Shuttleworth Collection Fly Navy Airshow

Sunday 4th June 2017

The Shuttleworth Collection's "Fly Navy" Airshow was near-enough one of the best airshows in the UK last summer and it was clear that the organisers were keen to build on the success of 2016's offering this year, but bludgeoned by star acts cancelling, and the beleaguered UK weather, could Fly Navy II live up to the high expectations?

Tom Jones reports from Central Bedfordshire. Photography by the UKAR staff team.

It's not inaccurate to say that 2016's Fly Navy show at Old Warden set the bar high, even by their own standards. Last year, arguably, had everything, other than spoiling (and, thankfully, now revoked) CAA display lines. With the regulator relaxing their policy towards Shuttleworth of late, their shows have returned to a modicum of "normality" in what you can expect from the flying. With a clear, yet niche theme that it stuck to, the Shuttleworth Collection must by now know that "Fly Navy" as a concept is a favourite with Old Warden crowds.

The build for this year's show, however, was not without some trepidation. The mighty Sea Vixen, which was universally praised last year, came to grief in a belly-landing at RNAS Yeovilton. Therefore, the only Royal Navy/Fleet Air Arm jet-powered aircraft was no-longer pencilled in, and with Hunters still grounded, there was nothing comparable available to stand in. Kennet Aviation's Skyraider was also pulled off the list at the eleventh hour, owing to it not being ready for display flying following winter maintenance; likewise The Fighter Collection's much-loved Corsair.

These three machines had promised such presence at this special venue that whichever way one looks at it, their loss was felt. If we're being critical, the absence of Kennet Aviation's Skyraider had looked pretty inevitable for quite some time before it was eventually pulled from the list, having already been dropped by the Cosford Airshow a week hence. In mitigation, the spate of cancellations probably confused the issue, but the need for clarity and swiftness when dealing with cancelled acts is important. Paying customers deserve to know as soon as reasonably possible whether a machine is cancelled, or not. Or, indeed, simple messages on social media accounts from organisers stating that they are aware of a particular issue and are exploring it can do much to stop tongues wagging.

Further drop-outs of the flying display were the late-addition Gazelles in Royal Navy colours, and the charismatic little MS317. Both items were present at the show, albeit on static, as opposed to flying. A great shame, as the Gazelle Sqn's mounts would have fit the bill perfectly, and the MS317 put in a very capable display in 2016. Little explanation was provided as to why these two items did not fly at the show. Rounding out the list of items unable to make it to the show were both the originally listed examples of the Westland Wasp, the Royal Navy Historic Flight's Swordfish (all still in maintenance) and the Great War Display Team's replica Avro 504, which encountered engine failure on it's debut at Abingdon three weeks prior.

Despite the succession of (arguably "star") attractions that had dropped out, recompense was made where and how possible. One of the pair of Duxford-based Nimrods ended up flying into the show, allowing closer inspection of the fine machine on the ground, along with Air Leasing Ltd's gorgeous Seafire III, though given the Seafire's heavy landing on arrival which prevented it from displaying later on, perhaps this was a mixed blessing. Sadly Richard Grace never made it in time to land and position the Fury II in the static display. Having non-collection machines land at the show prior to displaying later on in the day should not be overlooked by the organisers. The tempting photography conditions that exist are not just limited to the air at Shuttleworth. There is much to be said for being able to get "up close" photography of rarely-seen machines, the point demonstrated by the Seafire III. The organisers can take some praise for securing some non-collection aircraft due to fly at the show to be present on static display prior. Hopefully this is something that continues at the Collection's shows in future.

Once again the Royal Navy put in support with a Merlin HM2 and a Augusta-Westland/Leonardo Wildcat, the latter flying into the show on Sunday morning. If this continues, a real coup for the organisers would be to secure participation from, perhaps, a Sea King ASaC7; those being the last Sea Kings in British military operations.

In the flying display itself, which featured typically polished and exceptional routines from the Collection's fine stock, about as good a Chipmunk display as you could expect to see from Lt Cdr Gotke, and a standout display of the Bristol Scout, there were a number of other gems, some of which would not have been expected.

