Abbotsford International Air Show
Canada’s national air show is held in Abbotsford, British Columbia each year for 3 days (the show has been running since 1962). Abbotsford is just across the border from Washington state, USA.
Originally I had planned to attend the show on August 13th on a bus tour from Seattle, this would save the hassle of renting a car and driving up there. Alas one week out from the show the bus was cancelled due to low early registration numbers (apparently they have run the bus every year for some time and this is the first time it was cancelled – a sign of the times I guess?). So it looked like I was not going to go. But there were too many aircraft flying at this show that I had not seen before and the weather was going to be good, so at the last minute I was able to get a cheap deal on a rental car and the trip was back on (I decided to go on the friday to avoid the weekend crowds)!
The major draw card for the 2011 show was to be the US Air Force F-22 Raptor air superiority fighter. I was hoping to see this incredible aircraft fly on a bright sunny day, especially after watching the F-22 demo team performance earlier this year in the brutal wet and cold conditions of “Thunder Over Louisville” (the grey skies really were not much good for photos). Unfortunately back in May 2011 a pilot crashed one in Alaska (due to a possible lack of oxygen) and they have been grounded since then as they work out what happened, so the demo team was going to be a no show. This is the premiere air defence fighter in the world mind you and they are all stuck on the ground…hurry up!
So the USAF West Coast A-10 Thunderbolt II (“Warthog”) demo team stepped in to take their place (a veritable flying cannon – it has a massive 30mm tank busting GAU-8 Avenger heavy rotary cannon that is almost half the length of the aircraft fuselage! This gun would shred to pieces even the mighty and heavily armoured M1A1 Abrams Main Battle Tank used by the US, Australia and a number of Arab nations). I had hoped it would be the F-15E Strike Eagle demo team as I have never seen a Strike Eagle (the only US fighter I have not seen in either a static or air display), but the A-10 is an awesome machine and the demo team always put on a great show, so a good (but very different aircraft) compromise I think.
At 5.45am I set off for Canada. Abbotsford is only a 2.5 hour drive from Seattle, but it was interesting how many people were surprised that I was driving that far just for one day (including customs officials in both Canada and the USA). Back in Australia I have driven more than twice that distance to see far less!
For the entire trip I was driving in fog! Before reaching the city of Bremerton, Washington I left the I-5 and went on to Highway 9 (a rural road that winds its way through a number of small towns through farmland, driving through cornfields in the eery fog I had images of “Children of the Corn” running through my head!) to reach the border town of Sumas (US side) to get through customs. Just prior to Sumas I stopped in a little town called Nooksack, quite a ridiculous name (an Australian colloquialism springs to mind!). The town had nothing memorable to note other than its name and the strong smell of cow dung! The corn fields were nice and green though!
At the border customs post you stay in your car, show them your documents and answer the usual questions – Where? Why? How Long? etc….”One day only?!” (aka “are you crazy?”…look its really not that far!). From there it was a short drive to Abbotsford Airport. This is quite a big airport and I was surprised at the large runways etc (big enough for a B-52 bomber to take off from). I was there early enough that I could drive in without any wait.
I had planned to catch up with some Canadian friends who live in Abbotsford at the air show but they unfortunately were suffering from food poisoning, so another late scratching from the event. Unfortunate that I couldn’t catch up with them, but during the day I met plenty of like minded enthusiasts including a guy who flew the Douglas EB-66 “Destroyer” (electronic recon and counter measures aircraft) in the Vietnam war for the USAF. Many interesting stories were shared whilst waiting in lines to inspect an aircraft or for the next flying display to keep me amused. An interesting display was put on by the Indy Boys and their jet powered school bus (it has a F-4 Phantom jet engine built into it)!
Static Aircraft Display
It was quite strange walking around the static displays seeing huge aircraft like the Lockheed C-5 Galaxy and Boeing B-52H Stratofortess shrouded in morning fog! But it was not cold, I was wearing shorts and didn’t feel it at all (unlike some early Avalon International Air Shows in Australia where the weather could be quite cold in the morning. Jerome Murnane and I camped at the airstrip across the road in 95…damn that was cold, but worth it to see all those Russian planes, especially the Su-27 Flanker doing the “Cobra“! Brings back memories of comical moments trying to set up a tent in the dark!).
