Shuttleworth Collection 'Best of British' Air Show

Sunday 12th May 2024

The Shuttleworth Collection's 'Best of British' show - the traditional curtain-raiser to the UK airshow season - took place on Sunday 12th May in near-perfect weather conditions, with a host of lovely old favourites and a few newbies and rarities to boot.

Gordon Duncan headed for his first ever visit to Old Warden to report back for UKAR, with photography by the staff team.

The names Shuttleworth / Old Warden are so synonymous with UK airshows as to require almost no introduction. For my own part, suffice to say that I was starting to become almost embarrassed at having never been so, resolved to do something about it, alighted on the 'Best of British' show as a perfect opportunity to pop the Shuttleworth cherry. And for once - and despite an appalling track record of getting thoroughly soaked at airshows the length and breadth of Europe - I really couldn't have picked a better day. Visitors to this sleepy corner of rural Bedfordshire basked in warm, sunny conditions, allowing for an almost uninterrupted flying programme, though an annoyingly persistent cross-wind sadly prevented Edwardian classics such as the Deperdussin and Bleriot XI from bringing the show to its traditional finale.

The adjective which overwhelmingly springs to mind for the first-time visitor to Shuttleworth is 'charming'. The very air seems to hum with aviation history, and the showground is as laid-back as you will find anywhere - even at an event like this which was, by all accounts, rather better attended than usual (no doubt at least partly thanks to the weather). Lens-toting hardened enthusiasts happily share the crowdline with picnicking families, with nary a corporate chalet in sight and plenty of space for all to stretch out and take in the action both in the air and on the ground… a RIAT Saturday this is not. Such pleasingly relaxed ambience extended to the lovely procession of classic cars which kicked off proceedings, the smell from the engines alone triggering Proustian flashbacks to half-forgotten NCP car parks for anyone old enough to remember the days before unleaded petrol.

As to the airshow itself, the flying lasted around four hours and featured a fine mix of Old Warden 'natives' alongside vintage aircraft pulled in from operators elsewhere. The only pre-show sour note was the news that de Havilland Vampire T.11 WZ507 was unable to participate, though to ensure that we were not completely devoid of classic fast jet action, the organisers arranged for the Newcastle Jet Provost Group's T.3A to step in at relatively short notice. By combining the 'JP' with the Collection's own P.56 Provost, which provided a few solo passes immediately prior to the Jet Provost's arrival, the organisers provided a mini-tribute to the Percival stable, thus neatly turning the loss of the Vampire into a positive.

It was another Percival product, the diminutive Mew Gull, which provided perhaps the highlight of the afternoon, in a routine which paid tribute to legendary British aviator Alex Henshaw. A friend of Richard Shuttleworth himself, and a multiple air-race winner in the 1930s, Henshaw is now most remembered for the extraordinary record-breaking solo journey which he undertook in Mew Gull G-AEXF from Gravesend to Cape Town and back, in February 1939, flying the entire 12,754 mile round-trip in just under 4.5 days. During the War he was appointed Chief Test Pilot for Spitfires at the Castle Bromwich factory, flying an estimated 10% of all Spitfires produced at the famous facility. By way of a tribute, therefore, the penultimate segment of this show featured G-AEXF flying in formation with the Shuttleworth Collection's own Spitfire Mk V AR501, and what a bizarre and beautiful sight the two aircraft in tandem produced, the Spitfire - itself of course hardly a giant - completely dwarfing the Mew Gull and poignantly reinforcing just how hazardous an undertaking Henshaw's Cape Town escapade must have been, in such a tiny aircraft.

You can often tell how successful (or otherwise) a show will be from the way it starts. A few early missteps – whether weather-related, cancellations of key participants or even just mundane organisational foul-ups – and the growing sense of disappointment can be awfully hard to shift. Not so this event, which fairly roared out of the blocks with several fast passes by another VIP visitor, in the shape of the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight's Hurricane LF363 – believed to be the last Hurricane which entered RAF service – before moving on to the first of the commemorative set-pieces, which paid tribute to the de Havilland manufacturer. Again, it did not exactly take long to realise that Old Warden excels at these; of course, for this particular theme, it does help when your own collection boasts such beauties as a DH.60 Moth, DH.51 'Miss Kenya' and, most impressively of all, the visiting DH.80 Puss Moth G-AEOA, undertaking its first public display since 1995. These were joined by the wonderful DH.88 Comet G-ACSS, perhaps the aircraft which epitomises the spirit of the Shuttleworth Collection more than any other, and a DHC-1 Chipmunk which flew a sprightly aerobatic sequence, resplendent in bright yellow Royal Canadian Air Force markings.

