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Orchestrating Duxford’s 17 Spitfire Salute

Orchestrating Duxford’s 17 Spitfire Salute

IWM Duxford’s Battle of Britain 75th Anniversary Air Show in September 2015 featured a monumental 17 Spitfire finale. Brian Smith, the architect of the sequence and the formation leader, offers his impressions of planning and executing the routine.

“It’s been a huge year as people well know, and with it being Duxford and the last major airshow of the season, I wanted to try my best to deliver a major spectacle and bring the whole thing to a fitting close”, explains Brian Smith, orchestrator of the 17 Spitfire finale to the Imperial War Museum (IWM)’s sold-out Duxford Battle of Britain 75th Anniversary Air Show. Brian’s credentials in this field speak for themselves. A purveyor of vintage piston aeroplanes for over 40 years, he and Flying Display Director Jeanne Frazer have between them organised, choreographed and led the largest Battle of Britain commemorative flypasts and displays the United Kingdom has seen at five year intervals from the turn of the century. Sea Wings 2000 over Southampton Water gathered 12 Spitfires and a single Hurricane for the climactic sequence of that event, whilst major gatherings at IWM Duxford in 2005 (a forgotten gem) and 2010 (widely acknowledged as one of the best warbird set-pieces in recent European airshow history) had included Spitfires to the number of 13 and 16 respectively.

Furthermore, the Battle of Britain 75th anniversary commemorations throughout summer 2015 delivered a series of tremendous aerial events up and down the country, including large-scale public displays and flypasts at the Royal International Air Tattoo, Humberside, Biggin Hill and Goodwood, with the latter drawing an unprecedented 25 Spitfires and six Hurricanes to the Sussex aerodrome on 15 September, just four days before Duxford’s airshow. Needless to say, there were particularly lofty expectations for the Battle of Britain 75th Anniversary Air Show, the last of the year’s big commemorative events.

Planning for Duxford’s tribute began in earnest following the conclusion of the September 2014 event which, buoyed by one of the last appearances by the Avro Lancaster pair, had drawn sell-out crowds on both days. Initial planning meetings between the IWM and Jeanne Frazer decided on a logical Battle of Britain theme, the idea broadly being to deliver a finale befitting of the occasion. To that end a considerable budget was set to accommodate up to 20 Spitfires for the climatic set-piece in the three and a half hour flying programme, with Brian once again positioned to lead the whole thing.

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Brian takes up the story: “Jeanne got onto me and proposed a re-run of 2010, and it went from there. I still had all the paperwork for it so there was no issue in terms of starting from scratch.” To his mind, there was only one aircraft that could – should – lead the formation: the Old Flying Machine Company (OFMC)’s Duxford-based Spitfire LFIX MH434, a combat veteran intimately linked to Duxford and one of the world’s most historic Spitfires, having enjoyed a long association with distinguished luminaries of the aviation world including the late Neil Williams, Ray Hanna and his son Mark. “I spoke to Sarah Hanna and said it would be essential in my view that MH434 should lead it. There was an unequivocal ‘yes’ and she allocated the aeroplane to me for the weekend – the last thing I wanted was to be unsure of what aircraft I’d be sitting in.

“In terms of the philosophy of execution, we wanted to change the focus from the events at Humberside, Biggin Hill and Goodwood”, Brian continues. “Everyone was more than up to speed on the formation flying element and I thought we could carry off a large formation and maybe extend it a little bit in some areas on the basis that everyone was so up to speed with Spitfires and flying together.” Thus Brian set about implementing a similar plan to the well-received 2010 sequence, with an initial formation flypast seguing into a multi-layered tail-chase as aircraft split between the northerly grass runway and the southerly hard runway whilst yet more aircraft flew aerobatics overhead, creating a sky-filling warbird vista. “I looked at where we could practically improve it and what we would be allowed to do”, he muses. “You listen to feedback from previous years and build in variations of the theme to improve it. The only thing we really changed from 2010 was trying to keep the whole thing together for a second pass, and we added a third aeroplane to the formation aerobatics overhead.”

It’s a careful balance to maintain. Whilst Brian is clear that improvement is always virtuous to meet the demands and perceptions of the public, he’s equally keen to push himself and those involved to some extent – there’s no resting on laurels here. “If you can improve the spectacle for the crowd,” he says, “the pilots also enjoy the challenge to do something really special. I’m conscious of mum and dad and the kids coming through the gate – quite aside from Duxford’s reputation; you’ve got to try and cater for a diverse audience and deliver value for money and get people to come back.”

