RAFA Airshows: Jewel of Jersey
Jersey’s annual free air display has been a feature of the post-war years in the Channel Islands – key.aero thinks it should be considered as one of the UK’s premier events.
Regular visitor B-17G 'Pink Lady' flies past the flag of the States of Jersey. Key - Gary Parsons. All other images courtesy Bob Franklin
Twenty years ago, the suggestion of 'doing' Jersey’s International Airshow would have been met with howls of laughter and the recommendation to get one's head examined - it wasn't just the difficulty and expense of getting to the jewel of an island just a few miles off the French mainland, but also the fact that the 'show' was just a couple of hours’ duration with a handful of acts. Times have changed though, as today Jersey has an airshow line-up to rival many other mainland events, and the advent of low-cost airlines means it is neither difficult, nor expensive, to do it in a day.
It's always a pleasure to visit Jersey’s sun-kissed shores, regardless of the purpose of the journey, and with just a forty-minute flight from southern airports one can be there at eight o'clock in the morning, leaving a full day in which to explore the tiny island if the airshow isn't your thing (but then why would you be reading this!).
Established in the early 1950s to raise funds for the Royal Air Force Association (Jersey) Branch, the airshow takes place over St Aubin's Bay, just a few hundred yards from downtown St Helier and the main harbour. Having a captive audience, in the past the airshow provided the islanders with a flavour of the RAF's inventory, but today is aimed at promoting Jersey and attracting visitors to the island in the post-school holiday season. It seems to be succeeding, because in recent years all hotels were fully booked for the week and the Jersey Tourist board has been genuinely excited at the level of interest, now eclipsing some much older traditional Jersey events.
Jersey's Airshow Director, the irrepressible Mike Higgins.The event has evolved thanks to the enthusiasm and energy of its Director Mike Higgins, who encouraged the display committee twelve years ago to expand from its two-hour format to a five-hour event featuring acts not normally seen elsewhere in the UK. Operating from the Airport's Aero Club, the organisation (Jersey International Air Display a.r.l.) has no full-time staff and Mike and his team organise the airshow in their spare time – no mean feat when dealing with the Ministry of Defence and other foreign nation air offices. The display coordinator is none other than Les Garside-Beattie, former Station Commander of RAF Valley and Red Arrows Team Manager, ably assisted by Clive Rowley, ex-Battle of Britain Flight.
The airshow has grown over the last few years to the point where aircraft parking now takes all the available ramp space at the airport, with helicopters parking on the adjacent grass areas. Jersey Airport's history began in 1912, when Jean Benoist landed his Sanchez-Besa biplane in St Aubin's Bay as part of a four-aircraft race organised between St Malo and Jersey. Air services before 1937 consisted of biplane airliners and some seaplanes landing on the extensive beach at St Aubin's Bay – Jersey Airways and Imperial Airways were among those that operated to the island before the war, but conditions were difficult as timetables were governed by the tide. It was also difficult to prevent members of the public from walking across the landing area, and any aircraft that had mechanical problems had to be dragged up the slipways until the tide receded.
So, the States of Jersey built an airport at St Peter, close to St Aubin's Bay, which opened on March 10, 1937 with four grass runways. Concrete taxiways were added during the occupation by the Luftwaffe, which also built hangars, one of which is still in existence. A 4,200 ft tarmac runway was opened in 1952, with traffic lights in place to prevent vehicles using the road from Les Quennevais to the Airport when planes were being moved to or from the hangars.
The Scandinavian Historic Flight's P-51D Mustang taxis past Jersey's terminal.The runway was lengthened over the years, reaching 5,600 ft in 1976, although it was still on the short side for commercial airliner operations. Since 2007 a major programme of capital works has been implemented, including the resurfacing and re-profiling of the airport’s runway and the proposed construction of a new air traffic control tower in 2010. The Channel Islands' fleet of Islanders and Trislanders keep it busy, with approximately 80,000 aircraft movements annually and 1.5 million passenger movements each year.
For the airshow, a small static park is open to visitors early morning and late evening for a small charge, where all the participating aircraft can be viewed. It's then a couple of miles to the main display arena set 200m offshore, with Elizabeth Castle making a unique and picturesque backdrop like no other airshow.
As with most seafront airshows, the promenade acts as the crowdline, with trade stalls and other attractions arranged along the avenue, which is closed to traffic for the afternoon. A sizeable crowd, usually estimated at 50,000, will gather and be joined offshore by a flotilla of private yachts and small boats looking for the best seat in the house. Jersey's opulence brings a ‘Monaco Grand Prix’ flair to the airshow, with champers flowing freely and skimpy bikinis prevalent in the Mediterranean-like weather often experienced – the distractions aren't all aeroplane-shaped!
As it's a free airshow, it relies entirely on volunteers and could not survive without sponsors, many of who are wealthy Jersey residents. Jersey Tourism is also heavily committed to the airshow, promoting the week and arranging accommodation for the participating aircrew. Jersey Tourism is the marketing organisation and visitor services centre with the remit to enhance tourism and promote the island as a tourist destination. It comprises a Board of States Members and representatives from the tourism industry. Formed in May 2003, it was established to provide the industry with a forum where they could contribute in a meaningful way to decisions that affect them. The Board helps fund the airshow together with sponsors, enabling a free show to be staged. Certainly now that the airshow has reached the prominence it has, and with low-cost airfares to the island becoming readily available, Jersey Tourism should consider the airshow as perhaps its greatest asset.
Mike Higgins welcomes the Flamant pilots and crew. It's the friendly nature of the airshow why so many airshow acts come back year after year.“It's been the most difficult one yet,” have been Mike Higgins’ words after each of the last three airshows. "It's getting to the point where it's not enjoyable any more. Fuel costs have doubled to the point we made a small loss in 2007." With the recent credit crunch, sponsorship has been scarce, leaving Mike in the situation that to break even he needed to sell about 5,000 programmes – a daunting task on such a small island.
That the island loves its airshow is in no doubt: in 2009 the hotels were full again, despite the summer season drawing to a close. Crowds flocked to the airport to see the static displays, with the Red Arrows always getting admiring glances.
Mike still maintains his infectious enthusiasm and has big plans for the future – he sees the airshow as Jersey's biggest tourist attraction of the year, outstripping the 'Battle of the Flowers' event that was previously the island's crowd-puller. "We normally hold the event the same week as RAF Leuchars, so we can share the aircraft," he said, "but if 15 September falls on a Thursday we always make it that date."
Jersey is now a viable option for the regular airshow visitor and provides an ambience unmatched by anywhere else on the UK mainland. In less than an hour you can be in this island paradise for the day – sun, sea, sand and aeroplanes – what more could you want?
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