Former Flying Legends
Welcome to this latest edition of Aerodrome and our regular look at the fascinating world of aeroplanes and the historic aviation scene in the UK. Well, it has finally arrived, the most manic ten day period of the 2019 Airshow season. This coming weekend, we have the delights of the world’s premier Warbird show to enjoy, as the Imperial War Museum, Duxford plays host to an unequalled collection of prop powered classic aeroplanes. Before we have time to come to terms which the aviation delights we have just experienced, thousands will be loading up their cars and heading for RAF Fairford and the Royal International Air Tattoo, a feast of aviation which is unrivalled by any other Airshow event anywhere in the world. As I will be in attendance at both shows and with a hectic schedule of blogs still to negotiate, this latest edition of Aerodrome will be paying homage to Flying Legends past, looking at some of the magnificent aircraft which used to thrill us at these shows, but will unfortunately not be gracing Cambridgeshire skies this year. It is not an exhaustive list and I will be placing the emphasis very much on images, as there is still so much to do before I can make my way down to Duxford. Naturally, Aerodrome will be publishing reviews from both shows in the coming weeks, so please keep an eye out for these and if you are going to either show yourself, please do send in a selection of your pictures – if we receive enough, we will produce a readers images review edition and showcase all your photographic talents. OK, let’s take a look at some of the magnificent aircraft we have enjoyed at the famous Flying Legends Airshow over the years.
TFC’s big cats
The Fighter Collection’s Grumman F6F-3 Hellcat possessed real combat provenance and was responsible for the destruction of nine Japanese aircraft
Throughout my aviation enthusiast life, I don’t think any single person has done more for Britain’s Warbird community than Stephen Grey, owner of The Fighter Collection and a man with a real passion for classic WWII era aeroplanes. Choosing to house this impressive collection at IWM Duxford, his aircraft are always available to be viewed by the public and any visit to Duxford is like a step back in time, as his engineering team are either working on classic aircraft inside the hangar, or performing engine runs and flight tests out on the airfield itself, the same airfield which was home to countless combat aircraft during the Second World War. In addition to this, Stephen Grey and his Fighter Collection team are responsible for arranging the magnificent Flying Legends Airshow, which will be celebrating its 27th anniversary this year, whilst at the same time marking the 75th anniversary of the aerial component of the D-Day landings. As for the aircraft taking part in the show, each one is extremely rare and incredibly valuable, with many now also having the distinction of being the sole airworthy examples of their type in the world and if not, then certainly in Europe. As historic and highly desirable items, you can never be certain that the aircraft you are admiring this year will be available to take part in subsequent shows and indeed some of the most popular former Flying Legends performers will not be featuring in this year’s display line-up. Let’s take a look at some of the beautiful Warbirds which once graced Flying Legends display programmes, but have now moved on to new locations and new owners.
Although the Pacific Theatre colour scheme of the Hellcat looks a little out of place on a European airfield, the F6F is irrefutably a flying legend and is still sorely missed by UK aviation enthusiasts
The Fighter Collection have always been admirers of large American radial engined aircraft from the 1940s and can still boast a Bearcat, Wildcat and Corsair amongst their impressive collection, however, their fleet of Grumman ‘Big Cats’ was once much larger. As the aircraft which ruled the Pacific following its combat introduction in September 1943, the Grumman F6F Hellcat was one of the finest fighting aeroplanes ever produced and despite the fact that it was introduced relatively late in the war, was responsible for claiming 75% of all US Navy combat claims during the Second World War. Despite the fact that over 12,000 of these impressive fighters were produced, very few remain in airworthy condition and when one arrived outside the TFC hanger towards the end of 1990, UK aviation enthusiasts were obviously delighted. The aircraft they had purchased was an extremely rare F6F-3 variant of this famous US Navy fighter, the first major mark of this fighter to enter service and during its restoration, the team managed to piece together the fascinating history of this unique fighter. Previously assigned to US Navy VF-6 ‘Felix’ squadron on board USS Intrepid during WWII, this Hellcat was found to possess real combat provenance and was once the mount of Lieutenant Alex Vraciu, one of the most successful fighter pilots in the US Navy. Managing to earn the coveted title of ‘Ace’ relatively early in his combat career, Alex Vraciu would go on to end the war as the fourth most successful US Navy fighter pilot and was credited with 19 aerial and 21 ground victories. Significantly for the Fighter Collection team, he used their new Hellcat to claim nine of those combat victories, instantly making this one of the most historically important airworthy WWII aircraft in the world.
