IWM Duxford Air Show

Saturday 13th September - Sunday 14th September 2014

Duxford’s final show of the year was not without a certain amount of hype in the days preceding the weekend, and not all for the right reasons. Attracting a sell-out crowd on the Sunday, owing mostly to the confirmed attendance of the BBMF’s and CWHM’s Lancasters, Duxford hadn’t seen this level of interest since its famed Battle of Britain commemorations in 2010. Indeed, with an attendance of 24,000 people on the Sunday alone, it was Duxford’s second highest attended air show in 17 years.

Tom Jones braved Sunday’s bunfight to deliver the report for UKAR. Photography as credited.

When the exciting news of CHWM’s tour of the UK was announced earlier this year, many people rightly thought that Duxford’s September airshow was the place to be. An airfield which has become synonymous with restoration, upkeep and debuts of unique warbirds, it has provided some true highlights in historic aviation over the years.

As it turned out, the Canadian Lancaster "Vera" only attended the Sunday of Duxford’s show weekend, as was the case with numerous other acts, including the Red Arrows. Already an imbalanced weekend, XH558 was booked to appear on the Saturday, along with other acts such as the Gnat display team. Indeed, one wouldn’t be wrong for thinking of each day as two separate airshows. Saturday’s show seemed on paper to be very run of the mill compared to Sunday’s higher-quality offering for the same price.

The show had a number of positives. The BBMF fighters seem to have improved their displays of late, and this was in evidence over the weekend, with their Spitfire Mk IIa P7350 making excellent use of the display line, presenting sought-after topside opportunities at either end of the crowdline on the Sunday. It’s still not quite at the standards of some privately owned warbird displays, but is a marked improvement.

Other notable displays across the weekend came from the impeccable set piece in the form of TFC’s Goodyear FG-1D Corsair, Grumman F8F-2P Bearcat and Grumman Hellcat in a salute to US Navy aviation. The well-flown formation of the three broke up into a tail chase between the Corsair and Hellcat, and punchy aerobatics provided by the Bearcat on a secondary axis. Whilst it was wonderful to see air beneath the Hellcat’s wings, the only gripe would be that the Bearcat remained distant for the entirety of the display. Perhaps it would have been more dynamic if it was afforded a display slot following the other two fighters, instead of being relegated to an almost background display. Making a rare and very spirited attendance was 2Excel Aviation Ltd’s Boeing 727 oil spill response aircraft. The three-jet airliner had a tremendous amount of presence on Duxford’s display datum, and was well-flown as an actual display item, as opposed to a simple flypast as we have come to expect from airliner displays of late.

With its attendance causing most the fuss (certainly with regard to Sunday’s show), I would be remiss not to note the attendance of the BBMF’s and CWHM’s Lancasters. Their attendance drew people from far and wide and what a superb sight they were, as they have been during their tour. In attendance with BBMF Spitfires P7350 and TE311, the sound of ten Merlin engines shall not be forgotten for some time. Displaying in the worse light of the day was frustrating to some, as was the fact that the Lancasters were holding (whilst the BBMF fighters displayed) for roughly the same amount of time that they actually spent displaying.

CWHM’s Lancaster tour is THE aviation event of 2014. Whilst it was fantastic, as it always is, to see the two in the air together, it was a real shame that more was not seen from them. Duxford is synonymous with warbirds from WWII. If there was ever a place where both Lancasters should have been in pride of place on both days over a weekend show, it should have been Duxford. It seems to make far better sense to have had the Lancasters in attendance both days, and spread out the attendance of the public. As it was, the two Lancasters simply felt like another part of a standard BBMF display, whereas such commitment should have been treated as it actually is: a once in a lifetime opportunity. Amid the jostles of the crowd, never before have I seen people wish the BBMF Spitfires would hurry up their display, presumably so that more time could be dedicated to the Lancasters. As such, the flypasts were greatly appreciated, but the public wanted more. There were very vociferous calls for each Lancaster to do a solo segment, on top of their straight and level flypasts. This isn’t necessarily a criticism of the Canadian’s attendance; simply that it seems like a missed opportunity to appreciate these two warbirds of the finest pedigree to the maximum.

