IWM Duxford Battle of Britain Airshow

Saturday 23rd September - Sunday 24th September 2017

On paper, Duxford's final air display of 2017 offered a line-up that arguably put this summer's Flying Legends in the shade, boasting an eclectic mix of warbirds and distinct lack of jet-powered performers. The heavy emphasis on piston-engine stalwarts of the Duxford scene returning to cavort through the Cambridgeshire sky, alongside new enthusiast favourites meant it was certainly an altered structure to previous September/October displays at Duxford, and markedly different to the IWM's somewhat more generic airshow held at the start of the season in May, but it was refreshing to see the organisers try something different to diversify the show.

Dan Ledwood travelled to IWM Duxford for UK Airshow Review. Additional photography from Sam Wise and Dan Butcher.

As ever, Duxford is an airshow venue that divides opinion like no other on our forums; the base ticket price of £33.95 might seem reasonable at face value, but bolt-ons including the £6 flightline walk and the £5 car parking fee inflate the real cost even beyond the likes of the over-priced Scampton Airshow. Although this remains a bone of contention for many, sadly it appears the ancillary cost of paying separately for parking is unlikely to disappear, with both the IWM Duxford-organised events adopting this rather steep additional cost for nothing more than what appears to be a cash extraction exercise for minimal effort. What made the issue even more unpleasant was that the external car parks were a ridiculously long walk from the crowd line. Trekking from the M11 end of the showground to one of the satellite car parks took at least 35-40 minutes, although at least the fields being used were not muddy. Furthermore, one could reason that the face value of the ticket alone represents poor value for money, with the afternoon flying display only running for a duration of approximately 4 hours 30 minutes. Many tend to argue however that an afternoon flying display is of negligible concern as, from a photographer's aspect, conditions in the morning would prove fruitless for reasonable photographs. This was certainly the case for the show weekend, with clear weather and minimal cloud in the late morning to early afternoon making photography of anything on the runway almost entirely pointless.

The tepid reaction to the Duxford Air Festival in May shows that given the pricing and the relatively short duration flying display, IWM have to offer some pros to outweigh the inherent cons. The warbird line-up assembled for this show was certainly on the right tracks - TFC's Flying Legends has had a monopoly on large-scale warbird airshows for a very long time, but with warbird numbers on the increase there is certainly room for competition and the IWM stepped up to the plate on this occasion with warbirds and vintage aircraft from just about every UK operator present.

Most noteworthy from the provisional lists was the assembly of seven privately-owned Hawker Hurricanes; HAC's and Anglia Aircraft Restorations' two Duxford-based machines were joined by the three examples from the various owners at Old Warden, Biggin Hill's AE977 and a very rare outing to Duxford for Peter Teichman, who very proudly displayed his fabulous "Hurribomber" on the flight line with reproduction bombs fitted under the wings. The Battle of Britain Memorial Flight were also pencilled in with one of their two examples to round the figure up to a grand total of eight. Even as recently as the beginning of the decade, the prospect of seeing such a multitude of different Hurricane variants at one airshow would have been regarded as near impossible, with the last time such numbers of Hurricanes were seen together being over half a century ago in the 1951 film, Angels One Five. Unfortunately that number was reduced to seven come the show days, with the Merlin engine in R4118 succumbing to technical woes that couldn't be cured in time.

The Hurricanes were tasked to open the fixed wing displays on both days, after waiting for the RAF Falcons and their associated Dornier Do228 to perform their final displays of 2017. Within the United Kingdom we are blessed with shows such as Duxford greeting onlookers with gaggles of Spitfires idling on the runway waiting to depart in swathes of noise, but to see a similar set-up with Hurricanes was unbelievable. The routine itself was nothing ground-breaking, with the aircraft formed into two vic-three formations in line astern performing gentle and flowing turns, yet its simplicity evoked a sense of how patrol and defence operations over Southern England might have looked during World War II. Particularly noticeable was the engine sound - or somewhat lack of - the aircraft only quietly trailing across the sky, unlike the Spitfire or Mustangs tail chases which provide a much more aggressive soundtrack and overall pace. The Battle of Britain Memorial Flight soon followed up the Hurricane formation, with only Hurricane and Lancaster attending on the Sunday due to minor technical issues with the Spitfire. It would be interesting to understand why the BBMF did not include their Hurricane within the preceding formation, particularly given the aircraft's appearance immediately after its counterparts. Nevertheless, the Hurricane was displayed with a panache that the BBMF seem to have really refined this year, with countless topside passes and more intimate flying for the crowd.

A personal highlight amongst the smattering of warbirds and heavier multi-engine aircraft was Tiger Nine in their slow and pondering Tiger Moths (plus an interloping singleton DH.60GIII Moth). The largest civilian display team in the United Kingdom, they did a fine job of holding some tight formations in relatively gusty conditions. The simplicity of the display sequence works incredibly well and the carousel of the aircraft towards the end of the display is of particular amusement. This was further enhanced by their commentator, Tim Emrys-Roberts, who provided arguably the most amusing voiceover to a display all weekend and, perhaps, one of the best commentaries of the season. Managing to strike a good balance between the aviation enthusiasts and families alike, Tim even managed to turn the aerial racetrack of nine aircraft into a bizarre aviation-inspired horse race!

