Sunderland International Airshow

Stuart Forster outlines what to expect at Sunderland International Airshow, a free-to-visit July event that frequently features the RAF’s Red Arrows aerobatic team.

The annual event has been a hit with families, photographers and casual spectators since the inaugural show, back in 1989. Free to visit, the air show now draws around a million people to the Sunderland seafront, over the course of the weekend. It’s one of several summertime British airshows.

Biplanes flying during a wing walking display at Sunderland International Airshow in North East England.
Biplanes flying during a wing walking display at Sunderland International Airshow in North East England.

What to expect at the air show

Sunderland International Airshow is usually held on the second-last weekend in July. Running from Friday to Sunday, the air show features fly pasts by historic aircraft, aerobatic displays and parachute demonstrations.

A Lancaster bomber flying as part of the RAF's Battle of Britain Memorial Flight.
A Lancaster bomber flying as part of the RAF’s Battle of Britain Memorial Flight.

Live music is performed on the stage at Roker Cliff Park. Military hardware is displayed and members of the British armed services demonstrate and discuss their professions. It makes for one of the most popular days out in the north east, attracting people of all ages.

People listening to live music at Roker Cliff Park in Sunderland during the city's air show, which makes for popular north east days out.
People listening to live music at Roker Cliff Park in Sunderland during the city’s air show. The weekend makes for popular north east days out.

Free to visit, the air show typically draws around a million spectators to Sunderland’s seafront over the course of the weekend. One of the most popular family days out in the north east, the summertime event is also a hit with photographers and casual spectators.

People enjoying a summer day out in Sunderland, on the promenade at Seaburn, enjoying Europe's biggest free-to-visit airshow.
People enjoying a summer day out in Sunderland, on the promenade at Seaburn, enjoying Europe’s biggest free-to-visit airshow.

Sunderland’s first air show was held back in 1989. It’s become established as Europe’s biggest free airshow. Subject to the weather, aircraft fly on both the Saturday and Sunday.

DFDS Seaways ferry in the North Sea watching the air show on a sunny day.
A DFDS Seaways ferry in the North Sea watching the air show on a sunny day.

Sunderland International Airshow

The Royal Air Force Red Arrows and the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight frequently perform at Sunderland International Airshow.

Red and blue vapour trails behind the RAF Red Arrows as they fly.
Red and blue vapour trails behind the RAF Red Arrows as they fly.

Aircraft such as the P51 Mustang, Eurofighter Typhoon and Chinook helicopters count among the aircraft that have flown above the coast of north-east England.

Curtiss P-40 Warhawk (Kittyhawk) flying in American livery from World War Two.
A Curtiss P-40 Warhawk (Kittyhawk) flying in American livery from World War Two.

The British Army’s Tigers freefall team and RAF Falcons demonstrate precision parachuting.

Members of the Raoyal Air Force's Falcons Parachute Display Team performing on a sunny day at Sunderland International Airshow.
Members of the Royal Air Force’s Falcons Parachute Display Team performing on a sunny day at Sunderland International Airshow.

Aeronautic and military equipment is displayed along the seafront and in Seaburn Park.

Members of the Royal Navy in the traditional competition of gun carriage running at Roker Cliff Park in Sunderland.
Members of the Royal Navy in the traditional competition of gun carriage running at Roker Cliff Park.

Every year the programme of Sunderland International Airshow is tweaked. Sometimes the Royal Marines Band performs. Royal Marines might show how they land on a beach.

Royal Marine Commando takes a firing position on Seaburn Beach during the air show in Sunderland.
A Royal Marine Commando takes a firing position on Seaburn Beach during the air show in Sunderland.

The opening party, on Friday evening, features live music and concludes with fireworks over Roker Pier.

Fireworks over Roker Pier reflecting in the North Sea on the first day of Sunderland's annual air show.
Fireworks over Roker Pier reflecting in the North Sea on the first day of Sunderland’s annual air show.

Getting to Sunderland International Airshow

The air show is popular and attracts huge crowds on sunny days.

Members of the Royal Marines Band entertaining the crowd during what regularly proves one of the year's biggest days out in the northeast.
Members of the Royal Marines Band entertaining the crowd during what regularly proves one of the year’s biggest days out in the northeast.

Public transport proves an easy way of getting to and from the Sunderland International Airshow. The nearest Tyne and Wear Metro station is Seaburn, 15 to 20 minutes’ walk from seafront vantage points.

Royal Navy Sea King HU5 helicopter hovering over the North Sea off North East England.
A Royal Navy Sea King HU5 helicopter hovering over the North Sea off North East England.

If you’re thinking about driving to Sunderland International Airshow be prepared for potential delays near the coast. Seafront roads around Seaburn are closed for reasons of public safety.

James Bond moment as a member of the British Army's Tigers Parachute Display Team gathers his Union Flag parachute after landing on Seaburn Beach.
A James Bond moment as a member of the British Army’s Tigers Parachute Display Team gathers his Union Flag parachute after landing on Seaburn Beach.

Parking spots are in high demand. Park and ride services operate in Sunderland during the air show. The Stadium of Light, Downhill Sports Complex and Sunderland Civic Centre are among the car parks used during the air show.

