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Prestwick’s Ace Festival of Flight

I’ve just spent 10 days in what local MSP John Scott calls (rightly) Scotland’s Riviera: Ayr and Prestwick. I was co-producing the Prestwick World Festival of Flight, an extravaganza of aeroplanes, pilots, films, books, music, exhibitions and debate.

We thought up the event a couple of years ago on the beach at Ayr. I am of a generation of Glaswegians who fled the great metropolis in summertime for the delights of the Ayrshire coast and hinterland. I remember sunny days fishing in the lazy Doon, feeling sick on the Electric Brae, prodding dead basking sharks on Ayr beach, marvelling at the pit winding shafts that littered the horizon, and exalting at the whoosh of big jet airliners as the skimmed the road that ran under Prestwick Airport’s runway.

These days South Ayrshire tends to be ignored by our self-satisfied, navel-contemplating Central Belt and its complacent media. Holyrood concerns itself with Big Urban Questions, forgetting that around 40 per cent of Scots live in modest-sized towns like Ayr and Prestwick. Or that much of Scottish business revolves around serving these smaller communities – meaning that the entrepreneurial spark has to burn brighter in places such as South Ayr because they don’t get much help from Edinburgh.

I got involved in the World Festival of Flight because I grew frustrated - then plain annoyed - that the media and politicians in the Central Belt seem blissfully unaware that Prestwick Airport is home to one of Scotland’s major concentrations of advanced engineering excellence. The CEO of one such company complained to me that the Welsh Government trundles every visiting foreign dignitary, Westminster bigwig or European business chief out to visit the Welsh subsidiary of his aerospace firm…but Holyrood sends hardly anyone to visit the even more advanced plant at Prestwick.

Yet here at Prestwick we have BAE Systems regional airliner division and a clutch of US multinationals: Spirit AeroSystems, UTC, GE Caledonian and Woodward. They are backed up by a raft of Scottish-owned specialist component suppliers such as Wallace McDowall (whose robot laser cutting machines work through the night like high tech ghosts). Prestwick is the archetypal manufacturing cluster identified years ago by management guru (I hate the term) Michael Porter – an integrated local supply chain from training to delivery, which is also connected directly into the global market place, ensuring competition drives innovation.

Sadly the UK no longer builds whole aircraft (unless you count the ancient but sprightly Islander). But at Prestwick they build wing parts for both Boeing and Airbus, maintain and upgrade US and British engines for the world’s airlines, and keep the jet fleets of BA and Ryanair in the sky. Engines get trucked in from London as wing assembles fly out to Toulouse or Seattle in giant Antonov freighters. Time spent standing at the airport fence is heaven for an aviation geek: this past few weeks the graceful Boeing Dreamliner has been undergoing pilot training using Prestwick’s phenomenally long runway.   



Prestwick Airport was founded in 1935 by David Fowler McIntyre and Douglas Douglas-Hamilton (then Lord Clydesdale).  They were fresh from earning a global reputation (and an early Oscar) as the first men to fly over Mount Everest. This April, together with Charles Douglas-Hamilton (grandson of Lord Clydesdale), my wife Angela and a planeload of journalists, I repeated this flight over Everest. We got massive press and television coverage throughout Asia, especially in India and China.

Alas, I was not able to persuade any Scottish politicians to come with us and sell Scottish aviation prowess to an eager world. Or to the 150 journalists who turned up to my Kathmandu press conference. But we did use a Prestwick-built Jetstream to fly over Everest. Pity they aren’t building them any more. There’s a race on at the moment to build the next regional airliner to replace the Jetstream. In the race are Brazil, China, Japan, Canada, and France. But not Scotland.

To be frank, South Ayrshire and Prestwick have not always been good about broadcasting their aviation success to the rest of Scotland. That is one reason we organised the World Festival of Flight. Included was a big industry conference held at the new HQ of the National Air Traffic Service (NATS) in Prestwick. NATS probably needs a sexier name. It is a fantastically hi tech firm that manages passenger airliners in flight across the Atlantic. Privatised a few years ago, NATS is expanding rapidly to manage air traffic control around the world. Soon it will be perfectly easy to control jets flying anywhere on the planet …from Prestwick.

