Shuttleworth Military Pageant

Sunday 2nd July 2017

Old Warden is dangerously addictive. A fortnight earlier the venue had staged an evening show hailed by many as a candidate for show of the season, and that was achieved using only the aeroplanes based at the airfield, so the bigger, wider scope of the Military Pageant promised the potential at least to match or even beat the bar-setting standards of two weeks earlier.

Guest writer Dan O'Hagan reviews the show for UK Airshow Review. Additional photography by Dan Butcher.

Babylon Zoo are a salutary tale. Remember them? Sometimes you absolutely nail it. Hit the peak, the zenith, the very apogee. And then what? Consistency and the innate art of re-creating that heady mix of success is what keeps a band at the very top, but what of an airshow? If that late-June evening display had been Shuttleworth's "Spaceman", would this Military Pageant end up being their "Animal Army"? (and yes, I had to look that up).

Happily, this show turned out to be a most satisfying follow-up. In short, while it never quite hit the stellar heights of the last show, in its first half especially, this was still a fine Old Warden airshow blessed once again with excellent Edwardian-friendly weather and supreme airmanship from the Collection's pilots.

In truth it was the visiting aeroplanes which disappointed. Richard Grace's opening gambit in TF-51D Miss Velma felt distant, detached and disjointed, a feeling which wasn't helped by Peter Kuypers' display in Sally B which never, ever got close to being truly engaging. It's great to see the big bomber still pounding the airshow circuit, but this was not a good showcasing of her. With regards the closing flypast of the routine, the "smoke-on" pass, the graceful old lady deserves better than to be seen belching out tacky display smoke. Her very presence is surely enough of a tribute to the heroics of the Mighty Eighth, without the need for smoke to labour the point.

Marking the fact that this was a Military Pageant, both the RAF and British Army sent representatives from their respective Memorial and Historic Flights. And in-keeping with the below-par visitor slots, it was these acts which saw the display hit its most bum notes.

The Army Historics are quite rarely seen, especially at Shuttleworth, so it was quite a boon on paper to see their de Havilland Canada Beaver fly with their Westland Scout helicopter. The reality was far less entertaining, with the Beaver, piloted by Major George Bacon plodding up and down the display line escorted by the helicopter. Not really a display to get anyone waving their ice creams or umbrellas at. The Scout at least provided good photographic views as it hover-taxied into its parking place, but this was an eminently forgettable routine.

Which brings us on to the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight.

At a show blessed with three Hawker Hurricanes which were later to be flown superbly, sadly the BBMF's example provided what appeared to be a display parodying the criticism levelled at the Flight for many, many years. Repeated underside passes, flown so far away from the crowd that photography was futile. Old Warden shows are famed for their intimacy and engagement with the audience, no pun intended, but this routine flown in LF363 never came close. And yet we'd seen at this same airfield just a fortnight before a magnificent series of flypasts by the BBMF, proving that they are truly hamstrung by the over-cautious "one size fits all" routine they are tied to when giving a full display.

The time might have come where Shuttleworth stop bidding for full displays by the BBMF fighters and book only flypasts, which have been proven repeatedly at this venue to be far better at entertaining and engaging the crowd. The BBMF might be able to fly their aeroplanes, but the evidence is damning that they have no clue how to display them.

Of the visiting aeroplanes, one in particular broke ranks by producing a quite brilliant routine of grace, beauty, power and class. Naturally this was John Romain in the Aeroplane Restoration Company's splendid one-off Bristol Blenheim. Perhaps not as close as he'd flown here the previous year, this was still a display which showed why Romain is the gold standard when it comes to warbird displays in this country - swooping topsides blending into effortless graceful wingovers. The only downside was that the sun was playing an untimely game of hide-and-seek with the scattered clouds. What an aeroplane, and what a display!

The First World War element in the show featured Jean Munn at the helm of the ungainly-looking BE2e. This turned out to be among the highlights of the day, flown incredibly low and offering good views of all angles of the machine.

Other Great War types thrilled too. The high-point was Shuttleworth Collection Chief Pilot Dodge Bailey's routine at the stick of the Bristol M1c. This was a masterclass in display flying, and much improved on what we saw from the same pilot in the same aeroplane only a fortnight before. Flown fast and low like this, the diminutive little monoplane has a punchy presence. Dodge rightly received raucous applause on landing for one of the displays of the season.

As with the much-praised June evening show it was the trio of Hawker Hurricanes which took top billing. And once again they did not disappoint. Newcomer G-HITT /P7317 flew two formation passes with the Collection's Sea Hurricane and the former "Vachercane" R4118 before the three aeroplanes split. Stu Goldspink took G-HITT high for aerobatics while the other two tail-chased in the glorious sunlight. And then, when they'd had enough, Goldspink took centre stage.

What followed was, perhaps, the best warbird display seen in the UK this season so far. Close, smooth topside passes showing off the machine's magnificent lines and markings, accompanied by the unmistakeable soundtrack of the Merlin thrum. If those magical few minutes didn't get your pulse racing, then the time to find a new hobby is probably now.

Time will tell whether familiarity goes on to breed contempt, but seeing three Hurricanes displayed together at Shuttleworth this season is incredible and at the two shows they've flown have been easily worth the admission money on their own. If you have yet to see them, it's something you need to put right.

Even two of the Edwardians managed to put in an appearance. Dodge was back, in the Bristol Boxkite, this time delivering a surprisingly low and aggressive (well, for a Boxkite) routine, even joining up for formation passes with Frank Chapman in the Avro Triplane. So susceptible to weather are the "Eds" that you never bank on them flying at these events, but when they do they are the perfect full stop to round off a typically fabulous day's entertainment.

Was the Military Pageant as good as the previous show? No, not even close. That night was pretty much airshow perfection, and is perhaps an unfair yardstick against which to measure future events. And, while this sequel wasn't quite in the same league, it was still better than pretty much any airshow you'll visit this year. And that's a glowing endorsement for a venue that, unlike Babylon Zoo, doesn't look like struggling for smash hits any time soon.