Duxford Autumn Air Show 2009 Review
Sunday 11th October
Two thousand and nine was truly a mixed year as regards airshow weather and content. Many a great show line-up had been spoilt by the forces of nature, and conversely there has been much criticism of show organisation and missing star items. The airshows held at the Imperial War Museum Duxford have again suffered from less than perfect weather conditions this year, but the intended content of each event has remained strong. There has been a clear attempt over recent years to offer more unique and refreshing display items amongst the familiar favourites, and the Autumn Airshow of 11 October was no exception.
reports from an initially extremely damp Cambridgeshire. All photography by the author.
I arrived at Duxford with a foreboding sense of déjà-vu. A heavy downpour had hit the airfield early doors, and as I splashed along the main public stall area many of the traders were still sitting in their vans waiting for a break in the weather, whilst those that had started to set up were busy with brooms, sweeping the water from their marquees. As the saying goes about death and taxes, add rain at airshows! Understandably with such valuable items, most of the aircraft on the flight line remained covered until well into the morning. A pain for photography, but a sensible move by the operators. Sadly missing, again, was the Sea Hawk. After finally getting back into the air, WV908 made it to a couple of shows before being grounded again. It has to be the unluckiest aircraft ever.
Also scrubbed from the flying display, The Fighter Collection's Sea Fury remained in the hanger, once again suffering some king of pre show nerves, having missed the September show having similarly thrown up a snag just a few hours beforehand. Stephen Grey really isn't having the best of luck, with this adding to his CAA paperwork woes. The 'operational' hangers are packed tight now with valuable, immaculate machinery safely tucked away for the winter. Looking at the TFC warbirds within, it really strikes home how much we've missed seeing the likes of the Corsair, Bearcat and Hawk in the air for most of this year. One can only hope that everything is signed off for 2010.
In hanger four the Aircraft Restoration Company (ARCo), working on behalf of Blenheim Duxford Limited, has offered up the Mk 1 nose section to the fuselage of G-BPIV. This airframe was the second of the two Blenheims to be restored to flight, suffering a landing accident at Duxford in August 2003. There's clearly still plenty of work to be done before we see a pair of Bristols (their joke, not mine) back in the air. Out on the flight line two other warbirds were displaying significant changes in appearance. The Battle of Britain Memorial Flight's Spitfire IIa P7350 has spent a year at Duxford in the hands of the Aircraft Restoration Company, returning to the air on 16 September. Now in the colours of a 92 Squadron Spitfire I at the height of the Battle, ARCo have also fitted a period exhaust stack. It was due to play a significant part in the day's flying, unlike Sheringham Aviation's rarely seen Mk I AR213 sporting a brown in its camouflage which is apparently incorrect. Not due to fly, it was still very nice to see out in the open though.
Shortly before the display 'proper', Mark Miller took his DH-89A Dragon Rapide G-AGJG aloft with two very special passengers. Former wartime Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA) pilots Freydis Sharland, 89, and Molly Rose, 88, enjoyed a short flight over Cambridgeshire in the appropriately camouflaged Rapide, itself having been delivered into service by ATA pilot Jackie Moggridge. Two slots in the display would salute these unsung heroines, and one in particular would be very special indeed.
A gleaming, screaming classic jet signalled the start of the display, as the Golden Apple F-86A Sabre tucked up its undercarriage and smeared brown smudges around Duxford in the hands of Mark Linney. Rumours of its imminent return home to the States appear to have been at least temporarily incorrect, but even so, every chance to see the Sabre should be cherished. Mark definitely knows how to show the old jet to its fullest, and it was just a shame that the weather at this point, although dry, was grim, grey and dark. Thankfully the cloud base was high enough for all the acts to take to the air by whatever means possible, be that by the odd lift arrangement of John Elliot's Autogyro, or the extremely unique departure by Mark Jefferies in his Extra 330. John's display was laudable, but far better suited to a smaller venue. Mark on the other hand put his agile machine through the ringer, pulling 'G' for laughs, and approving comments from the public, from his ridiculous take-off to equally outrageous landing, both carried out at extreme angles and with billowing smoke. Mark's aerobatic display is easily one of the best on the display circuit, with both man and machine amongst the best in the World.
The Chipmunk pair from ARCo found themselves having to take off in IMC thanks to the Extra's copious smoke system, and trundled competently around in the gloom, followed by Stephen Grey enjoying himself in P-51 Miss Velma. Always a pleasure to watch, and his enjoyment was there for all to see, but the weather really wasn't helping the displaying aircraft. The T-28 Fennec pair have worked up a really entertaining routine, including cross-overs and a head-on break, with close formations in these powerful trainers. Kennet Aviation's Westland Wasp is an interesting machine to see display. Obviously limited in its abilities, but still flown with imagination. The Wasp also played 'taxi' for the Belgian Air Component F-16 crew, taking them to their steed which was operating from Mildenhall. Quite what they made of the ancient helicopter isn't known!
