Blenheim Palace 'Fly To The Past' 2007 Review
Sunday 22nd July
Fly To The Past is one of those rare anomalies - an airshow that isn't actually at an airfield. Hosted in the sumptuous grounds of Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire, early publicity for the 2007 show featured a display programme which many "proper" airshows would be more than proud of. One by one acts dropped out for various reasons, notably the Sea Hawk and Breitling Jet Team, but even so the July 22nd event promised to be a show to remember - so long as the weather played ball.
reports for UKAR. All photography by the author.
Given that half of Oxfordshire had spent the last couple of days looking like a scene from The Day After Tomorrow, and with more bad weather allegedly on the way, it was with no small degree of trepidation that I set course for Blenheim Palace. Fly To The Past has been running since 2003, but tends to pass by the majority of aviation enthusiasts given its proximity to the Royal International Air Tattoo and the not-insignificant £40 on-the-day ticket price for adults, with under-16s getting in for a tenner. Remember RIAT's prices last week were £37.50 for adults, and accompanied under-16s went free.
Unlike a certain event up the road at Abingdon a few weeks previously the high ticket prices didn't appear to affect the turnout. There was a decent-sized queue at the pay booths before the showground opened at 9am. Looking around the venue this wasn't your ordinary airshow crowd. Yes there were still the tents, long lenses and the windbreaks, but the cool boxes here contained Chardonnay and Pimms. Enough to make a ruffian like me feel almost out of place! Ground events were numerous with excellent wartime and swing music from live performers, period fashion shows and even Laurel and Hardy and Dad's Army lookalikes (Mainwaring and Walker were especially convincing!). Special praise must go to the organisers for by far the best sound system I've ever heard at an air display.
With no runway suitable for fixed-wing traffic, the only static aircraft were gliders and rotary types. It's always nice to see the Army Air Corps Historic Flight's helicopters, and it's a shame they don't get to more shows. Lined up here on the soggy grass were the Skeeter, Alouette, Sioux and Scout, which made for a great end-of-show photo opportunity when they departed over the crowds. The morning featured several helicopter arrivals, among which was the civilian-owned Bell UH-1 G-UHIH which was to play an active, if rather distant part in the flying display later in the day.
Flying began at 1.30pm with one of the airshow circuit's most interesting acts. Christian Moullec and his trained birds (this year he came with cranes, usually he brings geese!) have been visiting British shows for a number of years and they never cease to impress. Monsieur Moullec flies his microlight and his cranes follow in formation, thinking the aircraft is in fact another crane! Terrific to see man and beast flying together, and so good to see something genuinely different on the display circuit, which leads us on nicely to the next item!
Having seen John Gowdy and Guy Westgate's excellent Extra 300 and glider routine at Kemble a month earlier, at this show they again were superb. Gowdy towed Westgate up to release height, and the glider performed the seemingly-impossible, spins, flick rolls and loops. Top marks all round! Gowdy was a busy man - he returned later in the afternoon in Air Atlantique's de Havilland Vampire T.11! Another neat display came from veteran display pilot Dennis Kenyon flinging his spindly Hughes 300 helicopter around in a manner we're more accustomed to seeing the Army Air Corps Lynx do at other shows!
Warbirds were well-represented, with Duxford's Old Flying Machine Company providing Spitfire MkIX MH434 and P-51D Mustang "Ferocious Frankie". Peter Teichman continued his recent run of excellent performances in his P-40 Kittyhawk, and the RAF's Battle of Britain Memorial Flight displayed Spitfire MkIIa P7350 and Hurricane MkIIc PZ865 along with their flagship Avro Lancaster I PA474. A well-received set-piece was staged featuring a mock attack on a bridge by a Messerschmitt Me-108, which was the cue for some spectacular and very loud pyrotechnics, which saw hordes of youngsters run from the main crowd area to line the riverbank in excitement! Most disappointing of the warbirds was the Royal Navy Historic Flight's very brief Hawker Sea Fury display which seemed to be flown furthest from the crowd than any other aircraft in the show. An uncharacteristically poor showing from the normally dependable RNHF, almost certainly to do with the aircraft suffering radio problems en route to Blenheim.
World War I aircraft tend to be very under-represented at shows away from Old Warden. This was certainly not the case at Blenheim. The Great War Display Team brought no fewer than seven aircraft - all of course replicas; all in the air at the same time in a tremendous dogfight scenario. The team's aircraft were a pair of SE5a machines, two Junkers CL1s, a Fokker DR1 Triplane, A Sopwith Triplane and a Nieuport 17. Great entertainment.
Aerobatics came from Sywell-based team The Blades in their orange and black Extra 300s. Led by Andy Offer, they continue to set the standard for civilian teams with a display which certainly borrows heavily from the Red Arrows. Hardly suprising given that all four pilots are ex-Reds!
The show was marred by an incident involving one of the RAF Falcons parachute team who collided with a spectator as he tried to land in the arena. From my vantage point around 15 feet from the collision, the elderly female spectator appeared to be knocked out cold from the impact, but thankfully within a few moments she was conscious and able to speak with the paramedics who were quickly on the scene.
Large aircraft are impressive at any venue, and here in the surroundings of Blenheim Palace the energetic display from Air Atlantique's Douglas DC-6 propliner was a joy to behold. Some staggering wingovers and steep turns from G-APSA, which sadly no longer works commercially for the company, and is reliant on airshow appearances for her upkeep. Let's hope she's around for a good few years yet.
Jet aircraft appearing were to have included Air Atlantique's Canberra, which much to the author's chagrin, decided to go sick at Baginton again! I have still to see WK163 fly. Does it even exist? As well as the Vampire mentioned above we were treated to a classy Hunter T.7 routine from Delta Jets chief pilot Andy Cubin and a quite sensational demonstration of the Eurofighter Typhoon from Jim Walls. Whether the setting helped or not I'm not sure, but this was by far the most enjoyable Typhoon display I've seen this season. Plenty of burner, bags of noise and a real spectacle to conclude the day's flying.
If there were gripes to be had, then the main one must be about the display line. Compared to previous shows, the public area of the show was moved away from the Palace itself to (according to the commentary) avoid churning up the soft ground following recent rainfall. This of course meant that the display datum had to be moved too, and it's positioning on high ground behind a row of trees did nothing to help spectators, especially those with cameras, who now found themselves shooting into the sun meaning for backlit photographs.
Fly To The Past is a different kind of airshow. Different in venue, different in pricing and different in terms of clientele. For all those differences, the 2007 show featured a very high quality display line-up and combined with some top-notch ground-based entertainment Fly to the Past proved a "good" day out, only prevented from being a "great" one by the display line problems.