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A stately home and Sea Vixen - and unlikely alliance! at Blenheim Palace

Wing Commander Burke says Tally-Ho from a top-hole event held in the grounds of Blenheim Palace on 2 August - sounds jolly spiffing, what?

"Who do you think.."'Fly to the Past' was an aviation event that managed to sneak under the radar of most, being cunningly located nowhere near an airfield. Instead, Blenheim Palace was the venue, and the event wasn't touted as a pure airshow, but more as a 1940s day that happened to have a flying programme, with music introducing each act and a swing concert in the evening.

Arrival was a breeze with plenty of routes into the large fields set aside for car parking, which was being charged for at the rate of 3 per car. As quite a few people seemed to be setting up their picnics in the car park I guess this made it a cheap airshow for them, if not for people going in - with ticket prices at a whopping 37.50 (not counting the car parking charge!). Never mind, I suppose it kept the riff-raff out!

The day was to kick off with a 1940s revival meeting: "...you'll arrive at sand bagged checkpoints with barrage balloons overhead and Churchill's speeches crackling over the public address. Issued with ration books and hounded by actor Spivs flogging black market nylons and fags, you'll make your way to mess tents and enter a Revival Meeting of 1940s exhibits...". However on arrival around 11:00 there was little sign of the spivs or barrage balloons, though plenty of old military vehicles were in evidence with quite a few people wandering around in 1940s dress despite the scorching sunshine. And yes, that included your intrepid reporter and his long-suffering fiancee.

Two Lancasters in the static park!With nowhere for aircraft to land (unless they were helicopters), the static display was limited to large scale models - and damn impressive some of them were too! Not often you see two Lancasters parked next to each other, is it? The Me-109 shoot-down diorama last seen in the 100 Years of Flight exhibition at RIAT was also here, along with many familiar faces dressed up in RAF uniforms, etc. The band of the Royal Air Force was busy Who needs Alton Towers?entertaining in the run-up to the display which was starting at 14:00 so, having found a good spot to watch the proceedings from, I ordered a handy WRAF girl to get me some beer (thankfully she complied) and chilled out for a bit.

The sweeping vista of trees and lakes in front of the Palace made for a great backdrop to the flying display and the tower holding a statue of Churchill in the distance made for some further visual interest (and no doubt an interesting challenge for the display acts to avoid). A large video screen was set up just in front of the crowdline to enable people to view clips of video linked to each aircraft, or close-ups of the displays themselves when they were in progress. This worked really well in such a cosy venue, with most of the crowd being able to see the screen, but no obstruction being caused to their view of the aircraft.

Flying past at 'Fly to the Past'
Red Arrows
Brian Lecomber
BBMF
Swordfish
OFMC Spitfire
OFMC P-40
Blenheim
Spitfire & Corsair
Sea Vixen
Rutan Velocity
RAF Falcons drop in
Tornado F3

Reds, of courseSadly the published programme was hit by a string of cancellations with no sign of the Firebird Aerobatics Extra 300 team, Sally B (stuck at Duxford with an engine problem), Rapide, Mustang (also groundbound at Duxford), Hunter and Gnats, RNHF Sea Fury (still not ready to fly - will we see it at all this year I wonder), Sabre and Harrier (the latter a particularly disappointing omission as the pre-show publicity promised us the Harrier 'hovering at 100 feet over the lake' which would have made a good photo!).

Display teams participating were the Red Arrows (opening the show with style and looking great over the wooded lakeside setting), Blue Eagles (rumour has it one of their last appearances this year due to budget constraints) and Matadors (normally an Su-26 and Su-29 pairing, this year it was an Su-26 and Extra 300 - though the souvenir programme helpfully showed an Su-27 and Su-33, which caused a certain amount of disappointment among the crowd!). Once again Paul Bonhomme and Steve Jones showed they are surely among the best at close formation aerobatics with a nail-biting display. Similar stomach-churning antics were also seen from Brian Lecomber in his Extra 300, but all and sundry were then topped by Dennis Kenyon and his Hughes 300C helicopter.

