IWM Duxford Air Festival
Saturday 25th May - Sunday 26th May 2019
It is fair to say that the mood before the Duxford Air Festival was not good on the among the enthusiast community. "I think the award for 'the most underwhelming airshow of 2019' has already been awarded" was a comment from one of our forum members when the final participation list was released. The show appeared to follow the trend of these recent Duxford Air Festivals, eschewing the traditional ingredients for an IWM Duxford show. There was a solitary Spitfire and no Hurricanes - despite the raft of airworthy examples of the type now calling Duxford home, with no aircraft from either the Fighter Collection, Historic Aircraft Collection or the Aircraft Restoration Company (apart from N3200 which they operate on behalf of the Imperial War Museum) on the participation list. Instead a varied array of visitors to Duxford were announced, ranging from international guests like The Breitling Jet Team, a new team on the display scene (The Bader Bus Company) and a trio of Miles aircraft in a nod to the classic aviation scene.
spent the weekend at IWM Duxford and reports on the show for UK Airshow Review.
Now into its third year, the content of the Air Festival remains unfamiliar to those that remember the old Spring Air Shows, and this year's running took that one step further with an unusual look and feel from pre-show marketing right through to the showground layout. Advertisements in London seemed even more prominent than usual, with posters at tube stations and on trains highly visible in the wekks and months leading up to the event, and the airfield itself took on a different feel too. Large printed flags marked out the 'Airspace Zone', featuring the tents of the RAF display teams and the Army Air Corps Apache AH1. The IWM's Sea Vixen FAW MkII was brought out to sit outside the Airspace Hangar, and formed the centre of a 'Family Fun' area with naval themed costumes and a stage for children to take part in a zumba-type activity at regular intervals during the morning. The limited range of songs on loop, that all appeared to feature the word 'aeroplane' or similar, soon began to wear thin.
To make way for this new range of activities, the large area of parking in front of the hangar had been relocated - similarly, (according to reports on our forum at least) the usual areas for parking between the American Air Museum and the Land Warfare Hall were also disrupted, with those arriving earliest being sent as far as possible from the crowd line. The old guard seemingly moved out the way to cater for the new audience. The result at the eastern end was a sparsely populated crowdline, café and visitor centre, all of which are normally thriving with activity.
The flying display itself also took a rather unorthodox turn, with so many of the based warbirds remaining in their hangars rather than making their way out onto the airfield as we have come to expect. In the past, the format was more akin to Old Warden, where the based aircraft form the majority of the programme, sublimated by visitors. At this show, the Catalina and Sally B - fond favourites at Duxford - were in the minority.
Our review of last year's show focused greatly on the differences between those old, themed, Spring Airshows and the newer Air Festival format - to surmise, the conclusion was that the new shows lack identity in relation to what they want to be, and what they should be. Henceforth this year's review is going to focus on the show in relation to others within the Air Festival era. It may be hard for regular and long term attendees to accept the change due to their affections for the previous regime of Spring Airshows at Duxford, but in its third year the IWM appear settled on the 'Air Festival' and therefore it is only fair to judge the show against others run under the same guise, and not keep harking back to its predecessors, however much they may be missed.
Despite the somewhat unusual atmosphere around Duxford, the show certainly had its high points. The fact that they have followed RAF Cosford's lead and begun bringing aircraft from the museum's collection outside the hangars to form part of the static display - notably on this occasion to explore the theme of the 75th anniversary of the jet engine - is a welcome development. Integrating the museum's rich collection into the airshow activities is an idea with great scope for development and further expansion. The museum exhibits were further added to by a visit from one of the Martin Baker Gloster Meteors, which was in attendance for the weekend. A great sight and one that we can only hope to see more of on the airshow circuit, with the company's two examples now the only airworthy Meteors in the country.
