Shuttleworth Collection Pageant Report

Sunday 7th September 2014

Shuttleworth's Pageant had all the ingredients to be one of the 2014 display season's very best events. That's been true of many shows at a host of venues this year, only for weather, serviceability or lacklustre flying to leave crowds wondering what might have been. With the return of the legendary de Havilland DH.88 Comet topping the bill at Old Warden, surely this event wouldn't suffer a similar fate?

Dan O'Hagan reports from Old Warden. Additional photography from Harry Measures.

Drawing admiring glances as she sat out on the flightline after years as a "hangar queen", the DH.88's appearance is that of an aeroplane quite obviously built for speed. Heck, she looks lightning quick even when parked up. Throughout the morning of the show rumours circulated that a flight was looking unlikely. Though the prevailing winds were so light as to be virtually un-noticeable, the little breeze that there was meant that the preferred left-to-right runway for Comet operations wasn't the one in use. Given Old Warden's layout, primarily the lack of a run-off area at the other end, left-to-right is the only safe way to recover an aeroplane with such a fearsome reputation in the circuit and the landing roll.

Next, there were murmurings that winds were possibly set to be light enough to get airborne, but that the Comet would land on the more firma terra of Duxford. Safety has to be the watchword in the airshow world, and the truth is that G-ACSS Grosvenor House had only returned to flight in August and hadn't displayed at a public show since the Shuttleworth Pageant of 1993. If she'd waited this long, she could wait a little more.

The will-she-won't-she guessing game continued right the way through the excellent day's flying, and kept us waiting right up until Collection Chief Pilot "Dodge" Bailey strapped himself into the machine some time beyond 6:30pm.

Usually the Edwardian reproduction Bristol Boxkite and Avro Triplane pair are reason enough for sticking around at Shuttleworth, but as they rumbled around the clear, calm skies, for once they were a mere aperatif.

With the clock nearing 7pm and the late summer sun nearly below the hangars, the moment the considerable crowd had waited for was here."Dodge" ran through his final checks just short of runway 21, no doubt eyeing the windsock intently, as he was electing to take off with a negligible tailwind component.

And then she was off. A red blur as Grosvenor House gathered speed, lifted her sleek tail, and was airborne. My, didn't she look fantastic!

For once the weather was perfect. The setting sun producing a golden, ethereal light in which the Comet basked as the crowd was treated to a display in the very finest traditions of Shuttleworth. Swooping, graceful, magical passes making full use of Old Warden's famous corner. This was a masterclass in display flying. No-one, be they hard-core enthusiast, casual observer or serious photographer could possibly have wished for more. For the first time I can recall at any airshow the crowd was completely silent. So too was commentator Tim Callaway, who'd done an excellent job in building up to this moment, never overstepping into the saccharine.

With the moon rising across the airfield, it seemed the Comet didn't ever want to come back down again, but when she did it became obvious why the Collection appear so cautious about how they operate this true and irreplaceable classic. She lands at a terrific speed, and needed, it seemed, near enough the full length of the runway to come to a halt. This, I suspect, will be the Comet's Achilles heel at this venue in terms of how frequently we get to see her. There's been talk of basing her at airfields such as Duxford or nearby Henlow, and while this would deprive the Old Warden crowds of the chance of seeing Grosvenor House up-close, the long-term survival and safety of such a precious airframe might mean that discretion is the better part of valour.

"Dodge" dismounted to be greeted by a huge ovation, making his way along the crowdline, shaking hands with a knowledgeable audience fully aware of the significance of what they'd just witnessed. He even signed a few autographs, though his modesty and his expression suggested that he knew that the real star was the red aeroplane sitting at rest on the grass behind him.

As the cars queued to leave (when was the last time that happened at Old Warden?), people were already hailing the show as one of the finest they'd seen, which at this venue is a bold claim indeed.

Earlier in the day the Collection's Gloster Gladiator had flown with The Fighter Collection's example; the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight had showcased Hurricane IIc LF363's brand-new 1 Squadron paint-scheme in a brief but extremely pleasing mini-routine with Spitfire IX MK356. The pair of remarkable BE2e replicas were among the stars of the sizeable World War One era contingent, though my first airborne sighting of the Bristol M1C will go down as a personal highlight.

Aeroplanes such as the Desoutter, Comper Swift, ANEC and Blackburn B2 are unique to Shuttleworth, and all grasped their chance to shine in the Pageant, as did the opening act, the show's only jet, with Chris Heames dashing in from North Weald in the Hawker Hunter T7, before dashing back again, returning far more sedately aboard a de Havilland Chipmunk. Keith Dennison looked to have "moment" in the day's final "hop" of the English Electric Wren, as the diminutive aeroplane spun around 180 degrees in the nick of time, with the fence getting ever closer, and the right wingtip perilously close to the ground - at least that's how it appeared from the crowdline.

This was an airshow with no obvious "filler". No mean feat for what amounted to around five hours of flying. Everything that flew had its part in the display on merit. The only gripe, and it's a very minor one, would be that Chris Huckstep's Sea Hurricane routine was rather wasted by displaying at the same time as Pete Holloway in the Fieseler Storch - a habit Flying Legends has fallen into, and one which Old Warden would be wise not to repeat. Both aeroplanes are impressive enough to be worthy of their own slot - as Holloway found when he removed his helmet to be greeted by spontaneous applause, which he acknowledged with a theatrical bow and broad smile!

Good weather, as we know, makes or breaks an airshow. Would we be speaking of this Pageant as a "best-ever" had the sun not been shining? Of course not. Old Warden, more than any other venue, is held in hock to the conditions. So many events are lost or curtailed there due to wind or rain. They seem to have little luck with the meteorology. But when fortune falls their way, on rare occasions such as this, the Shuttleworth Collection can deliver the goods like nobody else in the business.