Once the sun came up over Abbotsford the fog burnt off very quickly. I think the day ended up being around 26 degrees celsius (78 F) so it was pretty warm and sunny in the end (I imagine there would have been a lot of sunburnt people by the end of the day, given you are out in the open looking up to the skies for most of the day. Not me though – plenty of sunscreen).
Unlike many air shows I have been to, a number of the larger aircraft were open for inspection including getting into the aircraft cockpit. Many of the jet fighter aircraft also had platforms where you could take a look inside the cockpit (Sabre, A-10, F-16) and a number of helicopters were available for a close up look (such as the US Coast Guard HH-65, Canadian Bell CH-412 Griffon and Augusta Westland CH-419 Cormorant). Being early on a Friday the crowds were not huge so the queues were relatively short.
I went inside a number of USAF and Canadian Air Force aircraft including:
Lockheed C-5 Galaxy Massive USAF transport, with the cockpit being 30 feet up high, you get up there via a stair ladder;
McDonnell Douglas KC-10 Extender Air to air refueller and transport, this also included a tour in the underbelly refueller boom control station – stunk of aviation gas, but the controller said he doesn’t even notice anymore! High?);
Lockheed CP-140 Aurora Modified Canadian version of the P-3 Orion maritime patrol aircraft – had a very different and much roomier layout inside to the RAAF and US Navy versions I have seen before;
North American B-25 Mitchell WW2 era bomber – very cramped inside, I had to crawl on hands and knees to get into the nose gunners position via a small tunnel under the cockpit! I can only imagine how difficult this would have been in a flying aircraft under combat conditions!. This was a highlight for me, as it is a rare opportunity to get an inside inspection of such a historical aircraft.
So what is Poutine? Well it’s not a French delicacy, but more of a French Canadian comfort food of fries, gravy and cheese curds. A very tasty treat and lucky for me in the concession stands of the air show was the La Poutinerie with numerous types of poutine, I went for the traditional style (excellent, especially with homestyle cut fries like these) but you can have it with various types of meats and gravies if you so desire. Try it out if up that way (yes its just chips, cheese and gravy – but with better cheese and a different type of gravy!). Poutine, Tim Hortons doughnuts and milk in a bag are some key elements of Canadian life I guess?!
The air displays were marked by great variety spanning early aircraft from the 1930’s, WW2, Korean, Vietnam wars through to modern day fighter aircraft and aerobatics aircraft.
Highlights included the warbirds: Supermarine Spitfire Mk.IX, Hawker Sea Fury (fitted with unique wing tip smoke generators that left amazing patterns of smoke trails and rings in the sky), North American P-51 Mustang, Douglas A-1 Skyraider and the aerobatic aircraft pilots were world class.
There was a great search and rescue demonstration by the very large Augusta Westland CH-419 Cormorant helicopter (painted in bright yellow) and the jets including the 1950’s era Fouga Magister and the mighty Canadair CL-16 Sabre (the fastest Sabre, outclassing the US North American F-86 version and even slightly faster than the Avon engined RAAF CAC Sabre….but ours had 30mm cannons instead of the standard 6 x 0.50 cals!), plus more modern fighters such as the McDonnell Douglas CF-18 Hornet (Canadian AF) and the Fairchild Republic A-10 Thunderbolt II (USAF) put on great flying displays.
Both the Canadian AF and USAF put on a Heritage Flight display where the modern fighters fly in formation with historic aircraft (USAF was the A-10 and A-1, CAF was the CF-18, Sabre and Canadair CT-114 Tutor). The B-25 Mitchell was prepared to fly, but something must have gone wrong and it did not take off (better to be safe than sorry).
The Canadian Forces also put on a tactical assault demonstration using troops, vehicles, the Bell CH-412 Griffon helicopter and 2 CF-18 Hornets. Lots of gun fire and explosions!
The finale of the show was by the Canadian Forces Snowbirds demonstration team flying nine Canadair CT-114 Tutor jet trainers. Painted in Red and White the national colours of Canada, and flying in such a large formation makes for a pretty impressive display! They did a number of “big sky” formation loops and passes, plus head on passes by two aircraft, close formation flying, barrel rolls around other aircraft etc. Good to see they havent gone the way of a number of air forces including the RAAF and use piston engined prop trainers, much more impressive with jets (even if they are old. The Tutor is now only used by the Snowbirds in the Canadian Air Force)!
Next year will be the 50th anniversary for the air show, and they plan a big celebration. I shall return!