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Duxford Air Festival fails to inspire

Duxford Air Festival fails to inspire

2017 sees Duxford marking two significant centenaries, with the 100th anniversaries of the formation of the Imperial War Museum (IWM) and the beginning of RAF Duxford’s construction both celebrated this year.  With that in mind, there were considerable expectations for the IWM’s first airshow of the year, the May Bank Holiday Duxford Air Festival.

Recent IWM Duxford spring airshows have really hit the mark, with the Eagle Squadron, D-Day & VE Day 70th anniversary and American Airshows each presenting a very clear theme and associated marquee acts. This year’s Air Festival saw the IWM neglecting any particular theme, adopting instead a broader family-friendly approach with most aspects of aviation being represented in some capacity – from First World War biplanes and triplanes through to modern day frontline fighters, and from golden age classics to high-tech aerobatic mounts. Each genre was represented in equal measure, with no one area drawing focus. Being a year with no significant anniversaries this was to be expected, but the advertisement campaign in the lead up to the airshow failed to adequately sell the broad-brush nature of the flying programme and left a lot to be desired.

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The IWM has increased its use of social media to advertise its airshows, which is a positive step, but it still leaves much to be desired. The Air Festival tagline, ‘Feel the power’, was incredibly generic by anyone’s standards, and whilst using it alongside images of the scheduled fast-jets at least felt somewhat appropriate, combining it with an image of a parachute team was quite frankly laughable.

Equally, the airshow poster, featuring an image of a grey Strikemaster against a grey sky, was another uninspiring effort that looked like it had been thrown together in Microsoft Paint, belying the fact it was promoting a large-scale event at one of the UK’s major airshow venues. In comparison, cast your eyes across the Channel to our French cousins and you’ll find a whole raft of truly inspiring art deco style posters that evoke the spirit of aviation, used to promote everything from large airshows to small fly-ins.

In the lead-up to the airshow it was clear that the IWM had taken a different approach with this event.  Very few based vintage and warbird types were booked, and visiting civilian acts such as the Calidus Autogyro, The Blades and multiple parachute teams made up the numbers. In the event, the Air Festival featured a more generic mix of airshow acts, as previously mentioned, with a smattering of types from across the aviation spectrum – a little something for everyone, as the cliché goes.

It was very strange, however, to see no aircraft from The Fighter Collection booked to display for what must be the first time in decades. Likewise, nothing from the Historic Aircraft Collection (barring the Sopwith Pup, operated on behalf of its owner), the Old Flying Machine Company and just two aeroplanes from the Aircraft Restoration Company. To my mind these based operators and their incredibly rare aircraft are the crowning glory of Duxford, and to see them largely ignored in an unprecedented move was a great shame. With fewer airshows than ever, many of these aircraft seldom appear outside their Duxford base, a point further exacerbated by the loss of the IWM’s own Autumn Air Show in recent years.

Looking down the flight line on Saturday morning was somewhat underwhelming. There’s usually a rush of excitement seeing the long line of aircraft stretching off into the distance, even after years of attending airshows, but the field was so bare and the line interspersed with such large gaps that it almost felt like the day before an airshow. Having seen the RAF Cosford Airshow making great use of the RAF Museum’s aeroplanes over the last few years, you have to think that pulling a few of the IWM museum exhibits out of the hangars would have offered a significant improvement to the flight line walk at the Air Festival, particularly given the hefty £6 price tag.

In addition, the crowd barrier in the central part of the showground has been moved forward by about 100 yards, meaning that there is even less merit to parting with that £6. An unintended negative consequence of improving the overall showground spacing and crowd line for displays, perhaps. With fewer stalls noted down the main ‘drag’ and a paucity of aeroplanes on the ground, the whole site was left feeling rather bare. With that in mind, the considerable entrance fee and the cost of any on-site ‘extras’ (£8 for a flying programme and high-end prices at the numerous food outlets) left a bitter taste.

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The beginning of the show felt very slow and downbeat, and in the main provided a carbon copy of what many other airshows provide nowadays (often at a lesser cost) with the likes of the RAF Typhoon, Army Air Corps Apache, Calidus Autogyro, OV-10 Bronco, Breitling Wingwalkers and The Blades filling out a significant portion of the programme. The momentum-killing addition of the RAF Falcons didn’t help either, made worse but the lengthy gap created by their cancellation.

The first high point of the day came with a Duxford stalwart taking to the skies, as B-17 Flying Fortress ‘Sally B’ hauled itself into the air. ‘Sally B’ was accompanied by its little friend, Anglia Aircraft Restorations’ TF-51D Mustang ‘Miss Velma’, which provided escort for several passes before breaking away to allow Peter Kuypers to take the bomber through its solo display.

P-51 Mustangs are synonymous with Duxford, the 78th Fighter Group having flown their famous black and white chequered cowling examples from the airfield during the latter stages of the Second World War, and they are always fitting additions to any Duxford air display. TF-51D ‘Miss Velma’ was piloted by Richard Grace over the weekend for what was a powerful yet elegant routine, with a mix of topsides from both directions interspersed with powerful vertical aerobatics. I particularly liked the trio of entwining quarter clovers, similar to the figures flown by the Grace-led TRIG Pitts Special duo (indeed, Messrs Grace and Puleston delivered a fabulous display in the TRIG team later in the programme). Precision aerobatics learned from years of leading the TRIG team and flying other classic types is clearly evident and translates across into Richard Grace’s warbird displays.

