BY sheer luck, my two-day visit to the English south-east coastal town of Eastbourne coincided with Day One of the resort’s annual four-day free seafront aviation show.
Travel with Dusty Miller
Known as “Airbourne” (a pun, geddit?) the show starred the Royal Air Force’s globe-trotting display team the Red Arrows among many other not much lesser attractions.
It was the 20th anniversary of the show and, as it is of world-wide importance to flight fans, the town burst at the seams.
I hadn’t known anything about the show when I agreed to visit ex-Zimbo pals comfortably settled there since the days of the Zim dollar, shortages and hyper-inflation.
But I did scroll a swift reconnaissance of the place. It seems Dr Richard Russell wrote a dissertation in 1752 extolling the medicinal benefits of the British seaside; his ideas had a major boost when, in 1780, four children of the raving loony King George III (Princesses Sophia and Elizabeth, Princes George and Octavius) enjoyed a summer holiday there.
The holiday trade was presumably temporarily on hold when Napoleon began sabre-rattling and as a result 14 Martello Towers (several of which survive) and the Redoubt Fortress were built to house infantry and artillery to repel any French invasion of Eastbourne.
Biggest local landowner was William Cavendish, Earl of Burlington, (later the ultra-wealthy Duke of Devonshire) who decided Eastbourne was perfect for holidays.
He commissioned an architect to swan across Europe spying on similar resorts and was determined to live up to his motto of “building a town for gentlemen, by gentlemen”
It had a laid-back genteel reputation and attracted many colonial civil servants and officers to retire there. Eastbourne is very sheltered and is supposed to be consistently the sunniest spot in the British Isles. It has long shingle/pebble beaches and is an hour south of Gatwick airport by road or rail. (Emirates fly there from Harare, via Dubai).
It took about an hour 45 minutes by train from Eastbourne to Victoria Station, London; it’s about 20 minutes’ drive from a more raffish neighbour, Brighton; within the Eastbourne municipal area is famous/infamous Beachy Head, the highest chalk cliff in the UK and world’s third most popular suicide site.
Eastbourne had a torrid time in World War II; many fine Victorian and Edwardian buildings were either damaged or destroyed by Luftwaffe bombs. The RAF said it was the most raided town in the south-east.
Thousands of Canadian troops who had trained nearby sailed from Eastbourne for the D-Day liberation of Europe.
In 1957, Eastbourne hit the headlines when a local GP, Dr John Bodkin Adams was charged with murdering several wealthy patients.
He could have hanged; after what was called the trial of the year, was found not guilty, but struck off and forbidden to practice medicine.
Scotland Yard believes he killed 173 patients who had named him in their wills. Apart from cash and property he was left two Rolls-Royces.
The sunniest spot in Britain was swathed in thick sea mist on opening day of Airbourne and the first two items on the display programme were sadly cancelled: Royal Navy Raiders Free-fall parachuting team and a display of the Tucano T1 basic fast jet raining plane.
But we did see the Breitling Wing-Walkers: stunningly pretty girls doing gymnastics on the top wing of 1940s-era Boeing Stearman bi-planes. (There was a strong presence of Royal National Lifeboat Institution craft patrolling the bay, in case of accidents.)
Then the Jet Provost T5, giving an exhibition of flying at times reaching around 700 km/h, powered by a Rolls-Royce Viper Mk 102 engine.
Next was the ruggedly effective and potent fighter the Curtiss P40 Kittyhawk or “Warhawk” as she was popularly known, which performed valiantly in the WWII China-Burma-India campaign. The model we saw was from 1943 and issued to the Royal Canadian Air Force.
She was capable of 580km/h and was the plane flown by the colourful American volunteer group the Flying Tigers, chalking up 297 confirmed kills.
Then The Blades, former RAF Red Arrow pilots, now civilians, followed by the stars of many spectators’ show: The Battle of Britain Memorial Flight of the RAF, featuring a Lancaster bomber and Spitfire and Hurricane fighters. This is an RAF unit which is known as a “Museum without walls” and a “Living and Breathing Tribute” to “The Few” who made the final sacrifice in the Battle.
(Battle of Britain Sunday is tomorrow. There’s a memorial service at Athol Evans Chapel followed by a Royal Society of St George lunch at Wild Geese Lodge.)
Next was a display by the Tutor T1, a plane made and equipped specially for the RAF by Grob Aerospace between 1999 and 2002. The aircraft is 96% carbon-fibre of semi-monocoque construction and fully aerobatic. Power plant is a Textron-Lycoming 10-360 piston engine rated at 180hp and capable of 343 km/h.
Then a solo display by a different Spitfire, the MkIX; Built by Vickers Supermarine in 1944 it saw service with the RCAF and was used for technical training and gunnery practice by the Irish Air Corps.
“Breathtaking”, was the only world to describe the penultimate display on the first day of the event. We saw the F16 MLU, also known as the Lockheed Martin Fighting Falcon, the only fighter left with the Belgian Air Component. Exciting, truly fantastic displays reached 1 460km/h.
The Red Arrows, in nine BAE Hawks capable of over 1 000km/h were in their 49th display season, having appeared at more than 4 000 aviation events in 52 countries and were welcomed back to Eastbourne having missed 2012’s show due to international commitments. Their skill, bravery and daredevil aerobatics display defies words.
My Eastbourne host and I had to be in London for a Zimbo reunion lunch on a floating restaurant on the Thames on the Friday, otherwise we would have seen,in addition to the above, a SWIP Team (Scottish Widows Investment Partnership) flying Silence Twisters; Westland Lynx helicopters; two of the Planes from the Disney film of that name released in the UK on August 16; Chinook H2C helicopter and Typhoon FGR 4, the Eurofighter which can reach almost 2 000km/h.
During the rest of the display, two French Dassault Flamants built in 1947 for colonial communications were due to show their paces, as was a Sabre (US Air Force F-86), reputed to be the first plane to break the sound barrier in 1947 and a Hawker Hunter named Miss Demeanour!
Also the British Army’s Tigers parachute team and the RV8TORS. The RV8 is a high performance aerobatic two-seater home-built kit aircraft.
This was my first trip to Eastbourne but I feel sure it won’t be my last.
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