Duxford’s fabulous Festival of Flight
Welcome to this latest edition of Aerodrome and our regular fortnightly look at the fascinating world of aeroplanes and the historic aviation scene in the UK. With the Airshow season now in full swing and significant contrasting events taking place this weekend at Fairford and Duxford, we are pleased to return to our 2018 show reviews in this latest blog and our first visit of the year to the Imperial War Museum Duxford. In the wake of last year’s incredibly successful May Air Festival, the new display organising team had a tough act to follow, but in true Dunkirk spirit, they were determined to succeed – join us as we head for Cambridgeshire and this two day aviation extravaganza which proved to be not only an extremely enjoyable show, but also the latest instalment in Duxford’s fascinating aviation Entente Cordiale with their friends from across the English Channel.
Chinook Display Team 2018 debut
This heavy lift helicopter has proved to be one of the most useful aircraft in RAF inventory, since the type entered service just before the Falklands War
As one of the UK’s major Airshow venues, Duxford will be a familiar airfield to tens of thousands of aviation enthusiasts, not only from the UK, but also from across the world and with its reputation for staging some of the most impressive WWII Warbird displays in the world, this historic Cambridgeshire airfield always attracts sizeable crowds on show days. With a new display organising team at the helm, the May Air Festival has benefitted from some new ideas and saw last year’s inaugural event receiving rave reviews from everyone in attendance, many of whom will have made the 2018 trip hoping for more of the same. With some memorable highlights still fresh in our minds, could the team serve up an Airshow to rival the success of last year?
There is no doubt that committed aviation enthusiasts will travel great distances for the chance to see specific aircraft, often attending shows due to the published attendance of just one rare or newly repainted aircraft. For others, a varied display programme with plenty of ground attractions to keep the family occupied is the recipe for a great day out and the mark of a successful Airshow is the ability for an organising team to deliver on both counts, whilst also keeping their fingers crossed for good weather and no traffic incidents on the day. For someone who has enjoyed attending Airshows for almost 40 years now, I always find it interesting to see which aircraft are currently commanding the attention of the general public, keeping people coming back to these popular events and forcing youngsters to rush to the crowd barriers in awe and wonderment – after all, these will be the pilots of the future, or at the very least, tomorrows aviation enthusiasts.
One aircraft which most definitely inspires and enthrals in equal measure is the impressive Boeing Chinook, the Royal Air Force’s heavy lift helicopter which has to be regarded as one of the most useful aircraft in current RAF service. Although this successful helicopter is of American design, it has been welcomed into extensive Royal Air Force service since before the Falklands War and has seen plenty of action across the globe over the past 38 years - Britain is now the largest operator of the Chinook outside the US with some 60 examples. ‘Project Julius’ will see all of the RAF’s existing Chinook HC4s eventually receiving a significant upgrade over the next few months, trading in their analogue flight control systems for a new Boeing Digital Automatic Flight Control System, which will provide pilots with more modern equipment, increasing both the safety and performance of this already capable helicopter.
The 2018 display Chinook was making its first Airshow appearance at Duxford and arrived early on a murky Saturday
If you are fortunate enough to get close to a Chinook, you will immediately appreciate just how large an aircraft this actually is and leave you wondering how the Chinook Display Team manage to throw this rotary monster around the sky during their popular Airshow appearances. With impressive internal and external load carrying capabilities, this mighty aircraft is a surprisingly spritely performer and can do things which a helicopter of this size surely shouldn’t be able to do. Born from the fact that the Chinook represents a rather large target when operating in a combat zone, crews have perfected a number of flight techniques which allow them to address the landing zone in a somewhat enthusiastic manner, minimizing the opportunity for enemy attack, whilst ensuring the safe delivery of their payload, be that men or supplies. With a top speed of just under 200mph, the Chinook is also no slouch and all these impressive attributes are accessed to the full during its display routine, ensuring that this awesome aeroplane has become a highlight feature of any Airshow it attends.
