Duxford's May Air Display, 6 May
Gary Parsons reports: Despite the cold wind and overcast conditions, a bumper crowd was drawn to Duxford for the first airshow of the year (and arguably the new millennium). Many had come to see the debut of De Havilland Aviations Sea Vixen XP924/G-CVIX, the sixties naval fighter having been a rare sight in the UK skies for many a year.
Piloted by Dan Griffith, he put the supersonic beast through an impressive routine of rolls and loops, the cloudbase lifting sufficiently for almost a full routine. If there was a disappointment, it was the fact that the Vixen operated out of nearby Cambridge Airport for the weekend, denying the Duxford crowd of the opportunity of a landing and taxi past the crowdline. Some suspected the runway length to be the problem, but it was due to vital support equipment only being available at Marshall Aerospace. XP924 entered service in 1964 as a FAW2 and saw active service exclusively with 899 Squadron on HMS Eagle and at Yeovilton. In 1973 she went to Llanbedr to serve as a high-speed radar target with the Royal Aircraft Establishment and was subsequently converted by Flight Refuelling to D3 drone status in 1986. The last active Sea Vixen, she was finally retired in 1991. Accompanying the Sea Vixen in a formation flypast was Vampire T11 G-DHAV (in Swiss Air Force marks) and Meteor NF11 WM167, both from the De Havilland stable. Dan Griffith later drove from Teversham to fly the Meteor in its solo slot, then promptly went back to the airport to fly the Vixen home! One hopes he gets overtime!
Completing the vintage jet quota alongside McCarthy Aviation's Strikemaster was Vampire G-GONE. An ex-Swiss example (J-1542), it is also owned by De Havilland Aviation and sparkled in a coat of bright yellow. Much discussion ensued on what countrys markings the fin flash represented - it wasnt some obscure South American tinpot dictatorship, but Wales! Its not the formation of an independent Welsh Air Force, just that the aeroplane's owner, Gwyn Jones, is Welsh (rather unsurprisingly with a name like that!).
The Sea Vixen may have been star of the flying, but just as much interest was shown in the museums latest acquisition, the SR-71 Blackbird. Fresh from its journey across the Atlantic, the Blackbird is the only one in captivity outside the USA and set to be the centrepiece of the American Air Forces museum. For now it sits in the Superhangar, awaiting some attention as she has seen better days and suffered some minor damage from the long journey. Once the IWMs staff have worked their restoration magic, it will, no doubt, look better than new. Entry to the airshow also includes full access to all the museum exhibits, making a very full day if you havent been before.
Alongside TFC's Z7381, Hawker Restorations Hurricane AE977 was in attendance, but this may have been one of the last chances to see this particular bird as it is rumoured that it has very recently been sold to a buyer from America. If so, it will be sad to see it go, but every cloud has a silver lining as it should provide another restoration project with the funds to commence. Many are on the go at present, both at Duxford and nearby Audley End, so the future of warbird restoration in the UK seems healthy. As an example, TFC plan to have a Beaufighter flying in a couple of years, something not seen in the British skies for many decades. Parked alongside HAC's Spitfire BM597, it made for some very atmospheric photography.
RAF colour! RAF support for this first event of the year was good, with a welcome return for the solo Hawk, plus regular Harrier GR7 and Tucano displays. Both the Hawk and Harrier sported special paint schemes, the former celebrating the 60th anniversary of RAF Valley. The Harrier had 20(R) Squadrons eagle and sword emblazoned against a light blue background, providing some welcome colour to the normal drab grey.
Commemorating a hero
Completing the RAFs involvement, excepting the parachute display team Falcons, no less than three Pumas from 33 Squadron were in attendance, helping with the Crete anniversary set-piece. Maybe something of an odd theme, it is sixty years since the Battle of Crete in which 33 played a major role - one of the war's aces, Sqn Ldr 'Pat' Pattle, a South African by birth, took command of 33 Squadron at the beginning of 1941. By 20th April his score had reached at least 50, making him the RAF's top-scoring pilot of the war. On that day, he had a high temperature and was very sick, suffering from influenza and fatigue, but despite this insisted on taking off to follow the remnants of Nos 80 and 33 Squadrons to meet more than 100 enemy aircraft. With fifteen other Hurricanes, which were the only fighters left in Greece, he was 1,000 feet above a defensive circle of Bf110s when he saw a single Hurricane climbing towards them - a single Bf110 peeled off from the circle to dive at it. Pattle cut through the Bf110s to protect the lone Hurricane's tail, pulled up under the 110 which was firing into the Hurricane and shot it down, thereby saving the life of Timber Woods (who after shooting down two 110s was himself shot down and killed later in the day). Pattle pulled his Hurricane round and dived into a space between the 110s, shooting down another as he did so. He was last seen diving in flames, slumped forward across his instrument panel, his aircraft falling into Eleusis bay.
Joining the Pumas in the set-piece display was CH53G 85+09 from the German Army, although not officially as the baddies. More used to American MH53s at Duxford, the 53 was the only international participant, the Americans conspicuous by their absence. The stars & stripes were left to B17 Sally B and the P51s and P40s of the OFMC and TFC, usual faces but very welcome, nonetheless.
De Havilland tribute
Much of the early part of the flying display was dominated by both De Havilland and de Havilland aircraft; two different entities, the former now operate the classic jets of the fifties and sixties while the latter is a long-gone aircraft builder, famous for the Tiger Moth, Mosquito et al. In a between-the-wars scenario, Shuttleworth Collection biplanes followed a collection of de Havilland Moths of all types, taxing the abilities of the most hardened aircraft recognition champion with the subtle differences between the types.
Together with the classic jets, the RAF contingent made for a very nice line-up on the flightline, and the opportunity to walk amongst them for a couple of hours plus get closer to the warbirds is always appreciated at Duxford. The mile-long crowdline always offers an excellent chance to get up close to the taxiing aircraft, none more so than Sally B who wove her way down the taxiway, starboard wing almost within fingertip reach.
Back on the scene after a few years absence were T33 G-TBRD (see column) and Fiat G46 G-BBII of Personal Plane Services, both having had extensive rebuilds and wearing new paint schemes. As a finale, OFMC's Breitling Fighters quartet of Corsair, P40, P51 and Spitfire beat up the airfield in their usual style.
They think it's all over...
By the end of the afternoon, the clouds had parted and the sun brought some welcome warmth to the day. As the airshow has normally been held on the Bank Holiday Monday, a change to the Sunday this year meant Monday was, of course, gloriously warm and sunny. Its good to know that the airshow season has started, and is running true to form!