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Participation booking for the Spitfire gathering began in earnest with the commitment of the 11 Duxford-based aeroplanes from OFMC, The Fighter Collection (TFC), Aircraft Restoration Company (ARCo), Historic Aircraft Collection (HAC), Historic Flight Foundation (HFF, visiting from the USA for the Summer), Keith Perkins and the IWM itself, before additional aircraft (including two Seafires) from other bases – provided by Spitfire Ltd, Air Leasing, Boultbee Flight Academy, Martin Philips and Kennet Aviation respectively – were scheduled to appear.

With a roster of up to 20 aeroplanes (and one ‘spare’) to accommodate, Brian set about adapting the proven conceptual idea of splitting the airfield in two, with a keen mind to ensuring that all those involved were able to safely fit within the sequence. “We have a template set out and we look at the aircraft, numbers and people each time”, he explains. “There are a limited number of things you can do, and the more aeroplanes involved, the options lessen in terms of required simplicity. You start to run out of airspace if you aren’t careful. When tail-chasing you can’t have more than four aircraft in any one stream, and then you have to consider the various authorisations the pilots have; some are cleared for tail-chases of only two or three aeroplanes, others are cleared to fly as tail-chase lead or, in some cases, tail-chase follow only.”

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While the constantly evolving historic scene naturally brought about fluctuations to aircraft numbers in the months preceding the airshow, sourcing suitably qualified pilots to accommodate each position within the formation was an equally important consideration and one which brought about a whole new raft of challenges. Experienced key players such as John Romain, Cliff Spink, Charlie Brown, Pete Kynsey and Stuart Goldspink were involved almost from the outset and went on to occupy section leader positions on 19-20 September. Early knowledge of their involvement allowed Brian to structure the sequence to broadly ensure that those with the most experience were positioned accordingly within the formation, only making the final decision on exact placing within the sequence immediately before the airshow itself, once the final list of aeroplanes and pilots was confirmed.

The Comanche Warbirds Ltd Spitfire Mk.Ias (under the care of TFC at Duxford) presented an issue insofar as pilots were concerned, with only a handful of British aviators – Brian included – insured to fly the aeroplanes. With Paul Bonhomme scheduled to fly one of the pair, and Pete Kynsey rostered to fly Air Leasing’s Seafire LFIII, a potential gap was filled when American owner Dan Friedkin (of Horsemen Flight Team fame) joined the ranks. Similarly, two of the Spitfires were to be flown by relative newcomers Chris Hadlow and Matt Jones. “Both of the nominated pilots are experienced, but haven’t done a lot of this kind of thing. They tick all of the boxes but you get to the briefing and their jaws hit the floor!

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“I have to stress that what we do is actually very simple”, adds Brian. “There’s a very clear logic to it, but it can be a bit of a gob-smacker when you first look at it. The section leaders need to know what they’re doing within the sequence as a whole but the guys at the back, for example, only need to know what their little subsections are doing. They don’t need to know the intricacies of everything going on, which makes it far simpler to process. To deal with a couple of guys who hadn’t experienced this sort of thing before, in one case I put the pilot on the outside so there was an escape route, so to speak, but the other I wedged in the middle so he couldn’t go anywhere. This particular individual is always so cautious – which is what you want – but there’s nothing wrong with his ability. I told him not to worry, just cope, you can do it, just enjoy it; that’s a bit tongue in cheek, but you need to have a very good idea of who you’re dealing with, understand their capabilities, and the pilots have got to enjoy themselves. There’s no point if they don’t.”

It’s interesting to note that the 2015 sequence included a mix of seasoned air display veterans and younger pilots who have only in recent years made their entry into the realm of civilian warbird flying. Seeing the likes of Dave Puleston, ‘Willy’ Hackett, Ian Smith, Matt Jones and Steve Jones et al joining the ranks of a sequence of this magnitude is an important step towards the continuation of the warbird scene in years to come. “This might well be one of my last as the leader,” says Brian, “and it’s about time we got some younger blood in there. I think we’ve given them enough insight into how to go about it, so I’d like to see some younger talent step up to the plate in future, for the good of the whole movement. A lot of those guys have got more than enough ability to lead this sort of thing.”

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A distinctly autumnal mist clung to the Chiltern Hills early on Saturday 19 September, dispersing rapidly as the sun grew stronger. By late morning, a sold-out Duxford was bathed in intermittent warm sunshine that would later break completely into wall-to-wall blue; this was the backdrop against which Brian’s Battle of Britain tribute would unfold.

