Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Thoughts on the 2011 Bournemouth Air Festival

The Red Arrows finishing their display, minutes before Red 4's fatal crash
This past week, the fourth annual Bournemouth Air Festival took place in Dorset's largest town. Displays of military might aren't normally my thing, but it is a hugely significant event in the area, so I decided to take a look.

Bournemouth's economy is largely built around tourism. It is one of the sunniest, driest places in the UK, which makes it a prime location for those taking a break on the south coast. Rows upon rows of hotels back away from the beach, which stretches on for miles. In July and August, the place is in full tourism mode, and the Air Festival has quickly come to be seen as the pinnacle of the season. In 2009, crowd numbers were estimated at over 1.3 million, bringing £30 million into the local economy. The 2010 programme was largely cancelled due to a spate of thick fog and persistent rain - a rarity in Bournemouth. This year, organisers were hoping to build on 2009's success, but they faced two big problems.

Firstly, the weather struck yet again! On Thursday, Bournemouth experienced its heaviest rainfall for thirty years, and huge areas became flooded, in part due to the town's extremely hilly topography. By mid-morning it was clear that no flights would be possible that afternoon, but the festival's organisers continued to urge visitors to come, through their Facebook page and other media. As a result, many hundreds and possibly thousands made an incredibly unrewarding visit to the centre of Bournemouth - only to find themselves bonnet or waist deep in water. Eventually, all but a few evening events were cancelled, and preparations were made for a Friday resumption.

And indeed, Friday was a much more successful day, as the sun came out and the crowds returned to a Bournemouth almost unrecognisable from the scenes of devastation witnessed on the evening news the day before. But then came Saturday...

Jon Egging of the Red Arrows died on Saturday
All went well until around 1pm, when the Red Arrows finished their display. Eight of the nine craft then returned to their temporary Hurn Airport base. One crashed in the tiny nearby village of Throop, killing the pilot, Flight Lieutenant Jon Egging.

The show went on, but rumours of the fatal accident spread quickly, amongst the beach crowds and indeed online. For hours, the crash was officially unconfirmed, and the Air Festival Facebook page systematically deleted posts enquiring about Egging's condition, or posting consolation messages. It seemed that nothing - not even death - could be allowed to get in the way of the festival, or dissuade people from attending.

Aside from the commercial considerations, there was also the military's perspective. Though the event is not sponsored by the military, it provides it with an overwhelming showcase. The Red Arrows in particular act as ambassadors for the Royal Air Force, helping to bring in 'defence' contracts, and recruit youngsters to the RAF. As a beachside commentator noted, flight shows developed out of the RAF encouraging its pilots to bend the rules of normal military aviation, so they could gain skills which might be used in future battle situations. Flight Lieutenant Egging had himself seen action in Afghanistan, amongst other places

The military brainwash attempt was in full flow when I made the journey to the beach for Sunday's event. Commentator after commentator paid tribute to Egging's "bravery", one adding that we must thank all our armed forces, "who risk their lives to keep us enjoying the lives we enjoy". Perhaps hundreds of military-related stalls lined the promenade, each with their own gimmick to entice the young. Ten-year-old boys played with mounted toy guns on the infantry stall, while the 'be the best' bouncy castle 'assault course' enthralled primary age kids.

UK soldiers with "rebels" in their sights on Sunday
As a curtain raiser for the day's action, various military units combined for a staged 'beach rescue' of supposed diplomats from "a failed state, such as Libya" (of course, Gaddafi's Libya was in no sense a "failed state" before NATO started bombing the hell out of it). Towards the end, the gallant servants of the crown repelled a small challenge from a small group of "rebels". I couldn't see them, but a whisper went around that they were wearing headscarves, and so might be the Taliban.

I don't want to overestimate the jingoism-inspiring power of the event. There was little flagwaving, and those most attracted were the youngest, who will not be able to fully sign up for some time. Most of the militaristic hoopla was regarded with some indifference, and very few people cheered when the 'Taliban' were 'killed'. This is perhaps indicative of the low levels of support which - contrary to the corporate media's fanfares - the wars in Afghanistan and Libya enjoy amongst the general public. But also, many people had just come to soak up the sunshine and see an amazing combination of human engineering and piloting skill in the skies.

And the day was certainly enjoyable on that level. Impressive though they were, some solo displays tended towards the masturbatory. The most entertaining displays were undoubtedly those where duos or groups combined to draw pictures in the skies with their trails, or 'nearly' collide. I tried to put the imperialist murder this all symbolised out of my mind.
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