News that the RAF Chinook Display Team would be attending the show was a real bonus for those in attendance at Duxford, particularly as this would be their first display of this important RAF centenary year, even though it was only scheduled to perform on Saturday. Making a particularly dramatic entrance on a rather overcast Saturday morning, the Chinook arrived as members of the press were gathering content on their early morning escorted flightline walk, which was temporarily halted to allow this rotary giant to settle on the grass at Duxford. Underlining just how cavernous the Chinook is, it seemed to deliver an extended display team crew and all manner of support equipment, as this was clearly a valuable first outing in what would surely be a busy year for the team and as we all know, you can never have too much stuff on an away day.
The mighty Chinook is a really impressive aircraft and a firm Airshow favourite
Chinook HC-6A ZH891 was built in 1997 and began its RAF career as an HC.2 at Odiham – in a long career, the aircraft has undergone successive upgrades to her current HC.6A standard and now flies in the colours of No.27 Squadron. As one of the RAFs oldest squadrons, No.27 Squadron can trace its origins back to late 1915 and the mighty Martinsyde G.100 Elephant single seat, long range fighter – as its name suggests, a very large aeroplane. The squadron’s badge takes inspiration from this first aircraft to equip the squadron and features an Elephant in the centre of the crest. Representing Joint Helicopter Command and specifically Britain’s Chinook force, ZH891 and her crew gave a polished display of power and agility, ensuring that the modern battlefield helicopter played a significant role in this first Duxford display of 2018.
The Spitfire and Duxford airfield are inextricably linked and seeing one at this historic location is a special experience
One aircraft which will always have an enduring bond with Duxford airfield is the Supermarine Spitfire, arguably Britain’s most famous aeroplane. The first RAF Spitfires were delivered to Duxford based No.19 Squadron in the summer of 1938 and saw plenty of action from the airfield during the early months of the Second World War. With so many of the post war restored Spitfires also either based, or operated from Duxford at one time or another, there is something truly special about experiencing a Spitfire display over this famous old airfield and no matter how many times you may have seen this spectacle before, your latest dose of Spitfire medicine always manages to hit the historic aviation spot. This is especially true of Spitfires which have a historic link to Duxford itself and there can be few which can boast the Duxford credentials of this early mark machine.
Supermarine Spitfire Mk.Ia N3200 was built at the Vickers Armstrong works at Eastleigh, near Southampton in 1939 and delivered to RAF No.19 Squadron at Duxford in April the following year. Wearing the codes QV and the distinctive black and white underside recognition markings synonymous with RAF fighters of the day, the aircraft set off on its first operational sortie from Duxford on 27th May 1940, in the hands of Sqn Ldr Geoffrey Stephenson, as part of the significant RAF response to the emergency situation at Dunkirk and the evacuation of the stranded British Expeditionary Force. During the savage fighting, Stephenson managed to down a Luftwaffe Stuka, before his Spitfire sustained damage to its engine, which almost immediately seized. He managed to successfully land his aircraft on a beach at Sangatte, to the west of Calais and was able to exit the downed fighter without sustaining injury but quickly falling captive to German forces. The Spitfire lay damaged and partly buried in the sand, becoming something of an attraction for the German forces in the area, many of whom had their picture taken with the vanquished British fighter and marked their visit by leaving with the odd RAF souvenir.
Over the years, the abandoned Spitfire slipped slowly under the shifting sands and was lost from sight and most people’s memory, until the wreck revealed itself once more in 1986. A recovery of the aircraft was undertaken later the same year and N3200 would spend the next ten years in a French military museum, displayed in its raw, recovered state. Perhaps attracted by the provenance of this Spitfire and the famous photographs of it lying forlornly on the beach at Sangatte, it was purchased by a group in the UK and earmarked for restoration – this would be a long and complex process which would take 14 years to come to fruition. In March 2014, Spitfire N3200 triumphantly took to the skies once more and it was not lost on anyone watching this project that it took place at Duxford, the same airfield it has left some 74 years earlier on its first combat mission.
