LIAS, Revisited

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During the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, I was beginning to travel across North America in search of larger and more diverse air shows than those in my backyard of New England. This was the time before widespread use of the Internet and electronic media, and it involved searching in the land of land mail and magazines for any tidbit of information about an interesting theme or an exotic visitor from another shore. Plus, I had a network of friends who, via long distance telephone, would pass along news of interest to me, and I would return the favor when I could.

As I wasn’t connected with any friends or family who lived on military bases and would be able to bring me aboard to watch any Friday practice air shows and to photograph the arriving planes, I usually went in with the public on Saturday and Sunday and took my (film) pictures with everyone else. This all changed one year, when my circle of friends expanded, and I learned about the “photo tour” at the London International Air Show (LIAS). As Jeff recounted the 1988 show, which featured thirty McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantoms assembled for the thirtieth year of the jet’s operation, I was hooked. Additionally, a special photo pass that allowed for access to the ramps on Friday, and early entry to the grounds on Saturday and Sunday, allowed for uncluttered photos and opportunities to meet up with other enthusiasts.

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My friend Scott and I decided that we had to go, so in 1990, I flew to Toronto (that’s another story…) and drove the two hours west to the airport in London. Originally a civilian flying field that was built around the beginning of World War II, it was home to some British Commonwealth Air Training Plan activity through 1944. Over the years, the airport grew to serve the local area with access to several airlines and space for business flying. Located in a generally flat farming area, it has seemingly limitless visibility for an air show.

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There’s a saying that goes “you always remember your first…”, and my first LIAS set a new standard for my plane spotting and aviation photography access expectations. Sure, it cost me about four times the amount of general admission, but it came with a good parking space near the entrance to the show, and the currency exchange rate between U. S. and Canadian dollars was in my favor too. I spent all day at my private air show with about fifty other enthusiasts, I made some new friends and caught up on a few older friendships.

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I stood in awe watching Don Spering, a legendary F-4 Phantom expert who, as a civilian, had thousands of hours in the rear seat in Phantoms and other fast jets as a photographer. He and a group of “pros” would have access to the ramps in his van, taking photos for the next year’s official air show program. That inspired me to reach for a higher level of photography skill and competency, where I too could be published in the glossy, official program magazine. After the ropes were strung around the static aircraft at the end of the day, and during a two-hour window before the crowds were allowed into the show the next morning, I carefully exposed a handful of thirty-six exposure rolls of Kodachrome 64 and Gold 100 film. Heaven on earth, at least for a few hours!

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Over the next decade or so, I continued to participate in the Photo tour pogram, being able to improve my photo skills and collection and watch another full day of planes in the sky (Friday) under the most satisfying conditions. NATO partner aircraft ventured south from their training base at Goose Bay, Labrador, U.S. military airplanes arrived from both coasts and bases everywhere in between, and of course, the Canadian Forces supplied many aircraft and their crews to support the show. Upwards of seventy-five or more aircraft were on static display; another few dozen flew each day, including the Snowbirds.

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Easily four out of five flying acts were active military, although there were some warbirds, antique classics, and a few civilian performers too (remember the Ray Ban Golds?). I remember one Friday arrival day when a group of us became disappointed as a white and orange T-28 Trojan entered the landing pattern from the overhead. We were hoping for fast jets, not warbird props… But, imagine our surprise when this U.S. Army-owned and -operated chase aircraft from Fort Bragg/Pope AFB pulled up to park – a very rare active military plane to be sure. We even found out that it was one of the last T-28s in the U.S. inventory still active, and would be replaced by Pilatus PC-9 and then Beech T-34 turboprops the following years.

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Talking with air crew members, the fact that a national Canadian brewery was helping to sponsor the show didn’t hurt attendance from the civil and military attendees… plus, jet fuel was inexpensive back then, and the many “go-arounds” and low passes accomplished a training objective as well as announced yet another afterburning jet arriving for the show! I remember a series of mock airfield attack arrival maneuvers by a quartet of Canadian Forces CF-5 fighters, and later, by a pair of Royal Netherlands Air Force F-16s… both groups seemed to need to climb to clear the hangars next to the runway. The noise of a high speed jet passing by, trailing unseen vortices, is still unforgettable. It was truly a haven for a military aviation enthusiast.

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For a while, I was fortunate to meet some fantastically entertaining and knowledgeable aviation historians, photographers, and air crew while I attended some half dozen shows at London. My string of good luck was broken by my career’s schedule change… weekend shows wouldn’t be in the offing for me for a while. Robert “Bob” Dorr, a prolific writer and historian was one man, who sadly passed away earlier this year. Another photographer, Frank Ertl, was an F-4 “Phantom Phanatic”, with whom I’d swap photos from various events throughout the years… Frank lived in London, and had some great stories about Canadian and U.S. military aviation that he’d share when we met up. As a matter of fact, Frank contributed to Photorecon.net and ClassicWarbirds.net – our pair of interconnected web sites – for the past few years, until his untimely death earlier this year too. One fun event, not directly connected to the air show, was the Friday night slide show given by a few photographers at London’s Howard Johnson’s motel. Remember, this was before the Internet!

The show ran for about fifteen consecutive years, but after changes in sponsorship and personnel in the early 2000’s, it ended its’ initial run of aerial excitement. However, a dozen years later, Air Show London will commence in mid-September 2016, and I will be back with my photo pass in hand, ready for some excitement.

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Some things haven’t changed… Friday arrivals and Saturday/Sunday early access for photos is still included in the photo pass. The Snowbirds are the featured performer, and military aircraft from the U.S. and Canada are still emphasized. Hornets, a B-1 bomber, Boeing KC-135 and RC-135 jets, and a multitude of Canadian military aircraft are all expected to attend.

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Some things have changed though… the name of the show is now Air Show London (ASL) instead of the familiar (to me) LIAS. There are no more F-4 Phantoms to watch (nor are there U.S. Navy A-7s and F-14s, German Alpha Jets, RAF Victor tankers, and many more types).

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There’s a new feature – the Friday evening Hour of Power now, with the F-22, CF-18 and the Snowbirds providing short air show performances as a prelude to the weekend’s shows. A Royal Air Force (from Great Britain) aerial tanker, a modified A-330 transport, is operated by a civilian contractor now, instead of Royal Air Force personnel. And the U.S. Air Force’s F-22 Raptor, another featured performer, wasn’t even in production when the shows began during the late 1980s.

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So, here’s a look at a few past London International Air Shows; expect a review of the 2016 Air Show London event to be published here in a few weeks, and I’ll contrast the two.

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