Shuttleworth Race Day & Roaring Twenties Finale

Sunday 2nd October 2016

It's been a difficult season for the UK airshow scene. Shows cancelled. Displays neutered. Crowd-line separations increased. Ticket prices rocketing. Roads closed. A certain apathy has developed among even the most ardent enthusiasts. The cure, even for the most acute case, is a visit to The Shuttleworth Collection at Old Warden.

Dan O'Hagan was at Old Warden's Race Day season finale. Additional photography from Dan Butcher.

Let's be clear, this was by no means a perfect show. The Race Day theme, I felt, didn't really work. Civilian vintage aircraft flying repeat straight and level passes over a series of laps does not make for a dynamic air display. Even types such as the de Havilland Comet and Hawker Hurricane lose some of their appeal when lost in the middle of a faux "race". The glider race was, for me, the afternoon's low-point, robbing the show of momentum just two acts in.

That's not to say "racing" at an airshow can't work. I remember, a long time ago now, at the 1986 Warwickshire Air Pageant at Coventry an excellent handicap race being a fantastic spectacle as a part, rather than the overriding theme, of the airshow. As a general rule, with some obvious (and one scarlet red) exceptions, racing aircraft lack the character of military types, and to hang an entire show around them wasn't to my tastes. As a one-off set piece as part of, say, a 1930s-themed show, a race might be an entertaining interlude.

Not that many seemed to mind. Pleasingly, Old Warden was positively bursting. Even arriving shortly after the gates opened, there was already a sizeable chunk of the car park filled, and the crowd-line was extremely well-populated by the time the display began. Perhaps not full to last year's Vulcan farewell, or May's Season Premiere levels, but a very handsome attendance, and one which seemed to be a true Shuttleworth crowd - unlike at the aforementioned events. Friendly, knowledgeable, respectful. No pushing, jostling, shoving. Decent people at a fine airfield.

Crowds at the main Shuttleworth shows have been very healthy this season, which suggests that, for the most part, The Collection are doing something very right. Varied line-ups, interspersed with exciting visitors are proving an excellent draw. People are coming in their droves, at least to the "proper" airshows at the venue. I'm told the At Home Days have seen, in some cases, paltry crowds, so perhaps it was inevitable that they'd be ditched for 2017 in favour of a welcome return of the traditional evening shows which Shuttleworth has done so well for decades. Quite how the airfield's neighbours will react to those, however, if the needless Shoreham-inspired road closures continue at next year's shows might be a situation worth monitoring.

Peter Teichman's recently re-painted P-51D Mustang "Tall In the Saddle" headed the list of visiting machines. While perhaps not quite as visually striking as its former "Jumpin' Jacques" incarnation, the new, and historically-accurate, paint on the machine makes quite an impression, and really seems to come to life when the sun shines. Sadly, this didn't happen during Peter's show-opening display, during which the sun managed to hide itself behind a lump of clag for the duration of his routine. He still seems higher and perhaps tamer than his displays in previous years, but we can put this down to the CAA's current reign of terror, and a pilot perhaps living in fear of a "red card" stoppage which could lose him his ability to display his much-prized collection.

On arrival at Old Warden it was wonderful to witness Teichman greeted by 91-year old Lieutenant Colonel George Hardy, who'd flown this very aircraft "Tall In The Saddle" during the last days of World War II as a teenage member of the 332nd Fighter Group. A touching, warm embrace between the two men which rates among the finest moments at Shuttleworth in 2016.

While much of the display fought a running battle with the scattered cloud, the aircraft who displayed later in the day enjoyed the better of the conditions. Peter Davies produced a stunning display of aerobatics in his Calidus autogyro - one which certainly revised my opinion of an act I'd always dismissed as "filler" on many display programmes. Mark Jefferies routine in the Extra was another high-octane crowd-pleaser. Pete Kynsey flew the tiny Cosmic Wind with great aerobatic flair, and was well-received on landing.

But Shuttleworth crowds come for the historics, and few types in the Collection fit the bill quite like de Havilland Comet G-ACSS "Grosvenor House". After listening to a wonderfully candid and revealing "Pilot's Talk" with Paul Stone earlier in the day, his display in the machine failed to really satisfy. And his landing seemed to be very fast, even for the notoriously capricious Comet, necessitating, from my view, a very hasty near-"handbrake turn" off the runway at the intersection up to the paddock.

Comparing Stone's staccato routine to the later, albeit shorter one flown by Chief Pilot Roger "Dodge" Bailey revealed a remarkable difference. Bailey, rather like John Romain's Bristol Blenheim routines, makes the aeroplane dance. Manoeuvres seem to flow into each other with a real grace. Swooping down onto the airfield, dipping the wing, climbing away into a high wingover. Stunning. And in perfect, golden evening sunlight too. It's no exaggeration to say that an hour of watching "Dodge" fly the Comet like this would still not feel long enough. Wonderful, and worth the admission fee on its own.

It would be easy to sit here and write a list of what displayed, when it flew and who flew it, but that's not what Old Warden airshows are about. Shuttleworth is about drinking in the day. Meeting up with friends, flapping your gums, taking a stroll around the hangars, before taking your seat and letting history wash over you. Yes, the Race Day airshow wasn't perfect, but as a way of giving airshow apathy a welcome boot, it couldn't be beaten.