having taken in a day's proceedings, albeit on a comparatively dull 'business day' on July 20, I must say one came away rather disappointed on both counts.

At the same time one felt pretty good about the standards of our own efforts -- Aero India -- at Bangalore once every four years and in business only since 1996, which I witnessed a few times.

I believe Farnborough is mainly a commercial outlet for people to sell and buy airplanes, but surely there ought to be enough eye catching events on the schedule to satiate the palate of the professional and the hobbyist alike.

The commute itself was rather convenient if only thanks to two young Turkish Aerospace helicopter engineers who I chanced to meet at Waterloo station who escorted me all the way to the air show.

The static display was very ordinary what with some old American planes on the tarmac such as the C-5 Galaxy, the F-18, Augusta Westland helicopters and the Turkish T-129 ATAK helicopter.

The centerpiece was the Red Arrows simulator which could be entered for a princely sum. There was also an old Hunter 56A cockpit whose cockpit you could sit in for a fee of one pound.

Then there were several stalls of the RAF Association and the Air Scouts, the paucity of government or industry funding being clearly evident.

The only aspect which one admired was a charity venture for the disabled to learn flying. This I thought is a great idea for any nation or enterprise to emulate. The disabled were also being encouraged to machine aircraft parts and other components themselves.

An armed police officer stands guard at the Farnborough  Airshow, July 17, 2018. Photograph: Toby Melville/Reuters

IMAGE: An armed police officer stands guard at the Farnborough Airshow, July 17, 2018. Photograph: Toby Melville/Reuters

The dynamic display was an apology indeed. The only item worth mentioning is a spirited display by the Turkish attack helicopter, the T-129. Short of doing a full loop, the pilot executed several impressive steep stall turns and hover turns.

The Turkish Aerospace engineers told me that the aircraft had indeed carried out a loop recently with no damage to the aircraft or engine!

Then there was a very ordinary display by a Spanish Navy AV-8 B Harrier. The viffing and hover manoeuvres were very unimpressive indeed, the profile mostly including mild wing overs.

The Red Arrows did a 9 aircraft flypast before landing, choosing to dispense with a display.

There were dynamic displays by the F16 on most days. I wonder if the British government's decision the next day to shut down the Red Arrows air base at RAF Scampton had anything to do with it. Even their positioning on circuit and the landings themselves -- not in formation -- were forgettable.

The best dynamic display was by the Airbus 330-1000. Flown by their chief test pilot, who was on his penultimate professional flight.

The steep pull up take off, slow fly by, slow speed steep turns and curved approach and landing were impressive indeed. Rightly, the commentator stated that he expected this plane to become an industry favourite.

A Lockheed Martin LM-100J aircraft performs a display at the Farnborough Airshow, July 16, 2018. Photograph: Peter Nicholls/Reuters

IMAGE: A Lockheed Martin LM-100J aircraft performs a display at the Farnborough Airshow, July 16, 2018. Photograph: Peter Nicholls/Reuters

The highlight of the air display was an air race demo by the Red Bulls.

Air filled collapsible towers were erected along the runway and the two display pilots -- a British and an Italian -- described their sequence in an awesome manner, the commentator aptly indicating the penalty points earned by each pilot, especially for exceeding g limits, and the importance of flying the optimum pattern to cut circuit time.

There were no Russian aircraft or contingent at Farnborough, possibly on account of the strained diplomatic ties between the two countries over the Skripal scandal. But there appears to have been no effort to display platforms such as the F-35 or the impressive SU 35.

The Swedish Saab Gripen and the EFA Eurofighter were the only new generation fighter aircraft on static display.

Group Captain Murli Menon (retd) at the Farnborough Airshow, July 20, 2018

IMAGE: Group Captain Murli Menon (retd) at the Farnborough Airshow, July 20, 2018

In a world class air show one looks forward to see the latest technology on display as also some deft aerial manoeuvring by participating fighters, business jets and helicopters.

The impression one got after seeing the air show was that the UK -- Brexit or otherwise -- is in dire fiscal straits.

The impression was reinforced during a visit thereafter to the Imperial War Museum at Lambeth Road. Though there are five such museums in London and entry to most museums in London is free, the artifacts and displays at the museum were so ordinary and unimpressive -- for a nation that fought the great Battle of Britain!

So much could have been depicted about the wars on land, sea and air but one only got to see some old vehicles, cannons and bits of a Liberator plane.

The country that ruled half the world once upon a time!!

Even the renowned Battle of Britain memorial formation was unimpressive, with just a B 24 Liberator and two Spitfires fly by.

Another explanation could be that, unlike in the past, nations and companies now look for direct commerce with aircraft and equipment manufacturers as there is enough and more information available in the cyber domain.

So, one doesn't really need to see an air show display to size up a platform. But tell that to a rookie and not a grey haired old and bold fighter jock!!!

Group Captain Murli Menon (retd)