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Next best thing

Mick Britton reviews Duxford's American Air Day, held on 22 August 2008. Pictures by the author, Andy Hare and Andrew Wright

'American Air Day' is a relatively new event in the calendar of the Imperial War Museum at Duxford. It is effectively a USAF Open Day, held at the Museum instead of an airbase, to which the public are admitted upon tendering the entrance fee. Once inside it was evident that the USAF had taken over the site for the day - American accents and uniforms were everywhere and instead of the usual traders' stalls lining the main concourse in front of the hangars on airshow days, the USAF squadron booster clubs set up their stalls selling all manner of memorabilia, everything from the humble sticker to T-shirts and glassware.

American action

As 2007's inaugural event went largely unpublicised, Duxford's publicity machine set out to give this year's event a higher profile, holding a Press preview the week before and notifying the aviation media. I had actually noticed the event advertised on Duxford's website earlier in the year when checking out their airshow programme and was intrigued by it but was unable to discover much about it - however, as Air-Scene UK would welcome a report of this year's event, I was invited to attend as their representative and may even qualify for a Press Pass! I would probably have attended anyway, just to check it out for future reference, but the freebie was the clincher so I arrived there on Friday 22 August having discovered the programme for the event on the excellent USAFE website.

The star attraction for the enthusiast was the Combat Search and Rescue (CSAR) HH-60G 'Pave Hawk' helicopter from Lakenheath's 56th Rescue Squadron, which was on static display and open for close inspection in a fenced-off section of the flightline towards the eastern end of the site along with two historic aircraft, namely B-17 'Sally B' (minus port outer engine) and the Scandinavian Historic Flight's A-26 Invader. Further along, Golden Apple's F-86A Sabre had been towed into position, whilst out on the airfield a P-51 Mustang was being prepared for flight, which duly departed, returning to give a typically spirited display concluding with an impressive beat -up. Then, towards lunchtime, the two-seater Spitfire took off carrying USAF Major-General Jack B Egginton, Third Air Force vice - commander, whose support for the event has been vital. Even he could not have failed to be impressed by the flight in such an iconic aircraft if the length of the photo-session that took place after the flight is any guide!

The programme promised flypasts by every USAF aircraft type based in the UK commencing at 13:35, although there was a delay of approximately ten minutes. A KC-135 from Mildenhall's 351st Air Refueling Squadron, 100th Air Refueling Wing displayed just when a shower was threatening from some dark clouds that had drifted down from the north - although thesehampered photography, they did not deliver any moisture except for the odd spit and it was nice to see the big tanker return for a second pass before disappearing into the eastern sky.

Some fifteen minutes later Lakenheath's contribution to the proceedings arrived in the form of a trio of F-15E Strike Eagles, with conditions still very much overcast - the Eagles also made a second run. After another intermission (during which the dark clouds thankfully moved away) a second dark blob in the east cystallised into the shape of a C-130 Hercules travelling almost at jet speed, chucking out trails of black smoke from its engines. On approach this was seen to have the distinctive duck-bill shaped nose of a MC-130H 'Combat Talon' used by Mildenhall's Special Operations Squadrons (it transpired that this was actually from the 7th SOS). The Hercules performed a role demo landing on its third run, opening the cargo door on the runway to disgorge a quad bike and two motor bikes that were ridden back down the runway and along the crowdline being followed in due course by the backtracking Herc. This display would have been a plus for any military airshow and its like cannot have been seen by the British public since the days of Mildenhall's Air Fete.

Just when we thought that we had witnessed the finale, another cluster of dots appeared in the east, soon resolving themselves into a rarely-seen display of American air power; a most impressive formation comprising a KC-135R with a pair of F-15Es on each wing. There was only the one pass this time but it really was a fitting finale to the 'heavy metal' part of the show and a most unusual photo opportunity in these financially stringent times. It was now past 15:00 and the enthusiasts began to drift away, except for those who wanted to avail themselves of an opportunity to walk through the parked Hercules, which was now open to view.

For the next half hour or so we were entertained by a barnstorming display by the Turbulent Team (whose antics included an airborne limbo dance, balloon popping and flour bombing), much appreciated by the families in the crowd. The event wound up with displays by the P-51D Mustang, Spitfire and Sabre, starting off in formation. All in all I was quite satisfied with what I had seen; examples of all the types operated by USAF over here plus an up close and personal view of one of the new Pave Hawks (which only arrived here from Iceland two years ago) and a MC- 130H Hercules 'Combat Talon', something I had last inspected eight years before at Mildenhall's penultimate Air Fete.

The whole atmosphere was very relaxed with the personnel manning the exhibits being prepared to chat for as long as you wanted to question them, unlike at the average air show where they have to ration their time to accommodate the sheer numbers of people wanting to talk. Indeed the static line-up with its mix of shiny and drab aircraft was reminiscent of those images of old Armed Forces Days of the fifties and sixties that sometimes appear in books and magazines. I would judge on this showing that the 'American Air Day' is succeeding in recreating something of that atmosphere - in these lean times for aircraft enthusiasts, when every year more shows are giving up to the mounting challenges to their survival it makes a refreshing change to able to report positively on a new event that offers the promise to develop into a really worthwhile addition to the airshow calendar. I shall certainly be attending next year, because as one of those many enthusiasts who miss the USAF Open Days of yesteryear this really is the next best thing now available.


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