– Steve Hitchen
The only full air show to be held in Australia since March 2020, Wings over Illawarra (WOI) went ahead at Shellharbour Airport last weekend despite the odds being decidedly stacked against it. After being canceled for last year, postponed from May this year then pushed back a further two weeks, a lot needed to go right in order for the gates to open on WOI 2021.
Not everything went right, but enough did to give aviation a great party and the general public their first close encounter of the aviation kind for many a long month.
With the final approval for the air show coming through only a couple of days before hand, the event organisers Bright Events went onto war footing to make sure everything they did complied not only with the air show regulations, but also the COVID precautions dictated by NSW health. In the end, apart from the usual check-in Q-codes and double-vax checks, the health regulations made very little impact on the crowd's ability to enjoy the show.
That great slayer of air shows, the weather, baulked a few aircraft from getting into Shellharbour Airport in the days leading up to the show, and relegated other would-be fly-ins to getting there by car, but the die-hards that could get there did. On the Saturday, the weather kicked holes in the display program with the much-heralded RAAF F-35 and Hornet Four scrubbing, and the warbird assets of 100 SQN RAAF remaining on the ground at their Temora base.
But the show went on as the show must. With the weather switching with little warning between low overcast, drifting misty drizzle and outright rain, the ringmaster and his team put things in the sky when the weather allowed. Mainstays Paul Bennet and Matt Hall are always mesmerising regardless of the weather and the private warbirds of the Ross Pay collection provided enough action for the crowd to stop thinking about what wasn't there.
The hero of the day was the F/A-18 Hornet singleton routine from Jason "Easty" Easthope, who brought an example down from Williamtown for a swansong performance for the public. The Hornets, now dubbed "Classic Hornets" arrived in Australia in 1983 and entered service the following year. They've more that done their service including providing excitement at many Australian air shows over the years. With the F-35 coming assuming the fighter mantle, the original F/A-18 model was retired from service the day after the show.
Support for the last F/A-18 came on the Sunday after conditions cleared enough for one F-35 to make it through. Although it has only one tailpipe compared to the twin outlets of the Hornets, the F-35 display was as exciting as anything its Hornet predecessor had put on.
Even when there was nothing in the sky, there was always a lot on the ground. The Historical Aircraft Restorations Society (HARS) opened their doors and rolled out some large and memory-provoking aeroplanes for inspection and sent their Caribou, Grumman Tracker and Neptune out onto the flight line, although the Tracker was restricted to a ground demonstration of folding wings in concert with the Avenger and Corsair.
Part of the inactive runway was given over to the GA expo, with tents sheltering companies like AvPlan, CASA, Bose, Garmin and Sydney Flying College. The GA presence was thinned-out by the weather, but traders reported good traffic through the stands. AWPA and Women in Aviation also flew their flags over the weekend.
On the Sunday, the sky was more co-operative, permitting the 100 SQN fleet from Temora Aviation Museum to slip over the range and into Albion Park. The warbird turn-out of RAAF assets from years past looked a lot healthier with the Hudson, Boomerang, Wirraway and Spitfire all decorating the sky. One of the great sights for those in the know was the passes from the English Electric Canberra, which has been in deep maintenance so long that many thought she'd never fly again.
When the last engine shut down on the Sunday and the crowd turned their backs on the runway and headed for the gates, the organisation team took a well-earned few hours off before they had to think about packing up everything they'd worked so hard to unpack.
The general feeling in the outfield and the VIP tent was that we had just witnessed a miracle; one brought about by sweat and hard work more than prayer. To Mark Bright and his late wife Kerry, and the whole WOI organising team, aviation owes a great debt for putting on WOI 2021 when it would have been easier to just cancel it for another year.