Shuttleworth Collection June Flying Evening

Saturday 17th June 2017

"It's a quarter-to-ten and we're at an airshow!" said a neighbour. This truly was the airshow that nobody wanted to end. It was pushing ten o'clock by the time the Deperdussin's engine was finally silenced and the airfield was lit by car headlamps and the glow from the still-open hangars. And still it was reluctantly that people headed for their cars, for the exits and for the warm, darkening summer night beyond the gates. Nowhere delivers an airshow quite like The Shuttleworth Collection, and this Evening Airshow had been one of their very best.

Guest writer Dan O'Hagan reports for UK Airshow Review. Additional photography by Dan Butcher.

If ever there was an illustration of how Shuttleworth have got themselves back on track, then this was it. It's hard to believe that just a year ago we had the Collection's self-harming madness of deciding to shelve the traditional evening displays in favour of the hit-and-miss, unstructured, no-idea-what-might-fly-and-when 'At Home' events. Those tepidly-received shows must have hit Shuttleworth hard in the pocket - at one such event last year I was informed that the numbers on the crowdline barely registered three figures. It was clear that the old format had to return, and boy, is Old Warden back!

It's a place which differs from the rest on many, many levels - one of them is that this is an airfield that seems happy to have you there. It sometimes feels that other venues leave you feeling financially violated from the moment you arrive; sky-rocketing ticket prices, parking charges, aggressive selling of overpriced programmes, additional costs to see the display aircraft up-close, food and drink priced at eye-watering levels. If all that has dampened your enthusiasm for airshows, give Shuttleworth your custom. This is the venue that, for now, has the opposition licked.

And that's the case in the skies too. After the CAA's butchery of display flying in the wake of 2015's Hunter accident at the Shoreham Air Show, airshow flying at many venues has been neutered beyond recognition. Luckily at Old Warden special dispensations and common sense have prevailed. From the moment the Southern Martlet took off into an energetic early afternoon practice display, which was flown perfectly safely at "Shuttleworth height", it was clear that we were in for a treat.

On the subject of display practices and that other post-Shoreham perennial - road closures, how is it safe to have roads open while aeroplanes are practicing their routines, as was the case with the Martlet, yet the roads are shut during the actual flying display? Do pilots suddenly become dangerous madmen during airshow hours? More bizarrely here, the roads were re-opened before the (admittedly late) finish of the display. Surely the roads are either shut or they're open for the duration? What this does, of course, is show up the regulations for the Something-Must-Be-Seen-To-Be-Done lip-service nonsense that most of us within the hobby and the wider airshow world have long suspected them to be.

The show kicked off with what many consider the Collection's jewel - de Havilland Comet Racer G-ACSS, in the trusty hands of Shuttleworth's Chief Pilot "Dodge" Bailey. While not his best routine in the aeroplane, the tightness of the formation element with the Percival Mew Gull set the tone for what was an exceptional evening's flying. Such a shame that this opening act was the one to suffer from cloud obscuring the sun, as the formation passes offered up excellent photographic possibilities.

But for once, and this doesn't happen often, the glorious Comet wasn't the star attraction. The thousands who'd come to Old Warden had been lured by the promise of the three Hawker Hurricanes that now call the airfield home flying together in public for the first time. For one of them, Hurricane IIa (originally a Mk I) G-HITT/P3717 this was also a display debut. How far we have come in such a short space of time to have such an abundance of Hurricanes, finally it seems appreciated for the legendary fighters they are rather than "the other one" from the Battle Of Britain.

By the time this trifecta of beauties got airborne, the cloud that had dogged the opening act was long gone. Conditions were perfect. From the right of the crowd, bending in around the trees, what a sight as the three iconic shapes appeared, bathed in golden sun, accompanied by the unmistakable Merlin purr.

Formation passes led into P3717 taking centre stage for a solo routine. Gentle aerobatics gave way to a couple of stellar photo-passes, illustrating what a sensational job Hawker Restorations have made of this latest machine. The paint scheme chosen is magnificent. As is the Old Warden way, she completed her display with not one person in the crowd disappointed or left wanting more. This is the place where they just "get" what display flying is all about, and what the knowledgeable crowd expects of them.

This wasn't a show with many visiting aircraft, but kudos to the much-maligned Battle Of Britain Memorial Flight, who arrived for a couple of flypasts with Spitfire Vb AB910 and (yet another!) Hurricane, PZ865. Two tight formation passes displayed the upper surfaces superbly, and returning as singletons again offered the crowd the most pleasing aspect of these much-loved machines. This, hot on the heels of a strong tailchase display at Cosford the previous week suggests that maybe, just maybe the penny has dropped at Coningsby that previous seasons displays have not done their aircraft, or pilots, justice.

In conditions such as these, the photographers could fill their boots as more exceptional displays came and went. The First World War Bristol pair of Bristol Fighter and M.1C were most enjoyable, as the sun finally began to dip behind the hangars - not that the display was anywhere near over.

There was still time for another display debut, Hurricane Heritage's freshly repainted Harvard IIB G-CIUW/FE511. By this time, it was getting quite dark indeed, though there was still a little sunlight above ground level, which made for some interesting fiery reflections off the silver-painted fuselage of the noisy little trainer. Naturally, this display was very pleasing to both the eye and the camera lens - is there something in the water at this place?

A day (or more accurately, night) such as this couldn't be ended in any better way than displaying Old Warden's Edwardians. With the windsock completely limp, and accompanied by the car headlights of the Philistines who dared to leave early, the hardy there-to-the-bitter-end element of the crowd were richly rewarded with two displays from the Avro Triplane, and a lengthy routine from the Collection's Bristol Boxkite replica. The little Deperdussin closed the show with four hops along the runway, shutting down with the clock showing very nearly 10pm. Never let it be said you don't get value for money at Old Warden!

Quite rightly, 2016's Fly Navy event at this airfield was hailed by many as perhaps the outstanding airshow of last summer. This show, almost hidden away in the calendar as "another" Shuttleworth evening airshow, will perhaps be remembered in a similar vein. A combination of perfect weather, magnificent airmanship and an inventive programme which dug deep into the rich seam of aeroplanes based at the airfield to mine an utter gem of a flying display, comprising debuts and firsts and genuine must-see moments.

In this writer's opinion, the Shuttleworth Collection are now so far ahead of the pack it's becoming embarrassing. Once again Old Warden is the airshow venue that reminds you of how great airshows used to be, and thankfully at one airfield at least, they still are.