Duxford Airshow, 10/11 September
Damien Burke reports on Saturday's airshow. Pictures by the author.
Sixty-five years after the young men of Fighter Command played their part in saving civilisation from the Nazi threat, the IWM at Duxford were determined to put on a show to celebrate the anniversary in style. It had promised much, with early participation lists including a Seafire and Me-109, along with the major feature of a huge number of Spitfires and Hurricanes. Events did not quite go as planned, but it was still a damn good show.
Both Seafire and Me-109 were removed from the list in the weeks before the show, and awful weather prevented several of the Spitfires from getting to Duxford, with thunderstorms and heavy rain on the Friday and low cloud and persistent rain over much of the country on Saturday morning taking away any second chances to arrive.
Duxford itself stayed fairly dry on Saturday - right up until the flying started, when the rain joined in. With a short flying programme of just three hours, you might think that over two hours of rain would wreak havoc with the display, but thankfully that wasn't the case. No matter how heavy the rain got, the show went on - with true British grit being displayed not only by the pilots and groundcrews, but also by the crowd - most of whom stayed to the very end, albeit under a sea of umbrellas.
The only items we lost from the display were a four-ship flypast from 19 Squadron and their Hawks, the 100 Squadron Hawk display (reduced to a couple of passes in very poor visibility and rain) and a flypast from a 25 Squadron Tornado F3. It was a particular pity that 19 Squadron did not manage to get through the weather, as all those years ago it was Duxford that they were operating from - three Spitfires being damaged on that particular weekend in 1940. Absolutely everything else on the programme managed to get in the air - particularly impressive for the RAF Chinook crew who fought their way down through atrocious weather all the way from RAF Leuchars in Scotland. To give you an idea of just how bad it was, the Sea Hurricane and Spitfire from Shuttleworth were only able to claw their way in shortly before flying started despite being based less than twenty miles away.
Back those sixty-five years ago, the weather was strangely similar, with low cloud and rain giving a quiet morning for the RAF and the day ending with few combats. Opening the modern show was a Tornado F3 from 56(R) Squadron, which put on a superb low-show with bags of noise and vapour - if it wasn't about to disappear into a cloud, it was dragging one of its own around with it! 56 Squadron was, of course, one of the most famed Battle of Britain squadrons, suffering forty-five losses during the Battle and shooting down nearly sixty German aircraft.
The only German participation in the show came next with - bizarrely - a Jungmeister! With a particularly good Bf-108 display on the airshow circuit it seems an unusual choice for the 'Boche' to be represented by an aerobatic trainer! Golden Apple's F-86A Sabre gave us the usual graceful and smoky display, and our first classic jet of the day. A TFC trio of P-47, P-51C and P-51D were up next. Possibly a bit restrained compared to the usual rip-roaring formation antics we see from the TFC, but with rain, low cloud and poor visibility it was a surprise to see them taking to the air at all!
Four Hurricanes now taxied out, leaving behind the Shuttleworth Sea Hurricane which had gone tech after all the effort to get it there earlier - not that you could blame it! Peter Vacher's Hurricane got airborne first to join the BBMF's Spitfire IIc for a repeat of the formation seen at Dunsfold earlier this year, becoming barely visible as they turned in the distance. The rain was coming down harder than ever. So, while the umbrellas along the crowdline continued breeding, the remaining Hurricanes got airborne to join up for a four-ship formation followed by a tailchase. A superb and stirring sight and sound at the perfect venue for it - and giving us just a taste of the delights to come later in the day.
Mark Miller's beautiful Rapide got stuck with possibly the worst rain of the day, and with the nose light on to light his way, Mark put on a graceful display that sadly many people never got to see as they were cowering under any available shelter! The RNHF Sea Hawk taxied out on a sodden taxiway, joined by the 100 Squadron RAF Hawk and the Curtiss 75 Hawk. No accident, this collection of Hawks! After what looked like an exciting several minutes of chasing each other in the distance to form up, they gave us a single pass in close formation - an imaginative formation and great to see the IWM's airshow organisers thinking out of the box like this. The RAF Hawk stayed with the Sea Hawk while the Curtiss 75 displayed, playing the part of the Sea Fury when the Sea Hawk began its display - sadly the weather was too much for the RAF Hawk pilot and he reduced his own solo display to a couple of passes.
A hint of blue sky was visible to the south-east, and the rain began to slacken off just in time for the Harvard pair, but it wasn't until the Breitling L-39 team took to the air that the hint of blue became an obvious blue patch. The Breitling boys, however, decided that blue sky was obviously unbecoming to an English summer airshow, and promptly trailed smoke all over the place to obscure it nicely. Not the most exciting of acts when limited to a flat show, the L-39s look a lot better in the burning blue rather than the gruelling grey!