This beautiful early mark Spitfire makes a distinctive whistle during its evocative display
This magnificent and historic aircraft has since been donated to the Imperial War Museum and it has gone on to be the star of many a Duxford Airshow – as an early example of the iconic Spitfire, this allows enthusiasts the opportunity to experience what it would have been like to see Battle of France/Britain era Spitfires climbing into the Cambridgeshire skies back in 1940 and is for many, the purest example of this famous fighter. One feature of this aircraft which always raises comment after witnessing one of its displays is the distinctive whistle it makes whilst gracefully gliding around the sky and it is interesting to know what is responsible for producing this not unpleasant sound. Apparently, it is the result of airflow passing over the spent cartridge ejector chutes, which act like a flute and produces what can only be described as a musical note – the captivating music of an early Spitfire! This phenomenon was eliminated in later versions of the Spitfire due to a deflector being added to alter the airflow over the opening, which makes the handful of airworthy early mark machines the only ones which make this distinctive sound – with interesting little details such as this, could we possibly love the Spitfire any more than we do?
Duxford’s furious trio
A furious trio. This magnificent sight was one of the undoubted highlights of the 2018 Duxford Air Festival
With a varied and imaginative flying programme published in advance of the show, the latest Air Festival offered the opportunity for visitors to see aircraft flying which represented types which fought during the Great War, right through to the very latest front line combat aircraft, with a number of notable inclusions from the period between. One particular aircraft which was represented in some force and proved a significant attraction over the weekend was a trio of Hawker Sea Furys, an aircraft which can claim to be one of the most potent piston engined fighters ever produced and one which heralded the dawning of the jet age. Originally developed as the ‘light Tempest fighter’ for the Royal Air Force, this stunning aeroplane was all about speed and power, combining the hugely powerful Bristol Centaurus engine with a relatively small and sleek airframe. The result was a beast of an aeroplane, but one which would highlight the pace of aviation technological advancement towards the end of WWII – it was probably one of the best piston engined fighters ever produced, yet was to have only limited impact as it entered service at the same time as the world’s first classic jet fighters.
Although originally intended as a new fighter for the RAF, this final example of the great Hawker piston engined fighters was to find favour with the Royal Navy and several other overseas naval air arms, providing them with a much more potent aircraft than the old WWII types they were currently operating. The last propeller driven fighter to serve in the Fleet Air Arm, Navy Furys would be pitted against the latest MiG jet fighters during the Korean War, acquitting themselves admirably and proving their combat credentials against this latest aviation technology. Let’s take a closer look at the three aircraft which were gathered at Duxford.
Sea Fury T-20 WG655 – The Fighter Collection
This magnificent aircraft was a former RNHF aircraft and has now been modified to accept a Pratt & Whitney R2800 engine
Presented in this attractive natural metal finish, we have to start with this beautiful Duxford based aircraft, which has quite some history on the UK Airshow circuit and was a welcome addition to the flying programme. Built as a two seat training version of the Sea Fury, this aircraft initially served with No.781 NAS, before undergoing conversion to target towing configuration and a new career with the German military. It was to return to the UK in 1976 and became one of the much loved display aircraft of the Royal Naval Historic Flight, based at Yeovilton, where it performed at Airshows all over the UK, showcasing the capabilities of this awesome aircraft.
