Shuttleworth Collection Race Day Airshow

Sunday 5th October 2014

We really are blessed in the UK to have a venue such as Old Warden, adding no fewer than 12 airshow dates to an already bustling UK calendar. All good things must end however, even if only until next year, and for 2014 this meant a trip to Bedfordshire for the ‘Season Finale Airshow’, an apt title given the cancellation of Duxford’s annual October airshow. This left the Shuttleworth Collection with the deserved honour of rounding off the season for the winter, and they did so in fine style.

Tom Lantaff reflects on the Old Warden season. Photography from the UKAR staff team.

Never before can I recall having seen a show which accommodates an overarching theme so thoroughly. The ‘Race Day’ theme comprised 23 aircraft, many of which unique and historic, split into four main segments: MacRobertson Trophy, Cape Challenge (London to Cape Town and back), Formula 1 Racing, followed by a mock air race. Even aircraft not in one of the above set pieces had racing significance – both Se5a and Bristol M1c featured in WW1 air racing, P-51D Mustangs are frequently raced at Reno, while the likes of the Zivko Edge 540 compete in the Red Bull Air Races. So comprehensive was this theme that most of the omnipresent WW1 aircraft – Avro 504K, Bristol Fighter, Sopwith Pup and BE2e pair - remained hangared for the afternoon. Away from flying, the vehicle segment of the show is often overlooked, but Sunday saw the mighty Napier Railton from the Brooklands Museum roaring along the airfield. What a sound!

Not only did we have aircraft types represented, we had actual aircraft which took part in, and won, the races decades ago which this airshow was commemorating. The De Havilland DH.88 Comet ‘Grosvenor House’ won the MacRobertson Air Trophy in 1934, then later flew from London to Cape Town and back in 1937. This was repeated by Mew Gull G-AEXF in 1939, flown by Alex Henshaw, setting the world record for the fastest time for a single-engine <200hp aircraft to make the journey. Until as recently as 2010, this record remained, before Steve Noujaim made a successful venture in his Vans RV7. As if this wasn’t enough, the three aforementioned aircraft were joined in the air by a second Mew Gull G-HEKL; it was an ‘almost formation’ but nonetheless the sight and sound of four fast, noisy aircraft stampeding along the crowdline together was quite an experience. They would have got to Cape Town in no time travelling at such speed! Perhaps one of the most innovative and historic formations ever witnessed?

The Comet, as mentioned, is perhaps most famous for the MacRobertson Air Trophy victory and appropriately Shuttleworth were able to provide a set piece with 6 aircraft commemorating the 1934 London to Melbourne endurance race. Taking off in the same order as 1934 and landing in the same order they finished were six beautiful vintage aircraft in the shape of the Comet, De Havilland Dragon Rapide, Desoutter, Miles Falcon, Miles Hawk Major and De Havilland Puss Moth. Each gave two passes along the main runway, the seldom-seen Hawk Major a particular highlight. Let’s hope Peter Holloway brings her back next year to fly alongside the Magisters!

The Mock Air Race drew on the ‘Almost Trophy’ at last year’s October airshow, added some oomph, and produced an epic mix of engines and aircraft types never normally seen together. Taking off with their handicaps in order were the DH60X, Chilton, Miles Magister, Miles Falcon, another Chilton, Comper Swift, Miles Whitney Straight, Miles Hawk Speed Six and Spartan Executive. The idea of booking the Spartan Executive to charge past the DH60X was both preposterous and genius – next time all we need is a Corsair and insanity levels will have hit the roof! Notwithstanding, a series of underside passes is something which at other venues has been met with great disdain; true, we didn’t get any topside or even level passes, but at Old Warden it seemed to work, as an air race spectacle at least. Seeing so many aircraft lining up on the runway together was something akin to a Flying Legends balbo: sufficiently noisy to drown out the Lysander, Gladiator and Sea Hurricane displaying overhead, highly exciting, and makes for a great photo, but one can’t help but think that aircraft such as the Hawk Speed Six and Spartan are fully deserving of a display slot in their own right. The Hawk Speed Six is an aircraft which surely has to be booked again next year – it would make a perfect companion for the Mew Gull.

We must give a special mention to pilot Chris Heames, who was the embodiment of the variety of aircraft present. The assortment of types in the mock air race was reflected in the remainder of the show, which Chris opened at 2pm in Graham Peacock’s Hawker Hunter T7 before flying back from North Weald in the Chipmunk and climbing into and displaying the English Electric Wren, impressively alongside a 60% model replica!

The Wren, barely lifting above the grass, is an aircraft which thrives in Old Warden’s intimacy. Similarly the Cosmic Wind is wasted at Duxford, most commonly seen as a spec in the sky or displaying on a secondary axis to another aircraft. During the F1 racer segment at Old Warden it really came into its own, its metallic colour scheme illuminated by the autumnal sunshine, with Pete Kynsey’s final topside pass something to treasure.

Old Warden was packed. No fewer than 37 aircraft and 5 model aircraft were presented to the audience during the 4.5-hour display, while visiting aircraft were in equal abundance. The streamed departure slot prior to the Edwardians taking centre stage was intense, and to quote commentator Tim Callaway: “This is just like being at Heathrow, isn’t it?”. These weren’t exclusively generic ‘spam cans’ either – real quality was on show with among others Mark Miller’s Dragon Rapide, a Hornet Moth, Puss Moth, Tiger Moth, Spartan Executive and CAP10 all departing in quick succession. Once departed, four of the Edwardians got airborne, even if the Bristol Boxkite succumbed to the cold without fully displaying.

Fellow spectators’ misty breath was clearly visible as the sun dipped down behind the hangars, signalling the onset of Autumn and the start of a prolonged maintenance programme for many vintage aircraft. Many left for home as the Deperdussin concluded its final burble along the runway, but Old Warden offers an ethereal experience after dark. Where else can you watch (or even help) the aircraft being tucked away for the night, take blue-hour photos of a Miles Falcon or Bristol M1c, have a chat with pilots/groundcrew and then drive out to the sound of owls hooting? Indeed several people hung around, soaking up the evening ambience in realisation that this was in all probability their last airshow for 7 or 8 months.

And so ended the 2014 UK airshow season. Old Warden has suffered somewhat with the weather throughout the year – two shows were cancelled and many others had to endure cancellations, most notable of which was The Fighter Collection’s Hawker Nimrod which withdrew on three separate occasions due to inclement weather. This is such a shame considering this year’s line-ups had been full of imagination with a high-quality range of visitors and utilisation of almost every collection aircraft; even the Vulcan was booked. Displays not blighted by weather saw many highlights: the Comet, pairs of Lancasters, Mew Gulls and BE2es, Travel Air, Spitfire Mk1s and Gladiators will all go down in the memory. Indeed the three shows which experienced the best weather are regarded to be the top shows of the year throughout the entire UK by many, testament to the quality of Old Warden as a venue. Value for money, ease of traffic management, excellence of food, aircraft on show, lighting conditions (in good weather), access to the Swiss Garden and an intimate feel all make this an unrivalled air display venue which, with a bit of variety, will continue to attract aviation enthusiasts and families in their thousands.

The dates for the 2015 season have already been announced with 10 air displays from May to October. With the Spitfire, Sopwith Triplane and Camel under restoration, Elf and Southern Martlet to regain airworthiness and more scope than ever for a wealth of visiting gems, we eagerly anticipate the treasures the next few years may bring to Shuttleworth.