Having discovered the fascinating wartime history of their new Hellcat, The Fighter Collection contacted Mr Vraciu with details of what they had found. Delighted by the new, the aircraft’s former pilot would prove instrumental in providing service records, accurate marking and colour scheme information used during the restoration of the fighter. As the date of the first post restoration flight approached, Alex Vraciu was invited to Duxford so he could be present for the occasion and in what turned out to be an extremely emotional occasion, presented Stephen Grey with his original wartime flying gloves for this historic flight, which added a really authentic touch to this historic first UK flight. The Hellcat would go on to be the star of many a Flying Legends Airshow and with its incredible combat history, became a much loved aircraft on the UK Warbird scene – unfortunately, in the Warbird world, all good things must come to an eventual end and for Europe’s only Grumman Hellcat, that date occurred in February 2015. Sold to new owners in the US, the Hellcat underlines the fact that we can never take anything in historic aviation for granted and since the end of the 2014 Airshow season, Europe has been without a flying example of this magnificent aircraft – thankfully, we all still have our pictures to remind us just how lucky we were.
One of the most impressive former aircraft of the Fighter Collection, the mighty Grumman F7F Tigercat was a US Navy heavy fighter which entered service just too late to take part in WWII
With its glossy midnight blue colour scheme and stellar performance, it’s no wonder the Tigercat appears in this review of former Flying Legends favourites
Another former TFC operated aircraft which emanated from Grumman’s famous ‘Iron Works’ was the hugely impressive F7F Tigercat, a beast of an aeroplane which had the distinction of being the first twin engined fighter to be deployed by the US Navy. This large aeroplane was intended to be operated from the decks of Midway-class aircraft carriers and despite the fact that it had the folding wings associated with aircraft operated at sea, it was much too large to be flown from the decks of smaller US carriers. Arriving in service just too late to see action during the Second World War, the end of hostilities meant that only 364 of these elegant fighters would be produced, even though they did go on to serve during the Korean War. Usually flown by The Fighter Collection’s Chief Pilot, the Tigercat would regularly lead the iconic ‘Balbo’ aircraft formation as the finale to Flying Legends Airshows and was a particularly potent performer when displaying by itself. The Tigercat was sold to a US collector in 2006 and just like the loss of the Hellcat, left us with no flying example of the F7F in European skies.
Every Flying Legends Airshow can boast a collection of display aircraft the like of which cannot be seen anywhere else in the world and as a result, sees thousands of enthusiasts flocking to Cambridgeshire for one glorious weekend every July. Of all the magnificent aircraft on display, there is perhaps one type which possesses a particularly strong association with Duxford and therefore makes its Flying Legends appearance all the more poignant, the incomparable Supermarine Spitfire. With the first production Spitfires delivered to RAF No.19 Squadron at Duxford in August 1938, the airfield has been linked with Britain’s most famous fighter since that date, either through wartime operation of the aircraft, or the restoration and display of Spitfires in post war years. Indeed, nearby Audley End can probably claim to be the most significant location for Spitfire restoration in the world, as this small airfield hangar complex was the starting point for many a restoration project during the 80s and 90s.
Rolls Royce Griffon powered Spitfire XIVe RN201 strikes a dashing pose as it takes its place on the flightline at a Flying Legends show, probably around 2006
The same aircraft looks even more majestic when in the air, diving in for a display pass along the crowdline
Although Spitfire XVI TD248 is still a Flying Legends regular, it is quite some time since she appeared in these beautiful post war markings
Although Britain can boast an ever increasing number of airworthy Spitfires at several locations around the UK, there is something magical when they all gather to take part in a Flying Legends show and over the years, we have been treated to some spectacular displays. With both Merlin and Griffon powered Spitfires represented, these magnificent aircraft often have the honour of opening each day’s flying activities, with several aircraft performing graceful, sweeping manoeuvres on the far side of the airfield, with a high energy tail-chase taking place closer to the crowdline. The two Spitfires we have included in this section were amongst the most striking examples of this famous aircraft to have appeared at Flying Legends Airshows and their distinctive silver and red markings will be sorely missed at this year’s event, despite the fact that one of them will still be taking part, albeit in a completely different scheme.
