Duxford BBMF 50th Anniversary 2007 Review
Saturday 5th May
Gerald Stapleton. Born 1920. Highly successful Battle of Britain fighter pilot. DFC. Hero. One of many heroes of his time. Sadly, many of those heroes are no longer with us, but thankfully, with the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight, the nation has the perfect reminder of the sacrifices made by so many young men for their country during those dark days. Phil Whalley attended the special event at IWM Duxford on 5 May 2007 to celebrate fifty years of the BBMF.
joined the Birthday celebations. All photography by the author.
It's July 1957, and three RAF PR Mark XIX Spitfires - PM631, PS853, and PS915 - depart Duxford bound for Biggin Hill. Waiting at Biggin is Hurricane IIc LF363, and these four indomitable aircraft are to form the nascent Historic Aircraft Flight. The HAF would eventually become known as the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight, and include an Avro Lancaster, further Spitfires and a Hurricane. Incredibly, fifty years later, it was possible to put those original four fighters in the air together as part of a celebratory anniversary event for the BBMF. PS853 is now owned and operated by Rolls Royce - having been sold to finance the re-build of that first Hurricane, LF363, after it's unfortunate emergency landing and subsequent destructive fire at RAF Wittering in 1991 - but joined up with the team to recreate that historic four-ship for the first section of the day's flying. More of that later.
Sadly, the weather didn't seem to understand the gravity of the day and gave us mostly grey, with a smattering of white cloud. A real shame given the treats that the Flight had in stall. Before the flying began, the public had a chance to meet the crews, and uniquely, to inspect the entire fleet of the BBMF which had been lined up on the flight line. In a specially erected marquee, various members of the air and ground crews spent the day meeting the public and signing autographs, and were joined by the Falcons parachutists, and the great man himself, Gerald 'Stapme' Stapleton. Also on show was a very specially presented Harley-Davidson, with depictions of Battle of Britain action, a portrait of Gerald, and the phrase 'Lest We Forget'.
Gerald Stapleton epitomises what the Memorial Flight is about, and has become a regular visitor to BBMF events and to the team's home at RAF Coningsby. One of three new paint schemes for the 2007 season is the historic early Mk. IIa Spitfire P7350, which has been re-coded as XT-L to represent the 603 Squadron machine flown by Gerald at the height of the Battle of Britain from Hornchurch. P7350 was itself on strength with the squadron during the battle, suffered a crash landing (with bullet holes still visible in her port wing) and is the oldest airworthy Spitfire in the world.
A second Spitfire, Mk. Vb AB910, has been totally transformed from its previous desert camouflage into a more familiar green and grey scheme, depicting RF-D of 303 (Kosciuszko) Polish squadron when flown by its OC, Sqn Ldr Jan Zumbach. A large Donald Duck has been painted on its port side in front of the canopy, and the red and white chequer board squares as carried by Polish aircraft have been applied on the lower forward areas either side of the cowlings. Very welcome though these changes are, your reviewer and probably the majority of the attendees at the event, were most looking forward to seeing the third debutant scheme, that of Avro Lancaster I PA474 now presented as 'Phantom of the Ruhr'.
The original 'Phantom', EE139, survived 121 operational missions and served with 100 Squadron as HW-R, and with 550 Squadron as BQ-B, and so carries both codes as fitting memorials. The new nose artwork is well worth the anticipation, and was the subject of much focusing once the flight line walk opened! The 'Phantom' is depicted dispensing bombs through the night-time clouds, presumably onto the industrial Ruhr below, though of course there would have been many other targets that felt the wrath of the 'Phantom'! Alongside the Lanc, the Spitfires and Hurricanes of the Flight, it was very refreshing to see the Flight's Dakota, ZA947, and the two shy Chipmunks, WK518 and WG486. All very important members of the team, and without which there would be a severe shortage of qualified pilots to operate the stars of the show!
As mid-day approached, it was time for those stars to take to the stage. The four original, golden anniversary fighters fired up their engines and taxied out past the impressively large crowd, with faces grinning and hands waving. It certainly was very much a party atmosphere. Led by the BBMF's OC, Sqn Ldr Al Pinner in the Hurricane LF363, the four fighters began in formation for a number of passes, before taking up a line astern tail-chase over the airfield in a sequence specially planned for the fiftieth anniversary season. The Rolls Royce PS853 Spit was flown in this instance by their test pilot Phil O'Dell (POD). A stunning sight which should also appear at a number of other venues this year. A pleasure to the ear and the eye.
The RAF's oldest aircraft, P7350, departed towards the end of the four-ship routine, sneaking away to meet up with one of its newest. Once the 'Historic Aircraft Flight' were down on the ground, the Mk. IIa returned in very close formation with the Typhoon F2 flown by 2007 display pilot Flt Lt Jim Walls, sadly in probably the grimmest whether conditions of the day. After a couple of passes, Jim broke away and went into his flat display routine - not surprisingly finding plenty of moisture in the air! As the glorious roar of the bright orange afterburners faded away, the Cambridgeshire countryside fell silent once more, and, with around three hours before flying would recommence, we could hope for an improvement in the weather.
Thankfully, although far from perfect, as the Falcon carrying Dakota lifted clear of Duxford's runway, the clouds had indeed lifted, and even the odd patch of blue had broken through. With ZA947 climbing to height, 'Stapme' was led out to be seated on the taxiway so that he could accept the salute from the Falcons, once they had given in to gravity, and trailed their smoke to the ground. A fine sight.
With the honoured guest thankfully clear of the taxiway, it was time for what could probably be called the main event. With fingers pointed skywards in a swirling motion, thumbs raised, puffs of exhaust smoke, the Merlins and Griffins came to life. One by one, all of the Flight's fighters and the Lanc taxied out. Firstly, two of the Spitfires carried out a 'synchro pair' routine, before joining the rest of Flight to return in formation. The Lancaster, two Hurricanes, and five Spitfires. Nine Merlins and two Griffins.
Lancaster PA474 flown by Flt Lts Mike Leckey and Ed Straw, Hurricane IIc LF363 flown by Flt Lt Anthony Parkinson, Hurricane IIc PZ865 flown by Gp Capt Stuart Atha, Spitfire IIa P7350 flown by Sqn Ldr Ian 'Shiney' Simmons, Spitfire LF. IXe MK356 flown by Sqn Ldr Al Pinner, Spitfire Vb flown by Fg Off Clive Rowley, Spitfire XIX PM631 flown by Sqn Ldr Ian Smith, and Spitfire XIX PS915 flown by Gp Capt Russ Allchorne. The bomber and seven fighters. However you look at it, it was damn impressive! A sight everyone present will never forget. And the sound! Glorious.
The Flight had to bring 'old boys' Clive Rowley and 'Shiney' Simmons in from their 'day' jobs, as the team only have five pilots current on the fighters. Hardly a risk though! Once the formation cleared the M11, PA474 pulled up and banked away to the left, leaving the fighters to make several further passes before spiritedly breaking to land, except for the elements of the 'standard' BBMF routine. One Hurricane, one Mk. XIX Spitfire, and 'The Phantom' displayed individually, before forming up into the timeless, classic Vic. A formation that will be seen around the country once again in 2007, and is the icon, the focus, not only of the flight, but for any occasion with thoughts of remembrance, of lost friends, of heroes. Thanks to the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight, we will remember them.