IWM Duxford Battle of Britain Airshow

Saturday 10th September - Sunday 11th September 2022

There was a sombre mood across the country following the passing of HM Queen Elizabeth II. The Imperial War Museum made the decision to proceed with the Battle of Britain Airshow, as an opportunity to pay tribute to the late monarch as well as the fallen of the Battle. What followed was a fitting occasion for a large crowd to pay their respects, and to enjoy a fine airshow.

Nigel Watson reports from a sombre Duxford. Photography by the UKAR Staff Team.

There was some uncertainty amidst the sadness in the immediate aftermath of the Queen's passing, as to what was best and what was appropriate in the circumstances for public events. In the airshow world the stand-down of HM forces for official mourning, including all Royal Air Force display teams, rather forced the hand of some organisers. With very little scheduled input from the RAF to the Battle of Britain Airshow, the Imperial War Museum weren't so constrained, and made the decision to proceed; a decision that seemed to reflect the public mood and afford people the opportunity to come together to pay their respects in a befitting way.

For some, Duxford is hallowed ground. It is a special place where everything is just as it should be. Undoubtedly it is unique in this country, and globally significant. Yet despite being a regular visitor for many years, this reviewer has never quite fallen in love with Duxford as an airshow venue. Maybe because a visit is never quite without compromise. Decisions have to be taken which affect the outcome of the day and possibly make the day out an enjoyable one, or not. During the morning drive to the show, when thoughts should really be dominated by the airshow in prospect, it is car parking, and which end to head for, that is on my mind. The first of the choices, and compromises, that one must accept as part and parcel of a Duxford airshow. A £50 ticket, which includes a £5 car parking fee, has to be committed long in advance, partly because of potential sell outs but predominately because those car park tickets are very limited in supply. Yet parking that was familiar and convenient between Land Warfare Hall and American Air Museum is no longer available, forcing an entry on foot from either behind the Land Warfare Hall or across a bridge from the north side of the airfield. Disabled guests seem to have gained no advantage from their relocation from hardstanding, and the old car parking lawns inside the showground look big and empty.

Once inside, another decision; where on the crowdline to head for? Despite the showground's compact layout, there isn't a central vantage point that affords a perfect panoramic overview. The visitor must make choices. M11 end, or maybe 'tank bank' for topsides and close passes? It gets crowded out there, and display centre is at its furthest point from the crowd line. Pick a more central spot and views are obscured by parked aircraft and flyers are distant, but the close-up views of taxying aircraft can be great. A trade-off must be made, and far more so than at most airshow venues.

However, once inside, choices made and chair settled into a familiar spot, anxiety seems to abate. Inevitably, looking out onto some fabulous machinery parked on the flightline and browsing the very high-quality souvenir programme, a far more familiar and positive set of emotions start to build. This is the compensation for the awkwardness of the venue. The flightline walk is now open to all at no extra cost and is enjoyed by many more visitors than used to be the case when it was a paid extra. Its an opportunity to see the flying display aircraft close up as they are being tended to. Re-enactors add to the atmosphere, and some aircraft are turned to face away from the crowd which is nice for photographers. It is different to the norm, and seldom seen.

There was obviously a very good airshow in prospect, and one to look forward to. A few minutes before the scheduled start of the flying display, John Romain took off to hold in 'NHS Spitfire' PRXI. Two minutes silence fell across Duxford, impeccably observed with not a sound other than the distant rumble of a Merlin engine. Touching, appropriate and heart felt from all on the airfield, an ovation broke the silence as Romain ran in to display the Spitfire to perfection. It was a truly apt way to pay tribute, and to begin the Battle of Britain Airshow, carrying even more poignancy than it usually does.

