Walking on clouds...

THU WING WALKERS
THU WING WALKERS
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Canute tried and failed to turn back the tide, and VisitBlackpool can’t either. That’s why one of the greatest attractions of the year – and to learn more, you really must read our supplement on Saturday – remains unashamedly free.

Unlike Southport, we can’t cordon off a chunk of beach and charge people to watch our annual air show. Not with the tide coming in twice daily. Not even with the new headlands emerging along our seafront.

Southport has a broader expanse of sands, seldom touched by sea, to play with.

It also means we can’t afford to hire the mighty Vulcan, which flies for about £15k a booking, according to VisitBlackpool show organiser Mike Chadwick, in spite of its appearances boosting air show business by up to 50 per cent.

“We’ve managed to beat the price down in the past, on the back of other displays, but not this time,” Mike admits. “But we’re more than happy with what we’ve got – and the fact that our show is still free.”

And the cash pours into car parks, seafront businesses lining the main viewing route, our Promenade, and from visitors spilling into attractions before or after the show.

It also gives residents the chance to reconnect with the spirit of Blackpool and our own impressive aviation industry too – even if we prefer to forget the sad little episode which saw our resident Avro Vulcan languishing outside the local airport for years, until finally cut up and carted off for scrap, after a deal to relocate it to a Manchester pub beer garden failed.

On a prouder note, did you know Blackpool staged Britain’s very first official air show back in 1909, the same year French flyer Louis Bleriot made the first historic crossing of the English Channel?

Chat to the pilots of two of the historic biplanes heading our way, for a hair-raising spot of wing walking this weekend, and you’ll find they do.

Indeed, they know Blackpool like the back of their hands, from the heritage of the airport (the oldest civil airfield), to the wartime planes assembled here, the role the resort played as an RAF training ground, through to what’s emerging on the production lines at BAE Systems.

They know because they have pretty much flown them all, from seat-of-the-pants vintage biplane Boeing Stearmans, to Top Gun-style fighter aircraft, Lightnings, Jaguars and the like, to the prestige Red Arrows aerobatic Hawks, through to the long-haul commercial flights which represent their bread and butter business.

The biplanes are for fun, both Andy Wyatt and Al Hoy stress. “Proper flying,” according to Andy, “different flying” says Al.

The weekend air show aerobatics and, in the wing walkers’ case, acrobatics, their reward after a long-haul flight.

For instance, Al chose the British seaside over Shanghai, his next Virgin Atlantic assignment. Andy’s off to Mauritius via Boeing 777 for British Airways, but has ensured he’s back in time for Sunday’s display, and staying over with BAE Systems pals at their Lytham home.

The Breitling Wingwalkers, the world’s only formation wingwalking team, are among the stars of Sunday’s line-up with their beautiful Boeing Stearman biplanes, which perform a breathtaking sequence of formation loops and rolls, while wingwalkers perform acrobatics on the wings.

Al admits he seldom gets the chance to see what’s happening below. “You’re aware of the crowds, but you’re totally focused and, in my case, watching the girls too!”

His favourite manoeuvre is the formation loop, as he finds it very challenging in the vintage biplane.

His favourite formation position is on the right hand side, as he spent most of his time there in the Red Arrows.

His least favourite is landing the Stearman in a crosswind on Blackpool runway.

Al’s been selected as one of the first four pilots to fly Space Tourism Flights with Virgin Galactic, and has already completed training in the Spaceship 2 and White Knight 2 simulator.

“I’d love to do it, but it looks increasingly elusive because of commercial sensitivity,” he adds. “I’m beginning to suspect I may be long retired before it happens.”

Fellow biplane pilot Andy has similar flying credentials. Born in Rhyl, he joined the ATC first, then the RAF at 18, earned his wings flying the Lightning jet fighter, “essentially a chair strapped to two powerful jet engines which fly at twice the speed of sound,” and spent three years in the RAF aerobatic team, the Red Arrows, including two years as one of the synchro pair.

“There’s a great buzz about the Blackpool show,” he admits. “You see the crowds waving, you make it as entertaining as possible, but we’re doing about 100mph on average, 150mph when we dive – so just don’t expect us to wave back. That’s up to the wing walkers!”

jacqui.morley@blackpoolgazette.co.uk