Michel 'Mitch' Beulen returned from the east in a machine of totally different performance, his 349 Fighter Squadron 'Viper'. With re-heat glowing orange in the overcast, the smoke from the 'smoke-winders' joined the almost constant vapour created by the leading edge extensions of the F-16, a trait it shares with the F-18 Hornet. In the damp air the rear of the jet is almost constantly shrouded in cloud. The Belgian F-16 has become a regular at Duxford shows, although this was Mitch's first season as F-16 display pilot, and always ticks the boxes of sight, sound and car alarms! Sadly no 'Heritage Flight' formation this year, but easily a highlight of the day and rare chance to see a fast jet at any show these days.
A complete change in tempo followed, with a trio of twin engine props taking the stage. Andrew Dixon in the Percival Pembroke fitted the majestic yet sedate box. One of those aircraft that is just nice to sit back and watch. Normally the same could be said of the Dragon Rapide and Avro Anson that followed. Spending most of their time as a formation pair, these two classic props were part one of the very worthwhile tribute to the Air Transport Auxiliary pilots and their valuable contribution to Britain's Second World War effort. These pilots would often jump into a strange aircraft with just the Pilot's Notes as preparation. A number of ATA pilots were women, and as a special tribute to them, two of our current female warbird pilots, Carolyn Grace and Anna Walker, paired up in a Spitfire and Hurricane for formation flypasts, which was believed to be the first such situation since the war. Carolyn's daughter Olivia provided a commentary for the tribute and did so very poignantly. She took over the mic from the show's main commentators, Colin Wilsher and Ben Dunnell. Colin is a regular at Duxford, but Ben was making his debut at the IWM after his first and only previous 'gig' at RIAT. As editor of Aircraft magazine Ben is clearly knowledgeable in most aspects of aviation, and I think this was the first airshow I've ever been to where there were no cries of derision at factual mistakes by the commentary team!
We'd seen the single Extra of Mark Jefferies earlier in the day, and the set of four orange examples known as The Blades continued the superlatives. Easily the best team of its kind, they are always a sight to behold. Blades PR Officer Kat Nicoll supplies the commentary for the team's display and she was noticeably more relaxed and natural at this event than in previous ones I have heard. There followed a quieter period of the show, with displays by regulars such as the Catalina, L4 Cub and Stearman, a graceful appearance by Bob Grimstead in his Fournier RF4 motor glider, and a demonstration of pace and agility by Pete Kynsey in the Cosmic Wind. The last four of which benefited from a brief period of blue sky. Oddly, although the sky over the airfield was clear, the sun to the west often remained behind cloud. This lead to some impressive light effects for the remaining display acts.
Two of the RAF's display pilots were finishing their tenure today. Hawk pilot Matt Barker has come to the end of his season on the circuit. His display has come in for much criticism during 2009, and his slot which followed later would only slightly disprove that feeling. Most of his display is pulling away from the crowd, and there is especially a particular point during the routine where the Hawk flies into the distance at roughly forty-five degrees to the display axis, to return with a loop which itself is far too far away, and takes way too long to be part of a fluid display. Some of the turns though seemed to be pulled tighter than I've seen previously. Of far more importance was the final display by Sqn Ldr Al Pinner as Officer Commanding BBMF. He will soon be handing over his desk to Sqn Ldr Ian Smith as OC, so it was very fitting that he was involved with what was probably the signature moment of the day. Flying Spitfire IIa P7350 in formation with Matt in the Hawk, the pair made a couple of loose passes, before performing a break head-on to the crowd. A well timed shutter would have produced a lovely picture, especially with the colours in the sky beyond. To add interest to the item, P7350 was debuting in a new colour scheme, as previously mentioned. Al Pinner carried out a solo routine of sweeping turns and topside passes, before departing for Coningsby. A farewell performance that will long be remembered.
Rapidly becoming the best warbird display act on the circuit, the pairing of Alister Kay in P-51 Ferocious Frankie and Brian Smith in Spitfire IX MH434 has wowed crowds throughout the summer, and with splashes of sunlight making photography finally worthwhile, they did it again. The top side pass over the 'Tank Bank' being much appreciated, slotted in tight, the pair stick together through loops and turns as one. It wouldn't be fair to compare with them with Paul Bonhomme and Nigel Lamb, because the best pair will be the one that's in front of you at the time. You're just grateful to be witnessing such visual poetry. Sublime. The aforementioned Hawk display then preceded the final display of the day, that of B-17 Sally B. Just making it to the end of the display season must seem like a triumph for Elly Sallingboe and her hard working team after the bad luck of recent years. The Flying Fortress performed in a sky of many colours, ranging from blue to black, with portions of beautifully warm orange. Natures glowing tribute. With the B-17's own smokey-engined tribute to her supporters hanging in the air, so ended the IWM's and the UK's display season for 2009. A mixed day's weather mirrored the year as a whole, but failed to completely spoil it. The display was perhaps missing a couple of star items to match the Autumn shows of previous year's, but as mentioned in the opening paragraph, with the clear attempt to offer unique items not seen elsewhere the display organisers have nothing to be ashamed of.