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Awash at Duxford

Glenn Beasley and Damien Burke were at Duxford for the first airshow of the IWM's season - unfortunately, so was the rain...pictures as credited and by Mike Kerr

Duxford drips
Soaked statics

2006 is shaping up to be a frustrating season for the airshow-goer. Abingdon avoided the rain, but low cloud and lower temperatures kept the crowd shivering - apart from the photographers, who were warmed by their internal fires of rage at the grey skies. The first two days of this year's Great Vintage Flying Weekend were near total washouts; and Duxford did not escape unscathed.

Duxford had moved its Spring airshow back a couple of weeks this year from its traditional May Day Bank Holiday weekend in the expectation of better weather, but the plan sadly backfired with one of the wettest days seen for a long while, excepting last year's September event - that's two out of the last three airshows ruined by the weather, so one hopes the IWM's luck must change soon. But, one of last year's most enjoyable shows - for Damien at least - was the thoroughly wet Battle of Britain show (luckily he chose the Saturday - Sunday was a near total washout). Despite near-constant rain and poor visibility, a full flying programme was had and despite the conditions the massed pilots and groundcrew pulled off one of the most exhilarating displays in recent memory. So, with rain and low cloud forecast well in advance for this airshow he was not put off - surely Duxford could pull it off once more?

British Disabled Flying Association by Damien Burke
Making one its first airshow appearances was Bulldog G-DISA, one of four Bulldogs donated to the British Disabled Flying Association (BFDA) by the Royal Jordanian Air Force in 2003. The late King Hussein of Jordan had close links with the charity and the Jordanian Royal Family are continuing their association. With some refurbishment and improved avionics, G-DISA (ex-420) is now part of the public face of the BDFA, and the remaining airframes are up for sale to fund the purchase of a PA28 - apparently easier to get into for disabled flyers. The BDFA organise flying days for disabled people around the UK, and offer a wide range of aviation opportunities for the disabled. Find out more at their website

Staged as the 'AirSpace' airshow, the main theme was that of British Aviation and the aircraft that will be featured in the new Airspace hangar, due to fully open next year. Many of the aircraft already positioned in the new Superhangar were wheeled out for an airing, such as TSR 2 and Concorde, before they will be fixed into position later in the year. Forty visiting aircraft were planned, comprising mainly of post-war and modern military jets, the fast stuff operating from nearby Cambridge Airport as usual. But, due to a variety of factors, including the weather, just seventeen made it to Duxford for the day. Unserviceability problems scuppered Air Atlantique's Canberra and Meteor plus the Royal Navy Historic Flight's Sea Hawk, while the weather grounded many of those that did get as far as Cambridgeshire.

However the advantage of Duxford as an airshow venue are the numerous exhibits to be seen on the ground, such as the American Air Museum. Many sought refuge in the museum during the flying display with front row seating becoming scarce as the conditions worsened. The wing of Concorde also provided a point of refuge for those at the other end of Duxford's runway. There is always a 'spirited' feel about Duxford's airshows - perhaps the wartime atmosphere lives on within the airfield so there was never the thought that the weather was going to ruin everyone's day. The BBMF were unsurprising absentees due to the weather at Coningsby and most of the resident warbirds stayed firmly on the ground due to the worsening conditions.

Red Sparrows reach for the sky!

The 'Red Sparrows' are one of the latest teams on the airshow circuit - flying four ex-RAF Chipmunks, the team comprises of leader Howard Cook, Clive Denney, Ian Davies and Chris Harper (or to give him his formal title, Air Vice-Marshal Christopher Harper CBE and current Chief of Staff for Operations at HQ RAF Strike Command!).

It rained constantly from around 11:00 to just before the display started at 14:00, but the low cloud and stiff crosswind persisted - the forecast clear spell lasted no more than half an hour and it continued to rain constantly throughout the afternoon. The last act, the RAF Tucano, flew around 16:00, and after half an hour of silence from the commentator we were finally told the remainder of the flying programme had been cancelled. Understandable, but the lack of communication was not one of the day's better features. The planned tribute to Ray Hanna involving Spitfire MH434 and a Gnat had to be postponed until another day - maybe Flying Legends is a more appropriate day, anyway.

