Gary Parsons sees the season out at Duxford. Photography by the author, Jack Parsons and Damien Burke
As in most years, Duxford's Autumn airshow closed the season for both spectators and pilots. Usually a low-key affair, this year's show was markedly bigger and more diverse than before with good participation from the RAF, Royal Navy and Duxford's own resident warbirds. As ever, the event was at the mercy of autumnal weather, but despite the horrendous forecasts earlier in the week the day was dry, if cold and breezy.
A good crowd enjoyed a morning of sunshine, enabling photographers to enjoy perhaps the best flightline layout of any recent airshow, Flying Legends included. A significant Royal Navy presence was headed by the last airshow appearance for 899 Squadron, which will disband on 31 March next year. Together with a Sea King from Yeovilton, Jetstream from Culdrose and the IWM's own Sea Vixen and Gannet, this was a line-up one would have expected to encounter at Yeovilton, rather than deepest Cambridgeshire. 899 Squadron's commanding officer, Commander 'Chips' Lawler, was keen to see the squadron bow out with a high profile in its last few months. "At our disbandment parade we're hoping to fly a formation of every type of aircraft operated by 899 Squadron", he said, also confirming that 899 Squadron will be consigned to the history books as the Harrier OCU at Wittering will remain firmly under the banner of 20(R) Squadron, RAF from next April. "It's sad," he continued, "but as the RAF is losing a squadron the Navy must too." From April 2006 800 and 801 Squadrons will work up on the Harrier GR7A, while 3 Squadron converts to the Typhoon at Coningsby.
Elsewhere one could find RAF Tucanos, Harrier GR7s, Hawks, a Chinook, Hercules C5 and various vintage jets, together with the usual Duxford warbirds lined up on the grass. All in all it was the largest military presence at an autumn airshow yet seen, and more than justified the sometimes hefty charge of £3 for the flightline walk. Again actors in period costumes added to the warbird line, providing for some atmospheric photography.
Turning over a new leaf
Flying commenced at 13:30 with the last public display for Harrier pilot Chris Margiotta who will be moving on to other duties in 2005. Typically the clouds became thicker as the flying commenced, sunshine being a rare commodity over the following three hours or so. Joining Chris in flying their last displays were Martin Day in the Tucano, Tim Freeman in the Tornado F3 (operating out of Cambridge Airport) and 'Killers' Killerby in the Hawk. It was also the last display for the year for Dave Morgan in the Chinook, which must be one of the highlights of the 2004 season. The crews at Odiham have promoted the idea of a two-ship display for 2005 - let's hope that the beancounters can find the budget for the squadron!
A highlight was only the third appearance this season of the Royal Navy Historic Flight's Sea Hawk and Sea Fury, completing the unofficial Navy theme of the day. After a joint flypast the Sea Fury quickly landed with concern on the performance of the engine, which has been particularly troublesome over the past two years and more recently has not been running sweetly on all cylinders. It was flying again by 17:00, so hopefully the truncated display was just a precaution.
Joining the Sea Hawk in a one-off formation were the Golden Apple Trust's F-86A Sabre and T-33 Silver Star, providing a fabulous fifties opportunity to the thousands of photographers in the crowd. It was one of those simple things that doesn't take much to organise but can really leave a lasting impression and 'make or break' an event - not that this airshow needed 'making', of course! The Sabre and T-33 then proceeded to dogfight each other for a few minutes - I think Cliff Spink in the F-86 'won'…
A sky full of Spitfires...
The afternoon ended with a scintillating Spitfire scramble and tail-chase in a Flying Legends-style arena of action. With John Romain in ARC's MkXIV RN201 leading three other Griffon-engined Spits in some fantastic flying, three Merlin-engined examples circled the sky to take us back to the early autumn of 1940. Romain certainly used the full envelope of display flying to its best, bringing the show to an exciting climax.
This was a fine airshow on which to end the year, certainly Duxford's best autumn event yet providing a varied, interesting and entertaining display that surpassed many other Duxford shows over the last few years. As the bumper crowd proved, a strong line-up will attract the public at the end of the season, despite the weather. We'll look forward to a strong 2005 airshow programme from Duxford, starting with the VE Day anniversary airshow in May - see you there!