Flying Legends Airshow

Saturday 15th July - Sunday 16th July 2023

After a four year break, the Flying Legends airshow is back. A new venue, some 150 miles north from its spiritual home at Duxford, and a chance for The Fighter Collection to continue making its mark on warbird airshow history. The challenges have been overcome and the long wait has finally come to an end.

Jakub Zurek reports from Saturday's show at former RAF Church Fenton. Scott Perry provides photos from the fuller Sunday show.

Little did we know that the last time we reviewed Flying Legends in 2019, it was poised to be the last ever Flying Legends airshow to be held at Duxford. It was an end of a chapter for The Fighter Collection's event at Duxford, and sadly went out without a bang with a pretty unremarkable 2019 show. After a COVID and airshow-politics induced four year hiatus, including a cancelled event at Sywell, 15-16th July was finally set as the date for the return of one of the world's premier warbird events. This time, at a surprising new venue in North Yorkshire, Leeds East Airport.

For aviation enthusiasts in the north of the country, who have been hard done by with a lack of any major airshows in recent years, the move of Legends to former RAF Church Fenton came as good news. For others - not so much. Many were sceptical, and perhaps rightly so, as despite the show coming back after a four year absence and at a completely new venue, it once again fell on the same weekend as RIAT! This no doubt would have been a hard decision for TFC with organisational, financial and practical considerations. But, the forced move away from Duxford should have served as a positive - moving away from IWM's constraints and settling on a different weekend to RIAT. Both airshows deserve the unique excitement and anticipation in the weeks leading up to them. It does not matter whether you are a fast jet fan or a vintage aviation aficionado, both events are absolute stalwarts of the UK airshow calendar, and hopefully next year and thereafter will see these date clashes rectified for good.

The build up to the very first 'Legends North' was also a little slow. The self-made promise of seeing '50+ WWII fighters' never materialised and fell short - with under 50 aircraft booked to appear in total, and only 36 aircraft that could be considered 'fighter' designs listed on the website after the final update. Pushing ticket sales on social media was of course of utmost importance especially for a first event at a new venue, but ending each post with unrealistic figures looked poor - and it did not need to, as the flightline at Church Fenton looked impressive on arrival despite not achieving the promised numbers and several serviceability and weather cancellations. An interesting selection of types were booked though and the organisers should be pleased with the gathering of warbirds they achieved for their first event at a new venue.

Except the typical Duxford and Sywell based fleets, the visiting European contingent included the Flying Bulls B-25 Mitchell and P-38 Lightning (F4U Corsair failing to appear); W Air Collection's Spitfire FR XIV RM927; Salis Flying Museum's F4U Corsair and the Classic Formation (who unfortunately failed to attend as well). Arguably, a more exciting foreign-based warbird contingent than that of the 2019 show. It also bodes well for the future. Visiting warbirds from abroad are what makes Flying Legends so unique and keeps it fresh for enthusiasts up and down the country, and hopefully the organisers can build on this year's relative success. It was clear the aircraft on show were popular with the crowds, with the flightline walk, included in the ticket price like at Duxford, proving very busy. Saturday morning's aircraft arrivals meant the walk opened a little later than planned, yet the masses swiftly gathered in front of the parked aircraft despite the incoming thunderstorms. Though the positioning of the aircraft so intimately close to each other and to the public meant photography was more difficult than at Duxford, with a backdrop that was far from ideal with some clutter, the curved taxiway and grass on which the aircraft were positioned made for a fantastic sight nonetheless with a lovely panoramic view.

Despite the solid aircraft lineup, it is fair to say though the rest of the showground itself was a little underwhelming. The lack of Duxford's museum hangars and Classic Wings with their pleasure flights were sorely missed, and the limited number of traders meant there was not much to do prior to the start of the flying display. Some felt the Flying Legends atmosphere was missing, but it is something which can easily be worked on and improved next year to reignite that special feeling. The only part which will not - Duxford's museum - should surely be inconsequential to airshow regulars who would have visited Duxford many times before.

One aspect of the showground that was definitely frustrating however, was the north and south divide. Separated by a large roped off area, with the control tower, supercar dealership and Sky Lounge enclosure it took up a large chunk of space in the centre of the showground. Nothing new compared to Legends at Duxford which often had multiple large marquees, but something that may need a little bit of tweaking next year. Leeds East Airport is a much smaller airfield with less public space, yet moving from one end to the other via the designated route really took longer than it ought to. Whether that was for food, drink, seeing friends, trade stands, different photographic angles or to see the visiting DC-3 parked near the hangars on Saturday. The compact nature of the airfield should be fully embraced and balanced against the need to have such a large corporate area completely out of bounds to the general public.

One aspect of the new venue that was definitely embraced however, was in the air. Most displays flying lovely topside passes using the curved display line to good effect, making the viewer feel like part of the spectacle. A real unique opportunity for an airshow the size of Legends to offer photographers those sought after topsides. Amongst the typically impressive mass Spitfire opening sequence, and typical rarities such as the foursome of Curtiss fighters, display of the day on Saturday has to go to the Flying Bulls. Always an impressive sight at any airshow with their chrome warbirds, at Church Fenton they really came into their own. A couple of flypasts as a pair before a solo routine from each aircraft, it was probably one the best P-38 Lightning displays you will see anywhere in the world. A display that had so much sheer presence with multiple topside passes and vertical figures thrown into the mix, white smoke providing a stark contrast against the ever changing conditions on Saturday.

Despite the various (understandable) weather cancellations, what could fly on Saturday did, ensuring the afternoon's programme was well worth the wait despite the passing rain. No one knew what to expect, and those that gambled on this airshow were rewarded. Sunday fared much better with the weather, seeing almost a full flying programme. Surprisingly, the Horsemen remained grounded during the weekend, except for a private display on Sunday evening once the showground officially closed, leaving a somewhat sour taste for anyone hoping to see P-51B 'Berlin Express' perform a first full flying display at a UK airshow since its canopy mishap in 2017 curtailed its debut.

Special mention must also go to the crew of the Fairey Swordfish on the Saturday. Displaying in some particularly gusty conditions, before departing back to its operating base for the weekend at Sherburn where this particular 'Stringbag' was built, it was a sight to behold. As Saturday's proceedings came to a close with the Bird Dog pair, the Swordfish could be seen in the distance, heading straight into the very sinister looking storm, a small insight into what these Fleet Air Arm missions would have looked like during the Second World War. And that, exactly, is the tribute that Flying Legends pays to that special generation, keeping their memory alive for visitors of all ages and interests, inspiring and remembering.

All in all, the rebirth of Flying Legends after a lengthy absence and at a new venue was never going to be perfect. However, it was fantastic to be back at an airshow that could have so easily been lost to the memory like so many others. TFC should be commended for putting this event back on the UK airshow calendar, and choosing Leeds East Airport which has the potential to provide all the ingredients for this show to be a success for years to come. With the mix of TFC and their experience, and a new curved display line, there is a lot to look forward to as the show builds and improves on its first 'Legends North' edition. It really is our gain and IWM's loss.