Ray Hanna - a legend by Damien Burke

The biggest blow was the loss of the show's centrepiece - eight aircraft associated with the late Ray Hanna were to be flown as a tribute to him. They were to have been a Spitfire (MH434 of course), Mustang, Hellcat, Corsair, Hunter, Meteor, Sea Fury and Gnat. The weather kept all the piston engines and the Gnat on the ground, and the Meteor refused to start (and at the time of writing was still on the ground at Duxford awaiting retrieval).

Ray was probably the nation's best-known display pilot, and I for one viewed him as undoubtedly the finest Spitfire pilot in recent memory, putting on displays that were pure poetry, though such a hackneyed phrase does him an injustice. Attending the press preview on the Friday before the show were a few people who knew Ray earlier in his flying career, starting with Neil McCallum who was Ray's CO on 79 Squadron when he flew Meteor FR9s in Germany. Describing Ray as 'an outstanding pilot' he reluctantly admitted the tales about Meteors coming back with various bits of German vegetation trailing from them were indeed true. Like many others, Ray also went on to fly the Swift FR5 and found it perfect for the job - his years on the Meteor and Swift were a perfect introduction to the kind of low-level precision shown off by the Red Arrows, which of course he led for four years. Peter Thorne was CO at Farnborough, and regularly encountered Ray at the various SBAC shows in the 1960s. 'Utterly professional and trustworthy' was Peter's simple statement about his impressions of Ray. Henry Prince flew with Ray in the Red Arrows from 1965 to 1967, and found him to be an unstintingly inspiring leader - there is no shortage of such comments; there is, sadly, now a significant shortage of Ray. We will miss him.
Henry Prince at the press preview day

Opening the show was the now almost traditional flypast of two F-15E Strike Eagles from RAF Lakenheath. Unlike some previous Duxford appearances the pair located the airfield without difficulty and performed two flypasts. This is somewhat of coup for Duxford as the chance of seeing this at other UK airshows is highly unlikely.

B-17 Sally-B made it into the air before the worst of the afternoon weather arrived, offering hope of a season spending more time in the air than on the ground. Flt Lt Dunc Wiley performed a tight and polished flat routine in the RAF Hawk, then diverted to Cambridge as Duxford's runway was now getting decidedly wet. Taking off across the grass runway was the BAE Systems-owned Cirrus Moth, normally only seen at Old Warden. After a spirited display which took in the entire length of the airfield, the pilot wisely elected to go straight home to Old Warden rather than try and put it down again at Duxford.

Mark Miller once again displayed his utterly gorgeous Rapide, and this year was joined by a visiting Magister (another Old Warden airframe), which chased him throughout his routine. The only piston warbird to make it into the air was the RNHF Sea Fury, powering into the air just as the rain upped its game and threatened to bring the entire show to a grinding halt. Sheltering in the lee of a handy burger van was the only sensible option by now, with umbrellas popping up - and being ripped to bits - all over the airfield. A momentary lull in the rain allowed a Bulldog to get airborne, with Pete Kynsey putting on a superb display in this ex-Jordanian airframe, now owned by the British Disabled Flying Association. As Pete taxied back in, the RAF Hercules made a valiant attempt to display but the visibility was so poor he had to depart the area and hold for some time.

Technical difficulties again hit the show when the Tornado GR4A suffered a problem and failed to make it into the air, and another technical hitch resulted in the Tucano cutting his display short after a warning light appeared in the cockpit.

Those who did brave the driving rain and murk witnessed the public display debut for 2006 by the Typhoon, although in a T1A rather than the hoped-for F2. Sqn Ldr Matt Elliott's display was curtailed by the fact he had been waiting for the weather to possibly improve and needed enough fuel for a diversion to RAF Leuchars. However his short cameo was breathtaking enough with some amazing condensation effects, the two EJ200 turbofans glowing repeatedly under the threatening clouds. It was pleasing to see the Typhoon begin to stretch its reach as far as airshow performances are concerned, its presence on the airshow circuit needed more than ever this year with the demise of Jaguar and Tornado F3 demos.

The Airspace show proved that no matter how good a selection of aircraft you bring together on any given day, the weather will always dictate the content of the show. It is fair to say that this was one of the best looking Duxford May show line-ups for a while and it was doubly disappointing that the tribute to Ray Hanna was prevented by the elements. One would like to think Ray would have admired the resilience of the pilots who did their best to entertain the equally steadfast public who stood and watched on this wet and murky day.


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