Air Show Report : Al Ain Aerobatics Show 2006
On January 11-15, one of the first airshows of 2006 took place at Al Ain International Airport, in the Arab Emirate of Abu Dhabi. This first MILAVIA airshow report of 2006 is written by Helmut Skrdla (www.shotbyme.at) from Austria, all photos by the author.
Al Ain Aerobatics Show 2006
I guess it’s safe to assume that most of our readers are familiar with many airshows during the summer season here in the western world. Oceana, Oskosh, Edwards in the States and Farnborough, Duxford, Airpower and similar in Europe each year draw a large crowd of visitors..
But what do you do when it’s mid-january, damn cold outside, no airshows sheduled anywhere near you, and you’re getting bored of the usual Tornados, Hornets and Eagles anyway?
Simple, you board a plane to Dubai International Airport and quickly enter a world which is quite different to anything you’ve seen at home. Welcome to the United Arab Emirates!
Some Facts & Figures
The UAE are comprised of seven Emirates: Abu Dhabi, Ajman, Dubai, Fujairah, Ras al-Khaimah, Sharjah and Umm Al Quwain. Abu Dhabi is the geographically largest area, and includes the capitol city named likewise. Of course recently the city of Dubai has become a better-known name, especially for it’s luxurious holiday facilitys and the tremendously growing economy there.
The country borders on Saudi Arabia and Oman which can be considered to be peaceful neighbours, but to the north just across the Strait of Hormuz lies the iranian military airport of Bandar Abbas, and that may be one reason why the Emirates take their national defense seriously, spending around 3.0% of their GDP on their military.
The UAE Armed Forces consist of about 65.000 troops mostly made up of people from pakistan, india and other arab countrys (which also represent the majority of the civil workforce in a country where only about 18% of the population are natives) but the Officer’s Corps is almost entirely made up of locals.
The Air Force has always been very well equipped, with french Dassault Mirage III, Mirage 5 and Mirage 2000 as well as Hawk, Aeromacchi and Pilatus Trainers and mostly french helicopters.
But the biggest addition to their fleet recently were 80 Lockheed Martin F-16 Block 60, of which 55 are the single-seat E version and 25 are double-seat F Versions, the first sale of the Block 60 worldwide. The contract was signed in March 2000 and delivery finally began in May 2005. So far the Emirates have received 12 airframes – of which they already lost one during display rehearsals for Al Ain 2006 just a day before I left for the show. The plane was actually flown by an USAF Pilot who ejected safely.
Hitting the road
The garden city of Al Ain, built around an oasis and full of artificially maintained greenery, lies in the Emirate of Abu Dhabi, about a two hour’s drive from Dubai. Al Ain International Airport is, like most airports in the country, dual-use military and civil, normally home to the UAE Air Force Flight Academy operating BAe Hawks. But for the duration of the airshow it finds itself transformed into one huge airbase hosting as much as 100 airplanes and more than 500 pilots and technical personel.
Al Ain 06 marks the 4th happening of this annual show and is also an official part of the FAI World Grand Prix. Like most things in the Emirates, entry fees are very affordable – about 4 EUR for a standard day ticket and 20EUR for a VIP seat.
Interesting enough the VIP Grand Stand isn’t as usually located near the runway, but facing away from it at the edge of a parking ramp. While this means that take-off and landing shots are right out, it keeps the sun behind the observer for the whole duration of the flight displays, which makes for some excellent photographic opportunitys.
Getting on with the program
When we took our seats at noon (admittance doesn’t start earlier) we were actually surprised to be greeted by a large static lineup of R/C Jet Planes and Helicopters. Turns out that the German Jet Modelling team and their local UAE Counterpart also participate in the show. Who would have thought we were going to see the Red Arrows down there, even if just in miniature?
The displays flown by these small turbine-powered jets were amazing. Sadly we didn’t get to see the most impressive model fly due to crosswinds: an Airbus A380 replica in the colors of the national carrier Etihad, purpose-build for this show. The real one flew over the Dubai Aviation Ehibition a few months earlier but has since been repainted.
Next in the lineup were two world record attemps: One for the largest free-fly skydiver team ever (with more than 70 jumpers) and one for the largest flag ever carried by a parachutist (more than 7.5 meters in width). The records need to be verified but to me it seems they both passed. I was surprised to see that my countryman Dietrich Mateschitz, owner of the Red Bull energy drink company, extends his marketing even as far down as the middle east.
After the jumpers had left, we were treated to an absolutly crazy performance by Jim LeRoy on his customized Pitts S-2 Special nicknamed “Bulldog”. He came all the way from the USA for the FAI Grand Prix and I can honestly say I’ve never seen a more impressive aerobatics display. And I do love the Pitts.
One american performance gave way to another – Bob and Jenny Essel followed up on “Bulldog” with their quite unique wing-walking performance on an Ultralight. To be honest I’ve never cared much for wing walking or small prob planes, but it was an interesting “first” to see this combination.
By now we were becoming a bit impatient waiting for the first jet displays, but had to wait another few minutes while we witnessed a display of a privately owned Hughes 500C helicopter. I wasn’t complaining, as this was the first time I ever saw this type in real life.
Bring on the Jets already!
That about summed up our feelings by now. While most of the group I travelled with were all-around aviation enthusiasts, our common focus is on military and jet planes, not small prob aerobatics. When the next team was called up, privately owned Sasol Tigers from South Africa, we weren’t exactly thrilled; no one had ever heard of them and we weren’t expecting much. Boy, were we wrong.