Our industry conference was addressed by Fergus Ewing (the Scottish enterprise minister), tall Michael Moore (Secretary of State for Scotland), and Murdo Morrison (editor of Flight International magazine). We had booked a Westminster Cabinet minister but they cancelled on us at the last minute. This personage’s political adviser called to apologise but said the minister understood the Scottish aerospace industry because he “came to Glasgow and Edinburgh regularly”. Just my point: visiting the Central Belt is not the same thing as visiting Prestwick and seeing for yourself. 

Mind you, ours was the first major aerospace conference held at Prestwick for decades. I’d like our next year’s industry conference to be about airports. Fancy hearing Boris Johnson, Michael O’Leary and Richard Branson on one (Prestwick) platform? Book early: the NATS conference suite only seats 100 and we sold out this year.



Our Festival of Flight was unique in that we wanted to do more than hold a Farnborough-type industry event or an air display for rubbernecks. We called it a festival because we wanted to turn Ayrshire into a world destination for the arts. We persuaded Creative Scotland to give us cash to commission a wonderful Ayrshire-born musician, David Paul Jones, to compose a suite of music celebrating the story of flight at Prestwick. Our aim is to commission new art work every year.

We also commissioned Ashley Dick, a talented new filmmaker just graduated from the University of the West of Scotland in Ayr, to produce a documentary about the history of the airport and local aviation industry. We had the world’s first aviation film festival at Ayr’s reborn Gaiety Theatre, with 26 films from 8 countries, including 8 UK premiers. And as a festival is more about people than events, we brought a raft of young filmmakers from England and Europe to take part. One of my favourite bits was hearing Colin Prescott, whose company Flying Pictures shot all the aerial sequences for the Harry Potter and Bond movies. Colin was the guy who created the Bond sequence for the opening of the London Olympic Games.

Our aviation book festival (“Wings & Words”) had speakers such as Leo McKinstry, the fiery Daily Express columnist, ace Scottish business journalist Kenny Kemp, and Booker-nominated Derek Robinson, whose novels are black comedies about the RAF. But I was most proud that we were able to support Scotland’s own small publishing houses - in particular Iain Hutchison of Kea Publishing.  Iain did what all small imprints do: gave two wonderful talks yet still found time to man a table selling his books.   

Oh, and did I mention the two spectacular painting exhibitions the Festival has at the Maclaurin Gallery and Rozelle House in Ayr. Or the fact that nearly 5,000 local people turned out at short notice on 31 August to see the Red Arrows land at Prestwick. Or our static air display at Prestwick Airport on 7-8 September where the highlight was the World War II Catalina flying boat. Nearly 1,000 adults and children boarded the Cat.

And how much subsidy did we get from Event Scotland? None: they said our programme was too ambitious to be done in the time. VisitScotland? None: in a wonderful Catch 22, you have to be established before they will help you. Scottish Enterprise? None: they have stopped giving sponsorship, they say.

However, thanks to our industry sponsors: Prestwick Airport, BAE Systems, Spirit, NATS, UTC, Woodward, and GE Caledonian, as well as South Ayrshire Council and the Heritage Lottery Fund (without whom we would not have been able to hire anyone). But also thanks to the small firms in the area, like Brown Brothers Printers and Zisys Events, who are paragons of entrepreneurship and delivery – unlike some public agencies.


We were very saddened by the end of the RAF Leuchars Air Show, which has just been announced. But we feel that reviving the Scottish International Air Show at Prestwick (which ended in 1992) would go some way to filling the gap. Our current initial intention is to hold the Prestwick Air Show on Saturday 6 September 2014.  This will probably take place over the Firth of Clyde, with spectators viewing from Prestwick and Ayr Promenades. 

In its heyday the Scottish International Air Show got 100,000 visitors. It might take us a while but that is our target. Chocks away!