Down at Duxford
Damien Burke samples Duxford's biggest airshow of the year, held over 4/5 September
Duxford's airshows have in recent years been accused of settling into a bit of a rut, trotting out similar line-ups and getting a fair bit of flak for it as a result. However last September's show bucked the trend with a show-stopping and reportedly awe-inspiring performance from a South African Airways 747. I missed it, being busy on honeymoon (you see, even I have my limits!).
So when this year's September show included a 757 in the programme, I thought this was going to be a show to make an effort for. Add that to a much-hyped flypast of the BBMF Lancaster and a Tornado each from 9 and 617 Squadrons (as part of a 'Sinking the Tirpitz' commemoration), sunny weather and a collection of the usual favourites, and it looked like Duxford was on a winner.
Well, let's get the disappointments out of the way first, shall we? The 757 sadly did not live up to the performance put on by the 747 last year, and instead provided a graceful and fairly short display consisting of an opening topside pass, a dirty pass with gear and flaps down and a climbing pass to depart (each pass described as 'amazing' or suchlike by the commentator, who really should spend an afternoon at Heathrow to get it out of his system!). It is great to see an airliner at an airshow, and DHL are to be applauded for providing us with the opportunity, it's just a crying shame that our expectations had been pushed so high by the 747 routine a year before.
Next up the Lancaster and Tornado formation turned out not to be a formation at all. First the BBMF Lanc flew past, then the two Tornados followed, separated by the entire length of the airfield. From comments in the crowd this was a major disappointment - hopefully the assembled veterans found it an acceptable commemoration of their efforts to sink Germany's most formidable and long-lived battleship.
A few cancellations had hit the programme - the RNHF Sea Hawk, still grounded by the lack of an ejection seat harness (one wonders who has the job of sewing it together because we've been getting this reason all year now); HHA's Hunter pair (one was present at Cambridge but mysteriously not present at the show); RAF Hercules (operational commitments no doubt); Lysander (grounded at Old Warden with a technical problem) and most sadly of all Air Atlantique's Meteor - cancelled because Flt Lt Paul Morris, their Meteor display pilot, was killed in a Canberra accident at RAF Marham on the Thursday night before the show.
So what did we get to see then? Well, a four-ship of the Utterly Butterly mob, egged on by a lunatic commentator; a hang-glider flown by Judy Leden, a world record-holding pilot (she's crossed the English Channel in a hang-glider, and holds the world altitude record of 41,307 feet in one) - not that you could really tell it was anything special without the commentary - sorry, but a small hang-glider trailing some smoke while spiralling down over an airfield isn't the most exciting of display acts. More impressively, the usual noise and power from the RAF Jaguar and Tornado GR4 - somewhat less noise and less power from the RAF Hawk (which also formated with Carolyn Grace's Spitfire for one pass only).
On the ground, military hardware was also in evidence - a visit from an Italian P.180 Avanti and a Belgian SF.260 was a welcome return to the days when every airshow had at least one foreign military visitor. A Royal Navy Commando helicopter had been pressed into use to ferry the Tornado and Jaguar crews to and from Cambridge, so was a nice addition to the flying for those down by the Superhangar end. The fiasco of Duxford's runway resurfacing means that reheated jets still aren't welcome hence the use of Cambridge, though limited movements from more genteel types such as the Hawk are okay.
The 'Rasta Cat' made what was, I think, her first airshow appearance actually at Duxford. As it's her home base, it's a bit bizarre that it's taken so long for them to book her! Other Duxford stalwarts provided the majority of the display line-up from the four 'Cats' - Tigercat, Bearcat, Hellcat, Wildcat (putting on a performance that rivalled the Breitling Fighters routine of last year) through 'Sally B' to the T-33 and F-86 pair. Throw in the BBMF (the Spitfire opposition routine in evidence at this show - and damn it's good), an RAF Nimrod providing its usual dose of smoke and noise and there remains only a few more items to mention. Two are helicopters - one is small and grey, the other is big and green. Now this was another shame I thought - the RN Lynx routine is brilliantly flown but when it's put up against the RAF Chinook, which is seemingly flown by crazy people with a death wish, there's no contest. The crazy people will win every time.
Rounding up the line-up was Kennet Aviation's beautiful Mk.1 Jet Provost (though rather lost in Duxford's fairly large arena - let's see it at Old Warden!), a welcome and rare appearance from a pair of based Harvards, and one of the last expected appearances from B-25 'Grumpy' (off to a new owner at North Weald soon, but hopefully staying in the UK for a year or so). Sunday's show was more of the same, with a few items removed from the programme to make way for the Red Arrows - and a far larger crowd as a result of the Sunday-only appearance of the Reds.
As a show it all held together nicely with no particularly jarring breaks in the action, and the commentator error quotient was no worse than usual (given the blazing sunshine and inevitably fried craniums I can forgive them this time) yet the worryingly thin crowd on Saturday gave a hint that all is not well at Duxford. I cannot recall a more sparsely attended show - especially on such a gloriously sunny weekend. The price is climbing steadily higher at most shows, and Duxford is no exception - I heard a lot of complaints that the flightline walk was particularly poor value at this show, with several based aircraft dragged out onto the grass to make up numbers. Despite a beautiful day and lots of great flying, I too came away vaguely dissatisfied, though much of that was no doubt due to the disappointment of the 757 routine which I had been looking forward to all day.
There is now some seriously stiff competition for Duxford to deal with - locally, both Little Gransden and Old Warden put on absolutely excellent shows, and further afield we have had cheaper events with impressive line-ups (e.g. Woodchurch and Chailey). Clearly the Reds will drag in Joe Public regardless, but in their absence it does look like the Duxford organisers need to look a little harder at what will pull in the crowds - and more importantly, keep pulling them in each time. It does appear that the hardened enthusiast has been drifting away from Duxford for some time, and such a historic and lively venue deserves better.