Brian Lecomber aerobatic pilot and writer
Special feature

Do's & Don'ts of a 'four-display' afternoon

The trick in display flying is, accept your first booking and build round it geographically… but your prep and planning better be inch-perfect

Back in 2013 Brian Lecomber wrote his last column for FLYER. He passed away in September 2015, leaving the world poorer for his absence, but richer for the memories and writing he left behind. Brian spent many years on the circuit as a very accomplished member of the Rothmans aerobatic team, and of his own Firebird Aerobatic team.

In addition to his novels, Brian wrote about motoring and, of course, aviation. We’re reformatting his previous FLYER columns, this appeared in FLYER in August 2013.


The tension has been there all week. But the stress rises to its first peak about midday Friday. Where shall we go? I finger the weather chart, trying to look through the paper to the truth which may be lurking there. Or may not. Where shall we go?

On the morrow we are scheduled to fly four aerobatic displays – the first one near Manchester, then one in Leeds, the third near Coventry and the last in Kent.

So where do we go this afternoon?

It is my policy to pre-position our team whenever possible. This costs my little company a lot in hotel bills and my accountant occasionally becomes petulant about the same – which may possibly say something about the wisdom of marrying your accountant.

But I’d rather pay out £250 in hotel bills than lose a £3,000 display booking because there’s bad weather between our base and the show site on the day of action. Every display pilot has to occasionally sit on the ground socked in by weather and make “Sorry, John,” phone calls to event organisers – but the answer you dread to hear is, “What’s wrong with it? It’s fine here…”

It is amazingly difficult to explain to a harassed event director that it might be fine there, but is far from fine between here and there. You can feel you are losing their attention. And possibly their future custom.

And so you learn to pre-position near to the show unless you have a signed letter from God promising that tomorrow’s weather will be wonderful. And then you examine the signature.

So where shall we go?

On the face of it the answer should be simple. The first display is in Manchester and so we position to Manchester Barton, right?

Well – er, maybe.


The weather map in front of me shows a vigorous warm front approaching Northern Ireland from the Atlantic. The Irish TAFs suggest it might bestow its murky favours on Cork sometime this evening and trundle on to reach Belfast at about dawn. By my reckoning this means it will probably continue so to trundle across the Irish Sea and sock in Manchester in low cloud and rain – about when? Sometime in mid-morning? Early afternoon?

I do not know. The Met Office clearly also does not know. It always knows where a front is at any particular moment, but accurately predicting the speed of it in the hours to come?

Forgive me. I have a certain cynicism. I strongly suspect Manchester will get socked tomorrow and later the Pennines. But how socked? Workable – or not? And how long for? And above all, when?

I do not know. I can take a guess, and even season same with the fiction that it is an educated guess. But a guess is still a guess.

Yes, if we go to Manchester we’ll be best possible placed for the first display. But then if the front slows down we could get socked in there and miss the next three…

We are not going to Manchester.

“Saddle up. We’re going to Netherthorpe.”

John Taylor, Number Two pilot, shows no surprise. His mind works the same way as mine. Netherthorpe (near Worksop) is more or less in the eastern lee of the Pennines and so may be expected to be a bit (or a lot) less affected by grumpy fronts coming in from the west.

From there, if weather permits, we can creep around the southern hem of the Pennines, feel our way to Manchester, do the display and still have enough fuel to return to Netherthorpe. If weather does not permit – well, we simply turn back to Netherthorpe anyway. And we’re then well-placed for Leeds.

Golden rule. If you must push weather, push into it rather than trying to push out of it. Going into it you mostly have the option of a 180° turn and a second breakfast at your point of origin. Trying to claw out from behind it can be a bit more fraught…

“OK, Boss. Netherthorpe.”

We fly to Netherthorpe.

That was the easy decision of the weekend. The more complex bits are – I hope – already planned.

If you would fly four displays on a Saturday and possibly four more on the Sunday – not at all unknown – then they sure as hell better be already planned. ‘Cos the one thing for dead certain is that you’re not gonna have time for flicking through files in between displays.

The secret, of course, lies in this preparation, which in fact began months ago and coalesced into its final quasi-military version over the last few days. The process commences in the winter as display bookings start coming in.

When you receive a new booking you don’t just cry “Huzzah!” and stick it the diary – you damn well check the diary first. And you’re not looking at just the obvious. If you’ve already got a booking in Bournemouth at 1300 and the new enquiry is for Edinburgh at 1500 then that comes under the heading of obvious – logistically, you simply can’t do it.