It’s probably fair to say that there were acts that would not be missed by the public had their time been devoted to the Lancasters, and it’s hard not to notice the steady increase of items that hold little interest with the public at Duxford shows. Items such as the Breitling Wing Walkers, the RAF Tucano display or the Trig team feel much more suited to seaside shows than at Duxford. The time allotted to these filler acts could be used differently and don’t necessarily mean that other items need to be booked. Like dedicating more time to the Lancasters, above, or to provide more time for set pieces, such as the superb Spitfire displays by Duxford residents on both days. Getting both Mk Is into the air was fantastic, yet their display on both days seemed to be cut short and, as per the Lancasters, they seemed to hold for at least as long if not longer than their actual display. It’s recognised that either P-51 "Ferocious Frankie" or the Reds (the reports seem mixed) may have been an element to the short display on the Sunday, but their display was also very short on the Saturday too. I would happily lose items such as the Wing Walkers to see more time afforded to properly displayed warbirds.

The final point about the flying is that, though there are utter gems, there are stark differences between both the distance and location from the crowd of some of the displays. On Saturday it was reported that the famed "M11 end" was short-changed, as most of the action seemed further towards the Tank Bank, as opposed to Sunday's more evenly-matched offering. Indeed, many on the "Tank Bank" were vocal in noticing that the flying seemed closer to their end of the airfield. With regards to display distances, the aforementioned Hellcat, Corsair, and the Hawk 75 were flown tightly and close to the crowd, yet the Bearcat and P-40F were displaying over Grange Road, nearly 1.15km away. The latter two were displaying when others items were, but a multi-layered display often leads to the feeling that there is too much going on at once. It felt like (especially the Cosmic Wind/Dragon Rapide display which was essentially two separate displays at once) the organisers were trying to cram as much of the participation list in as possible into their short display schedule.

Another sticking point is that Duxford would do well to note that a 3-3.5 hour flying display at the prices they charge is fast becoming a very expensive afternoon. At no other show does one get in at around 8.00am and have to wait six hours before the flying display actually commences. Even with their excellent museums, six hours of waiting is stretching it. The other issue of such a long wait is that it inspires families to build their castles of windbreaks and tents first thing and leave them unattended for six hours. Windbreaks, tents, gazebos etc spoil the view for others, and there is a reason an exclusion zone is operated at other shows such as RIAT. It is time that Duxford looks at cracking down on the building of these colourful castles on the fenceline, in order to improve the experience of everyone at the show. Signage, commentary announcements, and policing by airshow officials are just some of the things that can be easily implemented for shows next year.

Finally, there have been many complaints about the traffic issues over the weekend. Of course, with the huge attendance figures it was always going to be difficult, but the problems weren’t exclusive to Sunday, with many a horror story emerging from Saturday’s show. It seems that the root of the cause was the lack of trained marshals and personnel directing traffic. That said, the museum took to all means at its disposal to warn of the expected traffic issues, so those who failed to check the website prior to leaving have hopefully learned a lesson. Taking that on board, the museum has since issued an apology to anyone blighted by issues over the weekend, and credit must go to them for that and their initial warnings. There are now legitimate calls to make Duxford shows a ticket-only event in the future. Whilst there will always be some who expect to pay to get in on the day, an advanced-only policy will afford the museum better control and indications over attendance figures and thus traffic. Opening the 'Meadow' car park for non-ticket holders acted well to a point, but had the IWM simply stated that tickets would not be sold on the gate, the traffic would have been a lot easier to manage, instead of the many thousands who decided to chance their luck.

One can’t help but notice that at other venues, the attendance of warbirds of the rarity, charisma and quality that Duxford provides would prove to be an instant winner of a show, yet Duxford’s September show did not amount to the sum of its great many parts. Looking at the experience as a whole, the exceptional flying participants notwithstanding, Duxford is fast being outstripped by shows at Old Warden, Dunsfold, Shoreham and a great many more, who are offering longer flying displays, cheaper entry prices, a more relaxed atmosphere and comparable ground access for free.

It seems that the presence of warbird jewels belonging to TFC, ARCo, OFMC and others have caused the IWM rest on their laurels for too long, and in a world where cheaper and arguably better alternatives exist, something must give at the IWM shows of the future.