Heads in the air!

For teenage boys in the West Riding during the late 1950s and early 1960s the great air displays were major highlights. On Whit Monday there was an international show at Yeadon (now Leeds/ Bradford Airport), and on the nearest Saturday to September 15, Battle of Britain Day, there were displays at any combination of the Yorkshire RAF stations – Church Fenton, Lindholme, Finningley, Leeming and Dishforth.

Eagerly awaited, these were great value for money, if a considerable drain on cash flow (pocket money)! The only drawback was transport to remote airfields: car ownership was less common, and public transport was erratic. Even at Yeadon, buses on a public holiday were notoriously unreliable, but we always managed.

The shows were always well attended and made great family outings, with women often outnumbering the men and contributing their fair share to ground noise levels. By today’s standards the infrastructure was bad – car and coach parking haphazard, sanitary arrangements several notches beyond appalling, and food and drink outlets uncer-tifiable.

But that was then. We knew to take our own, and we had fun.

Late morning and early afternoon were spent at the ground display, with access to aircraft, weaponry of all kinds, military memorabilia and serving officers to interrogate. Pure heaven! Here fathers came into their own. All were Second World War veterans or at least had National Service experience, often in hot spots such as Aden, Malaya or Cyprus. To them the weapons were old friends, not obscure military arte-

facts. It was time to listen and learn.

At around 2pm the flying displays began.

All of the shows were surprisingly international. The United States Air Force was always heavily represented, of course, but other NATO participation was also routine. We saw all the great national aerobatic teams, my favourite being the Italian team which, flying F84 Thunderstreaks, simulated the crash (convincingly) of one of its number. They were never invited back!

Skill levels were incredible, and the programmes were innovative. Over 15 years I never saw one single emergency.

In those balmy years we saw individual examples of most of the best of contemporary aircraft. Inevitably much of it was American – B52s, B47s, Thunderbirds, Super Sabres, Vigilantes, Phantoms, Starfighters and so many more. The French too were prolific designers, with Mysteres, Super Myst-eres, Etendards, Mirages and Atlantiques. Then there was the NATO consortium G91. We knew them all.

The fly-pasts were interspersed with aerobatic displays by a variety of skilled amateurs flying an assortment of antediluvian aircraft such as the Tiger Moth. For the younger, go-faster fan these were a trial – time for a natural break!

However entertaining the foreign input, we always thought British was best after all, and it was time to be treated to the RF, Navy and Army Air Corps offerings – and
what a dazzling feast was set before us!

First came the bread and butter transport aircraft – the Hastings and improbable Beverley – helicopters and trainers, especially the newjet Provost.

The heavy brigade, our much-vaunted V bomber force – Valiant, Victor and Vulcan -were now our deterrent against the very real threat of mass destruction. Almost apologetically a Canberra would perform, more latterly a Nimrod.

Finally came the fighters past and present, all jets – Meteor, Vampire, Venom, Sea Vixen, Javelin, Jaguar, Hunter – then the pieces de resistance, the Lightning and the early Harrier. Who could withstand this array?

As if to hammer home the point, now the finest aerobatic team I have ever seen anywhere, the Black Arrows, in their fabulously beautiful Hunters. Magnificent!

At almost 6pm, with ears aching and senses screaming, it was time to think of home. Then came a familiar growl, unmistakable to a generation, that of the Merlin engine. Over the horizon Britain’s Second World War saviours came again – Spitfire, Hurricane, Lancaster.

Everyone had a lump in his/her throat and I saw men and women crying openly at the sight. At such moments the crowd seemed to coalesce into 1940s mode – perhaps the ultimate communal experience!

J. S. Ferguson