The idyllic grass aerodrome at Headcorn, Kent is no stranger to the sound of Merlin engines, the Battle of Britain having played out in the skies above the county during summer 1940. Nowadays, Aero Legends utilises the airfield for its popular Spitfire passenger and wing-to-wing flights from spring through autumn.
In the wake of the Spitfire’s popularity, experience flights in the Thruxton Jackaroo, Prentice, Tiger Moths, Harvard, Dove and C-47 are all now offered, lending a lively atmosphere to the aerodrome during the company’s active months. For one weekend in the summer Aero Legends also hosts its own airshow, utilising its growing fleet of vintage types alongside a small number of visiting aircraft. The Battle of Britain airshow was held this year on the crossover weekend from June to July, the period immediately prior to the official commencement of the aerial conflict 78 years hence.
The programme for the day was very relaxed, with display slots spaced out from 1200 to 1600 and a longer lunch break in the middle. A gaggle of four Tiger Club Stampes and Aero Legends’ Jackaroo and Tiger Moths opened the show, flying figure of eights in formation before the Stampes flew their very enjoyable routine as a quartet, capped off by some mightily impressive solo aerobatics courtesy of Chris Jesson.
Aero Legends recently purchased C-47 Skytrain Drag ‘em oot and it was this aircraft which really illustrated one of the venue’s strongpoints – the proximity of the crowd to the runway. The mighty Skytrain thundering down the grass and into the air at close quarters, the deep rumble of the engines reverberating in the chest, left a lasting impression. The C-47 was joined by a pair of Harvards, courtesy of Aero Legends and Headcorn regular Rob Davies, before the trio split into individual displays.
Regular Old Warden attendees will be spoilt by the closer display distance exemption that the Shuttleworth Collection worked tirelessly to receive, but the reality is that other venues have suffered from increased display distances following regulatory changes imposed in early 2016. There is no denying that this has lessened the impact of display flying at these venues, but that is the landscape airshows now exist within. This of course was true of the displays flown at Headcorn, however they were still enjoyable and the proximity to the start-ups, taxying and take-offs helped counterbalance this. Certainly this has to be the closest you can get to operations, bar perhaps at Cosby (if the airfield element of that event continues). The fighters made the biggest impression, with Aero Legends’ Spitfire pair TD314 and NH341 following the Dove off the runway for a demonstration of their wing-to-wing flights just before the lunch break.
A whole host of local craft and produce stalls and a superb array of food vendors set up within the showground lent the event a country fair feel. A stall selling punnets of locally grown Strawberries (some as big as apples and red and juicy as you like!) proved popular as did the local cider producer. I also picked up a rather nice Panama hat that was much needed in the fiercely warm sun – high quality stalls catering largely for the non-enthusiast audience. Most of the visitors were, as far as I could tell, just locals enjoying a day out, with a small proportion of the crowd true enthusiasts. This lent a very friendly atmosphere to the show, with none of the jockeying for front-row positions on the crowd line that over events occasionally suffer from.
The second half of the flying displays opened with a feast of warbirds. Aero Legends’ Spitfire pair were joined by the Historic Aircraft Collection’s Spitfire Mk.Vb BM597 and Hurricane Mk.XII from Duxford, Hurricane P3717 from Old Warden and Spitfire MK356 from the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight at RAF Coningsby (sadly a third Hurricane from the BBMF cancelled). The civilian warbirds were scheduled to join the BBMF in the air, and due to a delay in the latter’s timings the warbirds held at the end of the runway with the Spitfires shutting down to avoid overheating. When they re-started their engines, lined up and hacked down the runway in stream all at close proximity, it really did feel like a scramble. The six warbirds then formed up and flew in trailing formation around Headcorn.
With the number of airshows around the UK diminishing year on year, particularly those at smaller venues, it is a rare thing to see this number of warbirds flying together away from the bigger venues.
Following another break was the arrival of the visiting Hispano Buchón in an airfield attack. The machine in question was the Air Leasing operated Yellow 7 on its post-restoration debut. Diving in from the east and with the light blue Battle of Britain film scheme blending into the clear blue sky, it really did take people by surprise and effectively illustrated an airfield attack by a lone bandit. Following several strafing runs and aerobatic figures from Richard Grace, Anthony ‘Parky’ Parkinson was on hand to scramble in TD314 to see off the invader. A mock dogfight concluded with Parky performed a few victory rolls in celebration, much to the joy of the crowd who ate up the whole set-piece. It was great to see the show secure Yellow 7’s first-time appearance – UK warbird debuts are largely limited to Duxford airshows and to see a new machine making its first public outing at a smaller show was fantastic.
Another of the Spits to get airborne again was the BBMF’s MK356, with the Flight’s CO Andy Millikin performing a display before heading off on flypast duties in the local area. Milli did a wonderful job of displaying the Mk.IX to the crowd with a mixture of aerobatics and topside passes, showing off the wonderful No. 19 Squadron desert paint scheme currently worn by the Spitfire. Also flying for a second time was the C-47, which had been scheduled to perform a round canopy parachute jump until winds precluded this on the day. Nevertheless, we enjoyed another lovely solo display by Peter Kuypers.
The show was closed on a somewhat sedate note with the Aero Legends Percival Prentice. That’s no knock on the aircraft or its routine – it was a very rare flying appearance that is unlikely to be seen at any other airshows.
Having not been to one of the Aero Legends airshows before (this being my first visit to Headcorn), I was overjoyed at how wonderful the whole experience was – the warbirds powering past on the grass, a decent contingent of fighters in the air and some of the lesser seen and underrated vintage types taking to the skies. The overarching relaxed schedule and friendly atmosphere made this an airshow I look forward to returning to. Warbirds over the garden of England on a perfect summer’s day – what more could you want?!