“An epic experience treasured by all participants”
The Al Ain show since its inception in 2003, has been the Arabian Gulf’s premier aerobatic event. Participants are invited from around the world to enthral dignitaries and families alike for three consecutive days.
We were notified of our invitation to participate in the annual Al Ain Air-show just before the Rand Air Show on 29 September 2013. Excited at the thought and overwhelmed by what preparations lay ahead we kept constant contact for the next two months.
Visas and leave from our normal airline jobs had to be attained, while Dennis Spence and his team disassembled the four Pitts Specials for shipment. Each one neatly packed into their crates and stacked into containers.
Reassembling the airplanes in Al Ain was a two-week job done with extreme dedication. Security at the Al Ain Airport can really be painful, as was the case when they insisted on scanning every item in each crate before Dennis and his team could assemble the airplanes. It took some convincing from Dennis that carrying an airplane wing and other items through the scanner would just not work!
On 26 November 2013 Glen Warden (Team Leader), Neil Trollip and Johan von Solms met at Oliver Tambo International Airport. (Nigel Hopkins could only leave the next day due to airline commitments). It was time to cram the pilots into a fully loaded Etihad Airlines economy class and ship their backsides, with UAE visas and sponsored Goodyear kit, over to Abu Dhabi. We all agreed the experience gave us a lot more sympathy for our future economy class passengers. Weary and stiff legged we arrived in Abu Dhabi and met with our friendly bus driver. After a one hour drive on a road noticeably without potholes, we finally arrived in Al Ain, a beautiful oasis city in the desert and deserving of the synonymous name.
We were welcomed at the Hilton Hotel and showed to our rooms which were more like villas on an island retreat. The hotel is well recommended, with sparkling pools, some with natural spring water. The gym kept us all in shape while we sipped our ice cold beers and laid into the tasty Arabian food.
Late afternoon on the 28th, the Goodyear team taxied out for our first practice session over the venue at Al Ain. Greeted by the tower controller with: “Nou gaan ons braai!” we were a lot more at ease with our awe-inspiring environment. None of us expected what was coming our way in Al Ain, we thought it would just be another airshow to end the year off. A highlight yes, but not a thundering rock show! Standing on the apron before our practice, we watched as the likes of the Red Arrows, Red Bull Matadors, Breitling Wing Walkers, a crazy man racing a bus with a Phantom jet engine in it, Al Fursan, Huawei Twister Team, F16, Mirage 2000 and a solo Typhoon strutted their stuff. This Sheik went really big with his 10th Al Ain Air Show and we knew right there that it was game on.
Being the only freshman there, it was quite clear what the guys meant with visual navigation being rather difficult when airborne. Away from the man-made structures, there is nothing but dune after dune of nothing. This makes height perception quite difficult when practising.
The venue was stunning. Huge grand stands with big TV screen towers lining the show line and a large military runway. Every tent and structure had air-conditioning tuned to 21°C and was spotlessly maintained. Flags and banners flying amongst meticulous static displays and sponsored exhibitions rounded the picture off beautifully.
Our first practice over the venue felt like a test to see if we’re going to make the gallows or not. We had no recent practice and practice makes perfect no matter what sport. We landed back and were greeted by a visibly nervous air show director: “Guys that was perfect, but you will have to step it up, it was way too low!” Well at least that was pretty easy to fix and we flew the actual shows a lot higher than we are used to, keeping synergy with the air show safety team.
Flying at Al Ain was a heartfelt experience for everyone involved with the Good Year Aerobatic team. Our sense of national pride showed in everything we did – from our sponsored outfits, precision pre-flight to climbing in our airplanes, starting up, flying the show, landing and shutting down in sync. Everything done with military precision and pride, thanks to leaders like Glen Warden and Dennis Spence. After the formation shows we were required to land and with the engines running, the canopies were removed, the parachutists Graham Field and Amy Shaw climbed in and in no time we were ready for the double inverted parachute drop that followed the next event. Graham and Amy were a big hit with the crowds and with their dedication and professionalism climbed deep into the hearts of everyone at Al Ain.
Participants had their own refreshment and resting area where drinks and food were served all day long. The aircraft were kept in fully air-conditioned hangars that were spotlessly clean. All this made for an inspiring environment to work from.
While all the shows were spectacular, what impressed the most was without a doubt the precision and beautiful architecture of the Red Arrows show. These guys are an inspiration and even when on the ground, discipline is maintained in a gallant fashion. This was evident from their dedication in the gym every morning and absenteeism from the bar area right up to the last day. The Huawei Twisters, a duo of Swifts with pyrotechnics fitted to the wingtips, also impressed with their dawn to dusk show of sparkles and pops combined with excellent formation flying. The Breitling Wing Walkers had a trio of beautiful girls up their sleeves and the thunder of the Eurofighter with its unusual manoeuvre capabilities was very impressive. Two F16’s doing a pushover followed by a synchrony spin to five hundred foot also entertained as much as the Jet School bus thundering past the crowd in stupendous fashion. The Matadors, two world champion pilots, showed off some astounding skills and all the other formations including Al Fursan were world class.
The feedback we received from spectators and participants including the organizers was just fantastic. Without fail everyone would single out the energetic nature of our display, keeping the box alive from opening to closing manoeuvre, the double heart at the end of our show and the spectacular double inverted parachute drop involving four airplanes that kept the sky vibrant while the parachutists drifted down. This was only possible with the utmost dedication and national pride with which each member of the team committed themselves. To receive all these wonderful comments from teams such as the Red Arrows and Matadors was inspirational.
After the last day’s display, the organizers treated everyone to a lovely banquet where final speeches and the usual symbolic gestures were made. No expenses spared, I might add. From the carved ice display to the well-equipped stage, a lit hot-air balloon and food fit for kings. All as stylish and lavish as the 10th Al Ain Air Show 2013 that we were privileged to participate in.
Johan von Solms
10 January 2014