Shuttleworth Collection Military Air Show

Sunday 4th July 2021

A highlight of the Old Warden calendar; the "Military Airshow" was a sell-out event, even before participation was announced. Amongst some now-familiar concerns being aired as regards pricing and some dicey forecasts, a capacity crowd descended on the Bedfordshire venue hoping their faith would be vindicated.

Tom Jones reports on his first drive-in airshow. Photography by Nick Jennings and Jakub Zurek.

"Spiteful". That's how a family member of mine put it when discussing the weather forecast ahead of the show. Every website had that horridly ominous black cloud stencil looming over "chance of precipitation" percentages that seldom dipped below 50%. Once again, we found ourselves spinning the ever-familiar tombola of searching numerous different weather apps until we finally found one that was passably optimistic.

As it turned out, Shuttleworth lucked out throughout the day and rain showers avoided the aerodrome for the most part. Regrettably, the sun was hidden at precisely the moment the more unique or noteworthy participants were flying, but it was much better than many of us ever dared hope when we saw the forecasts.

More than once, some have considered Shuttleworth in 2020 and 2021 to have a slightly stale participation roster. This is unfair to an extent; it has almost always been the case that Old Warden has relied predominantly on its collection of incredible machines. Machines which, were they absent from our shores and visiting in the hands of a foreign organisation, would be a star item at any airshow, especially any vintage airshow. Perhaps familiarity breeds contempt. There's nothing wrong with that - it's human nature to be a little less excited by something once you've seen it a certain number of times, so there is clearly a balance to be had. Most years Shuttleworth manages this, the collection itself probably isn't enough to justify repeat attendances at the aerodrome (unless you're local/an SVAS member), but with just enough non-local exotica sprinkled amongst the fantastic home collection, the balance is often tipped.

And tipped the balance was, with a star visitor, if not a star participant outright, being Historic Helicopters' "Junglie" Sea King HC4. Out of the ashes of the classic jet scene in the UK, classic helicopters have risen to heights that even five years ago would have been difficult to comprehend. The curious thrill of not knowing which of their three(!) airworthy Sea Kings Historic Helicopters would send tells an incredible story of how far they've come in such a short space of time.

As with the debut display of the Wessex at the RNAS Yeovilton International Air Day in 2019, the actual display itself was, well, what you'd expect: a massive noisy lump of helicopter taking up a lot of airspace on the Shuttleworth estate, and gosh golly, that smell of kerosene. Like your mum's Sunday roast or fresh-mown grass, no amount of time away can erase those feelings that come flooding back when that Eau de Avtur hits your nostrils. Sometimes, you don't need a display to be more than that. Its presence enough was tremendous. It was so good to see a Sea King again. Credit to the Shuttleworth team for securing the debut of a much-loved classic.

Sadly, other rotary visitors were unable to brave the bubbling storm clouds around the country at the time. The Army Air Cops Historic Flight were stopped from bringing their Scout or Sioux, and likewise Terry Martin and his Wasp were unable to attend. The rotary contingent was kept afloat, however, by the typically excellent Gazelle Squadron, displaying their Whistlin' Turkey Legs painted in gorgeous and complementary RAF/RN training colours.

Two fixed-wing stalwarts were late additions from ARCo/The Aerial Collective - Spitfire PL983 in its "Thank U NHS" daube, and Buchon "Yellow 10" in its quite interesting new livery both opened the show in ARCo's usual blistering style. A more sedate but wonderfully rare highlight was a display by Kennet Aviation's L-19/O-1 Cessna Bird Dog, complete with USAF livery and dummy smoke rockets on the wings.

The truth was, however, that until those late additions there was a little feeling of "is that it?" when the participation list was announced. Notwithstanding the late pen-in of ARCo's warbirds, there was a lack of visiting powerful WWII aircraft with just a flypast of the BBMF's cloud-magnet (PZ865), Kennet Aviation's T-6, and Bygone Aviation's gorgeous Hurricane I. All of them are excellent aircraft and displays, but was there not more available from colleagues at Duxford? Likewise, anything from Sywell? Biggin? Or, perhaps, Peter Teichman's immaculate "Russian Spitfire"? Perhaps we expect too much, but if helicopters weren't your thing, then up until those late ARCo additions, any fixed wing warbird fans hoping for the Military Airshow to deliver a higher-than-average volume of visiting WWII aircraft might have been feeling a little put-out.

Insofar as the mechanics of the show itself, the "drive-in" format is by no means superior to the full-fat shows that we used to enjoy, but as a way to experiencing a splendid airshow rather than none at all, it is supreme. What isn't, and what draws the most grumbles, is the pricing. £10 for a car space, and then another £39 (at full price) per adult *inside* the car is quite an undertaking. For a single person that's basically £50 for a Shuttleworth airshow. By comparison, a full-price ticket for the classic 2019 Flying Festival (with numerous Dakotas on the ground as part of the D-Day commemorations) was £30. I know that prices increase each year, but that's quite a jump. That's also to say nothing of the fact that the show sold out with little warning for people, fairly, leaving it to as late as possible to get an idea of participation/weather before parting with their hard-earned.

It's hard to review pricing. There are those out there that see any criticism of an airshow as the equivalent of a personal dump in the organisers' cornflakes, but in truth it comes from a place of love and genuine constructive feedback. And that feedback is that the current pricing figure is a little too much. Sure, there's been a pandemic, but just as Shuttleworth may have had a reduced income due to the virus, so too may its spectators. Of course, the show was a sell-out, but a sell-out based on anticipation and, most likely a hunger for airshows that is not being sated by many alternatives. Will that pricing be justifiable in a post-COVID world where cheaper alternatives exist?

For my money (ahem), the additional parking charge is the rub. For an airshow where it is clearly expected that the overwhelming majority of customers will, indeed, "drive in", the paid privilege of parking a car seems a bit much. One hopes that once things return to normal, along with the crowd capacity that the venue is able to host in ordinary times (which presumably is another reason for the price increase) Shuttleworth will be able to resume more familiar pricing structures.

To be honest, it was another Shuttleworth. Another great event. Another beacon of light in a fog of misery that we all bear during this pandemic. For that alone, the organisers must again be saluted. To add some decent (if not extraordinary) warbird support, the debut display of Historic Helicopters' Sea King and the wonderful trainer segment from the home team, on balance have earned a tick in my (socially-distanced) box.