Duxford Spring Air Show 2009 Review
Sunday 17th May
The Imperial War Museum Duxford's Spring air show in May is often seen as a chance to brush the cobwebs off of the camera kit, for a gentle re-introduction to air display flying. Always entertaining, but rarely a stunner. When the display participation list was published in April, it became obvious that the IWM had pulled out all the stops to start 2009 with a bang. Tiger Moths to Typhoon, and many more in between, had the potential to be the best event at the Cambridge airfield for many years.
reports on the show for UKAR. Photography by the author and .
Although the previous weeks had seen Abingdon stage its Air and Country Show, and Shuttleworth open its 2009 account, my trek up the M11 would be my first show of the year, and I suspect for many others too. The anticipation of what had the potential to be a great show was tempered by the reality of it being held in the UK, and its weather. The Sunday morning curtains opened on heavy, low cloud, rain, and extremely high and gusty winds. Titled 'Best of British', the show could perhaps have added the word 'Luck' as a suffix to its name, for anyone planning to attend. On arriving at the airfield, it was clear that with the strong cross-winds and low visibility, the entire show was in doubt, especially with many of the items being of the lighter string and fabric variety. Early cancellations were the Tiger Nine team of Tiger Moths, and the Leopard and Hornet versions of the Moth series. Unconnected to the weather, a pre-show cancellation was Paul Bonhomme's part in the Matador/P-51 'British Red Bull Trio'. Paul had injured his back whilst competing in round two of the Red Bull Air Race series, held in San Diego the previous weekend. Paul was at Duxford, but sitting it out as a spectator.
Also to cancel were the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight, whose aircraft couldn't depart their base at Coningsby which was suffering similar conditions. The hangers at Duxford soon filled to bursting with people avoiding the inclement weather outside, joined by some of the aircraft themselves, towed back in for protection. Most of the Warbirds on the sparse flight line remained covered, so the 'walk' attracted very few snappers early doors. At least with the wind still blowing a gale there was the potential for the overcast to break up, and that it did around the middle of the day. Finally it was worth getting the cameras out to check out the flight line. Making its second show appearance, the 208 (R) Squadron Hawk featured in its appropriate special paint scheme, proudly flying the flag for Britain. It's a very attractive scheme and the best for many years, in my opinion. Possibly the most notable attendee was the B-25 'Grumpy'. Not seen in public for many years, the Mitchell has been prepared by the Aircraft Restoration Company for export to the US. Happily the medium bomber was on the afternoon's flying programme - an even rarer sight - assuming the conditions would allow.
A significant sight, sitting in her usual location, was B-17 Sally B with the regulation number of Wright Cyclones, and all reportedly serviceable and ready to display for the first time in more than a year. The team certainly deserve a change of luck in 2009. Always a favourite, she has been sorely missed. Possibly the most unlikely aircraft to expect to be seen at an IWM display sat at the eastern end of the apron, sporting the gaudy colour scheme of Titan Airways. BAe 146 G-ZAPN, as an example of the last breed of British airliners, was an unusual but welcome modern entry on the program. If a contest was held to find the best British airliner of all time, then Vickers' VC-10 would surely top the list, or thereabouts, so having a conscripted version to kick-off the afternoon's display was especially welcome. Bang on 14:00 hours, and operating from Mildenhall, the 101 Squadron C1K noisily stated its presence over Cambridgeshire with two passes and climb outs - the second with the gear down. A sight rarely seen at even the biggest military show, and a real coup for Duxford.
The Plain Sailing Catalina, as the next display act, reminded us that this was indeed Duxford. A familiar polished display by the PBY, in the now very agreeable blue skies with puffy clouds, is always pleasing to see. The North American B-25 Mitchell 'Grumpy' had taken off to hold while the PBY displayed, and was due in next. Its appearance was preceded, and accompanied, by brief broadcasts of a taped interview by ARCo's John Romain who was at the controls of the B-25. A highly original and very interesting idea. John described how he aimed to produce an energetic routine, with plenty of height and extreme angles, and that he undoubtedly achieved. It was one of the best displays I've ever seen by a larger warbird, and such a shame that it might have been a one-off.
As is the norm at a slick Duxford airshow, the next items on the agenda had already departed to the hold ready for their turn to display - this time Sally B and Stephen Grey in The Fighter Collection's FG-1D Corsair. The B-17 swept in first, showing plenty of top side, and rolling back the years to happier times. Number one engine was leaving a slight 'carbon footprint', but hopefully was just running a little rich. All the comedians on the airfield piped up in unison 'oh no, not again' as the Hollywood smoke system enacted engine failures on both port engines for a long pass down the crowd line. The forever young Stephen Grey followed in, obviously enjoying being at the controls of the beautiful naval fighter. Continuing the naval theme, but in a totally diverse guise, the Westland Wasp of Kennet Aviation took to the air next. Not a particularly aerobatic or spectacular machine, but again a type that we don't see that often, and which illustrates the period in which rotary winged aircraft found their feet as useful tools in peace and war. Marked up in an unusual shade camouflage scheme, with HMS Endurance titles, this spindly looking chopper would have carried torpedoes or anti-ship missiles. It really looks as if a strong gust of wind could have blown it away, which luckily was a false impression seeing as the wind was still indeed strong and gusting!