The Hawker Sea Fury T.20 is one of the best looking aircraft produced by the British aviation industry
Following engine failure shortly after take off from Yeovilton in 1990, the aircraft was forced to make an emergency landing in the first available field, unfortunately striking a tree and sustaining significant damage. The wreckage was bought by an American collector, who embarked on a lengthy restoration project, which culminated in a first flight in 2005 – later acquired by the Duxford based Fighter Collection, this stalwart of the UK Airshow scene was now back home. Following persistent issues with the mighty Bristol Centaurus engine which powered the aircraft, TFC made the decision to re-engineer the aircraft to accept a Pratt & Whitney R2800 engine, which whilst giving the aircraft a different appearance (and sound) would allow it to be much more active on the display circuit than it had previously been. The purists will say that this is not therefore a Sea Fury and whilst they may have a point, there is no denying that this is still a beautiful aeroplane and their Fury is now back where it belongs, in the sky.
Hawker Fury FB Mk.II – Air Leasing
The Sea Fury prototype is in the centre of this naval aviation trio
With a particularly colourful history, this aircraft marks an important stage in the development of the Sea Fury and is presented as one of the aircraft converted to act as a Sea Fury prototype. Originally constructed as a Fury ISS – single seat fighter for the Iraqi Air Force, it was restored to airworthy condition in the US following the end of its Middle Eastern service and went on to perform for several years on the UK and Australian Airshow circuits. It returned to the UK once more in 2016, undergoing a period of renovation with Air Leasing at Sywell and emerging wearing this unusual scheme for a Fury – representing SR661, the first Sea Fury prototype, which was actually a modified Fury Mk.II fitted with an arrester hook for carrier operations, but lacking the folding wings featured on production Sea Furys.
The Sea Fury is all about power and performance, despite its sleek and cultured appearance
This beautiful aircraft has gone on to be a significant addition to the UK Airshow circuit, with its spirited displays underlining just how potent a performer the Sea Fury was and whilst it may not have served during the Second World War, still represents a proud achievement for the UK aircraft industry. Different in appearance to all other Sea Furys which have spent time on the Airshow circuit, this aircraft features yellow undersurfaces, naval camouflaged uppers and a large yellow ‘P’ to signify its status as a prototype airframe.
Hawker Sea Fury T.20 VX281 – Fly Navy Heritage Trust
The aircraft of the Fleet Air Arm are held in particular affection by enthusiasts across the country
Although not exactly saving the best till last, it is somehow fitting that the final Fury to be featured should represent the Fleet Air Arm and Britain’s only military operators of the mighty Sea Fury. The Royal Naval Historic Flight have been high profile operators of former British naval aircraft on the UK display circuit for many years and are always viewed with great affection. This may simply be due to the fact that there is something special about the operation of these mighty aeroplanes from the heaving deck of one of Britain’s diminutive aircraft carriers, or could it just be the attractive colour schemes usually applied to naval aircraft? Whatever the reason, naval aircraft are always amongst the highlight of any air display.
The Sea Fury T.20 was an attempt to allow pilots converting to this most demanding of piston engined fighters the opportunity to have guidance from a qualified instructor sitting behind them in the aircraft. The Sea Fury was not only an extremely capable high performance aircraft, representing the very pinnacle of piston engined fighter design, but it also had to be operated from the deck of an aircraft carrier and was definitely not for the faint-hearted. Some 61 two seat T.20s were produced and whilst retaining the impressive performance of the single seat version, allowed pilots to gain the experience they needed to make their first solo Sea Fury flights.
Despite its stunning good looks, the Hawker Sea Fury was one of the most capable piston engined fighter aircraft to see service
This aircraft was built in 1948 and served the Fleet Air Arm in a training capacity until sold to West Germany in the 1960s. It was later bought by a Warbird collector in the US and spent the next thirty years thrilling audiences in America, allowing them the opportunity to appreciate the many attributes of this British aviation classic. It was later purchased by an anonymous benefactor and presented to the Royal Naval Historic Flight, who have successfully operated several Sea Furys in post war years, but have also been unfortunate in losing two of them in accidents. Indeed this aircraft (G-RNHF) itself suffered engine failure during the 2014 Culdrose Air Day and was expertly nursed through an emergency wheels up landing by its talented pilot, Lt Cdr Chris Gotke. Now thankfully back on the Airshow scene, this beautiful aeroplane is once again displayed to its full potential by Chris Gotke, drawing attention to the history of British naval aviation and the talented people who operated these aeroplanes. Interestingly, this aircraft is now operated on the civilian aviation register by Fly Navy Heritage Trust, the charity arm of Navy Wings. Unfortunately, the display did not include the sight of all three Sea Furys flying together, but the opportunity to see these mighty aircraft parked next to each other on the static display line proved to be a show highlight for many.