Duxford machines once again supported the show well, and The Fighter Collection and the Historic Aircraft Collection's Nimrods put in spell-binding displays, allowing a fine study of those excellent machines. A formation followed by solo displays can ne'er go far wrong, and the Duxford-based Nimrod pair proved that it's not just the Collection machines that can make the most of the unique venue.

Richard Grace's Air Leasing Ltd stable has made leaps and strides in the warbird community of late, with two additions to the UK display circuit that almost appeared out of nowhere. In 2015 his beautiful Seafire III broke cover, and last year the monstrous Hawker Fury MkII in it's gorgeous "prototype" livery broke cover, and has been eagerly hunted by enthusiasts ever since. Although not owned by Air Leasing, they have taken over the maintenance after the short-lived association with Weald Aviation collapsed, Richard Grace now also operating it on behalf of Anglia Aircraft Restorations. His Fury display did not disappoint, adding power, presence, and grace to the venue with a display consisting of many sweeping passes. A tail wheel retraction issue prevented a full-on aerobatic routine, but given the performance we did get, perhaps this was some good karma for the spectators following the earlier disappointment with the Seafire's withdrawal.

Even the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight also seem to be getting in on some dog-leg action in recent years at Shuttleworth. Spitfire P7350 and Hurricane LF363 both came-through with some mightily-impressive topsides, albeit in the worst of the day's lighting conditions.

The Fighter Collection's Bearcat and Wildcat put in appearances, as they did last year. Interestingly, one of the criticisms of those Duxford stallions last year was too much emphasis on "boom and zoom", and less of the grace and poise that Shuttleworth exudes, and as a consequence were less photogenic. Whether or not criticisms were taken on board, the displays by both Wildcat and Bearcat seemed to mix in the best of both worlds this time around, resulting in some rather top-notch warbird flying. It's a constant source of amazement; the extent to which Duxford-based warbirds outshine themselves at other venues, when compared to how they fly at their home. This was no different.

Special mention must also be made to the slightly out-of-theme addition in the form of the rarely-seen North Weald-based G-HUEY and the very shy Westland wasp G-CBUI. Both late stand-ins for the flying display, replacing the pair of cancelled Wasps, ending up in a loosely-defined pairs formation, before completing their own solo elements. John Beattie flying the Wasp put the classic machine through its paces, but it was the Huey, with all of its character and charisma, that really packed a punch at the Old Warden venue.

Most surprising, however, was the airshow-regular PBY-5A Catalina, "Miss Pick-Up". The "Cat" is oft overlooked at other airshows, sometimes with justification. The slow, lumbering amphibian is never going to have the stopping-power of a fast-jet display. However, its performance at Old Warden was one of the best its performed in years. Plenty of different photographic angles, as little time as possible spent re-positioning, and a sensationally low pass to conclude the display. The "bog-standard" participants really putting in an unexpectedly decent performance is oft one of the more charming parts of continuing to attend similar airshows year-on-year, and the Catalina did just that.

It was, however, the British summertime that put a downer on this year's edition of the show. Dark clouds and considerable lack of light were perfectly acceptable for viewing, less so for photography. Especially galling was the most excellent weather in the morning, where the flying display proper wasn't taking place and the sun is very much in your face!

The show was not without incident, though. The organisers, to their credit, attempted a mini Legends-style warbird balbo to conclude, which performed as expected until the Collection's Gloster Gladiator began puffing unhealthy amounts of smoke. Watching the machine slowly sink behind trees was a sobering experience, but to their immense credit, the organisers kept the crowd updated on the pilot's status. Thankfully, the "Glad" was put down in a field prepared for such an eventuality, and it was confirmed very swiftly over the commentary. As it turned out, other than the engine-issue that caused the problem, there was no other damage to the airframe, and it was towed back into the hangars that very evening.

Given the run of bad luck that resulted in an unusually high number of drop-outs, less than ideal met and the Seafire/Gladiator incidents, it's a fair judgement to consider that there could have been worse outcomes for this event. Whilst not living up to the previous iteration, the fact it remained so enjoyable despite the bumps in the road means the Shuttleworth Collection can mark this show up as another positive in their books. Built around a clearly defined theme with plenty of rare and interesting machines on display, the Fly Navy formula has been a hit two years on the bounce - time will tell whether the Collection can maintain the high standards set, or whether they have reached their zenith. We'll await the answer come next June.