Whilst on paper the flying display itself seemed to lack any real star or standout performers, it was actually very hard to find any that were not thoroughly enjoyable on the day. A real highlight of the programme on each day of the show was the performance of Richard Grace and Andy Durston in the Ultimate Warbird Flights' P-47D Thunderbolt 'Nellie B' and TF-51 Mustang 'Contrary Mary'. A stunning routine and tight formation by the two warbirds - the type of routine that Duxford is famous and loved for as an airshow venue. Making full use of the bend around the Airspace hangar, to the delight of photographers, the routine was a joy to watch and a teaser for displays by the new Ultimate Warbirds Display Team, when the pair will be joined by a Spitfire and Buchon in a four-ship that evokes the memory of the much-missed Breitling Fighters. On the Sunday of the Air Festival, the pair opened the show with a pair of F-15E Strike Eagles from the 492nd Fighter Wing at RAF Lakenheath. This formation was advertised as bringing the modern day and historic aircraft 'wing-to-wing'. In reality, their proximity of the warbirds to the jets wasn't close to offering that sort of a spectacle, with a notable separation between the display lines used by the warbirds and their modern USAF counterparts. Regardless, it is a great joy to see aircraft from Lakenheath getting involved in UK airshows and flying alongside UK display pilots, especially this year with their newly-painted heritage jets.
Since its inception, the French Air Force have been the highlight of all the 'Air Festivals' to date, with a trio of displays last year and the Rafale solo in 2017. It was once again France that provided one of the stars of the show, although on this occasion in the guise of the civilian Breitling Jet Team. As fairly frequent visitors to UK air events, the team will be familiar to most, so it wasn't rarity that made their appearance special rather than the jets operating from Duxford, affording the audience very close access to one of the premier jet display teams. It is not often that you get to witness a team such as this start up and taxi so close to the crowd, and they really seemed to be enjoying their visit, with the ground crew out on the jet pan for most of the Saturday taking photos and watching the likes of Sally-B and the IWM's Spitfire taxiing out. Their well flown routine was a great addition to the programme, finishing their display in style on both days with a break on Saturday and flypast on Sunday, both while releasing fireworks as they turned away from the crowd.
Despite the reservations many held before the show, there were other treats embedded into the flying display, not least from the trio of Miles aircraft comprising a Gemini and two Messengers. Their gently flown routine offered a real change in pace from the other acts on the bill, and a nod to the rarer airshow acts that Duxford has often presented so well. The Historic Army Aircraft Flight, likewise, putting on a superb routine in aircraft that might not be the most natural of airshow performers, displaying rotary and fixed wing aircraft together with their Beaver, Auster, Sioux and Scout combination. The aircraft split into two elements for the majority of the display with the helicopters joining the Beaver and Scout for the final flypast, an impressive sight with the mixture of aircraft sharing the same airspace. Another memorable formation saw the Aircraft Restoration Company's North American Harvard joining a Percival Jet Provost T3, the two training aircraft resplendent in their silver and yellow paint schemes.
It was a flying display had some strong elements encased within it, and moments that would have been at home at the centre of any Duxford show over the years. However, it is undoubtedly a different type of show now. Perhaps with a couple more items geared towards the enthusiast audience, the organisers would have had more success in attracting those who frequent sites like UKAR. Having so many warbirds on the airfield unused during the show seems such a shame. The likes of the Aircraft Restoration Company's recently restored Lysander would have added real star quality to the show. On the other hand, the IWM's decision to seemingly try and appeal to a different audience is somewhat understandable, especially given the museum played host to the Daks Over Duxford events - which carried a large enthusiast appeal - just a week later. Perhaps relying on the same faces turning up two weeks in a row may have been commercially undesirable?
In terms of the variety this show strives for, it certainly offered a good range of displays. However, to maintain the high standing of Duxford airshows perhaps one or two more items of real quality - like the Schlepp and French assets from 2018 for example - could be needed to attract the enthusiast audience back to Duxford. Despite all the reservations, the show was enjoyable and did have something to offer with the close access to aircraft like the Breitling Jet Team, which is an undeniably great feature of Duxford airshows. Ultimately, the success and appeal of the show will depend on your individual preferences when it comes to airshows. In trying to appeal to all, without finding a true direction of its own, the show may continue to fall short. Whilst that conclusion falls into the trap of drawing comparison to the Spring Airshows of old, it probably remains Duxford's biggest challenge when re-branding the May Airshows. What ever they produce for these shows, and however good quality, they will always be battling against expectations of the past.