The programme was, naturally, dominated by historic aircraft, with very interesting formations or combination displays running through the spine of the programme. This elevates the show from what would be a sequence of rather distant solo displays into something which fills more of the sky, brings more spectacle and is without doubt rather special. A pair of Buchons, using their smoke systems so often called upon to simulate being shot down simply to enhance their aerobatic display. The Bristol Mercury engine was celebrated by the Aircraft Restoration Company's Blenheim and Lysander, joined by the Shuttleworth Collection's Lysander and Gladiator in a tremendous four-ship display. The immediate pre-war era was commemorated in by a '1938 formation' of Spitfire Mk I, Hurricane Mk I, Wildcat and Hawk 75. It was a shame that a planned US Formation lost two P-51Ds, including the rarely displayed The Hun Hunter/Texas of Commanche Fighters, but it did leave a dynamic pairing of Bearcat and Corsair to scream around the sky, which was by now looking more dramatic by the minute, and had become quite a backdrop for an airshow.

Similarly, Tony Richards' Beech 18 was lost from a Beech trio, but a duo of Staggerwings displayed by Pete Kuypers and Nigel Willson were more than capable of entertaining the crowd, seeming to weave around the arc of a rainbow over the airfield. The Tiger 9 Aeronautical Display Team of Tiger Moths never fails to entertain, and as noted by their commentator are the only 9-ship formation display team on the display circuit this summer. There were solo displays; a welcome Duxford appearance by Peter Teichman in his P-51D Tall in the Saddle and B-17 Sally B is a jewel in the crown of airworthy Duxford residents, while The American Spitfire and the splendid Vampire FB.6 of the Norwegian Air Force Historical Squadron both fitted well into the programme. The Vampire was especially welcome, as the only jet in the show.

With the theme of the Battle of Britain historic aircraft are only to be expected of course, but it is especially welcome when air forces themselves wish to take part, commemorating their own part in history. It was surprising, but very welcome, when it was announced that the Czech Air Force would be taking part in the event. Marking the contribution of the Czechoslovakian pilots of 310 Squadron RAF Duxford during the Battle of Britain the Czechs brought two classic military machines to the flying display. A pair of Mil helicopters, a Mi-17 Hip and Mi-35 Hind, performed a pairs routine, the Hind flying again later in the afternoon in a solo slot. The sheer presence they exuded; the classic cold war hardware, the iconic yet menacing shape, the unmistakable noise, was a treat for the senses and a real thrill to behold. Their display was enhanced by parking close to the crowdline, launch and recovery giving the audience a close look, at least for those lucky enough to be in that area of the showground. With retirement imminent for the Hind, its appearance was doubly welcome, as it will be the last on these shores. For that, and for the great displays over the last 30 years, the enthusiast community is very grateful indeed.

Duxford's Battle of Britain Airshow is perhaps best known for one tradition; it's the 'one with the Spitfires'. This year was no different, the variation on the theme to commemorate Douglas Bader's iconic and somewhat controversial Big Wing. Four Hurricanes launched followed by 16 Spitfires, notable as being all Merlin engined and full winged, a truly awesome sight and sound to witness. While the balbo was forming into a 20-ship, John Romain displayed Spitfire Mk XIV RN201 in a joker slot. It looked stunning. Sunlit silver in front of dark rainclouds brought out the best in a beautiful machine. A further pass followed, then the mass recovery which is an event in itself, a seemingly endless stream of Spitfires and Hurricanes returning to park, pilots waving to a hugely appreciative audience. Quite a finale to any flying display.

As happens with most Duxford shows I leave having enjoyed an airshow very much indeed. Grumbles remain of course. Outside catering and toilets are no better than adequate, and a faulty PA speaker brought Norman Collier to mind throughout the afternoon, which is hardly fair on the superb commentary by Ben Dunnell and Colin Wilsher. It has been almost 40 years since my first visit to Duxford. Their airshows - whether the much-missed Flying Legends or the much-maligned Summer Airshow - are full of compromises and full of contradictions and occasionally, annoyance. The thing is, that despite these recurring frustrations, Duxford draws me back from time to time. Maybe its quirks are what make Duxford special for those who do fall in love with the place. It is undeniably unique, and every now and then, magic. Without a doubt, this particular airshow was one of those occasions. It will live long in the memory, and I'm very glad I went.