IWM Duxford Flying Legends Airshow Report

Saturday 12th July - Sunday 13th July 2014

Every July, a wealth of the UK and Europe's finest warbirds descend on IWM Duxford to convene for the much-anticipated annual Flying Legends airshow. Hosted by long-term residents The Fighter Collection (TFC), who themselves own an enviable assortment of warbird fighters, Flying Legends is among the world's best vintage air displays and attracts visitors from all over the world with a large contingent from France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany in particular. For many warbird enthusiasts this is their annual pilgrimage, just as the Royal International Air Tattoo (RIAT) is to the modern military aficionado. Unfortunately for those sitting on the fence, this year the two shows fell on the same weekend and, with RIAT's advanced ticket only policy, the decision as to which show to attend had to be made well in advance.

Tom Lantaff made the pilgrimage to Duxford's warbird Mecca. Additional images as credited.

Flying Legends regularly manages to amass in excess of 50 aircraft, and this year's line-up in the weeks leading up to the show looked to be one of the best in a long time. Unfortunately inclement weather over both Duxford and mainland Europe in the run-up to the show did its best to decimate the programme, with some 15 aircraft being grounded at their home bases. Most notable of the absentees were the Flying Bulls pair of Lockheed P-38L Lightning and Vought F4U Corsair (although the B-25 managed to make it in from their Salzburg base), the Swiss pair of Grumman TBM Avenger and Morane D-3801, the MaxAlpha trio of Corsair, Supermarine Spitfire VIII and North American TF-51D Mustang, a pair of Junkers Ju-52s and the Hawker Sea Fury FB11 from France.

Technical gremlins also played their part, ruling out Kennet Aviation's returning Seafire XVII, which cancelled its appearance on the Friday before the show. The aircraft required substantial rectification work after a landing accident in 2011 and had only flown for the first time since that incident in the week prior to the show, but the aircraft was unable to leave its North Weald base. Zephyr Aviation's P-51D, the former 'Old Crow', was also due to make a re-appearance after a change of ownership and identity. Alas, paperwork issues put paid to that and it joined the list of cancellations, despite the aircraft having recently rolled out of the paint shop at Bournemouth Airport resplendent in her new RAF colours of grey & green camouflage with shark mouth artwork adorning the nose. Even through adversity, top marks to TFC for still being able to produce a seemingly endless row of warbird fighters parked up on the grass flightline and fill the afternoon's flying display without any noticeable gaps.

The main highlight for many was the participation of Planes of Fame's Boeing P-26A Peashooter, which made the 10000 mile round-trip from its home at Chino, California. The only flyable survivor from 151 built, many people may never have heard of this aircraft prior to its announcement; indeed she is only flown once or twice a year and her appearance at Flying Legends was the type's inaugural (and maybe last) post-war in Europe. Just as impressive is the start-up - the hand-cranked inertia starter procedure is a sight and sound to behold and if not witnessed at the weekend is certainly worth a watch on YouTube! It was a real treat to see such a rare and seldom-seen aircraft display, even if the routine itself was a tad underwhelming, with the aircraft remaining fairly distant throughout and providing predominantly underside passes; spectators at the eastern end of the crowdline were probably best-placed for some closer passes but for a show highlight, and a much-travelled one, this was particularly disappointing. Unfortunately the aforementioned weather, this time the crosswind, put paid to her appearance on the Sunday but it is simply not worth the risk with such a rare aircraft. All-in-all, she flew a total of twice and for no more than 20 minutes during her stay in the UK and was crated up in record time on Monday ready for the journey home.

On the subject of arrivals from the USA we also saw TFC's newest arrival, the Curtiss P-40C Warhawk, replacing the recently-departed P-40B model which incidentally departed in a shipping container alongside the Peashooter on Monday. Spectacularly finished in a highly-polished bare metal scheme, it is essentially a mirror with an aerial view of Duxford perfectly reflected in the side of the fuselage during topside passes! It is fair to say such a striking scheme divides opinion; some will love it, others will loathe it, and considering the authenticity of TFC's other aircraft it remains to be seen whether or not she will retain these clothes or be painted to represent a true P-40C model. Pilot Steven Hinton Jr. provided one of the most memorable moments of the weekend for those situated on the tank bank on Saturday when he cut the corner, flying directly overhead the crowd. Unfortunately he landed shortly after with mechanical issues and subsequently the aircraft didn't fly for the remainder of the weekend. The whole Curtiss segment was blighted all weekend with unserviceability, with stablemate P-40F failing to display on Saturday; the Curtiss Hawk 75 was the only one of the trio which fulfilled its display duties.

