IWM Duxford Battle of Britain Air Show

Saturday 18th September - Sunday 19th September 2021

The 2021 airshow season, understandably, has been a difficult one. As the country progressively came out of lockdown in early summer, organisers started finding their feet as our hobby returned to some sort of normality. With a larger crowd capacity than at the summer airshow although still not at its maximum, IWM Duxford once again opened their doors to thousands of spectators on the weekend closest to Battle of Britain day for the final large airshow of the season.

Jakub Zurek spent his Friday and Saturday at the M11 end of Duxford’s historic airfield. Photography by the author and Dan Butcher.

With the promise of a mass Spitfire formation, four Hurricanes Mk. I, a trio of Historic Helicopters from Chard, the Historic Army Flight, the Great War Display Team and a variety of other Duxford and Sywell-based warbirds, it was perhaps the best aircraft lineup that Duxford could have offered in this unprecedented airshow season. The fog on Saturday morning which loitered around the airfield for a short while made for a very dramatic and atmospheric stroll past the hangars, towards the flightline walk which looked impressive, as ever, and is now included in the ticket price. Admission prices have been criticised due to a small increase and they are certainly on the expensive side of the spectrum. However, for an airshow such as this in a difficult year for our hobby it was a price many were willing to pay.

Nonetheless, it still very much felt like a kick in the teeth to see various aircraft such as Duxford-based Comanche Fighters’ pair of Spitfire Mk. Is, ARCo’s Lysander, Spitfires MH434, MH415 and RW382 (in US markings) depart the Cambridgeshire airfield for Goodwood prior to the airshow weekend. These aircraft would undoubtedly have bolstered the already decent lineup into something really special. More importantly, questions have to be asked whether the increasing prestige of the Freddie March Spirit of Aviation trophy at the Goodwood Revival signals the beginning of Goodwood attracting the exciting new additions to the airshow circuit away from events such as Duxford? Though Duxford still boasted a typically lengthy sight of Piston-engined fighters, as a warbird-centred and Spitfire-oriented show, it should have been a real treat to see some of the aircraft that were at Goodwood instead. Plenty of scope remains for these aircraft to be seen at future events at Duxford but for a premium ticket price, one should absolutely expect to see everything that lives in the hangars at Duxford, new additions to the airshow circuit and more at one of the season’s largest airshows.

Alas, the lack of some of these warbirds did not detract from the show overall which still had a fair share of unique displays and a variety of Spitfires on show. The opening flying act; demonstrating the development of the Supermarine Spitfire with a formation of Mk. I, Mk. IX and Mk. XIV was a really unique sight and, surprisingly, to our knowledge hasn’t been seen before. Teichman’s Lend-Lease Soviet Spitfire in a solo slot, Maxi Gainza’s unique Mk. VIII flying in the finale and John Romain performing a Joker slot in Mk. Vc JG981 were just a few of the warbird highlights and gave the crowds plenty of opportunities to see and hear R. J. Mitchell’s design in the air in its variety of marks and schemes.

The Spitfire-heavy lineup certainly gave the crowds what they wanted, and Duxford got many things right over the weekend. But one which they got very wrong was the funfair area behind the crowdline at the M11 end of the airfield. Constantly blaring out 21st century pop music throughout the day was more than disappointing - it was disrespectful. Disrespectful to the gracious old aeroplanes, their histories, and modern-day operators. It was absolutely wrong when during the mass Spitfire and Hurricane flypast Winston Churchill’s speech was drowned out by the noise of the summer’s greatest hits and took away from any sort of serene atmosphere as the crowds watched in awe. Though placed at the extreme end of the airfield near ARCO’s hangar, it was out of sight and out of mind for the majority of the crowd, but plenty of enthusiasts who chose the M11 end of the airfield as their vantage point were affected.

In troubling times for events across the country, there is nothing wrong with providing non-aviation-based activities for families, and if it helps to sell tickets, entertain the public and keep airshows such as this going strong for years to come then so be it. However, surely there should have been more thought put into its placement, or simply asking the operators to turn off the music when Duxford’s PA system is already active throughout the day would have sufficed.

Nevertheless, excluding its well-known shortcomings, expensive admission tickets and food, this Battle of Britain show could certainly be considered a classic. It’s not every day you see four Hurricane Mk. Is display together and give a series of various flypasts to a backdrop of fluffy white clouds and feel brought back to 1940, or witness Pete Kynsey put the Fighter Collection’s Bearcat through his usually incredible routine. Amongst the other highlights of the day, were the amazing trio of Historic Helicopters consisting of Whirlwind, Wessex and Sea King who as always were a great sight and sound. Though perhaps not as impactful as at other venues, this would have all been due to perspective and one’s chosen vantage point on Duxford’s crowdline. Typically, no Duxford airshow would be complete without some sort of American contingent, this time the set-piece being Europe’s only airworthy Thunderbolt performing a mock dogfight with two-seat Buchon ‘Red 11’ whilst a pair of Mustangs and Buchons flew past the crowdline in various mock dogfight and tailchase scenarios. At the time of writing, this show was also to be the final public outing for Duxford’s TFC’s fleet as well as the Catalina and B-17.

Any criticism regarding prices, parking, position of the sun for photography and so on have been widely spoken about for many years. Duxford are open and honest about these - anyone willing to part with their cash for this warbird focussed show knows exactly what they are getting themselves into. A show with over four hours of flying consisting of plenty of warbirds, historic aircraft, unique formations and energetic solo routines is well worth attending - and long may this type of show continue. Duxford’s 2021 Battle of Britain airshow should definitely be considered a success and the organisers with this appealing theme do surely justify the premium prices. One other thing is for sure - it has more than whet the appetite for a full, healthy 2022 airshow season. Here is hoping next year will see more of the same at Duxford, with the addition of some of the aforementioned warbirds, new restorations and additions to the circuit to bolster the lineup.