In such prevailing conditions it wouldn't have been surprising if we'd lost a few more of the planned displays, but, showing true Britishness, the pilots went ahead undaunted - for which they deserve great credit. Blackburn B-2 G-AEBJ in a stunning polished chrome effect covering, and De Havilland DH-60 Moth G-EBLV, both owned and operated by BAE systems, and flown by John Hurrell and John Turner, performed a pairs routine which was clearly hard work in the circumstances, and sadly the gray clouds had drawn back in for the afternoon. Similarly the following pair of Austers - an Autocrat and an L4 Cub - fought manly to keep moving forward when faced with a head wind, almost hovering at times.
Less affected by the conditions, but perhaps a display spoilt a little by the low cloud base, were the Gnat Display Team of two of Folland's diminutive jet trainers. XS111 sported a Red Arrows colour scheme from its time with the team before they converted to the Hawk, and XR538 appeared in the red and white training colours of the era. The display was a combination of formations and single passes, some of which worked, but at times was a little drawn out. Given blue skies, then these pretty red jets would make for great photography whatever the routine, but in the grey they struggled to impress to the fullest extent. It is most definitely a welcome addition to the circuit for 2009.
Also appearing in their familiar 'trainer' red and white scheme were the de Havilland Chipmunk 'duo', which should have been a 'trio' if one 'Chippie' hadn't gone unserviceable. Again, top marks for the pilots in the conditions, in a routine which involved much position holding. ARCo pilots Charlie Brown and Howard Cook taking the plaudits this time. If Chipmunks struggled, then what chance a glider? The wind may have thought it had the upper hand against an un-powered sail-plane, but it's probably never met the likes of Guy Westgate before. His now legendary routine never fails to impress, nor does his final wing-over to land and 'taxi' back in to his parking place on the flight line - all using stored energy. Guy's solo performance was preceded by Pete Wells displaying the mini- Spitfire like Twister, in a highly impressive aerobatic routine which the aircraft does not really look capable of. It has the appearance of a 1930's tourer, rather than a modern hi-tech machine.
The design of the Britten-Norman Islander definitely qualifies as Best of British, selling in large quantities and being the perfect machine for the many varied uses for which they are put. The pair of Islanders performing formation passes and breaks was another most welcome rare item, especially with one of the pair sporting a smart 'Royal' scheme. Upping the ante in the speed and noise stakes, Scott Loughran screamed in at the controls of Typhoon T1 ZJ813, lighting up the sky with orange burners, and creating vapour clouds of his own, as if there weren't enough already!
Obviously handicapped by the cloud base, it was still great to see (and hear) a fast jet doing what it does best. Hopefully Scott will have plenty of chances throughout 2009 to get into the vertical dimension. The same goes for Flt Lt Matt Barker in the previously described display Hawk, whose display includes the chance to see the top side artwork, and which appeared towards the end of the day.
The RAF's third display act - slotted in after the Typhoon - has become a firm favourite over the last few years for its ability to surprise with its size-beating agility. If anything, this year's Chinook routine is even more impressive than previous incarnations. Much more at home with a sentence including the word 'agility', Mark Jeffries in his newly sponsor-schemed Extra 330 wowed from start to finish. His knife edge take-off, and prop-hanging 'hovers' stand out from an awe inspiring routine by the multi-titled British aerobatic Champion. Not surprisingly the Titan BAe 146 was about as far removed as it's possible to get in the agility spectrum, but managed a top-side pass for the cameras nonetheless.
Arguably the best of British, two Spitfires wheeling about the skies above Duxford is what it's all about. Rolls Royce Merlins, Supermarine Spitfires, to a deafening cacophony of a Japanese camera shutter fanfare! Lee Proudfoot in the OFMC's MH434, and Spitfire Ltd's PL344 just managed to complete their displays before the weather finally returned in force. The finale to the show was a planned 'British Red Bull Trio'. Matador pair Paul Bonhomme and Steve Jones were to fly in formation with Nigel Lamb at the controls of P51 Mustang 'Ferocious Frankie' - all three being involved in the Red Bull Air Race series. As previously mentioned, Bonhomme's second place finish in San Diego had come at a price, so the formation became a single Sukhoi 26 and the Mustang. As the pair formed up to the north of the field, the weather front finally came in with a vengeance, signalling a race for cover amongst the crowd. The unusual formation made a single pass before Lamb broke to land to save the North American fighter from potential damage from the rain. I, probably like most, had quickly 'bagged' the camera, so we don't have a photograph of the rare pairing. Hopefully there'll be a chance in the future to attempt the full threesome. Such a shame, but it could have been a day of such weather given the forecasts, so we have to be grateful for a near full itinerary.
As is often the case, once the display had finished and everything was back on the ground, the weather passed through leaving blue skies and fluffy cloud. If we'd lost many more display acts, then it would have been gutting, but as the IWM and the crews had put so much effort into 'The show must go on' attitude and given us a great day's entertainment, then it wasn't so galling. Well done to all involved. We have much to thank you for. Best of British luck to the IWM for the rest of their 2009 events.