A delightful element of Flying Legends is that it is impossible to pick just one highlight, such is the diversity of aircraft on show. Another one of the notable participants over the weekend was the Breitling-sponsored Lockheed Super Constellation from Switzerland, displaying for the first time in 10 years over the UK. It was certainly an impressive sight to see such a large aircraft taking off and landing from a relatively small venue - on parts of the taxiway the wingtips were overhanging the crowd and she took up most of the jet pan to herself! Anybody expecting an exciting or long display will have been disappointed, as her huge turning circle meant she could only give two, albeit two very nice, passes. For most people that will have been their first sighting of a Super Constellation, and she is more than welcome back at Duxford for future shows.

Opening the show in traditional Legends style was an 11-ship Spitfire display, with variants spanning from the 'baby' Mk1a right through to the MkXVIII. You know that when grown men are crying, something special and evocative is taking place; the opening pass with the formation making a stately curving pass along the display line was certainly very special, the sight and sound something that will long live in the memory. Something which sadly may soon be consigned to just memory was the routine which followed of all four airworthy Mk1 Spitfires in harmony. The short display comprised a series of gentle turns and provided some superb photographic opportunities as well as giving a nice look at the varying paint schemes of the aircrafts' undersides - N3200 and P9374 both wear the distinctive black and white markings with P9374's extending onto its nose and N3200 not wearing roundels, while X4650 and P7308 wear the uniform off-white. It's these fine details which made this formation that bit more exceptional and we must be grateful to the owners for giving permission for this display to happen. All four aircraft are up for sale, so this may well be the final time such a formation will be seen and was a sublime way to open the show and was arguably worth the entrance fee alone. Saturday's display was somewhat messy and turned into a three-ship plus a straggler, but many would say Sunday's display was perfection. The remaining aircraft then gave one of the most exciting tailchases of recent years, starting as a 7-ship before splitting into two waves. This represented only the second public outing for the newly-restored Spitfire XVIII SM845 in its gorgeous silver paint scheme and Cliff Spink led the formation through some nice topside passes to show the colour scheme off to good effect. Further Spitfire action came from the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight's Spitfire IX MK356 although the solo display was anything but exciting, staying much further away from the crowd than the preceding displays and although it gave two nice photo passes to those at the M11 end, the military regulations continue to starve the BBMF's routine of much impact. MK356 was accompanied by the Avro Lancaster on Saturday, with Hawker Hurricane PZ865 joining them on Sunday.

Further Merlin power was heard during the wonderfully improvised tailchase routine whereby the two Hispano Buchons were engaged by the three P-51D/TF-51D Mustangs in an unprecedented sequence before Frederic Akary packed a punch with his solo display in 'Moonbeam McSwine' on Sunday. Naval aircraft were represented by The Fighter Collection's quartet of Grumman F8F Bearcat, Grumman F6F Hellcat, Grumman FM2 Wildcat and Goodyear FG-1D Corsair, with a single formation pass followed by a somewhat brief formation aerobatic display by Hellcat and Wildcat. A Hellcat solo would have been great, nevertheless this was compensated for by Pete Kynsey's excellent solo display in the Bearcat. Powerful, close and photogenic, it had it all. To conclude this segment New Zealander Keith Skilling flew a spirited display in the Corsair, before stepping into Jan Frizo-Roosen's Hawker Hurricane on Sunday to equally good effect, allowing Corsair maestro Brian Smith to show off the Corsair's distinctive gull-wing. The Royal Navy Historic Flight's Hawker Sea Fury T20 added to the naval contingent making a welcome return with its first display of the year following ongoing maintenance troubles.

Other displays throughout the afternoon came from a pair of Gloster Gladiators and the Shuttleworth Collection's Westland Lysander, the Hawker Nimrod (although commencing its display at 1500ft some people weren't even aware of its presence and we only got two passes before crosswinds also eliminated her display on Sunday), a trio of Piper L4 Cubs, Anna Walker with her aerobatic masterclass in the Bucker Jungmann, Dakota Norway's DC3, the polished-metal Flying Bulls B-25J Mitchell and Duxford favourite Boeing B-17G Flying Fortress 'Sally B', who formed up with her 'little friends', namely the two Mustangs for some formation passes before soloing.

