Memories and airshows

My earliest memory is of an airshow. I remember going to an airshow at White Waltham with my family. I was probably about 4, I remember watching the planes, in fact I was engrossed by the planes. I was standing by the metal barrier watching the planes when my family disappeared off. I don’t remember them go. I must have only been stood for a minute or so on my own but when I turned around I couldn’t see my parents. To a boy of that age, it’s a scary situation, had my parents deserted me for good? But it was drilled into me to trust people in uniform so spotting a man in a fluorescent jacket, I went over to tell him that I’d lost my parents. I think he told his colleague “this young lad’s lost his parents”. They started walking me somewhere and my parents magically reappeared. I had probably been without them for a couple of minutes, I felt a bit silly.

The problem with this memory is that I have no idea if I have remembered it correctly. I think the only reason I remember it is because I remember writing about this incident in secondary school when I was about 12 or 13. I had mentally bookmarked it away as being my earliest memory. There are certain memories that you keep coming back to and each time you remember them, they get distorted slightly until after a few years only the main points of the story remain faithful to the truth.

My most recent memories of an airshow are probably not much more accurate and they are from only two and a half months ago. At about 1.20pm on Saturday the 22nd of August I was sat on the grass on the verge of a dual carriageway. I was about a hundred meters from the end of the runway at the Shoreham airshow. I had somehow lost track of the plane that I was trying to take photos of (my last photo of it is the photo at the top of the post). For some reason, possibly the noise, possibly people moving I turned my head to look along the dual carriageway. What I saw still sticks vividly in my mind. A jet fighter was about 5m above the road. Its nose was pointed towards me but slightly upwards.

The next moments happened within a single second.

I thought about the jet being so low, it was already too large to fit within the frame of my camera. From the planes angle, I reckoned it would pass directly over me only a few metres above where I was sat. I wondered why it was doing a low flypast, planes don’t do low flypasts at airshows. Was the pilot showing off? Then I realised the plane wasn’t going up, it had dropped behind the trees. It was at this moment that I realised something was wrong.

Everything happened too quick. I have some slight memory of seeing the first fireball as the left fuel tank hit the ground but I remember it hitting to the side of the road not in the carriageway itself which is what actually happened. Being sat down, there wasn’t the time to move anywhere. I instinctively turned around so I was facing the opposite direction and lowered my body so I was almost lying on the grass. At the same instant, the first small bits of debris hit my back and leg and an instant later I was engulfed in a fireball.

The heat was immense, it felt hotter than anything I’d ever experienced before. I think I closed my eyes because I don’t remember seeing anything except blocks of bright light followed by darkness. I definitely thought it was the end of me, I was waiting for something sizeable to hit me and cause me to lose conciousness.

Luckily for me that never happened. As soon as I had that thought, the fireball dissipated and I could see the world in front of me. To give you a sense of how fast this all happened, the video below shows the accident as closely as I saw it. I reckon I saw the jet about second 27 in the video.

As soon as I could, only about 10 seconds after the crash, I got to my feet, still facing away from where the plane had first hit. I briefly surveyed the ground and started running. Thankfully, I didn’t see much, just the ground littered by bits of metal and plastic. I didn’t see any bodies or anyone else injured except a man curled up on the pavement. I almost stopped, but I came to the very quick decision that he was far enough way from the crash not to be badly injured and I wanted to be as far away from the crash as possible.

I ran a couple of hundred metres back along a road towards the airfield still holding my camera, I can’t remember even thinking about dropping it. I didn’t know what to do, I just screamed for people to go and help the people who were injured (I assumed at this point that others had been badly injured). It was also at this point that I realised I was probably burnt, my back and legs were stinging and looking down at my hands, my skin had become loose between my thumb and forefinger on both hands.

Airshows, I’ve decided, are good places to get injured at. No sooner had I got back onto the airfield than a bunch of men and women in combat fatigues were sitting me down in a tent and running to find bottles of water to pour on me. I was alive and my long road to recovery was just beginning.