Friday, 18 April 2014

Airs and graces and falling doors – at the Air Show


Tom Curley in Salthill 

Alligator clouds snapped at the brittle sky over Galway Bay. Ribbons of mid-morning sun stole around the menacing jaws – then the rain spilled down, light and heavy. June was bursting out all over – but not in the same likeness as we know it from the Carousel musical. Out on the choppy bay, a dark grey battleship lay static – like a redundant trawler, chained for keeps to the harbour wall – its fishing days now distant waters. The vessel, there for a day or two – was on coastal watch for enemy approach.

            The fifteenth Salthill Air Show would soon be blazing off, in roughly four hours from now. The main seafront thoroughfare and Salthill Promenade – for countless summers, the meander of memories and sunshine for multitudes of tourists – was gaining the momentum, in both directions, to that of the March to the Bastille. The expected one hundred thousand spectators were arriving from many parts and from overseas, eager to watch, many, for the first time, the air-raid symphony. Surrounding guesthouses, hotels and others, deep into Galway City had hoisted their ‘no vacancy’ signs.

            Prior to opening time, Eilish Hopkins, proprietor of Lonergan’s renowned seafront bar and lounge in Salthill, was, with a little help from friends, corralling her heavy bench tables on the wide footpath outside the premises. Gathering foot soldiers were taking their rest, soon to sample the Sunday spirit. Later, on sliding back the door bolts, the bar was quickly filled to its every old-fashioned nook and corner. Eilish and staff were summoned into hurried action, as always they were ready and willing. Local man, Joe Dolan (who assures he is “no relation” – and cannot sing a note) has attended every Air Show since the start fifteen years ago. Since then, he says the crowds have steadily increased, its popularity has become worldwide. Joe expected to view the Show – or most of it – from the two large frontal windows of Lonergan’s – looking out over the broad bay and the Clare hills shouldering behind. A true picture indeed – where sometimes three ships pass by night. Even Picasso might care to imitate. Eilish – who has shaken many a coloured hand and greeted many a foreign face since taking control of the till eleven years ago – states that the Air Show is by far the biggest annual entertainment and commercial event in Salthill. In crowd terms she observes it would compare with, if not exceed, a full month of tourists to the famous seaside resort. Connacht Final day in Pearse Stadium is, naturally, a major boost for the area – but in crowd numbers there is a long kick of a ball between the two events, the popular Eilish stresses.

            Tom Killoran of Killoran’s long-standing bar – only a dividing wall between the two friendly seaside taverns – was of similar voice. By far this is the biggest singular event in the Galway tourist calendar he reminds. Of the eighty thousand plus sightseers descending on the area, in one parachute drop Tom jokes: “Between us (the alehouses) we will reach them all, even if they are outside.”

            As Galway were depriving Leitrim of yet another Connacht Final appearance – and Limerick and Tipperary, taking their hurls to each other for the third time in as many weeks in passionate pursuit of Munster hurling fame – all eyes and heads turn sharply from the large screen on Killoran’s inner wall – and dashed for the crowded door to catch the throw-in of the fifteenth Salthill Air Show – that had just climbed into the skies.

            This Show heralded the first appearance in Ireland of the top United States Demonstration Squadron, the Thunderbirds in their F15 Fighter Jets, which stole the show. From beyond the horizon, these magnificent men in their flying machines raced over Galway Bay in sublime and planned formation. For three hours that were to follow – with scant break – these machines and their daring pilots dominated the Western skies with an awe-inspiring exhibition of spectacular manoeuvres and knitted aerial patterns, in both group formation and solo action. A power pack statement of bravery, defiance – majestic beyond most understanding. If Hemingway was there at his bench, he might create a novel, fittingly entitled ‘ Airs and Graces’.

            Also performing in the day’s celebration of aerial acrobatics were the Royal Netherlands Airforce, the United States Air Learjets, the Irish Parachute Display Team, the Black Knights and the Aer Arann 2 Excl Display Unit. These heroic craftsmen of the air thrilled the thousands of spectators who watched from the promenade below and from the windows and doors of nearby seaside guesthouses, hotels and local residences. The show was visible for many miles along the Connemara coast and many parts of Galway city.

            As a backdrop to the air extravaganza, the crowds were treated, at sea level, to a colourful flotilla of craft, including a Naval Courvette. Taking command of the seafront carpark, the Irish Army, in all its forty shades of green, presented an absorbing display of its armoury, including machinery, guns, and bomb disposal units. Army personnel were on hand to freely discuss manoeuvres and to take queries. The Irish Red Cross and Civil Defence were also on show to advance their valuable wares and capabilities.

            As the skies returned to their celestial path and the last ground helicopter lifted to join the homeward stretch, a further, but unexpected, drama unfolded. The ongoing cheering and clapping of the crowd quickly turned to astonishment, when, approximately from a height of one hundred and fifty feet, a door became detached from the airborne machine and hurtled – like a free -lying bird caught by a vagrant sniper – to the crowded beach. In the frantic scramble to safety that followed a number of the onlookers were knocked to the ground. The Gardai, Civil Defence and two standby ambulances were quickly in attendance.  Three people who sustained back and neck injuries were taken to a City hospital. Their injuries were described as not serious. There are no certainties to the evening of a day. The helicopter immediately returned to ground and transferred to Galway Airport for extensive technical examination by the Irish Aviation Authority. As part of the show the helicopter in question – an E.C. 135 was based for the day on the promenade on public display. For a number of hours before the Air Show, a group of Galway anti-war protestors known as the Galway Alliance Against War (GAAW) held a peace march to Salthill, having earlier held a vigil outside Galway Cathedral. The protest culminated with the release of one hundred red balloons – to the great delight of the many children in sight. Like Tribunals, detractors will never go away. Air Shows are not signatures for war.

            For first-time watchers, the Salthill Air Show will be seen as a marvellous occasion, a visual expression of technology and science beyond the grasp of our domestic tools. Yet, despite its enormous popularity, and high entertainment value – for free – its future lies in the balance. High operating costs and a minority of opposing groups could militate against its survival. Brian McGrath, Chief Organiser, stresses that the demise of the Salthill Air Show, which brings a forceful international dimension to the area, would be a severe setback to Galway. The tens of thousands who annually gather in the City of the Tribes to witness this spectacle are solid testament to that. The skies show no brighter stars.