Global Stars Team Display in China for Skoda Cars
It was March 2014, and England was still emerging from the wettest winter since records began (in 1766!). I had only recently been reunited with my plane; we had been displaying for DHL at the Bahrain airshow, formating with their 757 freighter. Memories of sunshine, warmth and outstanding flying were fading, replaced by the delights of a waterlogged grass airfield. The phone rang – it was Mark Jefferies: “Are you available to join me for a display in China? By the way – your aeroplane will need to be shipped out a week on Monday”.
The assignment was to bring four Extra 300 aircraft to Zhuhai, on the Pearl River Delta in southern China, to display as the Global Stars aerobatic team. Arranged by Mark Jefferies in partnership with Blue Legend airshows, the show was to be part of the launch of the latest generation Skoda Octavia onto the Chinese market. According to our hosts, this was the first time in China that an air display had been used as the centrepiece of a product launch.
So, in a bit of a rush, preparations were made to disassemble my Extra once again, and prepare it for shipping in a container to China. The complexities and logistics of performing air displays on the other side of the world are such that it helps to have an experienced team of people behind you who have ‘seen it all before’.
A matter of weeks before the show, Mark discovered that two of his aircraft, en route for China, had been caught up in a maritime accident. Fire had broken out on board the ship. Although the aircraft were safe inside their containers, one crew member had been killed, and the ship was having to return to port. Hence, at the last moment, two replacement aircraft had to be found and hired, and prepared for air freighting to Hong Kong in time for the show. The hurdles that need to be overcome arranging such a trip are such that you start to think that the flying is the easy part!
And so it was that in early May the Global Stars team assembled at London Heathrow for a Virgin Atlantic flight to Hong Kong, and onwards by ferry to Zhuhai. Our team pilots comprised Mark Jefferies, Tom Cassells, John Taylor and myself, Chris Burkett. Andy McLuskie, Keith Taylor and Antonia Merola provided our engineering support. We touched down at Hong Kong moments before a spectacular thunderstorm enveloped the area, followed by intense tropical rainfall. All flights and onward ferries were delayed – not auspicious weather for formation aerobatics!
For many of us this was a first visit to China. You have your preconceptions based on what you have read, but the reality in this part of China is much bigger, bolder, and more ambitious than I had ever imagined. Our ferry crossing from Hong Kong to Zhuhai took over an hour – but by 2016 a 50km bridge/tunnel link will have been opened, at an estimated total cost of $10.7 billion. The main bridge will span 29.6km and land on two artificial islands. For the whole of our ferry crossing, the pillars of the bridge under construction were visible alongside us.
Our planes were delivered to a hangar at Zhuhai airport (thankfully without further shipping hiccups!) and this was to be our base for reassembly, practice and display. Zhuhai also hosts the major biennial Airshow China, held in November, and we would be operating from the show site. The far side of our hangar was also home to the main launch rocket from the Chinese space program!
At the other end of the airfield from the show site is the Zhuhai airport passenger terminal, currently serving three million passengers a year with flights all over China. The terminal building is a little reminiscent of London Stansted – but in the list of China’s busiest airports it only makes it to number 45!
Building aeroplanes, and then flying them, in tropical heat and humidity is a sweaty business – within a few minutes of emerging from an air conditioned minibus you are wet through. To spur us through the rebuild, Andy our licensed engineer ‘encouraged’ us with musical accompaniment on the bagpipes. He said he would stop when the aircraft were ready for inspection – which spurred us on to a prodigious work rate!
This was not going to be an ordinary airshow display. An enormous LED display screen, measuring 49m by 9m, was erected in front of a stage area with tiered seating behind, with more huge screens to each side. The show was scheduled for dusk, and would feature Skoda cars being ‘shown off’ to the assembled media, VIP’s, employees and car dealers. Sitting ourselves where the audience would be seeing the show from, it was clear that sightlines to see the flying would be more restricted than usual. However both live and pre-recorded video of planes plus cars would also be shown on the giant screens during the performance. Our planes were festooned with cameras, with the onboard action captured during all our flights for use during the show and in later adverts.
Tom would be flying as lead, with John no.2 (left), Mark no.3 (right) and myself no.4 (box). Our assorted fleet of Extras comprised my single seat Extra 300S G-EXIL, Extra 300L G-FIII, midwing Extra 300 G-IIZI (Ultimate High), and Extra 260 G-EXTR (Steve Carver). Tom and I were able to get the first practice flights in as a two-ship for shakedown and orientation. After more feverish reassembly, the other two aircraft were ready to fly in our first four-ship practice the following morning.
Zhuhai is a busy airport, and ATC were remarkably understanding and doing their best to accommodate our practice slots. However the only slot we could be guaranteed a flight was 7am. Although this time avoided the worst heat of the day, the trade off was often for mist and low cloud which settled on the hills behind the airfield. Generally this rose in the heat of the day, often developing into towering CB cloud and downpours later. Hence the mornings gave ample opportunity to practice our low show! Thankfully the one time it really mattered, the evening of the show itself, the weather was settled and cloudbase wasn’t a problem.
Johnny, the director, had a concept for the show where the car and flying action was interlaced, with short bursts of action from each in turn. Hence our typical display sequence needed pulling apart, and timings became absolutely critical. The director chose a core of five formation display elements that worked best for him and our job was to execute them in the right place, at the right time. The final sequence included a diamond loop, a four-ship break from echelon, a fan break (the ‘Skoda Break’), a stall turn and pairs break and a smoke heart – with rejoins required between these elements ‘against the clock’.
Skoda/Volkswagen were also celebrating the 30th anniversary of their presence in China, with more than 10 million vehicles manufactured. The Octavia launch was particularly important since it is the Skoda brand’s best seller. It was certainly a spectacular launch event with all the stops pulled out, and it was good to have played our part in it. The display itself went very well. The only concern was whether we would run out of daylight as our take off time was delayed. In the tropics, when it starts to get dark, it gets dark very quickly. We displayed with wingtip strobes on, and fortunately we were back on the ground by nightfall!
The conclusion of the show was choreographed to have us taxy onto the stage, in front of the big screen, two aircraft on either side. The sound and vision from the big screen, huge speakers, four Extras and a dozen cars was impressive. We greeted the media and VIP’s and enjoyed the moment, if briefly – later that same evening we would start dismantling the aircraft for their trip home!
Such a trip is not for the faint hearted – the challenges are considerable, and we would like to thank everyone involved in making it a success. In particular everyone at Blue Legend Airshows, who commissioned the Global Stars to fly and provided first class organisation and liaison. Special thanks to Sky and to Philly, who worked tirelessly and ensured we were well looked after. One of the features of this region of China is the Cantonese food and our hosts treated us to a feast every evening. Thanks to Sunshine Wang our stills photographer, for the great images and for allowing them to be reproduced here. Also to media company SMS for sharing video footage with us. Finally, thanks to my teammates and crew; in particular Mark Jefferies, Global Stars team leader, for recruiting us for this venture, and overcoming all hurdles to make it a success.