WITH a record number of advance ticket sales, Shoreham Airshow began today with an air of optimism and excitement.
Less than three hours later, the mood had turned to sadness and shock as the Hawker Hunter jet dropped to the ground and exploded on impact.
Hot and sunny, the scene had been set for a perfect day of aerobatics and flying displays.
The Blades, celebrating a milestone year, set the ball rolling with their breathtaking aerobatics.
A leading display team of former Red Arrows pilots, they gave a breathtaking start to proceedings, with the crowd being told ‘don’t worry, this is supposed to happen’ as the planes came close together.
Local pilot Justyn Gorman followed, before Peter Troy-Davies wowed the crowd in a Calidus Autogyro, a rotary winged aircraft.
By now, the winds were up to 15 knots with a slightly stiff breeze and a crosswind, which is not unusual at Shoreham.
Always popular at Shoreham Airshow, the Tiger Nine team was displaying just six aircraft this year, having been affected by early fog.
They flew a special V formation in tribute to the Vulcan, which was expected at 2.05pm for one of its last ever flights.
With the crosswinds whipping up, 27-year-old Lauren Richardson, who started flying only about eight years ago, gave a thrilling display in a Pitts Special.
The Twister aerobatic team was due to fly a twin display today but in the event, only one was in the air, piloted by Chris Burkett.
An aerodynamicist, he has designed wings for Formula 1 cars and sails for record-breaking yachts.
Then began the RAF contribution to Shoreham Airshow, with Andy Preece flying the RAF Tutor, followed by crowd favourite, the RAF Falcons.
The Tutor was displaying a special tail fin for the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Britain.
The parachute display team exited their aircraft at 4,000ft while commentator Terence Henderson explained that every fall is a military training exercise.
Their impressive formations demonstrated why they are widely regarded as the best parachute dispay team in the world.
During the hour’s lunch break, the crowd was treated to a display of model aircraft, culminating in a duo display by a model and full-size aircraft.
Ironically, Mr Henderson then announced: “We will be starting after lunch with a bang.”
Opening the afternoon’s programme just before 1.30pm, Mr Henderson, describing the arrival of the Hawker Hunter jet, said: “That is such a beautiful aeroplane.”
Arriving from Kent, it flew across in front of the crowd, began a loop, went up in the air then came down very low to the north of the airfield.
As it hit the ground, it burst into flames, one section appearing to break off and continue airbourne, then coming down in flames about 200 yards away.
Both sections were by now balls of fire and there was thick black smoke as the crowd stood in shock waiting to hear what had happened.
As the full horror of the crash began to be felt, the Sea Vixen, already in the air in anticipation of the next display, flew in salute overhead, a silent tribute to its fallen colleague.
Mr Henderson announced: “This is a most unfortunate event. Please be assured that everything that can be done is being done.”
Half an hour later, the Avro Vulcan, the aircraft everyone wanted to see in its swansong season, arrived.
It had no other displays on its programme today, it was flying especially for Shoreham Airshow. Knowing everyone wanted to see it flying, despite the shock of the crash, it made one respectful flypast for those who may never see it in the air again.
“In tribute to the Hawker Hunter, the Vulcan will do a flyby and not do any form of display,” said Mr Henderson.
“I know you will understand why we do this but I would like you to please pause a moment while the Vulcan flies through.”
The sound of applause rang out across the airfield as people stood solemnly watching.
“I thank you for your reaction,” said Mr Henderson.
There was no more flying today and no aircraft was able to leave the airfield.
People were asked not to leave at first and later were told the only way out was on foot by the southern entrance.
People waiting to leave the airshow talked of their utter shock at the unexpected scene.
Shoreham Airshow regular Simon Hildrew, 53, from Chichester was there with his family.
He said: “I did not see the plane go down but heard a massive thump. I thought it was a sonic boom.
“Everyone stood there in shock and then started making their way up the field to see what had happened.
“I got up and saw the smoke. It was shocking.
“There is always a risk to these things, though accidents are extremely rare. Having said that, there have been a couple of accidents at airshows this year.
“I always come to this airshow. We always have a great time, we never miss it. We have been coming for ten years now. We are really sad and are thinking about the pilot and his family.”
There remained a very subdued atmosphere among the crowd throughout the afternoon as people waited for permission to leave in vehicles. With many families, the driver was staying on site while the rest try to make their way home on foot or by public transport.
Airshow commentator Terence Henderson thanked everyone for their patience.
It wasn’t until 5.45pm that a special route was set up across the airfield for coaches of veterans to leave, including one from Queen Alexandra Hospital Home in Worthing and another from Blind Veterans UK in Brighton.
Just after 6.30pm, it was announced that tomorrow’s airshow had been cancelled and that people could collect their cars at any time on Sunday.
Mr Henderson said: “How very sorry we are for the events that have occurred today.”
He said the crowd had been wonderful in its response and said drivers could now begin to leave by the south gate. Police would be stopping cars to ask people for video footage to aid the investigation.
He added: “Thank you for your continued patience and extreme goodwill.”
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