In a break from tradition and as a means of ramping up the anticipation, the Spitfires were allocated a dedicated slot of ten minutes or so for their start-up and take-off; they would be uninterrupted for the duration of their slot, save for the subsequent ‘joker’ routine provided by B-17 ‘Sally B’ on Saturday and HAC’s Hawker Hurricane Mk.XII on Sunday. Given the range of Spitfires participating – almost the entire airworthy lineage was present, from the single radiator Mk.Is to the Griffon engine later marks – the four Griffon examples taxied to hold on the hard runway long before the early variants, with their tendency to overheat on the ground, fired up and positioned on the grass runway. This ensured no one was left running hot in a ‘We either stand down or blow up’ situation, particularly the two Comanche Mk.Ias which had flown an exquisite aerobatic sequence earlier in the afternoon.

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The massed ‘scramble’ called for each of the five sections to depart in vics of three (with the exception of Blue’s lead five-ship, whereby Brian’s trio departed first followed at a five second interval by a further two aircraft). The remaining sections got airborne at short intervals at their leader’s discretion, meaning that all 17 aeroplanes were off the deck in their individual sections in quick succession:

Blue Section (Aircraft – Operator – Pilot)

Spitfire LFIX MH434 – Old Flying Machine Company – Brian Smith
Spitfire LFXVIe TD248 – Spitfire Ltd – Cliff Spink
Spitfire Mk.Ia N3200 – Imperial War Museum – John Romain
Spitfire Mk.Ia X4650 – Comanche Warbirds Ltd – Dan Friedkin
Spitfire Mk.Ia AR213 – Comanche Warbirds Ltd – Paul Bonhomme

Yellow Section

Seafire LFIIIc PP972 – Air Leasing – Pete Kynsey
Spitfire Mk.IXT ML407 – Air Leasing – Dave Puleston
Spitfire Mk.IXT SM520 – Boultbee Flight Academy – Matt Jones (Saturday only)
Spitfire HFIXc RR232 – Martin Phillips – Matt Jones (Sunday only)

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Green Section

Spitfire LFVb BM597 – Historic Aircraft Collection – Charlie Brown
Spitfire LFVv EP120 – The Fighter Collection Dave Southwood
Spitfire HFIXc RR232 – Martin Phillips – ‘Willy’ Hackett (Saturday only)
Spitfire Mk.IXT SM520 – Boultbee Flight Academy – Chris Hadlow (Sunday only)

Red Section

Spitfire Mk.IXT PV202 – Aircraft Restoration Company – Steve Jones
Spitfire HFIXe TD314 – Keith Perkins – Dave Ratcliffe
Spitfire LFIX SL633 – Historic Flight Foundation – John Sessions

White Section

Spitfire FRXIVe MV293 – The Fighter Collection – Stuart Goldspink
Spitfire FRXVIIIe SM845 – Spitfire Ltd – Ian Smith
Seafire Mk.XVII SX336 – Kennet Aviation – John Beattie

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“It helps matters in terms of forming up,” says Brian, “because you don’t have aeroplanes scattered all over Cambridgeshire – there’s less of a catch-up for the latter sections. I normally allow ten to 15 minutes to form up but what is normally a fairly arduous, drawn out requirement to get everybody together just came together very quickly, perhaps as a function of people having been up to speed from earlier in the season.” For the spectators on the ground, meanwhile, the rush of 17 aeroplanes thundering into the air delivered tremendous visual and aural impact – you could feel the sense of occasion.

With the entire formation airborne, each section in turn formed up on Brian’s five-ship Blue section, with communication kept to a minimum and only the rearmost aircraft taking to the radio to call in their positions. Brian led the fighters on a broadly rectangular circuit at 1,500ft to reposition along Duxford’s A-axis some four miles to the east of the airfield. Unlike some previous large scale Spitfire gatherings which have seen tighter formations, Brian was conscious of the public’s desire for a “sky filling” spectacle which called for more of a tactical approach: “The spectators want to see a mass of aeroplanes, it doesn’t have to be perfect formation flying. We try to make it as precise as possible, but there are times where you have to think no, that isn’t actually what’s needed.”

Contrary to popular belief, both the ‘baby’ early Merlin Spitfires and the ‘big bore’ Griffons can find an appropriate cruising speed that suits both – in this instance, a comfortable 180 knots was settled on for the transit leg of the flypast, with incremental changes made on the run in. “The Mk.Is have no problem keeping up,” Brian adds, “and even N3200 [the IWM’s Mk.Ia – Ed.] goes like a dingbat according to John Romain. On the run in at about three or four miles out, we flew a very gradual descent to come over the airfield at about 300 to 500ft, picking up about 20 knots in the process which is more than manageable for all the aircraft.”

