After numerous thwarted attempts to host a First World War anniversary airshow within the centenary years, The Shuttleworth Collection’s luck finally came good in 2018. With the forecast winds mercifully abating on the day, what had initially looked like a repeat of the blown-out previous attempts turned into one of the most comprehensive displays of Great War aircraft seen in Europe.
The First World War had an irreversible effect on the world in so many ways. Lives and countries were torn apart, the course of their futures forever changed, as the total number of military and civilian casualties soared staggeringly to around the 40 million mark. Warfare drove technological development across a range of spheres, aviation included, as Allied and Axis forces strove to achieve military dominance.
At the time, the air was the new battleground. Beginning just ten and a half years after the first recorded powered flight, the war precipitated huge advancements in aviation technology in a short timeframe as opposing forces sought to rule the high battleground.
The centenary of the conflict holds great significance, particularly for the nations of Europe. There have been numerous large gatherings at some of the principal locations on the Western Front – Mons, the Somme, Ypres – with televised ceremonies. In aviation circles it has been just as important to mark the conflict; that in itself has presented challenges, not least the fact that aircraft of the era are particularly susceptible to poor weather conditions and the margins for safe flying are far smaller than those of their successors. Unlike later conflicts, there are fewer flying aircraft available and their ability to travel is more limited. Long transits are typically out of the question, and suitable aerodromes are sparse.
The Great War Display Team have been stalwarts in that respect, flying their range of replica aircraft in a fantastically choreographed wheeling dogfight sequence with pyrotechnics at airshows up and down the country, and across the Channel in Europe. Once a year on the Pentecost weekend the La Ferté-Alais le Temps des Hélices has staged its yearly First World War sequence with a roughly 50/50 combination of highly accurate reproductions and hybrid replicas. The only venue in Europe capable of fielding the largest number of airworthy genuine and authentic reproduction Great War types is Old Warden, though the weather has often had other ideas.
For the beginning of the centenary in 2014 the Shuttleworth team had organised a First World War themed event with a grand array of related ground attractions; sadly the weather precluded the flying of any aircraft, let alone Great War types. The 2015 Military Pageant was largely dedicated to a Great War aerial commemoration, however winds affected the First World War types from flying once again, with the same fate befalling the 2016 Edwardian Pageant, which had been due to host a gathering of Sopwith types. Attempts in 2017 fared somewhat better, with the WW1 Evening Show enjoying some breaks in the weather that allowed a handful of aeroplanes to fly, though the Snipe and Dove were unable to get airborne.
Looking to 2018’s Military Pageant, a host of visiting aircraft joined the Old Warden based aeroplanes to complete a large line-up of genuine, reproduction and replica First World War types totalling 15 machines. It looked as though the wind may once again play havoc, but thankfully it abated just enough to allow everything bar the Edwardian aircraft to get aloft. The variable winds also meant that three runways were in use, allowing the take-off and recovery of aircraft from different locations – that certainly kept the ground crews busy!
As is always the case at Old Warden, the extensive ground displays offered additional value and anyone with as much as a passing interest in militaria will have found delight in the plethora of vintage military vehicles on display in front of the hangars, ranging from First World War trucks to heavily armed Second World War half-tracks.
Although the First World War commemoration formed a large part of the afternoon’s proceedings, the flying element of the show extended beyond the Great War and opening the display was one of the most sought after warbirds in the UK – Republic P-47D Thunderbolt Nellie. This was one of the best viewings we are likely to see of the Thunderbolt, at a small venue and at close quarters, with Pete Kynsey providing five topside passes after some aerobatics. A selection of the Shuttleworth heavies followed the mighty Jug, with Gladiator and Demon, Lysander, Sea Hurricane and Spitfire taking flight in succession.
The Great War element to proceedings began with the Avro 504K and the visiting WW1 Aviation Heritage Trust B.E.2c flying together, representing the early period of the conflict and the first conflict in the air. As the 504K landed the B.E.2 was joined aloft by the Bristol Fighter – both pairings I can’t recall seeing at an airshow before.
Some Sopwith rotary action followed. Sadly the Collection’s Pup is still sitting out displays due to an engine gremlin. The stars have never quite aligned for us to see more than three rotary-powered Sopwiths at one show, although we have seen five in the air over Old Warden at different times in recent years (Pup, Triplane, Camel, Dove and Snipe).
Along with displays by the Collection’s First World War types, several replicas of the Great War Display Team were in attendance and put on one of their dogfighting displays, something not seen at Old Warden for several years. Their whirling display with smoke and sound effects helps to add some context and theatricality that the genuine and accurate reproduction aeroplanes understandably cannot offer. Two more replicas also flew together, with Jon Gilbert’s Nieuport 17 from Stow Maries being joined by a second Fokker Dr.1.
A break in the Great War action saw two Avro heavies display back to back, with BAe’s XIX Anson followed by the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight’s Lancaster making a trio of spectacular passes. We are lucky to have seen four Old Warden appearances by the Lancaster and each one has been absolutely fantastic, the crews positioning the big bomber perfectly for photographers.
Two Bristol machines at different ends of the Great War aviation spectrum were then flown together, with the Bremner Brothers’ 1914 Scout biplane joining the Collection’s high-speed 1917 M.1c monoplane. The Collection’s genuine SE5a, an aircraft with kills to its name, also flew but its display was curtailed by a technical issue.
The Sea Hurricane was flown for a second time in the afternoon, joined this time by Hurricane P3717 (returning from display duties at Headcorn). We were in for a real treat as P3717 was flown by renowned New Zealand warbird display pilot Keith Skilling, who is often only seen displaying at Flying Legends nowadays. His opening pass included his instantly recognisable trademark topside entrance at high-speed. The tempo was brought back down as we turned to the Miles Magister, with Mark Sharp displaying the trainer very nimbly. We also enjoyed a fine display by the elegant Lunak glider.
The remainder of the display was carousel of some of the First World War aircraft, culminating in a poppy drop. The commentators suggested this may involve the aircraft flying together, but in the event they flew a succession of solo displays. This concept didn’t quite work, but having waited four years for a First World War airshow at Old Warden, only a churl would find fault. For some of these aircraft, we can sometimes wait months or years to see another appearance – to that end, seeing the B.E.2e, Scout, Triplane, Dove and Camel all displaying for a second time was something to savour. Who knows when, if ever, we will see so many Great War era biplanes and triplanes flying at the same show. The final act of the show was a poppy drop from the Bristol F.2b, accompanied by a minute’s silence and the Last Post.
The fact that the team at the Shuttleworth Collection persevered for four years to host a major First World War commemoration airshow speaks volumes of their determination and their love of airshows. The Military Pageant deserves to be remembered as one of the very best Shuttleworth airshows of recent years.