Dennis Kenyon and his Hughes 300CStarting off by pirouetting round the tip of one the landing skids he then proceeded to throw the helo around in a most disconcerting manner - it's not often you see a helicopter almost upside down, let alone almost upside down 150 feet over a lake! Amazing stuff - I didn't think helicopters could manage that sort of routine but clearly nobody has told Dennis! More sedate flying was had from the Utterly Butterlies - unexpectedly sedate in fact, perhaps that red card at RIAT has got them in a huff. The BBMF and RNHF Swordfish also carried out their usual gentle displays, but the OFMC supplied a Spitfire and P-40 to liven things up a bit. However the most welcome warbird at Blenheim Palace had to be...the Blenheim of course, lit beautifully from below by the sunshine reflecting off the lake.

WWI dogfights added to the funThe idea of 'fly to the past' was clearly 'going to pot' though, what with half the acts being modern ones, but a swift jump back into the Great War tried to put things right with the WWI dogfight display team being next. They're always fun to watch, particularly when the dastardly Hun goes away trailing smoke.

The organisers were also doing their best to fill the gaps left by cancellations - the RNHF Swordfish crew extending their display to cover the gap left by Sally B and the Mustang was to be replaced by a second appearance from the P-40 (but then that went tech, so we got a second appearance from the Spitfire instead, along with OFMC's Corsair for a mini-Breitling Fighters act). Filling in for the Hunter and Gnats was, to my surprise, the Sea Vixen - which put on a far more varied and powerful display than at previous shows RAF Falcons C-130Kthis year. The topside pass is back in the routine, and the throttle seems to be opened a bit more too! Nice one Brian - good to see the old girl being flown with more gusto once more. Another aircraft not on the programme was the Rutan Velocity, one of those classy looking pusher prop jobs putting on a nice swish little display while the owner/builder told us about what had been involved in getting it airborne.

A further pleasant surprise was the location of the landing zone for the RAF Falcons parachute team - actually in the crowd area! Once cleared of people, the guys jumped in dead on target, giving the crowd a rare opportunity to see up close the amount of work they have to do to get themselves to land in a small area. Musical accompaniment from various Bond movies helped too! And as regular airshow-goers know, the Falcons dropship Herc always finishes off their display with a high speed pass... but it's not often that the venue requires an curved approach, so seeing the Herc nearly stood on its wingtip to make the turn was a sight to behold I can tell you.

The commentator kept mentioning a 'surprise' for the close of the display and the buzz among the crowd was that it would be Concorde. Sadly this was not the case (what are they playing at in BA? So much for showing her off in her final months of life). The surprise was in fact an RAF Tornado F3 which put on a spectacularly noisy display, with the noise echoing around the lakeside and off the Palace walls.

F3 finaleWith the flying ceased for the day, the swing concert kicked off but we decided to make a move, and had no problems getting out. This is definitely a show with bright prospects - the venue is fantastic, the atmosphere was great (come along in uniform or 1940s era dress and you'll have even more fun, plus you get a chance to win a prize for the best-dressed 1940s couple) and the flying was varied. While there were quite a few gaps between acts, it didn't seem to matter much as you could relax on the grass listening to music or watching video footage related to the next act.

With a natural ampitheatre to watch from, as the ground slopes down to the lake, this helped make sure there was no concentration of crowd at the crowdline - no need for stepladders or windbreak encampments here. The steep entrance price reflects the fact that this isn't just an airshow but also a concert and 1940s revival meeting - you can also wander through the Palace grounds and the Palace itself - a day you will only get the most of if you put some effort into it. As for me I thoroughly enjoyed myself, particularly as I appeared to outrank everybody else in RAF uniform and was therefore able to bark orders at complete strangers (and get the other half - aforementioned WRAF girl - to get the beers in). Dress up, leave the windbreaks at home and come
along next year for a jolly good show.

 

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