Shuttleworth Collection Season Premiere

Sunday 7th May 2017

With Abingdon's Air and Country Show occupying a later May weekend than usual, the honour of opening the UK's 2017 airshow season befell the Shuttleworth Collection’s Season Premiere. After a tumultuous 2016 for the industry and new air display regulations released only a few days before the show, there was hope that Old Warden could provide a positive start to a fresh new year. With forecast-beating weather, resumption of the old-style Shuttleworth flying and the return of an old favourite to the skies, the Season Premiere provided just that.

Sam Wise reports from an unexpectedly sunny Old Warden Aerodrome for UK Airshow Review. All photographs by the author.

The primary theme for this Premiere was the life of famous air racer and test pilot Alex Henshaw, commemorating his death ten years ago. Henshaw was a pilot of remarkable achievement: a consummate pilot in the famous air races of the 1930s, he won multiple races and trophies but arguably his most famous achievement was the setting of the London-Cape Town-London record in 1939 in what is now the Collection’s Mew Gull G-AEXF. The record was not beaten for another seventy years, and even then by only four hours. Following this remarkable career and with the outbreak of war, he ended up as the Vickers Armstrong test pilot, and is reckoned to have flown 10% of all Spitfires and Seafires during this time. To this end, the show gathered together both Collection and visiting aircraft which all had some connection with the great man.

With echoes of the end-of-year Race Days, there was a superb collection of racers in the air to celebrate his records and achievements in that field - a formation of the DH88 Comet with both the genuine and replica Mew Gulls on its wings stood out, but by far the best display to this effect was that by Peter Vacher's Leopard Moth - a seriously punchy performance that belied the rather domestic look of the aeroplane. His wartime role was marked by a superb grouping of types all powered by Merlin IIIs - the Collection’s Sea Hurricane, Hurricane Heritage’s Mk.1 R4118 and the Imperial War Museum's Spitfire Mk.1 N3200, all of which performed to great effect - the Spitfire connection was complemented by the BBMF’s Mk.XVIe TE311 which performed a few flypasts, still in its black primer (and looking rather good for it). The Hawker Tomtit that lives at the airfield has a direct connection with the pilot - it was, in fact, owned by him, and used as a “hack” aircraft for travelling between factories. Even Henshaw’s very brief post-war career was highlighted - as a director for Miles Aircraft in South Africa, Alex would advertise and market their aircraft to the world, admittedly without the greatest of success. Two visitors to suit this theme were the Miles Messenger and Gemini, which took to the skies together in the hands of Collection pilots, before providing their own solo displays; the exceptionally good-looking Gemini being the stand-out member of this duo - a superb sight. Sadly, with the collapse of the Miles company, Henshaw never again flew as a pilot-in-command.

Non-themed visitors included Plane Sailing's impactful PBY-5A Catalina - providing stark contrast with the smaller aircraft on the ground, the huge beast opened the show - and airshow season - in style, with a tight and polished performance. At the other end of the scale was Peter Davies' RotorSport Calidus autogyro display, which is rapidly becoming a favourite on the circuit. Peter shows the astonishing manoeuverability of the pocket-sized contraption off close to the crowd - as great an advert for the otherwise obscure form of transport as it is an entertaining display (including Davies waving giant foam hands out of the cockpit once landed).

There were the usual Old Warden displays from various other Collection aircraft, but by far the star of the show, making its post-repair debut in the capable hands of Dodge Bailey, was the Sopwith Triplane Dixie II. From the moment it took to the air it was plain that Bailey was delighted to have her back, with an exuberant display alongside other First World War machines on the programme (the Bristol Fighter and Sopwith Pup; most others on the list were unable to get in the air due to strong winds). Damaged in a fence-related crash in 2014, the Collection’s engineers have done a remarkable job in returning this unique aeroplane to the air and, against a blue Bedfordshire sky, the aircraft couldn’t have had a more apt reintroduction to the scene. It was a true delight to see the triple-winged machine trundling in the sky once more.

If Dixie II was great to see back, possibly the most welcome return of all was, in fact, the classic Shuttleworth display restrictions. UKAR commented more than once last year on how the CAA’s bungled and knee-jerk 2016 display restrictions rendered the flying at Old Warden a shade of its former self, with no added safety for the crowd itself but increased danger for the pilots. However, the old glory is restored with the Collection’s dispensations for low and close flying back in place - where the Po-2 was restricted to 250m from the crowd this time last year, this year saw it back to the familiar 75m lines, curving around the dog-leg to great effect in the way that only Old Warden can offer. The sight of two Hurricanes roaring past in formation at 50ft altitude is hard to top, and yet what was common enough at shows in 2015 and earlier suddenly felt like a long-missed friend. Huge congratulations must be extended to those at the Collection who have fought to retain these exemptions, as well as to those at the CAA who have understood the relevancy and importance of granting them again. Long may it continue.

Really, we couldn’t have asked for a better start to the season. While the winds and serviceability did leave a few aircraft stuck on the ground, given that the morning’s forecast was grey clouds all day it ended up being a superbly sunny, if a bit blustery, day. It was clear how delighted the pilots were to be back to their old method of display flying, and a strong theme saw a number of interesting aeroplanes on the programme. The 2017 Season Premiere was a definite success and a great portent for the upcoming display season. Fly Navy is the Collection’s next full show and with as strong a lineup as last year but with the mouth watering-prospect of the old-style display lines it could be even better than the first edition.