Shuttleworth Collection Military Air Show

Sunday 2nd June 2024

The Shuttleworth Collection's airshows have undergone a much-discussed facelift for their 60th anniversary airshow season. With some describing the changes as controversial, the ball was in Shuttleworth's court for one of their most popular events of the year - the military airshow. Shuttleworth were however facing stiff competition with other major airshows held across the country on the same weekend.

Jakub Zurek reports from the esteemed Bedfordshire venue. Photography by the author and Sam Wise.

In their 60th anniversary airshow season, the Shuttleworth Collection have given their airshow calendar a new look for the 2024 season. The season premiere airshow in May, which was unaffected (except for a minor date change to the second weekend of May) was a classic Shuttleworth airshow with some fine, hand-picked visiting participants that really packed a punch alongside the Collection's aircraft. The popular military airshow, usually held on the first weekend of July but now moved to the first weekend of June, was up next. Clashing with the Midlands Air Festival, IWM Duxford's Summer Air Show and the English Riviera Airshow all held on the same weekend, it led to certain difficulties - more on which later. In addition to the change of date, the other talking point was perhaps the more difficult one to understand, with a few Shuttleworth airshows throughout the year now featuring a non-flying event day on the Saturday prior to the usual Sunday airshow.

Opinions on this additional non-flying event day have been mixed. Some felt there was miscommunication as to what this additional event day entailed, even going as far as booking tickets and assuming they were attending an airshow. Others complained at the lack of trade stalls, likely in part due to other events up and down the country. Time will tell if this additional Saturday event day was appealing enough to draw in any considerable income and whether it is something that will continue next season. For airshow regulars, it is clearly not something many would consider attending, unless there is a flying element that is worth making the journey for. It is also worth noting that the much-missed evening airshows, which have mostly been removed from the annual schedule, may have been well suited to the Saturday evening of the military airshow weekend to encourage more punters to make the Sunday airshow into a weekend trip and bring in additional revenue. The infrastructure for Sunday's airshow was already there so it really seemed like a perfect opportunity to slot in an evening display.

After a strong start in the buildup to the military airshow this year with announcements of the Albatross D.Va, P-47 Thunderbolt and newly imported and repainted P-51 Mustang 'Jersey Jerk', the excitement for the show somewhat fizzled out. Whilst nearby Duxford and Midlands Air Festival were making changes and additions to their flying list replacing lost acts and refining their flying programme, it seemed like Shuttleworth's attention was already focused on their three-day Festival of Flight event four weeks later at the end of June. With some exciting participation announcements including visiting aircraft from abroad, the Festival of Flight will undoubtedly be Shuttleworth's biggest airshow of the season and a huge anniversary celebration. However, it felt like the military airshow suffered as a result. Nonetheless, with blue skies and fluffy white clouds, the conditions on Sunday were perfect for an afternoon of flying despite the aforementioned drawbacks.

Opening the display on Sunday was a crowd favourite, the DH.88 Comet, arriving back from Duxford straight into a display before landing back at base. The P-47 Thunderbolt, also flying in from Duxford, was an impressive routine demonstrating the brutishness of the Jug to perfection, though sadly flew straight back to take part in Duxford's show. The opportunity to see visiting aircraft up close and personal at Old Warden is always a great spectacle so it was disappointing that with other commitments the P-47, and likewise its stablemate the P-51 'Jersey Jerk', another highly anticipated display and flying later in the programme, both operated out of Duxford for the show. Understandably this was out of the organiser's hands but is clearly an obvious challenge when your airshow clashes with one in the neighbouring county.

The other visiting displays, including the Gazelle squadron quartet, Auster pair, Fokker DR.1 and the ultra-rare TG-3 glider were terrific, and all operated out of Old Warden for the show. With only a handful of visiting aircraft, the rest of the afternoon's flying display somewhat went into autopilot and left some enthusiasts feeling a little flat. Adding to the misery was the unserviceability of the Albatross which would certainly have been a highlight displaying later in the day with perfect lighting for photography. It must also be said that with Spitfire Mk. IX TE517 sold and hence unable to fulfil its display commitment and the grounding of the BBMF following the tragic loss of Squadron Leader Mark Long, the planned visiting acts quickly dwindled and were never replaced. Seeing the Flying Bulls Douglas DC-6 and B-25 Mitchell transit back to Duxford in the distance compounded to the problem - this was a show that clearly would have benefited from one or two more high calibre visitors to make it into a classic. One would certainly hope Shuttleworth had the ambition to make enquiries regarding the other aircraft displaying across the UK throughout this busy weekend.

Another critique of this show was that at times, it felt like it went backwards compared to the May airshow earlier this year. With only a very brief run through of the displays prior to the start of the flying, the lack of the usual blackboard next to the control tower with a flying schedule and with runway 02 in use, it was difficult to know was going on. The commentary team - to put it politely - often sounded like uninformed guesswork, appearing surprised at what was taking off next. At one time, even suggesting the Provost used an alternative runway to land due to a possible engine issue as the pilot throttled down - rather than a change in wind direction. It was not a good look for a venue that is considered the gold standard in the UK and across the world.

In spite of everything, as the day's proceedings were coming to an end, unexpectedly, P-51 'Jersey Jerk' came in low and fast from crowd left. Its Packard Merlin drowning out any other noise, gun barrels whistling, it was an impressive sight watching the pilot try and keep this thoroughbred warbird within the confines of Shuttleworth. It almost seemed like this Mustang has been waiting all winter to show what it can do and make the most of the air under its wings. A display focusing on speed, agility and keeping it within view of the crowd, it was the definite highlight of the day for enthusiasts.

The final display of the day paid tribute to an accident that has truly shaken the airshow community. A flypast of five Collection aircraft, with the Spitfire performing the role of the missing man to pay tribute to Squadron Leader Mark Long. It was a poignant tribute to a well-loved pilot and member of the UK airshow community.

All in all, Shuttleworth's military airshow has often been one of the season highlights - an event that enthusiasts up and down the country would look forward to. An event that has previously pushed the boundaries and seen remarkable sights, such as the seven Hurricanes together in formation in 2019. This year however, it fell short of the mark and will be quickly forgotten. Of course, for all of the drawbacks and critique, there is no airshow venue quite like Shuttleworth. Come the Festival of Flight airshow at the end of June, we will all be back at the same old spot on the crowdline hoping to see some more topsides. And that, truly, is a testament to the usual quality of airshows at Shuttleworth.