Sally B & Friends Day Report
Sunday 31st July 2011
B-17G 'Sally B' has been flying in the UK since 1975, making this her 36th year of near continuous operation on the airshow circuit. Possibly because of this familiarity the difficulties and costly overheads of operating such a large warbird have tended to be overlooked by many that see her. The Flying Fortress is operated on a shoe-string budget by a small team led by Elly Sallingboe, and reliant very much on gifted funds and income from her loyal band of supporters. The event held at Duxford on Sunday 31 July gave her fans and the public the chance to meet the team and the aircraft which means so much to them.
reports from the event which, although not an airshow, did include some very interesting performances.
In the history of airshows held in the UK, one series of displays lives long in many a heart. The Great Warbirds Air Displays (GWADs) began life at the beautiful and historic wartime West Malling airfield in Kent in 1982. The show's format of predominantly warbird content and the inclusion of the 'Balbo' mass formation paved the way for the later events such as Flying Legends, and showcased the rising interest in warbird restorations. The show was very much reliant on voluntary help and the co-operation from their friends within the aviation community, yet still managed to produce great shows and some particularly memorable moments. The airfield eventually caved in to local pressure against its presence. It become a business park and left those locals perhaps realising the mistake they had made! GWAD moved on to Wroughton, near Swindon, for a few years, but the shows continued an unjust trend of suffering from inclement weather, and this, plus a reduced local catchment area, resulted in Elly finally having to call a halt to the event in 1994.
One of the goals for the Great Warbirds shows was to produce financial support to keep Sally B flying, but sadly the ever spiraling costs involved in holding an airshow and the frequently weather-reduced gate receipts left Elly with no choice but to call it a day. It was a very sad loss to the airshow calendar, but understandable. Elly has always endeavoured to make the members of the Supporters Club feel special, as without them the operation wouldn't have been able to continue. The club members had enjoyed their own enclosure at the GWADs, so Elly arranged for a similar facility at Duxford based airshows as a substitute, until that too became too much of a financial drain. Ever since then Elly has vowed to organise something special to thank her loyal members for their continued support, which came to fruition in this 'Sally B and Friends Day'.
The event harked back to the days of GWAD in drawing on the friendship and camaraderie within the aviation community, with the displaying aircraft appearing for gratis or a minimal cost and the Imperial War Museum Duxford allowing free admission to Sally B Supporters Club members. The team's volunteers manned their various positions and were approachable and always on hand to interact with the public. As with GWAD there was a strong re-enactment and old-time feel to the day, with the three girl 'D-Day Darlings' belting out the old wartime songs 'That Won the War' and 'Room 21' playing Swing and Big Band music from the 1940s. Long time Sally B volunteer Andy Jackson could be seen playing 'sax' with the band. 'Dad's Army' were also at the event, along with the more traditional Allied forces.
Apparently it is common practice at US airshows to have localised talks around some the aircraft given by owners and veterans, and it was a nice addition to the between-flight intervals to have such talks by various members of the Sally B team, hosted by the now semi-retired, but one time FlyPast editor, Ken Ellis. Pilot Andrew Dixon, Chief Engineer Peter Brown and Elly herself took the mic to explain their individual roles in the operation of Sally B and also to answer questions from the gathered crowds. It was a light-hearted but informative idea, and something that would go down well at other shows. The day also saw the unveiling of the latest 'Roll of Honour' names on the side of the B-17 in dedication of those supporters who have given large donations.
As was traditional at the GWADs Sally B would be taking to the skies on a number of occasions during the afternoon, and opening and closing the display. First came the familiar 'little friends' formation with OFMC's P-51 Ferocious Frankie and Spitfire MH434, flown by Alan Wade and Stu Goldspink respectively, two names not normally associated with this pair. They broke away from Sally B - being flown by Andrew Dixon - to carry out a pairs and individual display routine with no evidence of their lack of experience. Indeed Stu was heard to comment that he was surprised at how 'bouncy' the seat is in a Spitfire (like that of an air sprung truck seat) such was his lack of time in the type. The first aircraft to display without Sally B was the Fiat G-46 owned and flown by Mark Rijkse. Rarely seen on the show circuit, the smartly painted Italian schemed machine is certainly worthy of more appearances. The SWIP team followed with their standard display, but would appear again later in a most unusual manner.
The highlight of the day was to follow as a number of aircraft took to the skies for a very interesting half an hour slot. The very pretty Southern Cross International owned Beech UC-43 Staggerwing is painted in the bright yellow and blue scheme from its time with the US Embassy, London, when used for ferrying Air Attaches. It was displayed briefly by Rene van Hemert, before attempting to join up with the other sections of two formations. He did manage eventually to slot in on both groups but was clearly working hard to keep up! The Aces High DC-3 led the first of these formations, with Andrew Dixon at the controls having vacated his seat in Sally B. Completing this threesome was the oft-photographed tricycle under-carriaged Beech Super 18, flown by John Dodd. Based at North Weald, the polished surfaces of this Beech attract photographers like moths to a flame during that airfield's various static events. Sally B - this time flown by Peter Kuypers - then joined in for several passes, with the little Staggerwing appearing tiny in comparison. There was a short interval before a couple of other individual displays took place. John Romain was on his own in the silver T-28 Fennec. He should have been joined by Martin Willing in the more familiar sandy coloured Trojan, but he was sadly unwell. Mark Jeffries changed the pace entirely in showing what incredible manoeuvres a modern aerobatic aircraft can do. He and his Extra 330 are undoubtedly one of the best of this type of act going. The finale of the day consisted of Sally B - with Roger Mills at the helm this time - being joined by Pete Wells and Guy Westgate in their diminutive Twisters for a couple of passes, before the B-17 was left alone to carry out her display over her home field. So ended a highly enjoyable and humbling event.
As a memorial to the USAAF losses during the war, and as Europe's sole airworthy Flying Fortress, Elly and her team deserve perhaps a higher media and airshow public awareness of the difficulties in funding her continued operation. Her display year has been shortened to reduce costs, with her first show of 2011 being at Waddington at the beginning of July, so every chance to see her becomes extra special. The formation with a different pair of 'little friends' - Mustangs 'Janie' and 'Marinell' - at Damyns Hall, Essex, the following weekend was a very nice surprise.
For the chance to see Sally B this year, or perhaps consider joining as a 'Friend', check out their website at SallyB.org for details. I hope that this event can become a regular one on the calendar, carrying on as it does the traditions and values of those GWADs of old.