Such tributes to manufacturers are relatively common at airshows – indeed this event saw further tributes to both Miles and Sopwith, celebrated with aircraft as diverse as Magisters and a Pup respectively – however it is far less common for a show to feature a tribute to aircraft with engines from a particular manufacturer - specifically in this instance Bristol. This allowed for a splendid sequence featuring two of the star visitors, in the shape of the Aircraft Restoration Company's Blenheim Mk. IF L6739, alongside the ever-popular Fairey Swordfish I operated by the Navy Wings collection, with Shuttleworth's own Lysander and Gloster Gladiator completing the line-up. Indeed the latter two joined the Blenheim for a superb three-ship flypast, giving us three Bristol Mercury-engined aircraft in the air at the same time. If you attend enough airshows, over time it is easy to become jaded, to feel that in some sense you have seen it all, but moments like this serve as a timely reminder that just a little imagination can often go a long way. Both the Blenheim and Swordfish are relatively common airshow participants after all, but finding a common theme to link them and then programme them in the same sequence is precisely the sort of clever use of airframes which elevates an air display above the merely competent, and into something which lingers in the memory after the event.

That said, sometimes you don't need particularly imaginative programming; some aircraft just speak (or growl) for themselves. Enter the Fury; the Historic Aircraft Collection's Hawker Fury Mk.1 K5674, which has been flying out of Duxford since its restoration in 2012 but, almost incredibly, was making its Shuttleworth debut at this very event, and had thus become the focal point for much pre-show excitement. Sporting the 43 squadron markings which it wore when entering active service with the RAF at Tangmere in 1936, the Fury looked simply magnificent, the chrome finish glinting most attractively in the afternoon sunshine as the powerful biplane tore up and down the display line. Parts of its display were a little high and distant, perhaps, but the crowd were still captivated. It is to be hoped that this is the first of many such visits to the Bedfordshire aerodrome; it's not hard to imagine the sort of sequence which could be put together featuring the Fury in conjunction with aircraft of similar vintage, or perhaps even other Hawker types…

Speaking of Hawker, for a show which kicked-off with a Hurricane, it felt fitting that proceedings were brought to a close by its even more illustrious World War Two counterpart, courtesy of Fighter Aviation Engineering's glorious Spitfire FR.XIV, MV293. This particular 'Spit' (G-SPIT, indeed, on the civil register) now wears historically accurate Royal Indian Air Force markings, as a nod to the active service seen by this airframe in what is now Pakistan. This display embodied all that was great about this show: a beautiful historic aircraft, in an authentic scheme, against a stunning backdrop, flying seemingly endless topsides in near-perfect weather conditions. A man could get addicted to this…

So how to assess a first visit to Old Warden? Well, 'charming', indeed – although with the venue's fame very much preceding it, and approximately a billion photos online from various events down the years, that much could probably have been anticipated. But being there is rather different to experiencing it all vicariously through the words and images of others. The most obvious European comparison – and plenty of readers will have experienced both – is the annual 'Le Temps des Hélices' event which takes place at La Ferté-Alais airfield on the outskirts of Paris. But – call it native bias, call it beginner's luck thanks to the sunshine – Shuttleworth perhaps has the edge, not least as a venue. The French event undoubtedly possesses a charm all of its own, but can still suffer from the perennial airshow curse of overcrowding, whereas everything at Old Warden just felt slower, more peaceful, more relaxed – a throwback, perhaps, to a time when airshows were more plentiful and there was not the same mad rush which now seems to be a feature of every major event on the calendar as we chase our aviation highs from fewer and fewer shows every year. There is a lot to be said for arriving mid-morning, going for a wander around various trade stalls and restoration hangars, then returning to your seat to enjoy a splendid afternoon's flying, and all without worrying about missing out because you have not bagged a spot right at the front. With a full programme of events planned throughout the season, it would be fascinating to return to Old Warden to see how one of their other events compares with this season-opener. The plans for the Festival of Flight event scheduled for late June, for example, suggest an event on a much grander scale, spread over three days and featuring an evening display on the Friday. It would be interesting to see if the venue retains its appeal in the face of hosting a larger event... one suspects it probably will.

So, and having (finally!) been, would I return? Oh yes, absolutely - that's me thoroughly hooked. Now, did I mention that I've also never been to Cosford…