The Shuttleworth Collection’s sold-out Evening Airshow on Saturday, 18 July 2020 had the distinction of being Europe’s first airshow of the ’20s and, moreover, the world’s first drive-in air display.
Airshows and aviation events across the world have been cancelled or postponed due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the traditional airshow format being impossible whilst the ban on massed gatherings remains in place. All credit, then, to the Shuttleworth Collection for pioneering the drive-in concept; a decision not without risk, but supremely rewarding.
It was a concept executed flawlessly; you’d be forgiven for assuming Shuttleworth had been hosting drive-in airshows for years, and the team responsible for the event’s slick running deserve every bit of the praise being heaped on them post-show. Large queues had formed on the grounds in the hour or so prior to opening time, but these were well managed and quickly dispersed once the gates opened as advertised at 3pm – in fact, the socially distant ‘meet and greet’ of familiar faces and friends in the queue was one of the day’s highlights.
The £50 ticket price (payable per vehicle in a departure from the norm, and a steal for cars with more than a single occupant) – £45 for SVAS members – bought a 5×5 metre parking space clearly marked by white lines, allowing visitors to set up their chairs or a picnic by their vehicles and comfortably socially distance from their neighbours. This appeared to work perfectly, and the kind of respectful crowd you’d expect at Old Warden made it a thoroughly pleasant experience.
Cars were parked in three zones – two on the main field in front of the hangars, another to the right of the airfield – with each serviced by a ‘Welfare Hub’ of food and drink vendors replete with a dedicated (and regularly cleaned) lavatory block and sanitising station. Large walkways separated each row of cars, with an eight metre passage running from the centre of each zone to the ‘service centres’ at the rear, and spectators were asked only to leave their ‘block’ to use the facilities. From a social distancing perspective, you really couldn’t ask for much more. It was also notable that many display acts elongated their flypasts or flew additional turns and arcing passes so as not to neglect those in Zone C at the far right of the airfield – a nice touch.
The evening retained the heady atmosphere of a traditional Old Warden airshow. A different viewing experience, yes, but by no means a negative one; there was an uplifting feeling in the air, almost the sense of a collective sigh from those able to enjoy aviation for the first time this year.
It should go without saying that the flying was of the highest quality. John Romain and Spitfire PR.XI PL983 had the distinction of opening the flying programme at 5.30pm; dubbed the ‘NHS Spitfire’, the aeroplane is temporarily emblazoned with ‘THANK U NHS’ lettering underwing whilst the Aircraft Restoration Company spearheads a fundraising campaign that allows the nomination of up to 80,000 key workers and ‘local heroes’ to have their names handwritten on the Spitfire. Each nomination requires a minimum donation of £10, with proceeds going to NHS charities.
Romain and ‘L’ have a wonderful history together (as explored in our exclusive feature article A History: John Romain and Spitfire PR.XI PL983, published in April 2019) and are a terrific pilot and aircraft combination. John is no stranger to the venue, having flown ‘L’, Spitfire Mk I N3200, Bristol Blenheim and Hispano Buchón there in recent years, and it shows – he uses the curved crowdline to great effect, each aerobatic figure seamlessly flowing into the next on both display axes.
Elsewhere in the full three-hour programme, the racing trio of de Havilland Comet and Percival Mew Gulls (flown by Dodge Bailey, Paul Stone and Jean Munn respectively) scintillated, whilst Sopwiths Pup (Rob Millinship), Triplane (Stuart Goldspink) and Camel (Dodge Bailey), and the Bristol M1C (Goldspink again) made fantastic individual flights.
The trio of Lysander, Polikarpov Po-2 and Cub (flown by Rob Millinship, Mark Sharp and John Hurrell respectively) brought together an interesting gaggle of battlefield observation types, the formation passes of Po-2 and Cub surely offering a first-time pairing. Solo displays by the Avro Tutor (Mark Sharp) and de Havilland DH.60X Moth (Bob Morcom) were beautifully flown, whilst a particularly spirited Miles Magister routine, flown by Simon Davies in Dave Bramwell’s aeroplane, was this author’s aerial highlight.
Gusty winds at higher altitude precluded the Edwardians from getting airborne, and so the show-closing pairing of Hawker Sea Hurricane and Spitfire Mk V AR501 – quintessential Shuttleworth – was a warmly familiar conclusion to a thoroughly excellent evening’s flying. Particular credit to the pilots, engineers and volunteers whose tireless efforts created memories that will endure. This won’t be an airshow forgotten in a hurry.
For this author, the Evening Airshow offered the perfect tonic to a relentlessly bleak 2020. The drive-in format almost enhanced the intimacy of the venue; you shared the experience with your neighbours, tuning into ‘Shuttleworth FM’ on your radios and sitting by your cars, perhaps enjoying a picnic, with Old Warden’s natural amphitheatre allowing a subtly elevated view of the flying.
The aviation industry has been ravaged by the Covid-19 virus; closer to home for many of us, British airshows have been largely decimated, though there is some hope now of a smattering of events later in the year. The Shuttleworth Collection remains affected by the Covid lockdown, its shop and restaurant currently closed though the hangars are now open to the public.
The next ‘drive-in’ airshow is scheduled for Sunday, 2 August. This is a bigger event dubbed ‘At the Movies’, more details of which can be found on the Shuttleworth Collection’s website. Our proactive support of the airshow industry through these testing times is imperative. Shuttleworth’s drive-in format is a fine short-term solution, and though it is costly for single occupants and places a significant cap on crowd numbers at a venue that has a capacity of several thousand, its success in the interim is vital. Hopefully it won’t be long before we can rejoin our friends on the fence once again.
As a personal footnote, one family parked nearby raised a few smiles over the course of the evening. They had a young boy who watched each display attentively, took a few photos on a DSLR and played with his die cast Comet model between flights. He excitedly told his parents what every aircraft was, down to calling the DH.51 by its old ‘Miss Kenya’ moniker, and knew who was flying them. Many of us were him, decades ago, and he might well be us in ten, twenty years. That’s what it’s all about – the preservation of history for those who come next.
We must never take any of this for granted.