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Against the Tide

Against the Tide

Few facets of daily life have avoided the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, and the outdoor events industry has been particularly hard-hit. For airshows, this has meant the cancellation of large-scale public events at all but two mainland venues – Old Warden, where the drive-in concept has worked wonders, and Headcorn (a smaller-scale flying event was also hosted at Stow Maries). Aero Legends’ Battle of Britain Airshow was originally pencilled into the calendar in June 2020, but postponement to September likely saved it from becoming another one of the year’s many airshow cancellations.

After a very well-received inaugural event in 2015, the Battle of Britain Airshow took a break until summer 2017. Its return the following year as a weekend event with strong vintage participation centred around Spitfires and Hurricanes, and the aeroplanes of the burgeoning Aero Legends fleet, served to strengthen its position on the UK airshow calendar. It’s buoying to see, when so many events have fallen by the wayside in recent years – in particular, the small ‘village fete’ style afternoon airshows. This year, Aero Legends sensibly moved to advanced ticket sales only, and added a third day to the programme in an effort to spread spectator numbers more evenly and make the event “Covid secure”.

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In the weeks preceding the event, the national outlook was looking a little more positive. That rapidly changed, with Covid infection rates increasing and local lockdowns implemented in some northern regions. The Imperial War Museum’s cancellation of its Battle of Britain Air Show in mid-September looked like it could signal the death knell for the Headcorn airshow, but hard work by the Aero Legends team to ensure public safety by further capping attendance figures and e-mailing detailed Covid-related guidance to ticket holders saw the show given the green light.

To add insult to injury, the weather forecast was for strong winds, low temperatures and heavy rain showers thrown in for good measure – a stark contrast to the fine weather the UK had experienced for several weeks prior. Undeterred, the show went on.

This was the first and only conventional, large-scale non-drive-in airshow held on the British mainland in 2020, and thus an important milestone in the adaptation to a “new normal” for the airshow scene. There were also a number of trade stands on-site, albeit in limited numbers, to add to the sense of relative normality. To that effect, a lot rested on Aero Legends’ efforts.

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Inspiration had clearly been taken from the Shuttleworth Collection’s excellent drive-in airshows, with the box system utilised on a smaller scale for those on foot. Big grids of white lines had been painted onto the grass in the two event fields at Headcorn, for visitors to confine themselves to in groups of no more than six to watch the flying. This could have done with more explanation on the day, but in all, it worked well. Additionally, the premium viewing enclosure had been extended for almost the full length of the fence line – this was a clever move, as it deterred the classic rush to the fence, and separation between the two zones was well enforced. A good method of negating one of the most difficult and dangerous aspects of a conventionally staged event in the current climate.

Unfortunately the high, gusty winds precluded the first public airshow appearance of the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight’s Dowding Formation display comprising Lancaster, three Spitfires and Hurricane. Headcorn is a fabulous place to see the BBMF’s fighters launching from the intimate grass strip, and this has been a highlight of previous years.

Friday’s show was significantly more affected by the winds, but Saturday and Sunday saw a relatively full programme take place. The bulk of the flying was provided by Aero Legends’ impressive and ever-expanding fleet, with the first airshow appearance since acquisition of its second Dakota in a genuinely thrilling duo display with its C-47 Drag ‘Em ‘Oot. C-47B KP220 (G-ANAF) joined the collection in 2019 and is resplendent in an RAF D-Day scheme, complementing Drag ‘Em ‘Oot nicely. The pair were flown in fine fashion, firstly with some formation work, then loosening into a tail chase and brief solos to conclude. One of the high points of the day, and comfortably one of the UK airshow displays of the year.

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The excellent Headcorn-based Stampe formation team filled two of the day’s flying slots (joined on the second occasion by a fifth Stampe), the pilots working incredibly hard in the inclement conditions. The winds did keep the lighter types in the Aero Legends fleet – Tiger Moths and Jackaroo – firmly ground-bound, sadly, though the company’s Harvard pair got airborne.

Arriving early on Saturday morning, a gaggle of warbirds from Duxford joined the Aero Legends Spitfire pair to make up one of the largest displays of warbirds at a European airshow this year, with five V12 piston fighters airborne together. John Romain in the Aircraft Restoration Company’s Buchón attacked the airfield with a series of sweeping passes and barrel rolls before ‘Parky’ Parkinson scrambled in Spitfire Mk IX TD314 to fend off ‘the Hun’. The Spitfire was on the tail of the Buchón in no time and Romain led the pair through some manoeuvres in close tail chase, making use of the Buchón’s Dunkirk smoke system. Meanwhile, Tr IX NH341, Mk I N3200 and Hurricane Mk I R4118 got airborne to form up for a lengthy five-ship formation and tail chase sequence.

The finale to the show saw six aircraft launched for a mixed flypast of all of the heavier Aero Legends machines, the C-47 pair being joined by the Harvards and Spitfires for a procession of two ‘vics’. Parky and Charlie Brown gave a brief but punchy Spitfire duo display to round the day off. As an aside, over the airshow weekend Charlie Brown reached the milestone of 1,500 hours logged on Spitfires whilst flying NH341 – congratulations, that man!

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In a strange way, it felt comforting to be stood on a wind and rain-swept airfield again at an airshow – a little slice of normality for those of us who’ve spent many a day doing just that! It’s all part of the experience of being an airshow-goer.

In all, the airshow felt safe and the successful running of this event could show the way forward for the airshow community too, as we look ahead to 2021 and another year affected by the pandemic. This may provide a template that some venues can adapt to get their events up and running in a safe manner, allowing for some degree of recovery. Another bleak airshow season could be very grave indeed for the future of the industry.