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27-28 June 2009

From August 22 until August 29 1909, the first international airshow was held, at the location of the current French air force base 'BA112' near Reims in France. During that week, over a million spectators admired dozens of aircraft being put through their paces. This first ever international airshow started a long tradition of such events all over the world. Commemorating this show would be a challenging task, worthy of the best efforts. Unfortunately, with BA112 due to close in 2010, the team there seemed less than interested in providing anything resembling 'best efforts'.

On paper, the programme of this French air force official meeting National de l'air provided the usual mix of classic aircraft coming from the French civilian airshow circuit, including the popular Noratlas transport aircraft and Fouga Magister alongside early birds like the Bleriot XI and Deperdussin T, and modern military aircraft. The latter included the French air force displays, but also foreign contributions like the Belgian and Dutch F-16 solo displays, the Swedish Gripen and a fly-by by a USAF KC-135 tanker.

The show was also dubbed a 'Mondial des Patrouilles', a bit of an overstatement if even some of Europe's main teams are absent and there are no teams from across the ocean. Still, there were indeed a large number of teams present, from the civilian Breitling Jet Team, Patrouille Réva and Tango Bleu, to the Royal Jordanian Falcons and Moroccan Marche Verte to world famous national military display teams like the Swiss PC7 Team, the Asas de Portugal, Patrulla Aguila from Spain and the British Red Arrows.

The Saturday display got off to a slow start due to a low cloud base, leaving prestigious acts like the PC7 Team, Cartouche Dorée and Asas de Portugal to miss their slot times. When the clouds lifted, the display started properly, but there remained large gaps in the programme, some of which were long enough to fit in the displays which could not fly in the morning. Why the organizing team failed to show even the slightest degree of flexibility is beyond comprehension and seemed to indicate a lack of respect for both visitors and participants on the part of the organizers, but it was in line with the lack of care the entire organization demonstrated in a number of areas throughout the weekend.

From the disgraceful parking plan -if there even was one- to catering, the whole organization seemed to be an exercise in failed improvisation. Visitors who arrived first were parked on the outer most parkings and sent for a 2,5 to 3 kilometre walk across dusty fields. These fields were also the parking terrains for visitors arriving later, leaving the early visitors to dodge cars on their trek to the entrance, a very unsafe situation indeed, which also led to traffic chaos as the later cars waited to let the pedestrians pass. The outer most parking had a bus service running, which did not start running until after the entire parking had filled up with cars. The only reason this shuttle service did not end in a brawl that morning was that most visitors decided to walk the distance rather than wait for a bus. Southbound traffic at the end of the day was routed through Reims, which was already a traffic mess under normal circumstances due to the construction of the new Reims tramway. Clearly, traffic and parking had not been thought out properly, an unacceptable oversight for an event of this magnitude.

To add insult to injury, when the ticket boots opened at 9:00 sharp in the morning, with a line of well over a kilometre already, the main entrance found itself without tickets, forcing everyone to wait until the tickets could be located and brought over.

The public terrain was an equal mess. While the static display contained some gems and even some decent photographic opportunities, the entire lay out of the terrain left a lot to be desired. The only area allowing an unobstructed view of the display line was about 600 metres to the left of show centre and very limited in surface, for reasons passing understanding as there was ample space to move the crowd closer to the centre, as it wouldn't have interfered with either the VIP area or display line.

Catering for the masses gathered in the main public area consisted of one drinks concession selling soft drinks, 2 candy shops, an ice cream bar and 2 beer tents. The one sales point for soft drinks there was clearly not up to the task of providing the masses with adequate liquids in the heat during the 2 days, a fact worsened by the lack of organization within the tent, where it took about one minute to serve a single person, due to having to walk too far to the refrigerators and the money tin, raising questions about the suitability of the catering company in charge at the show. The only people who came close to keeping up with demand were the military personnel in the beer tents. Drinks and food were also terribly overpriced and of inferior quality, even by mass event standards. While at most mass events, free water has been available for free for a number of years now, a bottle of water would set visitors at Reims back €2,5 to €3, especially outrageous with the high temperatures over the weekend.

If the visitors in the main public viewing area wanted food, they had to walk about 500 metres to the nearest catering area, and about half that distance to the nearest toilets, which were also in short supply. Overall, an unacceptable situation for even a small local fair, let alone an international airshow.

As with most French shows, the participants of the flying display were parked in front of the public so one can observe the start-up and recovery of all display aircraft. People who stood along the line of display teams however had their view obstructed by hangars, the VIP tent, the VIP stage and trees, and were also a lot further back from the display line, further emphasizing the thoughtless lay-out of the public terrain, with just the small area to the left of show centre. Also, the commentary was not available in this area due to the absence of speakers, another oversight which is hard to understand.

While the pilots worked hard to entertain the crowd, due to the many lengthy gaps in the programme the pace never really picked up. The Red Arrows seemed to have problems of their own, struggling with poor visibility due to haze around lunchtime on Sunday, leaving out one manoeuvre entirely and completing the Vixen break with one aircraft missing because it could not rejoin the formation in time. The Rafale certainly made a big impression with one of its first public appearances, as did the 2 F-16 displays, which also made ample use of flares and received plenty of applause from the public.

The lack of care in the preparation of this event kept it from becoming a truly great centenary celebration, in contrast to the airshow at Zeltweg in Austria, where organizers overcame of a seemingly tame line-up and delivered an inspired show, or the Biggin Hill Air Fair which overcame programme and technical difficulties and rose to the occasion, both held during the same weekend. Perhaps the French air force can take a page from the books of those organizers. Let Reims be a lesson to organizers everywhere: no more like that, please!

Report by Chris Janssens

Lay-out and content by Chris Janssens, 2005 - present