Well, never mind, you can probably talk Edinburgh into a display at 1600 or 1700. But the real question is do you actually want the Edinburgh display at all? The trick in display flying is to accept your first booking on a particular day and then try to build round it geographically. For example, the ideal day might start at Bournemouth, go on to a second performance at Margate, a third one in Dover and the last at Biggin Hill.

Needless to say, life never works out quite that way – but what you don’t want to do is spend the majority of a fee-earning summer afternoon grinding up from Bournemouth to Edinburgh, probably passing three or four other likely events on the way, and banking on the weather being viable throughout. No. Very politely turn down Edinburgh…

Performing in the the right place at the right time is vital to a display pilot’s ability to continue eating. But it takes a lot of preparation…

Obviously crucial are your pit stops. Because they are pit stops. You’re not turning round like Webber or Vettel, but you do have to stop between every display to refill the aerobatic fuel tanks, the transit wing tanks to the requirements of the next leg and above all the smoke tanks. (I say ‘above all’ not because it’s the most important, but because it’s the most difficult to organise.)

If you need to turn two aircraft around within 30 minutes wheels-on to wheels-off – which you do if you wish to cram four displays into an afternoon – then there are some DO’s and DON’T’s to observe. Even if you have no plans to fly a four-display afternoon, these DO’s and DON’T’s might be helpful to you. For example…

DON’T use big aerodromes. You are always going to be low on their priority list for fuel, etc.

DO use small airfields, and get to know them well. Small airfields are where the enthusiasts are, and quite apart from your immediate needs there are always people worth meeting. (And curiously enough, you don’t need a whole hatful of airfields in your little black book – in our perambulations probably 95% of our pit stops were at one of a dozen or so aerodromes around the country.)

DO always, always phone your destinations a few days before, whether they are Prior Permission Required or not. Explain your needs and give them an exact Time of Arrival – you’d be surprised how much difference that makes if you need to jump a fuel queue.

Also ask if they’re expecting a fuel delivery that day – if they are, you can bet your ass the accursed tanker will have arrived half an hour before you do, meaning the fuel has to settle for two hours…

DO try to pick airfields which have their own diesel storage (for tractors, etc). Be prepared to pay cash for this, especially if some kindly soul had to fetch it from the local garage. Re-smoking a pair of Extras with white (road) diesel costs about £80 at today’s prices.

DON’T let non-experts control your destiny – destiny meaning timing. For a non-airshow event – county shows, carnivals, etc – agree a display time with the event and then hit that time as near as you can to the second. (Which usually means tipping-in for the first figure about 24 seconds before start-time.)

DON’T, whatever you do, lend the event a hand-held radio or agree to any other communication. Events frequently move on a more languid timescale than you do, and if you give them the opportunity they will try to hold you off while the last few traction engines finish their belated puff-past. (This especially so if royalty is present.) Don’t fall for it – a Royal Show delaying you by 15 minutes can seriously stuff up the rest of your afternoon. Don’t give them the chance. Let them get used to your timing. If you start on the dot they can hardly complain. I’m not aware of ever losing a repeat-booking because we were too on-time.

DO understand that the exception to this is of course airshows. Airshows you have to talk to – and airshows can sometimes slip back to running late. You can’t bully an airshow. If they say, “Firebird, 10 minute delay,” then you either accept it or say, “Ciao, see you next year”, which is not a popular response, and probably means that you won’t see them next year because they won’t have booked you.

You have to swallow this. Life is like that.

DO try and put airshows first or last on your four-display programme – first, because they can hardly have slipped back much right at the beginning, and second, that if it’s your last display it doesn’t matter too much if their timing has slid to the right a bit.

DON’T, ever, ever, land at an airshow and expect a fast turn-around with fuel and smoke oil. We used to have a saying in Firebird – ‘Land at an airshow and you can’t get fuel, you can’t get smoke and you can’t get out…’ So land somewhere else.

DO set up your smoke system so that it runs on diesel (white or red) at about 2.25 litres a minute. You may hate the stink of diesel – as I do – and you may have discovered more benign substances such as Ondina oil (which costs about twice as much but produces better smoke and is so benign you can drink it). BUT – you are not going to get Ondina oil at any average aerodrome, so your system will have to run on what you can get – usually diesel. 

Display decipher…

Two legs of a four-display afternoon. £20 to a charity for the first reader who can decipher them… Answers to [email protected]

Bart CB 122.7 Elev 73

Acro F, 10 aside

DWAL – N5327 W0231

WO 1245

*1300 DWAL Elev 0

CB Acro F, 35 aside, smoke F

WO 1355

DHAY N5750.30 W0129.30

*DHAY 1430 Elev 250

N’thorpe NF 123.27 elev 250

Leeds 121.05 T120.30 123.75

NF Acro F, smoke F, 40 aside

WO 1530


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