Shuttleworth Collection July Drive-In Airshow

Saturday 18th July 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic has had, and continues to have, profound losses for many, of far greater severity than the decimation of the 2020 airshow season. Despite the comparative insignificance of this, it was delightful to see the news that an airshow of some format would be going ahead this year, after months of nothing but cancellations. The Shuttleworth Collection itself has already lost five airshows to the pandemic this year, but as restrictions in England begin to ease, they elected to replace their July Evening Airshow with their first socially distanced drive-in airshow.

Scott Perry went to sample the new format and reports for UK Airshow Review.

Thus far, the 2020 UK airshow scene has comprised of a sequence of virtual events in place of real airshows, using archival and virtual footage in a noble attempt to fill the void left by the absence of many shows. Despite such efforts, the return of airshows in the flesh was greatly craved. If any UK airshow venue is to make a success of the drive-in airshow format, then it would likely to be Old Warden. The gentle slope down towards the runway and usual crowd line, the debonair ambience and the large array of aviation gems already based at the airfield all lending themselves to success. The organisation of the show and showground met and exceeded all expectations. Possibly the best thing that can be said about the show, was that it felt like a normal Shuttleworth show.

The airfield was split into three parking zones with the usual viewing area in front of the Collection hangars acting as Zones A and B, housing just over 500 cars as well as oversized vehicles, motorbikes and disabled parking and the field to the south of the site being used as Zone C, with a further capacity for nearly 400 cars as well as those camping. Each zone had its own catering unit and block of portaloos (surrounded by hand sanitiser stations), these seemingly in ample supply for the assembled audience with no queues witnessed through the day in the socially distanced marked queuing lanes on the grass. The car parking procedures worked seamlessly, with each car directed to park on the left of their allotted box, creating a natural barrier between each group as they sat to the right of their vehicle. Wide walkways were left between each row too in order to allow easy movement around the site, with no need to infringe into the space allotted to others. Superb and well thought-out organisation for a first-of-its-kind event, with every reasonable precaution being taken to make the airshow as safe as possible for attendees.

Those present were urged to stick to the areas in which their car was parked and to not explore the site, with the exception of going to use the aforementioned facilities. Pleasingly, this seemed to be adhered to tremendously by the vast majority in attendance, with a few isolated cases of photographers walking towards the crowd-line fence to capture images pre-show being dealt with efficiently and effectively by the Shuttleworth stewards on duty. Even with the cars being parked 10 rows deep, great views seemed to be had from all over the site (judging by the feedback and images posted on our forums), with the display pilots working to ensure that they entertained the full length of the crowd-line.

The honour of opening the decade’s first airshow was aptly given to John Romain, flying a superb routine in the Aircraft Restoration Company’s Supermarine Spitfire PR XI, running in towards the crowd, low over the trees on the far side of the runway before pulling up for the first time in the routine. The growl of the Merlin engine, the sight of the great icon dancing around the skies was an outstanding, emotional and thrilling sight. Airshows are back, and back in great style. So often enthusiasts, especially those wielding cameras, are rather fixated on the upper surfaces of the displaying aircraft; in this case it was the underside that deserved the most attention. The message ‘THANK U NHS’ has been painted onto the underneath of the Spitfire, which has undertaken multiple flypasts of different hospitals and as part of the ‘Clap for Carers’ national salute in tribute to the work of the NHS in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Spitfire has therefore adopted the guise of the ‘NHS Spitfire’ and its display was a fitting tribute to the work undertaken by those who have sought to combat the virus in the hiatus before airshows could resume.

The majority of displays came from the Shuttleworth Collection itself and some familiar guests, and were performed to exemplary standard. The trio of de Havilland DH60X Moth, Sopwith Triplane and Avro Tutor particularly stood out as performing with traditional Shuttleworth style and panache with close passes galore, whilst enjoying the best of the evening’s sun for their routines. The de Havilland DH88 Comet was also displayed in fine fashion as part of the racer segment and another great highlight of the evening, with the power of the aircraft being shown to great effect in its solo routine after separating from the Percival Mew Gull pair.

A further highlight of the evening was the quartet of the Piper Super Cub, de Havilland DH82a Tiger Moth, Miles Magister and de Havilland DHC Chipmunk performing a splendidly fun barnstorming routine. The sequence was akin to the Tiger Club’s Turbulent Team display with flour bombing, balloon bursting and limbo flying all taking place, although the mixture of types added great variation to the familiar display routine. The lack of any commentary via the PA system (instead available via FM radio) also made a noticeable difference to the displays, the barnstorming act possibly one that missed out from an excitable commentary over the speakers adding to the repertoire of the air display. For the most part though, it was a welcome liberation, allowing the sound of these magnificent aircraft to take centre stage without distraction, adding another quality and dimension to the evening – certainly during the likes of the warbird displays.

The new format was not received with universal praise from those who regularly frequent Old Warden on airshow days. The pricing put some off of attending with each entry for each car priced at £50 (£45 for SVAS members). For those travelling alone to the show this represents a great cost, and a barrier to attending and supporting the show. However, when the capacity is limited to 900 cars and each vehicle occupies the same 5x5m space, it is hard to see a commercial argument for the Shuttleworth Collection to make a concession for those attending alone. With regular evening shows at Old Warden due to cost £20 per person this year, the shows are decent value for those attending as a pair and excellent for those with more than two in the car. With the show selling out within seven days of going on sale this was an undoubted success for the collection in such extraordinary times. On balance, whilst some may feel slightly aggrieved and priced out, this is probably yet another case of Shuttleworth getting it spot on.

Whilst there may have been some fears about the unknown nature of this event, in reality they were not needed in the slightest. In more normal times, we would probably have spent much time after the show bemoaning the sun’s intermittent appearances at the show, not illuminating the displays of the likes of the NHS Spitfire as would been most desirable. But these are not normal times, and in the context that we live in the show was about as perfect as could have been expected. This was a great example of airshow innovation from the Shuttleworth team to put on an outstanding show in these most challenging times. Forward thinking, whilst looking after the past, this was Shuttleworth at its finest. There are further drive-in offerings to come from the Shuttleworth Collection with their Family Airshow and Flying Proms events in August. After the success of this first show they are tantalising prospects.