The traditional finale is the unique sight of the Balbo, with as many fighters as possible taking to the skies in a thrilling mass streamed takeoff to perform a large formation flypast. This year, due to the array of cancellations, we only saw 16 aircraft on Saturday and 19 on Sunday, which is a far cry from last year's figure of almost 30 but still a mighty impressive act, and one which epitomises everything Flying Legends stands for on the airshow scene. Particular mention must go to the 'joker', which displays while the main formation heads to the south to form up. You stick a powerful pilot like Nick Grey in an aircraft like a Gladiator, and the result is a phenomenal display of loops, rolls and low passes which emphasise the aircraft's agility while providing a feast to the ears with the smooth Bristol Mercury engine. It would be difficult to find a finer sound in all of aviation. Up until his retirement last year, 'The Boss', Stephen Grey, flew his beloved Bearcat in the joker slot to great effect, and Nick really has continued where his father left off. The only criticism would be that whereas the Bearcat utilised the full length of Duxford's crowdline, the Gladiator routine is much tighter and confined more to crowd centre, meaning each end of the airfield only experience a portion of the display. The crosswinds prevented the Gladiator getting airborne on Sunday, so the Grumman F6F Hellcat, making its first public display since 2008, stepped in.

Even the best are not exempt from scrutiny, and rightly so, as constructive criticism generally serves to generate improvements for the future. Regrettably this cannot be said in the case of Flying Legends, where year-on-year star items have been vastly under-used, and continue to be so - we never saw a solo display by the Curtiss P-47G 'SNAFU' and in two consecutive years it was used on a secondary display axis to the B-17. This year was no different; very few people will have come away with decent photos of the Peashooter, for example, and it seems rather pointless spending the time, money and effort bringing such an act over when the display is not going to show it off to its full potential, likewise the Super Constellation with its two passes. You've got to recognise your star items - the ones which form the basis of press releases months before the show - and put your emphasis on those. Spectators justified their £35 entrance fee on the premise of seeing the Peashooter and Super Constellation, both of which left much to be desired with their displays, meanwhile the Jungmann and Cubs, while expertly flown, are regulars at both Legends and other Duxford shows but still receive equal, or greater, emphasis.

A second criticism of recent years has been aimed at visiting commentator Bernard Chabbert. His passion for all things French is unquenchable, and, while his encyclopaedic knowledge of vintage aviation is a welcome addition to any show, his incessant talking over the sound of the aircraft gets tedious and has even driven people away from the show altogether. His absence this year paved the way for a revamped commentary team, including Australian Pete Anderson, which took this criticism on board and provided a refreshing balance between commentary and aircraft noise. Whether this is a permanent change is unknown, but it is indeed hoped that whoever forms the commentary team next year continues on from the success of 2014.

One aspect of Flying Legends which makes it such an attractive proposition is the number of aircraft visiting from mainland Europe, often at the expense of home-based machines. This is understandable when considering TFC's entire fleet was grounded by the CAA for several years, but some may argue an over-reliance on the European contingent can be exposed when the weather turns, as per this year's show. There are three Mustangs, three Hurricanes (including a Battle of Britain veteran and the unique Hurribomber), a P-40 and a one-of-a-kind Spitfire all situated within approximately 60 minutes' flying time of Duxford, any of which could have helped to boost the display line-up and reduce the overall impact on the event. In the end it was only the Historic Aircraft Collection's Spitfire Vb and Peter Monk's Spitfire IX MK912 filling in at late notice to enhance the Spitfire sequence.

It wasn't a classic Flying Legends. It was an enjoyable display, but lacked the variety of previous years' shows. It is easy to forget however that this is our only dedicated warbird show, and at the end of the day no other show will feature a lineup to rival even the thinnest of Legends'. Next year sees the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Britain, so we can expect a myriad of Spitfires and Hurricanes complemented hopefully by the Bristol Blenheim, which underwent engine runs after Sunday's airshow had concluded in anticipation of a first flight later this year.

We now have another year to wait for our warbird fix. Well done TFC.