When B-17 Sally B taxied out - after a brief pause to run up her engines and produce some interesting vapour effects from the propellers - the rain briefly got stronger once more, which meant her take-off produced the most visible propellor vortices I've ever been lucky enough to see. Always impressive to watch, the weather conditions did not detract from her display at all. Similar vortices were to be had from the RAF Chinook, putting on their usual crazy anti-gravity display.
Finally it was what we had all been waiting for - the Spitfires. With seventeen hoped for at one point, weather and serviceability nibbled away at the number until a mere eleven managed to start up and taxi out. Near enough squadron strength then - and at a Battle of Britain Spitfire station - this was truly a moment to send shivers up your spine. Sadly BM597, newly resplendent in a deep blue colour scheme (for the why, see Merlins Over Malta), was one of those that went tech and was left sulking on the grass.
The first seven aircraft took off en masse, joining up into a formation which came back over the airfield while the remaining four scrambled into the air. They were soon all formed up in the distance, and the drone of their engines in the distance was worth the admission fee alone. Sweeping back in over RAF Duxford (that was what it felt like - for a few minutes, no longer IWM Duxford), this was a superb and highly memorable moment of awe and remembrance for those who fought in that great battle so many years before.
I thought that was it - but there was more to come. With the formation breaking up into a stream of aircraft I got ready to take pictures of them all landing. But no - there was no sign of undercarriage, and one by one their noses pulled round to dive towards the airfield once more - tailchase! Now, Flying Legends usually puts on a good tailchase and often with several Spitfires, but not eleven of them! And not like this - absolutely gobsmacking flying and after a few minutes I just gave up taking photos and watched the sheer magic of a squadron of Spitfires beating up the airfield. 'The Few' could not have been remembered in finer style than this - well done to all involved.
thanks to Mike Shreeve, Chuck Stewart and the the Duxford press team.
Crowds, clouds…and stars!
Dave Eade and Garry Lakin review Sunday's 'airshow'. Main pictures by Garry, thumbnails on left by Dave
So the 'Few' gathered for what was widely tipped to be the last time. Sixty-five years after the epic air battle that became known as the Battle of Britain was fought over the skies of Kent and East Anglia, the survivors were invited one more time to Duxford to allow the public to acknowledge their sacrifice.
Duxford, of course, played its own part in the Battle, with names that became legends leaping to the skies from its grassy runway. Bader, Johnson, to name but two, clawed their way to the clouds above in what we are always lead to believe was idyllic weather. This was not so, as many days during the time of the Battle, aircraft were grounded because of inclement weather over the East of England.
Poetic justice it was then that the weekend chosen for the 'one last time' celebrations was the worst weather-wise of the late summer, with the flying seriously curtailed on Sunday. So bad was the visibility that two weather calls to nearby airfields at Cambridge and Marham revealed cloud bases of 400 and 200 feet respectively. Early morning brought the ironic situation where visibility was so bad that the southern edge of the airfield was invisible from the flight-line. Credit must be given to the RAF Chinook display team, who were the only scheduled flying display on the programme to take to the air and entertain the crowd, not once, but twice! Alan Walker, flying a Chipmunk, went off to recce the cloud in mid-afternoon, but came back with the news of no let-up in the weather - on his return to Duxford he put on an unscheduled display by the aircraft at low-level that was much appreciated, followed by plenty of pirouettes as he taxied back. Later towards the end of the day the Hurricanes and Spitfires taxied along the front of the crowdline.
Thankfully the crowd was given its chance, and take it they did, to cheer and thank once more the 'Few' as a cavalcade of Second World War vehicles paraded the full crowd line - each carrying at least one of these unknown heroes. I say 'unknown' because now, as then, with the very few exceptions these men, now in the evening of their lives, bear names that do not drop off the tongue. These are not the 'gone tomorrow' names of football stars, cricketers and celebs of today. No, they are the men that saved our country, and gave us the tomorrow that we could have our today. They may be few - but then - they always were! We must not forget them... Ad astra.
As a gesture of goodwill the Museum would like to offer those who paid to be there on Sunday 11 September a discount voucher for the next Duxford air show on Sunday 16 October. To apply for this voucher just send your ticket for 11 September back to the Museum with your name and address and they will post the discount voucher to you. Simply address it to September Air Show, IWM Duxford, Cambridge CB2 4QR.