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The Royal Air Force at Home: The History of RAF Air Displays from 1920 by Ian Smith Watson

I’ve got to admit, I didn’t expect much from this book. No matter how you look on it, it just doesn’t sound that interesting. Which makes it all the more pleasing that in actual fact, its a very enlightening read.

I’m quite a latecomer to airshows – I’ve only ever been to one back in the early 90’s at the old HMS Daedelus in Gosport, and the last couple of years at Shoreham airshow. Its quite intereresting to read, therefore, that according to the author airshows were the second biggest participation events in Britain in the twentieth century, after football matches. Where this assertion comes from is not made clear, but all the same, as a spectacle the airshow holds a place in British social history.

The main focus of Ian Smith Watson is the RAF’s own official air displays from 1920, until the remaining annual display at RAF Leuchars. As a relatively young service the RAF has always had to gain the respect of the public, politicians and the other services, and as such it has learnt to market itself very effectively. As the operators of some seriously impressive hardware, the air show has become a valuable tool in the RAF’s PR armoury.

The first RAF airshows began soon after the service’s founding, in the early 1920’s at RAF Hendon. At that time it was still only some 20 years since the Wright brothers had flown at Kitty Hawk, and aircraft were still a novelty and a big draw to the public. Locally, the airshows at Portsmouth’s new airport in the early 1920’s drew thousands of spectators – at the time it was almost the equivalent of NASA displaying the Space Shuttle.

Although interrupted by the war years – when naturally enough the RAF had enough on its plate without putting on displays – after 1945 a return to peacetime conditions ensued. Recognising once more a need to promote the service and engage with the public the Battle of Britain at home days were devised. The anniversary of the Battle of Britain was chosen, as it was seen as the RAF’s finest hour. Its interesting that even so soon after the end of the war the RAF was distancing itself from the fallout of the Bomber offensive. The ‘at home’ concept saw as many RAF bases as possible throwing open their doors to the public, with static and flying displays.

The post-war contraction of the RAF, coupled with the changing performance of aircraft, saw the number of shows gradually decline until they were taking place more on a regional basis, with bases such as Biggin Hill, Abingdon, St Athan, Finningley and Leuchars hosting major events. Gradually official aerobatic display teams were formed, leading to the world-famous red arrows.

One interesting factor that Smith Watson looks at is the involvement of foreign air forces. In the early 1950’s the RAF decided against inviting foreign airforces – apart from the US and Canada – for practical and protocol reasons. Within a few years, however, and with the decline of the RAF’s inventory a u-turn saw much of the ‘at home’ air shows being padded-out with foreign participants. Given the ever-decreasing size of the RAF and operational commitments, sadly the only official RAF airshow is now at RAF Leuchars, and RAF commitment to other civilian-organised shows is on the wane.

Perhaps in places the author is over-nostalgic, for example his dislike for the RAF’s attempt at trialling a new modern kind of airshow in recent years. People change, and so does society, and it takes different ways to engage. The other drawback with this book is that it focuses only on official RAF airshows, whereas in the broader remit there are many other air-minded events that might be interesting to research. But all the same, this book points the reader in that direction.

I think any writer can take a fashionable or well-known subject and churn out a book, but it takes a very gifted writer to take such a specialist subject and make it readable to a wider audience. It might also make interesting reading for an RAF PR officer, thinking about how to promote the service in public minds, especially with spending cuts looming.

The Royal Air Force at Home: The History of RAF Air Displays from 1920 is published by Pen and Sword

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