Always a Flying Legends favourite, the North American P-51 Mustang can always be relied upon to get the heart pounding a little faster and keep us heading back to Duxford year after year
A true flying classic, the North American P-51 Mustang is not only one of the most successful fighting aeroplanes in aviation history, but also an aeronautical thing of beauty, one of the most aesthetically appealing aircraft ever to take to the skies. Another aircraft which is inextricably linked with Duxford, the Mustang can almost claim to rival the Spitfire in terms of its popularity at this famous venue, with P-51 displays often proving to be the highlight of many a Duxford show. With a host of airworthy examples of this classic fighter operating from Duxford over the years, Flying Legends has been a happy hunting ground for Mustang enthusiasts in the past, as not only British and European based aircraft regularly taking part in the show, but also aircraft from America have made headlining guest appearances at previous events. With some aircraft flying the famous North Atlantic air ferry route, whilst others arrive crated and ready for assembly, Mustangs have always been a big part of Flying Legends Airshows and will hopefully continue to be so for many shows to come.
I still have no idea how I managed to catch this head-on picture of P-51C ‘Princess Elizabeth’ when I was stood behind the crowd barriers at a Duxford show
Two former TFC Mustang favourites ‘Twilight Tear’ and ‘Princess Elizabeth’ treat the Flying Legends crowds to some impressive formation flying
This evocative evening shot of ‘Ferocious Frankie’ shows the aircraft complete with under-wing bombs, which had to be removed before the aircraft could commence her flying display
Over recent years, the number of Mustangs on the UK register appears to have fallen to its lowest level for some time, as several of the most popular Airshow performers of years past have been sold on to new owners and their numbers not replenished. With famous names like ‘Princess Elizabeth’, ‘Twilight Tear’ and ‘Ferocious Frankie’ lighting up our Airshows in previous years, it is no wonder that we have been missing our Mustangs, even though you could argue that this American classic should be thrilling US audiences, whilst the Spitfire does the same job in Britain. Nevertheless, the Mustang is still one of the most popular Warbird aircraft at Flying Legends and if I am being honest with myself, when my Euromillions lottery win finally materialises, it will be a Mustang that accounts for my first significant indulgent purchase (if I am allowed). Above, I have featured a selection of Mustang images which we will not be able to replicate at the 2019 Flying Legends show.
Once experienced, never forgotten. Anyone who was lucky enough to see Messerschmitt Bf 109G-2 ‘Black 6’ display during her short Airshow career will probably describe this as the most enigmatic aircraft they have ever seen
As a celebration of WWII Allied air power, Flying Legends is unequalled in presenting many of the iconic aircraft from the Second World War we all read about as children, or had suspended from our bedroom ceilings in Airfix kit form, however, the opportunity to see a genuine German fighter displaying at Duxford was something to really get excited about. Although feared adversaries during WWII, so few German aircraft survived the final collapse of the Third Reich that any which possess genuine combat history and manage to return to airworthy condition, immediately become amongst the most famous aircraft in the world, guaranteeing that thousands of enthusiasts will travel many miles just to be present during one of their displays. Those of us who were fortunate enough to see Messerschmitt Bf 109G-2 Trop ‘Black 6’ (G-USTV) display during her brief, yet memorable Airshow career, will certainly attest to the fact that this aircraft would prove to be rather addictive and once you had experienced the sound of its genuine Daimler-Benz engine powering it through Cambridgeshire skies, no other display aircraft could compare. Captured by Allied troops who overran the former Luftwaffe airfield at Gambut Main, Libya in November 1942, Black 6 was returned to flying condition, so it could be evaluated by the Air Ministry in 1943 and used to develop air combat tactics against this latest variant of the feared Messerschmitt fighter. After the war, it was placed on static display at a number of events around the UK, but was to essentially spend most of the next thirty years stored in one RAF facility or another.