On the Saturday, the latter half of the display picked up the tempo with a succession of eye-catching acts culminating with the stars of the show displaying in the early evening sun. Post-show, it was the Armée de l’Air’s Rafale demo which drew the lion’s share of spectator praise for its stunning fast-paced routine – as fine a fast-jet display as you will find in Europe, and one which far outclassed the RAF Typhoon.

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Since its return to flight in 2014 DH.88 Comet ‘Grosvenor House’ has taken pride of place in The Shuttleworth Collection’s air displays, with just one ‘away’ appearance at Farnborough 2016. The Duxford Air Festival marked the first time the sleek red racer had deployed to another airfield since its test regime, as it operated from the large grass runway alongside the Percival Mew Gull pair contributed by The Shuttleworth Collection and David Beale. The Comet was displayed in fine fashion by Paul Stone and the unusual and sleek red aeroplane certainly caught the eye of the crowd.

The diminutive Mew Gulls were not lost at what is a much larger venue than their usual stomping ground at Old Warden. They utilised their incredible speed and staccato growl to keep the crowds engaged throughout their tail chase, even when they split for brief solos. More golden age aircraft came in the shape of two of de Havilland’s finest, the Dragonfly and Dragon Rapide. Sadly, Mark Miller’s Rapide was unable to get aloft on the Saturday owing to a gusty wind, however the graceful lines of the Dragonfly, flown by Dan Griffith, were a real pleasure to see in what was a rare airshow appearance for Shipping and Airlines’ beautiful 1930s twin.

One excellent coup for the show was the UK debut of the Noorduyn Norseman operated by the Norwegian Spitfire Foundation. Having recently re-flown following restoration, the aircraft made the epic trek from Norway to display alongside the Aircraft Restoration Company’s Beaver – for the vintage aficionado, this offered one of the high-points of the afternoon, even if the Norseman itself is likely to leave many more casual spectators cold.

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With the UK classic jet scene in decline, it was positive to see a handful of their number on the bill. First up was the pairing of Jet Provost and Strikemaster, flying together in an engaging, well-choreographed two-ship routine. The Norwegian Air Force Historical Squadron’s MiG-15UTI (a Polish built SB Lim-2) also appeared with a rather nice, if not particularly exciting, routine with its silver paint scheme and red Russian stars looking attractive in the afternoon sunlight.

The highlight of the show for many was the return to Duxford of de Havilland Sea Vixen XP924 (G-CVIX) after a 16 year absence, with Cdr Simon Hargreaves giving a memorable account of the charismatic fighter. Unfortunately, on return to its base at RNAS Yeovilton the aircraft suffered a hydraulic failure and executed a controlled belly landing, significantly damaging the aircraft. There’s no questioning that the classic jets were popular and, in the Vixen’s case at least, powerful additions to the Duxford flying programme, but the current ban on classic jet aerobatics somewhat neutered their displays with the succession of flypasts and more distant wingovers lacking the punch the sequences once had.

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We were lucky for a time to have the world’s entire population of airworthy Spitfire Mk.Is in the UK, and to have seen them display together in various combinations including in a one-off four-ship sequence at Flying Legends 2014. Earlier this year Mk.I P9374 departed for the USA, leaving the three remaining aeroplanes based at Duxford. One of the final displays at the Air Festival saw a pair of these Mk.Is performing an aerobatic formation display. Like the Mustang, the Spitfire is forever linked with Duxford, the aerodrome having received 19 Squadron’s Spitfires in 1939.

Leading the duo was the IWM’s own 19 Sqn combat veteran N3200, flown by the Aircraft Restoration Company’s John Romain, with The Fighter Collection’s Chief Pilot Pete Kynsey following in X4650 – two of the world’s leading exponents of warbird display flying. With their early Merlin III engines the ‘baby Spits’ purred gracefully through their beautiful routine, far from the snarling cacophony produced by the later Merlin and Griffon marks. A sublime sight and sound, no doubt, and a reminder of the kind of warbird flying Duxford does best.

Having waited for the winds to abate somewhat on the Saturday, the Great War Display Team (GWDT) were able to get aloft to close the show with their new routine for the 2017 season. The GWDT are a great match for Duxford, being able to fill the sky in front of the crowd at all times with nine aeroplanes, and their new routine is certainly very engaging.

On the Sunday of the show the calmer winds allowed Sopwith Pup N6161 to get aloft for its debut air display, which it carried out in the hands of Shuttleworth Chief Pilot Dodge Bailey as the GWDT formed up and held to the south. The Pup was restored by Retrotec and was operated at the time of the Air Festival by the Historic Aircraft Collection.

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On reflection, whilst the Air Festival featured a number of interesting display acts, the airshow lacked the usual Duxford ‘buzz’ due in part to the lack of warbirds in the flying programme. As touched upon, the opportunities to see some of the rare gems that lie within the private collections based at Duxford are still comparatively rare, and losing an opportunity to see some of them in the air is a great shame.  Maybe we will be surprised by a bumper warbird helping at the September show – only time will tell.

With a reasonable crowd of 22,000 attending over the weekend, perhaps my gripes with the show aren’t particularly valid. Having assessed the reaction online and discussing the airshow with many people afterwards, it appears that enthusiasts and the public alike thoroughly enjoyed the varied display. My hope is that the IWM do not lose sight of the spectacular vintage aeroplanes that have made Duxford such a internationally renowned airshow venue for more than 40 years.