Unfortunately, those same gusty conditions on Sunday meant that the planned formation of Bristol Mercury engined aircraft, compromising the Aircraft Restoration Company's Blenheim and the Shuttleworth Collection's Gladiator and Lysander, were unable to perform as a three-ship. Luckily John Romain was able to get airborne in the Blenheim and provide yet another masterful solo display - it remains a very appealing routine for the many photographers that populate airshow crowdlines. Historic Aircraft Collection's Hawker Fury biplane was another frustrating drop-out thanks to Sunday's breeze. An elusive performer thanks in part to so few bookings, it was due to perform a pairs display with its stablemate, the Nimrod II. Sadly only those that attended on the Saturday were able to catch a glimpse of this Hawker biplane pairing.

The Royal Navy Historic Flight's Sea Fury T20 was a late addition to the show line-up, with Lt Cdr Chris Götke bringing the aircraft to Duxford for its first public showing since the forced landing at Culdrose Air Day in 2014, albeit only on static display. North Weald Aviation Services have completed some sterling work on the airframe and it will be an absolute joy to see it back on the flying display circuit in 2018. A display alongside the Air Leasing-operated Fury II is a tantalising prospect for the future, especially with Richard Grace's brutish and powerful displays with big air aerobatics and curving approaches from either side of the crowd line. Sadly, the pairs display that was planned for this show of the aforementioned Sea Fury and the TFC Grumman Bearcat didn't materialise on the Sunday, with the Bearcat suffering a landing gear snag leading to a precautionary return to the airfield. It did, however, allow for a slightly extended showing of the Fury, with the display using every available inch of sky to demonstrate this immaculate aircraft for every angle. Further adding to the potential list of airworthy Sea Furys in the UK was the clearly visible progress being made with The Fighter Collection's Sea Fury T20. The Bristol Centaurus powerplant is however being replaced with a Pratt & Whitney R2800 Double Wasp, which has been coupled to a huge four-bladed propeller. Whilst no longer making the aircraft a pure-bred Sea Fury, the installation of an R2800 has been described as a'temporary fix' by TFC until the Centaurus engine is fully overhauled. Either way, it will be great to see the aircraft in the air after spending over five years grounded.

Sticking to Fighter Collection aircraft, arguably the best solo performance of the day had to go to Pete Kynsey in the chromed P-40C Warhawk. The routine had the best of everything; tight flying, fast-paced, flowing and it featured some of the most perfectly executed aerobatics I've ever witnessed, the 8-point hesitation roll in particular. This was the first solo routine by the Warhawk since finding its new home at Duxford in 2014, and it certainly impressed greatly!

The heavies segment also did a fine job of producing something not seen at an airshow for quite some time; combining a pair of C-47A Skytrains with the B-17G Flying Fortress. Starting out in loose formation, almost akin to how transit formations would have been flown during World War 2, the three aircraft then positioned themselves line-astern for a couple of tightly executed passes. Incorporating a formation display of larger aircraft amongst the multitude of fighter-type displays worked remarkably well, and could certainly be a basis of further varying the display in future years. Not wanting to be outdone in terms of three-ship formations however was the Russian Front set piece of two Yak-3s and the'battle worn' Hispano Buchon, with the initial passes by the Buchon consisting of some rather hefty strafing and bombing pyros. Rather amusingly, the pair of Yak-3s which were intended to'jump' the lone Buchon managed to get themselves initially positioned in front of the lone Buchon attacker, not quite the plan but nevertheless a very spirited tail chase.

The show concluded with a number of set-piece routines, the like of which Duxford has become famous for. A formation of thirteen Spitfires were first to take centre stage, with the Spitfire FRXIVe of Anglia Aircraft Restorations acting as the'Joker' display whilst the segments of the Big Wing took their rightful positions. The crowd fell utterly silent as the mass of RJ Mitchell's finest flew across the airfield in the lowering early autumnal sunlight to the rapturous soundtrack of Merlin and Griffon engines. The ensuing tail chase was trademark Duxford, and as stunning as ever, with two racetrack patterns splitting towards the north and south of the airfield providing a wonderful assault on the senses. Although not as dynamic as tail chases of previous years, with more focus on the aircraft being closer to the crowd rather than cascading across the sky, it was certainly not a performance to disregard in the slightest.

Fittingly, it was left to Battle of Britain era aircraft to close the show, with a formation compromised of Blenheim, three Spitfire Mk Is, five Hurricanes and the Gladiator, this truly was the definition of a mixed flypast. Whilst an absolutely awe inspiring spectacle, with Nimrod by Elgar providing a fitting piece of music, it was a disappointment for the Spitfire Mk.Is to not be given slightly more display time than just a singleton formation flypast. Perhaps not a full-blown display was necessary, but it almost felt as if they were treated as a slight afterthought, especially considering the theme of the show.

Overall, this show offered one of the best airshow line-ups of the 2017 airshow season, and brilliantly highlighted the diversity of the vintage aviation scene in the UK. The organisers had clearly put a lot of thought into ensuring the display line-up didn't stagnate despite being made up of so many familiar machines, and the tried and tested methods of using large numbers of aircraft to create visually impressive and thought-provoking set pieces certainly helped in that regard. That said, Duxford need to be wary that the high airshow prices do not drive away willing customers, particularly the issues with car parking.