IWM Duxford Summer Air Show
Saturday 24th June - Sunday 25th June 2023
One of the most heavily criticised airshows of recent years has been Duxford's Summer Air Festival. Recently rebranded as the Summer Airshow, the 2023 edition potentially created something very exciting for the UK airshow scene. If it is used as a stepping stone, it could really become an airshow to look forward to on everyone's calendar.
reports from Sunday's show at IWM Duxford.
Since the disappearance of Flying Legends from IWM Duxford's summer calendar, and the move of their own May airshow to later in the summer, it is fair to say this airshow has consistently failed to deliver. Visitors paying a premium price for a less than premium event and an airshow that almost portrayed a "that will do" attitude from IWM. It demonstrated a lot of what was wrong with the current management at Duxford. Arguably, some of Duxford's previous Flying Days had higher quality flying displays than the Summer Air Festivals of years gone by. This was a show without direction, one which did not know what it wanted to be.
Fast forward to the 2023 Summer Airshow though and it was clear IWM were going in a different, better direction than in previous years. Seaside, family-focused display items kept to a minimum, and instead, multiple warbirds, including a rotary-wing element, vintage jets and modern RAF participation in the form of an A400M flypast on Saturday and the Red Arrows on Sunday were planned. An exhilarating mixture of aircraft focused on warbirds yet with almost something for everyone, that tried to encapsulate the charm of continental European airshows such as La Ferté-Alais.
Opening the flying display was a typical Duxford-esque display. A sight not to be seen elsewhere in Europe, with B-17G 'Sally B' taking to the air, escorted by P-47D 'Nellie B' piloted by Alex Smee before their own solo displays. Sunday saw a particularly high energy, powerful solo display from the Thunderbolt as the strong crosswind prevented the Flying Fortress from taking to the air. With Team Raven, the Fighter Collection's Navy Fighters and the photo reconnaissance slot - it was a sublime start and we were not even halfway through the afternoon's programme.
Special mention must go to Jon Corley at the controls of Lockheed 12A Electra Junior G-AFTL, flying an elegant routine in this twin-engine warbird making its UK flying display debut. Recently restored by the team at Sywell and performing a couple of flypasts with Spitfire PR Mk XI to demonstrate the development of aerial photo reconnaissance during the Second World War, it was an act that is likely to be remembered many years from now. Not only for the significance of seeing Sydney Cotton's Electra flying once again over English skies for the first time since the 1940s, but for the choreography of the display with the Spitfire. Exactly the type of act that justifies the premium prices of Duxford - and exactly the type of new warbird restoration and display that made this airshow achieve something more than the mediocrity of previous years. A special aircraft, at a special venue – the highlight of the weekend for sure.
The sight of the Electra coming in to display in close formation with the Spitfire was a special sight. But the cost of attending airshows at Duxford is no secret. With an adult ticket setting you back £47.50 and an additional £5 for a parking permit, it is one of the most expensive shows in the country - perhaps prohibitively so for many and for enthusiasts attending multiple shows in a season despite the 10% IWM members discount. Worryingly, IWM themselves appear to not really know how to price their own airshows, with a post-event survey emailed to visitors, asking them to pick a fair price on a sliding scale - or more worryingly hoping the public are willing to pay more? Likewise, the extortionate cost of food and drink, which isn't new for Duxford, but with reports of varying prices for the same products in different zones, it signifies very poor practice by IWM and a leaf needs to be taken out of RIAT's book to ensure fair, consistent pricing across the showground. And a water bowser would have gone a long way with the heat on Sunday. If not for the strong winds throughout the day, we would have seen many more people suffering the effects of the heat and dehydration due to overpriced small plastic water bottles for sale, rather than any economically friendly refillable source.
Similarly, on the aircraft front, as good as it was to see the Electra Junior's debut, listing Historic Aircraft Collection's DH.9 and Hawker Fury I on the website as flying, knowing the aircraft were deep in maintenance and not ready was again very poor practice from IWM and needs to be eliminated. Being hopeful an aircraft which is nearing ground runs or flight testing will be ready to display is one thing, but an aircraft sitting in its hangar missing a major component (e.g. an engine which arrived a week after the show!) is another. At best, this was a case of organiser and aircraft operator being optimistic of achieving their targets. At worst, it was misleading false advertising with a get out clause typical of any airshow: "aircraft appearance subject to serviceability and weather".
Back to the flying, and with the variety and quality of aircraft on show, it made the flying display so delightful - something that was probably unlikely to have been said about previous summer shows. The Great War Display Team, Lynx and Gazelle pairs display, multi-aircraft trainer slot, Second World War warbirds, Jet Pitts (with the jet engines now actually fitted), four-ship Stampe display team, a pairs display from the AeroSuperBatics Wingwalkers and a couple of Staggerwings to name but a few. Duxford really hit the jackpot with the blend of aircraft on display. Whether it was the sound of four Rolls-Royce Merlin engines in formation, the grumble of the Pratt & Whitney radials, the whine of the de Havilland Gnome on the Vampire or the humble clanking of the Centaurus on the Fury II as it taxied past - the afternoon's flying was not only a visual festival, but an orchestra of an award-winning soundtrack of some of the most historic airworthy aircraft. Though the pace of the display somewhat slowed down on Sunday due to a strong crosswind, meaning anticipated highlights like TFC's Gladiator after a six year absence and a trio of Hurricanes were prevented from taking part, the Hawker Fury II and P-51 Mustang 'Miss Helen' finale with Paul Bonhomme and John Dodd at the controls respectively, more than made up for that. With the weekend's proceedings finishing (on Sunday only) with the Red Arrows, the crowds in their masses left with a smile on their face.
The success of this year's Summer Airshow is simply a case of organisers showing respect to the Duxford name. A world premier historic airfield and aviation museum that deserves to hold premier airshows. Duxford is the heart of warbird operations and restoration - and this was an airshow that discovered its narrative; one that showcased home acts and British heritage aviation at its best. With just a touch of family fun and modern RAF assets to set it apart from the September show, if this hunger from the organisers continues, we could be onto a winner. Add international participants, either vintage or modern, and this could be Duxford at their best. An airshow this country needs when others look to be in decline – it's now down to IWM to continue that hunger and determination.