Thanks to the obsessive dedication of one man, Flt. Lt. Russ Snadden, this genuine Luftwaffe fighter was saved from an uncertain future and underwent a lengthy and meticulous nineteen year restoration programme, culminating in a triumphant 32 minute post restoration test flight at RAF Benson in March 1991. The aircraft’s Airshow debut took place at Duxford later the same year, an airfield which would become the long time home of this unique aircraft, which at the time was the only genuine Bf 109 fighter flying anywhere in the world. Anyone who was fortunate enough to see ‘Black 6’ fly during her short display career will know exactly what I mean when I say that is was a particularly memorable experience. The first time I saw this beautiful aeroplane running in to the display circuit at Duxford and heard the unusual whistle from its genuine Daimler Benz engine, I was captivated and totally hooked. From that point on, all other Airshow acts would be playing ‘Black 6 catch up’ for me and to this day, I hold the times that I was lucky enough to see this Messerschmitt fly as amongst my most treasured Airshow memories. Whether it was down to the unique sound of that Daimler Benz engine, or the unusual North African theatre colour scheme this Luftwaffe eagle wore, the black crosses which we had a natural aversion to as it marked one of the RAF’s most feared aviation adversaries had strangely become something of a guilty pleasure. In any case, every restored Spitfire needed to be chased around the skies by something!
As one of the most historic WWII aircraft in Britain, ‘Black 6’ still attracts plenty of admirers each year, as she is currently on display in the ‘War in the air’ hangar at RAF Museum Cosford
Unfortunately, operating the world’s only airworthy Messerschmitt Bf 109G fighter was not without its challenges and the aircraft would spend the next few years only displaying sporadically, due to a series of troublesome technical issues and by October 1997, it was all over. A landing accident at Duxford brought an end to flying for Black 6 and despite the fact that the aircraft would be restored once more, it was only so this famous aircraft could take her place in the Royal Air Force Museum. For the aviation enthusiast though, being able to boast of seeing Black 6 perform at an Airshow will certainly secure bragging rights in the future and those happy memories still come flooding back if you get the chance to admire this beautiful aircraft where she now resides, at the RAF Museum Cosford.
The ‘other’ B-17
The unusual sight of the SAAB B-17A was one of the highlights of Flying Legends 2005, as it made its only UK appearance at the show
One of Duxford’s most famous long-term aviation residents is Boeing B-17G Flying Fortress ‘Sally B’ and whilst this popular aircraft is a Flying Legends regular, it is not the only aircraft with this designation to have performed at the show. In 2005, Flying Legends attracted a rare and unusual European aircraft participant, in the shape of the SAAB B-17A dive bomber, an indigenously designed and built, all metal monoplane. Making its first flight in May 1940, this Swedish aircraft could hardly look more different from the famous American bomber which shares its military classification, being a single radial engine powered, rather ungainly looking attack and reconnaissance aircraft. The only airworthy example of its type in the world, B-17A build No.17239 was restored to commemorate SAAB’s 60th Anniversary in 1997 and made its only Flying Legends appearance during a memorable 2005 show. Built in three main variants, each one only really differed from the other by virtue of the engine it was fitted with and although the aircraft only entered Swedish Air Force service in 1942, it was withdrawn from military service only five years later, with a large number going on to fly in the colours of the Ethiopian Air Force.
During the 2005 show, the B-17A wooed the Duxford crowd with a display of agility which not many people thought this unusual looking aircraft capable of, culminating with a high altitude approach and a simulated airfield dive-bombing attack which was hugely impressive. Although Sweden’s B-17 bomber will never rival ‘Sally B’ in the Airshow popularity stakes, as far as I am aware, this was the only time that the SAAB B-17 has attended a UK Airshow and it takes its place as one of the many iconic aircraft which have graced this world famous Warbird spectacular.
Although looking slightly ungainly on the ground, the SAAB B-17A proved to be quite an agile performer and its demonstration of a simulated dive bombing attack was an undoubted show highlight
Right, that’s me finished and I am off to see what Flying Legends 2019 has in store. With a number of highlights already announced, it looks as if this latest show could prove to be one of the most memorable in recent years and I will certainly be looking to photograph all the aircraft sporting temporary D-Day stripes in this 75th anniversary year. If you are heading for Duxford this weekend, let's all keep our fingers crossed for good weather and if you have decided not to go, please keep an eye out for our review blog, which will be published in a forthcoming edition of Aerodrome. As always, if you have any ideas for a future edition of Aerodrome, or if you would like to supply a feature of your own which will be of interest to our worldwide aviation readership, please send your suggestions to our regular contact e-mail address at email@example.com, where we will be delighted to hear from you.
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