When the airshow world came to Lancashire

Barnstormers. A word that will register on the metaphorical internal Geiger counter of anyone interested in aviation history. And a word one wouldn’t necessarily expect to see as the name of a pub in a suburb of a town in northern Britain.

Lostock 95 Apollo

The Red Arrows presenting the shape called Apollo at the BAe Lostock gala in June 1995. There are eight Hawks here, rather than nine, due to pilot illness. Photo: Mark Broadbent

 

The name stands out among the more run-of-the-mill Red Lions, White Harts and Railway Inns, as does the pub’s sign high on the wall, a little red biplane towing a banner with ‘Barnstormers’ on it.

The pub’s location. on Lostock Lane in Horwich outside Bolton, is far removed from the romantic image of somnolent American Midwest towns where, during the Roaring Twenties, pilots set down their aeroplanes and enthralled locals with their flying circus antics.

Lostock 96 - Red 10

An RAF Gazelle brings in the Red Arrows’ manager at the 1996 show. Photo: Mark Broadbent

 

Nearby, the M61 motorway and the train line between Manchester and Preston pass through and just along the road from the pub there’s a big steel works where structures were built for the O2 and the Olympics stadium in London, Blackpool’s Big One rollercoaster and airports in Paris and Hong Kong.

Why the name then? It is, quite simply, a nod to the link between this unprepossessing northern road and the aviation world. For directly across the street from the pub, there once stood a de Havilland propeller factory – reputedly the largest aircraft propeller plant in Europe when it opened in 1937.

After the Second World War, the factory moved into producing missiles and was part of what eventually became British Aerospace Dynamics. Much later, after BAe sold off its weapons systems business in the 1990s, the aerospace presence on the site diminished in size, although an MBDA factory remains. Much of the old site has been redeveloped into business units.

Driving along Lostock Lane and past the old factory’s entrance, there aren’t, apart from the Barnstormers pub, many clues to the aviation connections of this place. Neither is there a clue to the fact that every summer up to the turn of the century, on the sports ground next to the factory, there took place a unique local event.

Lostock 93-10

A Harrier displaying at Lostock, near Bolton, in 1993. Photo: Mark Broadbent

 

A gala and airshow, rather more grandly called the Bolton Air Show and Gala in its later years, was put on by the factory’s sports and social club each June. It was one of the largest events in the Bolton area, one year attracting 17,000 people according to the local press.

Lostock 93

Not just an airshow #1. The advert for the 1993 Lostock airshow and gala day appeared in the local press before the show, and then in the event programme.

 

Entry was a couple of quid. Looking back today at the A5-sized programmes from the event prompts nostalgia. There were stalls, dog agility displays (the ‘K9 Dog Display Team’ appeared one year), arena shows like marching bands and motorbike riders racing through tunnels of fire, and helicopter pleasure flights in a Jet Ranger.

Lostock 93-4

A Jet Ranger undertaking pleasure flights from the Lostock site. Photo: Mark Broadbent

 

There was a fairground, a mini-steam train, Punch and Judy, donkey rides and you could abseil from towers and crawl under nets on an assault course. The air smelt of cut grass, burgers and fried onions with the occasional bit of ale wafting over from the beer tent. The prevailing sounds were chatter, yelps from the fairground, music from the radio roadshow and the sound of the PA.

Lostock 96

Not just an airshow #2. From a Red Arrows display to a marching band, the Lostock gala was a varied event as the centre-spread of the 1996 programme shows. (p.s. I suspect ‘SkyDanger’ is a typo and they meant ‘SkyDancer’.)

 

In short, the gala was the archetypal local carnival, fete or show. Not without incident either. One year I remember a firecracker went off in a medieval re-enactor’s hand. Quite why he was holding the firecracker I can’t recall, but I do remember the thing going off before he instantaneously dropped his Middle Ages character act, shouted ‘sh*t’ and ran to a first aid tent.

Lostock 93-7

Motorbike display teams were a regular feature of the gala. Photo: Mark Broadbent

 

(An aside: Maybe it’s me, but I sense some people today, although by no means all, might regard things like the gala as a bit passé, a bit twee in our latte-quaffing, staring-at-the-mobile, the-internet’s-fast-so-why-isn’t-everything-else culture. But I digress.)

The air ]show was the day’s highlight. Aircraft displayed over farmland to the east of the sports ground. As airshows go, Lostock was very small, typically consisting of around half a dozen flying displays each year, but nevertheless the venue had appearances by all sorts of aircraft and displays.

Lostock 93-1

Black Lanyards parachutist. In the background is Winter Hill. Photo: Mark Broadbent

 

There were historic aeroplanes like Spitfires and the world’s only flying Bristol Blenheim and aerobatic teams leaving smoke trails in the sky. There were parachutists, noisy fast jets – most memorably, in 1993, a Harrier – and there were appearances one year by the army’s helicopter team, the Blue Eagles, and the Red Arrows on a couple of occasions.

Lostock 93-5

Cadbury’s Crunchie Flying Circus wingwalking in 1993. Photo: Mark Broadbent

 

It all took place at a location in Manchester Airport’s TMA (Terminal Manoeuvring Area) which obviously required considerable co-operation between the display’s co-ordinator, Phil Holt (who provided a radar information and flight information service on the day for the display pilots), and Manchester Air Traffic Control.

Lostock 93-9

A Harrier goes into the hover at Lostock. Photo: Mark Broadbent

 

As noted in an ‘Operational Briefing’ article published in the programme for the last show in 1999, the ground rises by 600ft within 1 nautical mile of the display area and the Winter Hill TV mast – the principal TV transmitter for much of north-west England – is 3 miles to the north. Likely the location and the display area proved challenging, or at the very least interesting, for the pilots who flew there.

Lostock 93-8

A Sukhoi Su-26 displaying at Lostock. On the other side of the hedgerow in this photo there is now located the training ground and academy of Bolton Wanderers FC. Photo: Mark Broadbent

 

Today, nearly 20 years on from that last event, the ground where the gala was held is now occupied by recently-built houses (the main street on the development is called Harrier Close) and some of the land over which the aircraft displayed is now home to Bolton Wanderers FC’s training ground and academy (the club’s Macron, formerly Reebok, Stadium home is half a mile away to the west).

Lostock 93-6

An admittedly awful blurry picture of the Crunchie Flying Circus displaying in 1993, included to give a sense of the display line’s location at the venue. Photo: Mark Broadbent

 

The developments mean any trace of this local event, and indeed the big BAe factory (known simply as ‘Aerospace’ to some locals), are gone. People go about their business, working at the different companies around and about, Wanderers fans parking up on a Saturday or midweek night before walking the short distance to the Macron for the match.

This doesn’t matter – the world moves on and, as Al Stewart put it, time passages – but sometimes it’s good to remember your local history and memories linger of the times when the airshow world came to this corner of Lancashire.

Lostock 96 Pitts

A photo summing up the Lostock gala – events in the air and on the ground. This is from the 1996 event. Photo: Mark Broadbent

Lostock 96 Corkscrew

The original iteration of the Red Arrows’ Corkscrew manoeuvre during the Lostock show in 1996. Photo: Mark Broadbent

 

(The pictures on this page were taken by me as a young lad back in the 1990s so are clearly appalling in their quality, but they are included to give a sense of the venue.)

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