Sponsored by Sasol, an South African company dealing in all kinds of industry chemicals, the team featured three pilots (Ralf Dominick, Martin van Straaten and Nigel Hopkins) on recently aquired L-29 Dolphin trainers painted in the sheme of the 41st Squadron of the Czech Airforce, which is a member of the NATO Tiger association.
Even though the aircraft doesn’t have much raw power, they flew an immensly precise display. I’ve seen most of the european display teams, and can honestly say that only a few match these guys in close formation flying. It remains to be hoped that we’ll see them in Europe or the USA one day because their performance is really excellent.
Following up on them were the Jordanian Falcons from the Royal Jordanian Airforce on their Extra-300’s. This team has occasionally been guest to european shows so they weren’t entirely new to me.
After yet more Probs we were really hungry for big jets by now. Thankfully the UAE Air Force delivered with two low & slow flybys each of a four-ship formation featuring their newest toys. Sadly there was no solo display flown on either type, likely due to the crash mentioned earlier.
The show continued with a true american classic, namely a Boeing Stearman flown by John Mohr. Again, I’m not usually a fan of these small birds, but the colorfull plane in front of the unusual desert backdrop made for an excellent display.
Following up on the Stearman we saw a presentation of the advanced PC-21 Turboprob trainer from the Pilatus Aircraft Company based in Switzerland. Obviously they would be happy to upgrade all their old PC-7 and PC-9 customers with the new type. This is truly an unique plane, which is said to be as close as 70% to a real jet in flying performance. The cockpit is a true “glass” layout very similar to any modern combat aircraft.
The red plane is prototype #2, which for a while was the only flyable example of this type after prototype #1 was lost, together with senior test pilot A. Ramsaier, in a crash pretty much a year ago. (13th Jan. 2005)
The Mazda “Zoom-Zooms” are, similar to the Sasol Tigers, another company-owned airshow team which flys the majority of their performances in South Africa, using Zlin 50 aerobatics planes. To their credit they have a very interesting display choreography, where one aircraft usually mirrors the other upside-down during most of the manouvers. Certainly an interesting way to advertise a car brand!
Breitling certainly is a well-known name in the aviation business, and they always made a point to maintain their own corporate airshow team in one way or another. After disbanding the Breitling Fighters (four old warbirds based at Duxford, very sad to see them gone) and procuring their Breitling Super Constellation, they are now also operating a 6-aircraft jet formation on L-39 Albatros Trainers (perhabs the largest privately owned jet formation in the world, based out of France). This team isn’t unknown in the european area; they have been performing at major airshows already, but I’ve never seen or heard about them personally, and so it was a joy to watch them for the first time.
…and Combat Helicopters!
I never had a chance to see an AH-64 Apache in the flesh so far. Well, the UAE Armed Forces were so kind to show me one, and in perfection. It’s interesting how used we’ve gotten to see them in the desert; it looks right at home in those pictures.
I also learned that the UAE were the only arabian country to send forces into the Kosovo conflict – the pilot of this beast had flown sorties there.
Going for another world record was Will Curtis, Pilot-in-Chief of british Team Honda, who holds the record for the longest “limbo” under 12 ribbons in a row which he set at RIAT 05, and now he was out to get himself a second world record for most ribbons cut. It took 16 brave volunteers to hold up the 8 ribbons for him to fly under and cut trough (on the first pair was his girlfriend and his team manager). After three abandoned attemps to cut them uside-down his fourth attemp flown upright succeded.
Greetings from Mother Russia
After he left the airspace, we already could hear a loud rumbling to our left. We were about to witness the heaviest fighter formation to ever fly team aerobatics – the Russian Knights.
Formerly only known to visitors of MAKS, the Russian air & space exhibition held yearly in Moscow, this team is relatively new to the european airshow circus. Sadly they left their brothers-in-arms, the russian Swifts on their MiG-29, at home this year. I’ve lamented the every growing reduction of russian jet planes at the Airpower show for a while, but for this year I definitly got my fill.
I’m looking back at this amazing trip half happy, half sad. Sad because it promised a lot more (UAE Hawk display, Saudi Hawks, Indian and Pakistan Air Force display team, russian Swifts to name but a few) and also because the second day of our airshow visit went down in a sand storm which forced the cancellation of Flight Ops for the whole day.
On the other hand, you can’t argue the pleasures of an airshow early in the year where you can run around with short-sleeved T-Shirts all day long, and you better not forget the sun screen. Also I had the feeling that for most display teams, security distances were a bit “relaxed” compared to normal european airshow procedures, which resulted in a lot of “close and personal” photo opportunitys. Only the Knights were quite noticeable flying a “safe” european standard program constantly pointing their lift vector away from the crowd.
If you want something nice and unusal on your airshow calendar early next year, you should definitly check out Al Ain 2007 and see what they have to offer. In combination with a week-long stay at Dubai to enjoy the beach, shopping and culture there, it is a very nice holiday opportunity for the whole family.
Thanks to Niels Hillebrand and MILAVIA for hosting this report, I hope you enjoyed reading this as much as I enjoyed writing it. And of course, if you want to see more of my aviation & fine-art photography, feel free to visit my website at http://www.shotbyme.at
Technical equipment details, perhabs of interest for other photographers:
6MP Nikon D70 DSLR
18-70mm 1:3.5-4.5 Nikkor
100-300mm 1:4 Sigma
Report and photos by Helmut Skrdla ( view portfolio )