Shuttleworth Collection Season Premiere

Sunday 6th May 2018

The 2018 airshow season was opened jointly by the Shuttleworth Collection and the Abingdon Air and Country Show. With a scorching weather forecast, Shuttleworth’s Season Premiere airshow sold out some 48 hours in advance. With a variety of surprises and excellent displays, it certainly proved to be an airshow not to miss.

New staff member Jakub Zurek travelled to the Shuttleworth Collection to review his first show for UKAR. Photography by the author.

The start of a new airshow season is always an exciting time. Months of aircraft winter maintenance are finally complete. Successful engine runs lead to test flights and allow the relevant paperwork to be finished. Finally, it is that time of the year again to dust off the cobwebs from the camera gear and to embrace the new airshow season, and in this, the year of the RAF Centenary. With the weather set fair and a planned aircraft line-up spanning almost 100 years of aircraft development, from the Blériot XI to the Eurofighter Typhoon, the Season Premiere airshow looked to have it all. A capacity crowd saw thousands of people descend onto the isolated grass airfield in Bedfordshire which, most unusually, caused traffic jams not seen before at the site as families and enthusiasts alike aimed to make the most of the Bank Holiday weekend. Catering facilities at the Collection also struggled, with many simply running out of food and shutting early.

Nonetheless, visitors arriving at the showground were met with a range of things to see; from displaying aircraft arriving and parking up next to the fence to RAF related displays and activities on the airfield and in the museum hangars, there was much to see and do before the flying display. Always expanding its horizons, airshows at Old Warden are clearly about more than just what is in the air and that was especially true at this event, as the RAF100 theme brought a selection of vintage jet cockpits to the showground, as well as exhibition stands from the displaying RAF teams. A late and very welcome addition to the programme was a rare static appearance from an RAF Puma, which arrived during the morning and departed at the conclusion of the flying display, performing a nice fly-by along the crowd line before returning to RAF Benson.

For airshow regulars though, the focus was to see some unique aeroplanes fly after a long, cold, break. Many enthusiasts visited the highly anticipated season opener for their first dose of aviation-goodness, even if it was apparent that some of the aircraft initially listed on the website would be unable to perform. The Collection’s Gloster Gladiator, Sopwith Pup and one of the Magisters were to be found in the workshop hangar, whilst the Blériot XI was missing its engine. Hawker Hurricane Mk II P3717 was on the other hand, found basking in the sunshine and went on to display later on. For those hoping to see three Sopwith aircraft in the air, it may have been a surprise to see the Pup sitting this one out for reasons unknown. Likewise, after its emergency landing last June, the Gladiator was also an aircraft that would have been most welcome to see back displaying. With a similar discrepancy last year, namely in the aircraft provisionally listed to display in the Fly Navy show, the Shuttleworth Collection should strive for better in this aspect. In the age of organisers putting out constant updates on social media and their own websites about additions and cancellations, there really is no excuse for the Collection to not do the same. A more regularly updated, and accurate aircraft list leading up to the show day, should be a priority.

This was especially true in the case of the pre-show star item. After a long restoration spanning some 13 years, Shuttleworth's Spitfire Mk Vc returned to the air again in mid-March and was soon confirmed as making its 'debut' at the Season Premiere. Just a few days prior, rumours surfaced from the SVAS that the aircraft would not in fact be ready in time and its appearance had been cancelled. This wasn't confirmed by Shuttleworth until after a low ticket warning had been issued. The problem had been due to the very wet weather in recent weeks, which Collection pilot Stu Goldspink elaborated upon during his enlightening pilot talk; after such a long period since its last flight, the aircraft needs approximately five hours total flight time in which to complete all the tasks and tests the CAA have listed to get the permit to fly issued. Boggy airfield conditions persisted throughout April and by the time of the airshow the aircraft had only completed four flights, totalling approximately two hours flight time. An unfortunate turn of events, but it must have been known before the eventual withdrawal that the aircraft would be unavailable, and it is perhaps a little disingenuous to continue to advertise its appearance until so late in the day.

The RAF Centenary themed show was opened by the RAF Typhoon display at 2pm sharp, uniquely offering Shuttleworth attendees the first opportunity to see Flt Lt Peterson’s display. Clear skies didn't translate into a full demo unfortunately, as Luton and Stansted traffic restricted the jet to the rolling display, and though high alpha loops and tight turns kept the aircraft within the airfield boundary at all times, it was a little far from the crowd. With noise and power assured, it certainly brought in extra visitors to the show, though perhaps divided opinion amongst regular Shuttleworth attendees, some of which believe modern aircraft like this simply do not fit the agenda at Old Warden. However, it is important to remember that the Season Premiere was one of the endorsed RAF100 events, so it would have been surprising not to see any other RAF assets apart from the BBMF. The Red Arrows have displayed twice at Shuttleworth in the last two years, so it was a nice change for the Collection to welcome the Typhoon and the lure of an afterburning jet was able to help bring the show to a complete sell out. This slightly altered the relaxed atmosphere that we are used to at Old Warden, but if sell out shows like these enable the Collection to host more excellent displays throughout the year, then surely it is of great benefit for the Collection and enthusiast in the longer term.