Looking for car parking at Sunderland International Airshow? How about arriving in a Boeing CH-47 helicopter?
Looking for car parking at Sunderland International Airshow? How about arriving in a Boeing CH-47 helicopter?

Prefer arriving by bus? An express bus service operate between Park Lane Interchange, in Sunderland city centre, and Seaburn Park.

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What to pack for the air show

To make the most of a day out at the air show you may find carrying the following items useful:

  • Sun cream with a high sun protection factor to protect your skin and help prevent sunburn.
  • A hat or cap will also help provide protection from the sun.
A Royal Navy Rescue helicopter on display.
A Royal Navy Rescue helicopter on display.
  • Sunglasses so that you can look up at aircraft flying in the summer sky.
  • A hoodie or jacket. Coastal weather in north-east England changes notoriously quickly. Even summer days that start warm and sunny may turn chilly because of sea frets or breezes. Having a warm top in your bag can prove welcome if the weather turns.
The Red Arrows Flying in formation for onlookers
The Red Arrows Flying in formation for onlookers.
  • An umbrella or waterproof jacket. Sunderland is in one of England’s driest regions but it always pays to be prepared in case of rainfall.
  • Binoculars can prove handy for viewing details of aircraft flying at Sunderland’s air show.
Folding chairs or picnic blankets prove useful things to bring to a summer airshow.
Folding chairs or picnic blankets prove useful things to bring to a summer airshow.
  • Pack a picnic. Bringing your own snacks and refreshments will mean you don’t have to buy food and drink from food trucks parked by the seafront. For families looking to enjoy a day out, this can result in savings that can be spent on rides, souvenirs and ice creams. Adults might be tempted to have a drink in one of Seaburn or Roker’s pubs and bars.
Flags advertise candy floss and sweets sold from trucks parked at the seaside.
Flags advertise candy floss and sweets sold from trucks parked at the seaside.
  • A folding chair or picnic blanket. The air show is a busy event. Having something to sit on can prove very welcome.
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Use Pinterest? Pin this and return to read Go Eat Do’s overview of the international airshow held during July in Sunderland on the coast of North East England

Photography at Sunderland International Airshow

Looking for tips for airshow photography?

If you’re a keen photographer it makes sense to buy a copy of the air show’s souvenir programme. That means you’ll have the itinerary and know the schedule of events, ensuring that you are prepared to capture images of aircraft.

Photographers photographing aircraft at Sunderland International Airshow using long tele-zoom lenses.
Photographers photographing aircraft at Sunderland International Airshow using long tele-zoom lenses.

Arriving early gives you a chance to take an optimal position for photography in Roker Cliff Park or on the promenade.

Curtiss P-40 Warhawk (Kittyhawk) flying near Sunderland's White Lighthouse at Roker Cliff Park.
A Curtiss P-40 Warhawk (Kittyhawk) flying near Sunderland’s White Lighthouse at Roker Cliff Park.

Using two camera bodies means being able to use a tele-zoom, for close-up photos of aircraft, and a wider angle lens to capture formations and aerobatic displays.

Two de Havilland Vampire jet fighter planes in the livery of the Norwegian Air Force.
Two de Havilland Vampire jet fighter planes in the livery of the Norwegian Air Force.

What is the ideal lens for airshow photography? I find that a Canon L-Series 100mm to 400mm zoom lens useful. It provides flexibility in framing photos and ability to capture distant details.

The Red Arrows trailing blue and red vapour as they break formation.
The Red Arrows are a joy to watch with or without a camera.

Smartphones are also capable of capturing quality images of aerobatics and fly pasts.

The Battle of Britain Memorial Flight is easy to photograph with a smartphone.
The Battle of Britain Memorial Flight is easy to photograph with a smartphone.

Further information

Want to visit tourist attractions on Wearside while visiting the Sunderland International Airshow? View the See It Do It Sunderland website for inspiration about places to visit in Sunderland. Go Eat Do’s post on things to do in Sunderland is also packed with inspiration.

Parachutists dropping onto Seaburn Beach in close formation.
Parachutists dropping onto Seaburn Beach in close formation.

The Red Arrows website provides information about the Royal Air Force’s aerobatics team and where the perform.

The Red Arrows flying at past the White Lightouse, the Sunderland landmark sometimes called Seaburn Park Lighthouse.
The Red Arrows flying at past the White Lightouse, the Sunderland landmark sometimes called Seaburn Park Lighthouse.

Stuart Forster, the author of this post, is an award-winning travel writer based in North East England. Stuart is available for copywriting and editorial commissions.

The Royal Air Force Red Arrows in close formation trailing colorful vapour.
The Royal Air Force Red Arrows in close formation trailing colorful vapour.

Illustrating photographs are by Sunderland-based Why Eye Photography.

The Blades aerobatic team, the only full-time civilian aerobatics team based in the United Kingdom, flying at Sunderland.
The Blades aerobatic team, the only full-time civilian aerobatics team based in the United Kingdom, flying at Sunderland.

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A woman sits on the upper wing of a biplane during a wingwalking demonstration during a summer air show.
A woman sits on the upper wing of a biplane during a wingwalking demonstration.

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