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With those involved more than up to speed on formation flying after both the 2010 event and the Battle of Britain gatherings that preceded Duxford, Brian opted to carry out a tighter turn to the west and lead the whole formation through for a second pass over the airfield, this time on a diagonal axis heading north-east – a manoeuvre reliant entirely upon the coordination and smooth formation flying of the section leaders. The more distant formation pass allowed the sound of 17 Merlins and Griffons to wash over the crowds with engine notes rising and falling soulfully. “Having got all the aeroplanes together, we wanted to keep them together for as long as we could to give the onlookers that spectacle”, Brian adds. “To that end we kept the whole formation together for two passes and then had the sections fly through in formation for several passes. It seems that slightly tipping the balance like that is what people wanted to see.”

With the lengthy formation segment complete, the second half of the sequence began to blossom. Brian’s Blue section split, with his three-ship pulling up and out of the formation whilst the six aircraft of Yellow and White sections, with Pete Kynsey in the Seafire LFIII at the head of the pack and the Griffons – who are “better off doing their own thing as a golden rule, with bigger patterns and higher energy” – bringing up the rear, peeled off to the north. Remnants of Blue section, meanwhile, joined Green and Red to the south, flying a streamed tail-chase centred over the hard runway. Brian’s careful choreography was executed to perfection by the 17 pilots, the sky filled with wheeling, climbing and diving Spitfires.

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The spectre of the Shoreham Airshow tragedy hang over the British airshow scene at the time and Duxford was under particular scrutiny from the CAA in light of its close proximity to the busy M11 and A505 roads. Indeed, restrictions placed on air displays at the aerodrome were such that the entire Spitfire finale was put under threat at the eleventh hour; thankfully, common sense prevailed and adjustments were made to ensure that the authorities were satisfied. One such change was the decision to place the six aeroplanes over the grass runway into a ‘race track’ pattern, whereby they carried out flypasts over the airfield before climbing and turning north (meaning they were climbing high over the offending M11/A505 junction), repositioning behind the crowd to dive in over the western shoulder, again maximising height between the aircraft and the A505.

Regardless of the CAA’s input, this change was also necessitated by the varied Display Authorisations held by the pilots; with some involved lacking the appropriate tail-chase clearance, the ‘race track’ allowed them to fly by as individual aircraft, rather than following a section leader. Brian clarifies; “Rather than flying a dumbbell on the north side, we flew a continual ‘race track’ pattern. In doing that, it enabled us to put two or three more aeroplanes in it, which then meant that there was a constant stream going past the crowd. The tail-chase is what you saw on the south-side; to the north we were carrying out single fly-throughs. That was the pretty major difference between what the two elements were doing.”

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Over the top, Brian led the two Comanche Spitfires in a series of formation flypasts and aerobatics, further enhancing the spectacle. “I couldn’t have flown the three-ship aerobatics without pilots of the calibre of Paul Bonhomme and Dan Friedkin”, he surmises. “It was the first time I led that particular bit – normally I head off behind the bike sheds, so to speak, and keep a close eye on the time. It was a pretty eye-opening experience; we came in over the top and even at the height we were flying, there were seemingly aeroplanes everywhere! On the first pass through we didn’t loop, we just flew through to get our bearings as to where everyone was.”

After a series of formation passes and loops at higher altitude, Brian and MH434 broke to the north (“heading for the fabled bike sheds”) to keep watch over the various elements. “When you’re in the thick of it, it’s difficult to keep track of time,” he says, “and whilst tail-chasing you don’t want the section leaders to be distracted. For that reason I call off each section at the appropriate moment and as one section is on the base leg to land, I call the next off.” With the sky emptying, Brian brought his Spitfire back over the field for several minutes of solo aerobatics to round off the sequence, putting a fitting exclamation mark on the whole thing and allowing spectators a few moments of reflection. “It’s like a piece of music, really. It starts off at an easy pace, builds to a crescendo and then dies down and finishes on a pleasant but controlled note.

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“You get so involved in it, it’s not until afterwards that you think about it”, he continues, reflecting on the scale of the whole endeavour. “It’s in the aftermath that you take stock. Personally, I just sit down under the aircraft and take a few minutes to reflect. On the Sunday of this year, I thought it was just about as good as it could be”, concludes Brian.