The Magic (and Tragedy) of the Beaulieu Air Displays

Beaulieu air displays

After the Second World War, several celebratory air displays were put on around the country. The New Forest area was no different, with RAF Beaulieu being the venue for four annual “Battle of Britain” air shows in the years 1945, 1946, 1948, and 1949. 

To gain access to the displays at Beaulieu Heath, visitors would buy tickets for one shilling per person (about 5 pence today). All money raised was donated to the Royal Air Force Benevolent Fund.

In return, visitors could witness incredible sights on and over the huge airfield. 

These sights included acrobatic performances of newly invented jet aircraft, parachute displays, fly pasts with mock air battles, helicopters performing funny routines, captured German aircraft on view, and various games and stalls you might expect at a village fete.

beaulieu air display
Visitors seeing aircraft outside a hangar at Beaulieu including a Vampire and Meteor in 1949 (Credit: J Shergold).

One of the more memorable displays was the 1949 Sikorsky Hoverfly helicopters “ringmaster and elephants” routine. This involved the Sikorksy helicopters that were being tested at RAF Beaulieu by the AFEE being dressed as elephants with trunks and ears.

During the pantomime performance, the Sikorsky Hoverfly helicopters were placed under the command of the ringmaster and would perform synchronised movements in front of the crowd.

It would have been the first time many people would have seen a helicopter.

Sikorsky helicopters practice the “elephants and ringmaster” routine on Beaulieu Airfield in 1949. (Credit: Ron Whatley)

The routine was developed, practiced and performed at Beaulieu before later being repeated at the larger Farnborough Air Show of 1950. The photo above was taken by AFEE photographer Ron Whatley, and shows one of the practice performances taking place on Beaulieu Airfield.

In Peter Campbell’s book, “Tales of the Fifties”, he recalls an account by a gentleman called Peter Amos. Amos describes cycling to Beaulieu Airfield on the 17th of September 1949 to see the final Battle of Britain Air Display there, before the airfield closed in 1950.

“Beaulieu was home to the Airborne Forces Experimental Establishment who put on a very good display and the Command fly-past consisted of Yorks, Lincolns, and Meteors before the American Superfortresses arrived. Sqdn. Ldr. ‘Jeep’ Cable showed what could be done with a Bristol helicopter, including engine-off landings, and seen for the first time in public was the new technique developed by Flight Refuelling Ltd when one of their Lancaster tankers appeared with a Meteor linked by the refuelling hose. The Meteor then broke away overhead the airfield.”

The program of events from the 1949 RAF Beaulieu “Battle of Britain” Air Display and Show.

Peter Amos also described the helicopter display.

“The famous circus of performing Hoverflies disguised as elephants was put through its paces, and at the end of the act the Cierva Air Horse arrived and disgorged a herd of pantomime ponies, which after amusing the crowd with their antics were lassoed and taken round to collect for the RAF Benevolent Fund. High-speed aerobatics by the Meteor and Vampire were contrasted with low-speed aerobatics by the Hawker Tomtit and Comper Swift. Mike Lithgow then arrived at high speed and nought feet in the swept-wing Supermarine 510 before putting it through its tremendous paces. A great day and well worth the ride.”

Whilst cameras were banned, the displays were intended to be fun for all the family. Children could climb into fighter aircraft, go in the large hangars, enter buildings, play with model racing cars, and adults could get refreshments in the various airfield dining halls and messes. 

The Beaulieu Air Display of 1949 was by far the biggest, with an estimated 30,000 people in attendance.

RAF Beaulieu air display 1949
The Southern Daily Echo’s headline reporting on the 1949 RAF Beaulieu Air Display.

To picture this attendance, this is a similar number of people who attend a Southampton versus Manchester United game at St. Marys stadium in the modern day. 

Walking on Beaulieu Heath now it’s hard to imagine not just the buildings and runways that used to be there, but also large air shows like this occurring, with so many people in attendance. 

The Beaulieu Air Displays will have stuck in the memory of many a small boy and girl who went in the mid to late 1940s, and who will still recall those magical sights to this day. 

inside a building
At the 1949 Air Show at Beaulieu Airfield it was possible for members of the public to see the camera equipment being used by Ron and the AFEE team in one of the buildings. 

However, tragedy would strike the Beaulieu Air Displays on two occasions.

The first incident was August 1945 in the lead up to the first annual September show. A Sikorsky helicopter based at RAF Beaulieu was towing a banner over Lymington to advertise the event. The banner was attached to a trailing steel cable. 

During a trial flight, a Spitfire came too close and struck the weight on the end of the cable. Whilst the helicopter and crew were not harmed, Flying Officer Eastman who was piloting the Spitfire (NH840), crashed, and died behind the Waggon & Horses pub (now the Ferryman) on Undershore Road. 

beaulieu air display ad
This ad for the 1949 event appeared in the Lymington Times.

Tragedy would again strike the Beaulieu Air Display in the following the year. On the day of the 1946 show, Squadron Leader Robin Palmer undertook a risky spin manoeuvre in front of the spectators.

He lost control and crashed his Supermarine Seafire (a naval version of a Spitfire) on the airfield, losing his life in front of a horrified audience.

Despite these two accidents, the Beaulieu Air Displays continued to go ahead each year until the final event in 1949.

The only exception was 1947, when no show was organised. 

air show crowds
Crowds watch on at one of the RAF Beaulieu “Battle of Britain” Air Display shows in the late 1940s.

The Air Ministry would eventually relinquish control of RAF Beaulieu in late 1959.

Buildings and tarmac were pulled down and torn up.

No aircraft or huge crowds would ever be seen again on this piece of New Forest land. 

M Heighway

I hope you enjoy my dedication to Beaulieu Airfield. If you have any memories or questions please do get in touch with me so I can continue to add to this resource.

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