‘Joie de vivre’ from the French Air Force
One of the most significant features of last year’s Duxford Air Festival and the first event for the new organising team was their success in arranging an impressively varied flying programme, which included a number of unusual and extremely welcome aviation acts. At the head of this list and for many people the highlight display of the show was a first Duxford Airshow appearance for the Dassault Rafale C of the French Air Force, one of the world’s most capable and agile combat aircraft. Building on this initial success and further strengthening Duxford’s Entente Cordiale with French aviation, this year’s show promised not one, but three exciting displays from across the channel. Once again featuring the Rafale solo display which proved such a hit last year, they had also managed to secure an appearance by the famous French Air Force aerobatic display team the ‘Patroille de France’ and a first Duxford appearance for Equipe de Voltige, a triple coup for the display organisers – if you were looking for a little Gallic Flair, Duxford Air Festival was the place to be over the May bank holiday weekend.
Dassault Rafale C
Star attraction. The French Air Force Rafale was determined to steal the show for a second year running
Proving itself to be one of the most capable fighting aircraft currently in service, the Dassault Rafale is an indigenous French aircraft which currently equips both air force and naval units, with just over 160 aircraft produced to date. Clearly not a consideration during the aircraft’s development, the Rafale is fast becoming one of the most popular display aircraft on the European Airshow scene, as it continues to thrill audiences with dynamic routines which are reminiscent of the magnificent Airshows of years past, whilst also doing a great PR job for France. Significantly, the French Air Force have seen fit to present their display aircraft in striking liveries which make them extremely photogenic and as this year’s aircraft was presented in a different scheme to the one which captivated Duxford last year, it seems as if their policy may be to change them with each new display season – if only the RAF would adopt a similar idea for their display aircraft.
The solo Rafale display aircraft for 2018 had traded its stylish silver and blue scheme of last year for a smart black and red design, but seemed determined to maintain its status as the most thrilling display act of the show and for many who were fortunate enough to witness it, they needn’t have worried on that score. As Duxford regulars are now becoming accustomed to enjoying something of a friendly French aviation invasion during their May Airshow visit, it will be interesting to see what the 2019 show has in store for everyone – watch this space.
Patrouille de France
As one of the world’s most famous aerobatic display teams, the Patrouille de France are a highlight act wherever they perform
As one of the oldest aerobatic display teams in the world, the Patrouille de France have become regular performers at UK Airshows over the years, but usually at the larger events such as RIAT, Waddington and Mildenhall. As the direct French equivalent of our own beloved Red Arrows, the Patrouille are something of a French institution and demonstrate the skill and professionalism of the modern French Air Force, both to home audiences and during the many overseas visits the team undertake. Equipped with the Alpha Jet trainer which proved to be such a popular design across Europe, their aircraft are patriotically presented in blue, white and red and have also been fitted with smoke generators to enable coloured smoke to be a significant component of their displays. Performing a combination of graceful formation aerobatics and dynamic opposition passes, the Patrouille are a popular display act wherever they appear and this welcome return to a Duxford show will have delighted many.
With the runway at Duxford being a little shorter than most display venues, neither the Patrouille de France nor the solo Rafale operated from the airfield, but instead were based at the nearby Cambridge Airport. With all their reserve and support aircraft, associated equipment and personnel, Cambridge became a small French enclave for the duration of the show, as this sizeable team not only needed a base for their operations, but also sustenance and accommodation for the length of their stay. The Cambridgeshire region has a proud history of welcoming overseas airmen and their support staff to the area and I am sure this latest French contingent will have enjoyed excellent hospitality during their stay and will hopefully be keen to pay Duxford another visit in the very near future.