The eight minute Typhoon display was closely followed by the BBMF Lancaster. Last displaying at Old Warden in 2014 with the visiting Lancaster from Canada, many were hoping for the crew to make use of the unique dog-leg crowd line at Shuttleworth to truly show off the aircraft. Fingers and camera lenses pointed to crowd left, where the distinctive silhouette of the four-engine heavy bomber first appeared. What followed was one of the highlights of the day as Flight Lieutenant Tim Dunlop dipped the Lancaster’s wings towards the crowd, showing those lucky enough to be there the forbidden fruit and the rarest of airshow sights - a Lancaster topside! The sound of camera shutters was drowned out by the sound of its four Merlin engines, echoing around the site with each pass. After what seemed like seconds, the bomber flew away and chased after the Avro Anson. During this, a surprise addition to the flying programme performed three, fast and low, topside passes along the crowd line. Newly repainted Spitfire Mk XVI TE311, belonging to the BBMF and piloted by OC Andy Millikin himself, provided a great interlude to the Avro formation that followed...

Performing two passes with the Lancaster, and one pass with the Bristol Blenheim, it was the first chance to see the BAE Systems Avro Anson repainted in RAF colours for the Centenary celebrations. The ability of the Collection to display aircraft alongside each other in a variety of formations is certainly not a new aspect to shows at Old Warden, and without any prior warning, the unique formations that regularly take place at the Shuttleworth Collection are undoubtedly an element of surprise that some feel is missing from modern airshows. Other exclusive formations, all relating to aircraft operated by the RAF throughout its history, were also featured in the four-hour flying display.

Staying with the theme of aviation in WWII, no aircraft is more synonymous with the RAF than the Supermarine Spitfire. Although AR501 was regrettably unable to be the highpoint of the show that many were looking forward to for reasons discussed earlier, there were fortunately two more examples of this much-loved type visiting from nearby Duxford; Cliff Spink and Stu Goldspink performed a short pairs routine in Mk I N3200 and Mk IX MH434 respectively. Special mention must also go to John Romain who displayed the Blenheim. It surely was one of the best displays performed by this aircraft since its restoration, at times feeling like it was solely flying for the pleasure of the gathered photographers. Sweeping, topside passes, left a smile on many visitors faces, and most likely on the pilot’s face too.

Another debut display that was perhaps overlooked leading up to the show in comparison to the Spitfire was the Collection’s newly-restored Sopwith Camel replica. With the line often being hard to draw between real and replica, the teams at Northern Aeroplane Workshop and Shuttleworth have certainly done a magnificent job with this aeroplane. One of the earliest aircraft operated by the RAF upon its formation in 1918, it performed a simple routine in the hands of chief pilot Dodge Bailey. The display undeniably demonstrated the manoeuvrability of the Camel, and enabled the crowd to imagine how it would have looked in the skies above WWI trenches a century ago. Forming part of a larger WWI display segment, the Camel slotted in nicely, displaying alongside the RAF SE5a and the rest of the Collection’s WWI aircraft that followed.

Going back in time even further, those patient enough to wait until the end of the show were lucky enough to witness the Edwardian aircraft take to the skies. Almost a trademark of shows at Old Warden, the Edwardians require virtually perfect weather conditions to fly. Despite the heat, the wind stayed low enough for the replica Bristol Boxkite and Avro Triplane to delight spectators. Paul Stone offered an excellent showcase of the Boxkite, showing the primitive structure of this aeroplane. Just as the day could not get any better, Collection chief pilot Dodge Bailey returned to the air again in the unique Blackburn Monoplane, seamlessly soaring through the evening air. Upon landing, all Edwardian aircraft were greeted with a well-deserved round of applause from visitors. A wonderful day of aviation.

Starting with the most modern frontline RAF jet, going through WWII to WWI, and concluding with the earliest pioneers of aviation, this show celebrated the centenary of the RAF in style. Where else could you see so many delightful aircraft in one place? The Shuttleworth Collection raised the bar high for the upcoming season, and if this show is anything to go by, airshows in 2018 may really be extraordinary. Unquestionably, one thing is simple - Old Warden remains the best airshow venue in the country.