The changing meaning of air shows

RAF Pageant, Hendon, 1920

The Australian International Airshow 2007 took place last week, at Avalon near Melbourne. All I saw of it was a C-17, a F-111 escorted by two Hawks, four F/A-18s in a diamond formation, and a few helicopters (Tigers?) -- presumably all RAAF/ADF aircraft -- which buzzed the City and inner suburbs earlier in the week. I did go to the 2003 air show -- info and pics here and here -- and got to see a variety of interesting aircraft -- a B-1B, a Meteor, a Canberra, a Global Hawk, even a flying Blériot replica. And fell in love with Connie, like everyone else who saw her.

One of the highlights was the First World War display, involving a Fokker Triplane, a Sopwith Camel, an SE.5a and a Nieuport 11 (and several chronologically-challenged Tiger Moths and maybe some others). Naturally they put on a mock combat, something these old warbirds do best -- yeah, seeing and hearing F-15s scream low over the runway is a thrill, but 2 seconds later and the plane is gone, or else up high in the sky and you have to reach for your binoculars. Biplanes fly low and slow -- so everyone can follow the action -- but are also very maneuverable -- so are fun to watch. Plus there's that whole "knights of the air" thing going on. Anyway, the climax of the display was an attack on a balloon -- I think it was supposed to be an observation balloon, but my memory is fuzzy and I'm not sure if it was in the air or still on the ground. Of course the attack is successful and the hydrogen goes whoosh! and there's a nice big explosion.

I haven't been to many air shows, so I can't say if these sorts of setpieces are common. But they do have a long pedigree -- particularly when it comes to blowing up balloons! This is from a description of the finale of the 1934 RAF Pageant, at Hendon:

an imposing building on the far side of the aerodrome was a busy hive of industry -- producing and storing high explosives [...] Suddenly it became ''hivier'' than ever -- syrens [sic] blew, anti-aircraft guns were manned, a balloon apron went up (one balloon was seen), and a squadron of fighter aeroplanes took off. The reason was soon apparent, for squadrons of enemy bombers could be seen approaching, to attack the magazine.

They were soon overhead, with anti-aircraft shells bursting all around, and the light bombers [...] dived on to their objective, a salvo of bombs causing some damage. The heavy bombers [...] followed this up with slightly severer punishment, while an attack on the balloon resulted in the latter being brought down in flames (Maj. Sandbags, who usually makes his escape on these occasions, had to take his holidays earlier this year, so was not present).

Meanwhile the defending fighters [...] were worrying the attackers, and casualties occurred on both sides -- including one of the heavy bombers. Again the bombers came over, this time causing considerable damage, the heavy bombers finally blowing up the complete volume of the magazine.1

As the reference to Major Sandbags suggests, this was already a traditional spectacle. The 1922 Pageant included 'the actual destruction of a kite "sausage" balloon by fire from a Sopwith Snipe machine, and the descent of a dummy observer by parachute'.2 Much the same scene was featured on a poster for the very first Pageant, in 1920 (see above). Other bombing displays took place, usually involving the destruction of an ocean liner, a native village or other legitimate target. (The below is from either 1923, 1928 or 1934, probably the first two as the aircraft look like Victorias. But they could be Valentias too. Both of which were primarily transports, but could operate as bombers also.)

RAF Pageant, 1923, 1928 or 1934

But mock combats in air shows go back even earlier than that, to before the First World War. Hendon was a RAF aerodrome in the 1920s and 1930s; but before that it was owned by the pioneer aviator Claude Grahame-White. He founded Hendon in 1911 basically to cash in on the aerial craze, as a place where Londoners could come in the evenings or weekends and watch his airmen put their Farmans and Blériots through their paces. (The first loop-the-loop in Britain was performed here.) And it worked -- Hendon regularly drew large crowds, up to 60,000 at times, and the Underground featured it on some of its posters as one of London's major attractions. (Here's an example.) And mock combats were part of the fun. Michael Paris says that 'During 1912 aerial war-games became a regular attraction, featuring bombing, aerial fights, even night flying with the aid of huge searchlights'.3 The suggestion of air combat (if that's what Paris means by 'aerial fights') is particularly intriguing, since the real thing hadn't happened yet, and would not for another two years. Unfortunately, I haven't been able to verify this.4 But bombing competitions were certainly held regularly at Hendon. For example, on the Whit Monday bank holiday in 1913, a crowd of between twenty and thirty-five thousand people gathered at a wet and windy London Aerodrome (as it was formally called) to watch the fun:

The programme opened with bomb-dropping from a height of about 150ft. at a target representing the deck of a torpedo-boat destroyer. Five airmen competed, each having three shots. It is sufficient to say that the best bomb, which was dropped by Lewis Turner, fell 27ft. 6in. from the bull's-eye, and the worst missed its mark by 178ft. The first prize, a silver cup and £20, was won by Turner (Caudron biplane, with 60 h.p. Anzani engine) with an average for his three shots of 36ft. 8in., and the second, £10, by L. Noel (Farman biplane, with 80 h.p. Gnome) with an average of 76ft. 4in.5

Rather incredibly, the author of these words -- the aeronautical correspondent of The Times, who according to Paris was actually just the military correspondent, Charles à Court Repington -- goes on to say:

This kind of thing, of course, is not serious aeronautics. I should have preferred to spend the time which it occupied at the fair opposite the Welsh Harp, which is Hendon way, or in talking to the bearded man who professed to be rolling a big globe mounted on hoops round the world for £4,000, and who in the course of the afternoon had covered a distance of approximately 1½ mile.6

Ah, but would the bearded man have wanted to talk to you, Colonel Repington? Sure, on one level it was just stunt flying to pull in the punters, but it's not like the RFC was taking bombing any more seriously. The first British pilots to undertake bombing in wartime did so on an unofficial basis, and with equipment they improvised themselves. Indeed, the very first such pilot to do so with any success was Louis Strange (on 28 August 1914, near Mons) who had won a Hendon bombing competition just four months earlier.7 And Grahame-White and co. put on shows for Cabinet ministers as early as 1911, dropping bags of whiting (ie calcium carbonate or something like that) on a battleship-shaped target.8 So Repington's sneers of derision seem unenlightened, shall we say.

So, across nearly a century (and on opposite sides of the globe), mock combats seem to have been a constant feature in air shows, and have themselves retained some fairely constant elements. And why not -- they're great spectacles, real crowd-pleasers. But, I'd tentatively like to suggest, the meaning of such displays has changed. Today, it seems they are about nostalgia for a bygone era, or perhaps a tribute to heroes of the past. The combat capabilities of modern aircraft are not demonstrated (unless you count high-speed passes on afterburners and the like) -- it's about the past. Before 1914, on the other hand, mock combats were about trying to convince viewers of the usefulness of aeroplanes in war -- that is, the war-to-come. So they were then about the future. Finally, in the 1920s and 1930s, mock combats were ostensibly about the use of aircraft in the next war also, but they couldn't help but be a reference to the role aircraft played in the Great War, which older spectators would have remembered and younger spectators read about in Biggles and the like. So they were about both the past and the future.

I wouldn't read too much into this -- of course flying displays were 'about' the future when aviation was in its infancy. Now that it's not, there's going to be relatively more looking backwards. And it's not like modern aircraft aren't crowd-pleasers, either, or aren't demonstrating their combat effectiveness when they perform aerobatics for the crowd. But this line of argument does remind me of a previous discussion about how airmindedness is today often in essence nostalgic. So perhaps it's not too silly.

Image sources: RAF Air Historical Branch; Red Lion Posters.

  1. Flight, 8 July 1934, p. 674. 

  2. The Times, 26 June 1922, p. 5. 

  3. Michael Paris, Winged Warfare: The Literature and Theory of Aerial Warfare in Britain, 1859-1917 (Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 1992), 72. 

  4. But if anyone practiced air combat before 1914, it would be Grahame-White: he was trying to sell a machine-gun armed aircraft to the War Office in 1913, and put on a successful strafing demonstration that same year. Ibid, 177-9. 

  5. The Times, 13 May 1913, p. 10. 

  6. Ibid. 

  7. The Times, 1 May 1914, p. 7. 

  8. The Times, 13 May 1911, p. 10. 

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6 thoughts on “The changing meaning of air shows

  1. jc

    Actually being somewhat jaded on airshows and either go for the trade stuff or the drinking (both???) but I saw a super hornet display in 2003 (when they were trying to sell them to us). Walked out the trade tent and saw an F18E at the airspeed/altitude/a of a corner where you think:

    1 - What can I hide behind?
    2 - Are they trying to do the Russian bit and sell ejection seats?
    3 - I've seen it before.

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  4. Jack Rudder

    The Vickers bombers poster was for the 1923 display. The display was renamed from Aerial Pageant to RAF Display in 1925. The 1928 display was on 3 July. The 1934 display was 'combined' with the SBAC display on the following Monday.

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