Team Equipe de Voltige
Although only one aircraft displayed on each day of the show, the Equipe de Voltige team showed why they are multiple aerobatic champions
Perhaps the most unusual component of this French Duxford trio was the first visit of the dynamic Equipe de Voltige display team, who use the Extra 330 to display their flying prowess. Linked to the French Air School, the team has been in existence since 1968 and whilst clearly a popular item on French display programmes, were displaying to a Duxford crowd for the very first time. The team usually consists of two aircraft performing precision aerobatics at the same time, however there must have been a technical issue with one of the aircraft, or sickness within the team as only one aircraft performed on both days of the air festival. It did, however, introduce the Duxford crowds to these distinctively presented aerobatic aircraft and demonstrate why this team have won the World Team Aerobatic Championship on three separate occasions – assez magnifique!
Enter the ‘Alpine Anteater’
One of the more unusual aircraft at the show, the Schlepp can trace its origins back to a multi-role aircraft of the Second World War
We end this review of the Duxford 2018 Air Festival by featuring a rather ungainly looking aircraft which proved to be something of an aviation revelation at the show. Adopting what must be considered a unique place in European aviation history, the Farner Werke Schlepp C-3605 is a strange looking aeroplane to say the least and whilst probably surprising nobody with its operational credentials as a target tug (schlepper literally means tug), it is interesting to note that this aircraft can trace its origins back to a fighter design from the Second World War. The EKW C-3603 entered service with the Swiss Air Force in 1942 as a twin seat fighter/reconnaissance/multi-role aircraft and had the appearance of a Morane Saulnier D3800 fighter front, combined with the rear section of a smaller Messerschmitt Bf110. Although possessing surprising agility for its appearance, the aircraft was no match for the latest fighters of the day and was soon relegated to secondary roles, specifically training and towing duties.
By 1967, all remaining aircraft in service were given a rather radical make-over. They were re-engined with a much lighter American Lycoming T53 turboprop engine, which gave the aircraft a much needed performance boost, but required a significant modification – the weight shift had changed the aircraft’s centre of gravity, so the nose was extended by six feet and an additional vertical stabiliser was added to the tail. Only 24 of these aircraft underwent this modification, but they remained in Swiss Air Force service until 1987, which is quite some achievement for an aircraft which can trace its origins back to the Second World War.
Despite its ungainly appearance, the Schlepp was a surprisingly agile performer
Although this aircraft certainly raised a smile when it took off rather noisily for its display, the Schlepp quickly proved to be something of an unlikely star of the show, as it possessed incredible agility and a real turn of pace throughout its routine and when combining this with the excellent commentary which detailed its wartime heritage, the ‘Alpine Anteater’ proved to be a real hit. With unexpected participants such as this, the future of Duxford air displays appears to be in extremely good hands and with growing attendance figures with each passing show, it seems as if the Airshow going public are showing their appreciation in the most positive manner possible, with advanced ticket sales.
Now with two May Airshows under their belts, the Duxford organising team must be pleased with their efforts and how enthusiasts and the general public have responded to their new ideas and creative thinking. The Air Festival is now a major event in the UK display calendar and an ideal way for anyone interested in aviation to blow away those winter blues and prepare for a busy few months of Airshow activity. Having built up such an enviable reputation in a relatively short space of time, it will be interesting to see how this show develops over the next few years and if this early season display, which is traditionally regarded as one of Duxford’s less popular events from an attendance perspective, can begin to rival the popularity of later shows, due to the strength of the intended display programme. As for this year’s show, it has to be regarded as another success for everyone involved and a great way for Duxford to start their RAF centenary commemorations … with just a little help from the Armee de l’air.
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