Shuttleworth Collection Vintage Airshow

Sunday 6th September 2020

Usually September would see the UK airshow season winding down towards its conclusion. In this unusual year it is when it will hopefully reach its peak; with Headcorn due to host a three-day event and a brace of shows from the Shuttleworth Collection. With the success of their drive-in format now widely known, Shuttleworth held one of the first European flying events in September, celebrating all things vintage linking to Richard Shuttleworth and the Trust, in the year that the 80th anniversary of Richard's death is commemorated.

Jakub Zurek reports from inside (and outside) his socially distanced 5x5m box. Photos from the author and Scott Perry.

Now with two shows under their belt in 2020, the first weekend of September saw the usual Vintage themed show take place at Old Warden. Upon arrival into your assigned box, visitors could catch a glimpse of the flightline, which undoubtedly looked impressive. This was made ever more so astonishing by the number of different types and varieties of aircraft which were on show in this COVID-19 impacted airshow season. With the servicing of vintage aircraft in some cases simply not economically worthwhile in the current climate, this show demonstrated how individuals and organisations are still willing to support airshows, with a de Havilland Dragonfly accompanying the Civilian Coupe from Biggin Hill-based Shipping and Airlines for static display for example. There was also a variety of visiting Chipmunks in attendance and other vintage aircraft such as the rarely seen Stampe formation display team, who were also appearing in the flying display later on.

Apart from the good weather, visitors to this airshow were also blessed with more freedom in and around the showground. The Collection's hangars were open for inspection once more, tours of the Shuttleworth House resumed, the Swiss Garden was accessible and for the first time this year, visitors were free to roam along the crowdline pre-show, or even pre-book a guided tour liveside of the fence. This was a change from the previous drive-in airshows and communicated in a briefing email from the team a couple of nights before the show. With visitors showing courtesy towards one another, there was no problem with viewing aircraft before the flying display started. And oh boy did it feel good to be able to stroll around the site, take the camera out and enjoy the sight of warbirds and vintage aircraft basking in the morning sunshine. One couldn’t help but have their mind wander to the next planned show at Old Warden and what the Collection had up their sleeves for the de Havilland Centenary show.

Shortly before the flying display got underway, the commentary team (via the tannoy system which still remains only in use for emergency announcements) and stewards were politely asking visitors to return to their boxes. With an event due to take place at Headcorn later in September it will certainly be an interesting comparison to see how social distancing will be managed there, as the drive-in car parking system is clearly an important factor in crowd control at Old Warden.

One point regarding the car parking which perhaps needs mentioning is how much thought goes into ensuring it is fair to everyone. On this occasion, the author was parked in Zone B near the treeline, a few rows behind the parked PBY Catalina. The trees severely obstructed the view of aircraft coming in from the treeline direction, but this wasn’t the main issue compared to what the author witnessed an hour and a half before the flying got underway. Visitors arriving some two hours later were being directed to park six rows in front, directly behind the parked Catalina and with an unobstructed view of the runway, in boxes which had remained empty since gates opened whilst the rest of Zone B was filled up. To ensure fairness and avoid disgruntled customers, the parking stewards really should be filling in these prime viewing spots on a first-come first-served basis, especially considering these spots were theoretically still part of Zone B rather than Zone C, and really ought to have been filled straight away. In many cases, visitors parked in these spots had left early, allowing others to stand there on foot for the Edwardian aircraft at the end of the display, but this doesn't negate the fact that people arriving later in the day were given better vantage points. This was the only complaint we have though, as the rest of the day was as close to an Old Warden classic as it gets.

The flying display from start to finish, as usual, was typical Shuttleworth. Low, close, swooping passes, showing off the aircraft to perfection. Starting with the impressive Catalina, the pilots used the compact venue to show off the manoeuvrability of the big aircraft and their skills in landing it on the grass runway, which has now become a regular occurrence at Old Warden. The Fauvel glider flying in formation with the Super Cub was also no doubt a first for everyone watching. It perhaps could’ve been all too easy to avoid paying attention to the regularly seen Lysander, but Dodge Bailey definitely seemed to be enjoying himself, showing off the slow speed characteristics of the aircraft at altitude before converting all of that height and energy into a fast and powerful routine with very steep wingovers.

One of the main highlights of the show though, were the rarely seen Stampe formation team. The quartet of SV-4 biplanes provided an entertaining routine, showcasing the manoeuvrability of the aircraft. Though their display felt a little long with formation passes and breaks followed by one Stampe finishing the routine with solo aerobatics, there were certainly no complaints from us, as it’s not often you see four Stampes at an airshow in the UK. The solo aerobatic routine with Chris Jesson at the controls was certainly one of the most enjoyable displays of the whole show, with the aircraft never seeming to run out of energy with constant looping and rolling manoeuvres.

Other noteworthy displays and aircraft on show included the Spartan Arrow, Miles aircraft formation and BBMF Spitfire Vb flypast. The show fittingly had two impressive finales, firstly, with the Collection’s Spitfire and the ex-resident Hurricane P3717 performing a joint routine in the setting sun. Not necessarily a display created for photographers, but the sound of two Merlin powered aircraft being shown up close and personal and each performing aerobatics in the setting sun (which appeared from behind the clouds at the perfect moment) was delightful.

Those willing to stay a little bit longer at the end of the show were rewarded with seeing the Edwardian aircraft fly for the first time in 2020. The Bristol Boxkite, Avro Triplane and Blackburn Type D Monoplane all got air under their wings, and with perfect weather conditions it was perhaps slightly unlucky not to witness one or two more of the Edwardians fly.

Unfortunately, this was the first of the drive-in airshows to fail to sell out. With a new ticket structure in place of £50 for the car space and first two occupants and £20 for each additional adult afterwards, the show does not represent as good value for some as the previous ones have done. Perhaps that in combination that we are now past the peak of summer may have accounted for the slightly lower attendance. However, given how quickly the previous events sold advance of the publication of the flying list for the At the Movies airshow, the collection can't be blamed for trying to maximise the potential revenue from the enforced lower crowd capacity.

It is hard to pick a fault in Shuttleworth’s latest drive-in affair. A combination of interesting visiting acts mixed with usual crowd favourites gave the flying display a familiar Shuttleworth feel, but perhaps the ability to wander around the site was the most welcome evolution to the format. Even if by just a little bit, that freedom to soak up some of the pre-show atmosphere gave everyone attending a chance to get back that feeling of what life was like before 2020. With three more airshows planned, it is fair to say that now more than ever, Old Warden is the beating heart of UK airshows, and the Shuttleworth Collection leads the pack in the current way of life.