Duxford Air Festival

Duxford Air Festival

The “Duxford Air Festival” opened the Imperial War Museum Duxford’s season of air displays over the May Bank Holiday weekend. The event marked several changes for airshows at Duxford with a new flying display organising team led by Geoff Brindle and Rod Dean plus a longer format which saw flying last from 1.15pm to nearly 6pm on both days. The make up of the flying programme was different too with more visiting acts from the UK and Europe representing nearly every facet of powered flight.

Paul Johnson/Flightline UK reports. All photography by the author.

The three major air displays that mark the summer season at Duxford are an integral part of life at the Imperial War Museum Duxford. They are always high points of the UK (and indeed European) display season often commemorating major historical events like no other show can. There’s no denying Duxford has always been an expensive venue, but its high quality flying displays coupled to the world class Museum mean you do get plenty for your money.

2017 sees Geoff Brindle (Flying Display Director) and Rod Dean (Flying Display Coordinator) take over the reigns of putting Duxford displays together from Jeanne Frazer who retired at the end of last season. Both Geoff and Rod have for many years been involved in Duxford air displays supporting Jeanne and therefore are natural successors to build on the incredible standard of flying displays held at Duxford.

For the Imperial War Museum’s own events in May and June, longer flying displays are promised with more visiting and varied displays celebrating 100 Years of Duxford airfield which opened in 1917. The September event has been given a Battle of Britain theme promising massed formations of Spitfires and Hurricanes as only Duxford can. The May event however was not themed coming under the banner of the “Duxford Air Festival” and really celebrated powered flight in all its different forms with everything from delicate First World War aircraft through to modern combat jets via autogyros, formation aerobatics, warbirds, attack helicopters and bush aircraft!

As always at Duxford airshows, it was not just about the action in the air but there were also ground exhibits which included the Bloodhound SSC. Aviation wise it was great to see the Bell/Boeing CV-22B Osprey back at Duxford on static display. These aircraft are based at nearby RAF Mildenhall with the 352nd Special Operations Wing and their crews put on an impressive exhibition alongside their aircraft. The Army Air Corps too were on the ground with a AgustaWestland WAH-64D Apache AH1 and large ground exhibition.

The flying displays on both days benefited from relatively good weather, though Saturday did suffer from a persistently strong gusty wind which came on the tail of some morning wind which lead to the cancellation of the RAF Falcons Parachute Display Team and some rejigging of the flying programme.

On both days the show was opened by one of the international participants, the North American OV-10B Bronco from the Belgian Bronco Demo Team and flown by Tony de Bruyn. Duxford marked the team’s first UK appearance of the year. Each year the team takes up a theme for the display season and this year they are commemorating the centenary of the First World War with poppies adorning the aircraft and “Lest We Forget” inscribed over the top surfaces of the aircraft’s wing.

The First World War theme was continued by two other display items. The Great War Display Team are a familiar sight across the UK but are always a show highlight recreating the swirling air battles over the trenches. 2017 sees the team supported more regular by ground based pyrotechnics which really add to the atmosphere of their display. The winds on Saturday meant the team were unable to perform in their scheduled display slot, but full credit must go to the team and flying display organisers for being flexible enough to rejig the flying and to reschedule the team to close the days flying.

One of the weekend highlights came from the Historic Aircraft Collection with their Sopwith Pup restoration that was completed last year by Retrotec.  The aircraft has been completed as N6161, an aircraft that was captured by the Germans in 1917 and subsequently text flown in German markings. The restoration has been completed using genuine period parts including some from the original N6161. The aircraft first flew during the off-season and is restricted to flights in only perfect conditions. While Saturday’s wind was way too much, Sunday proved much more favourable enabling Roger Bailey to complete the aircraft’s debut public performance.

The glamorous age of flying between the wars was mark by two very colourful displays. The Duxford based de Havilland DH89a Dragon Rapide operating by D&M Miller displayed in combination with Shipping and Airlines’ DH90 Dragonfly flown by Dan Griffiths marking the birth of commercial and executive air travel. The 1920s and 1930s were also a golden age for air racing with events held over short courses as well as globe-trotting adventures such as the MacRobertson Air Race of 1937. These pioneering events were marked by The Shuttleworth Collection’s beautiful de Havilland DH88 Comet and Percival Mew Gull displaying with David Beale’s wonderful Percival Mew Gull Replica. It was a very rare appearance by these three aircraft away from Duxford and the first time the Comet had landed away from Old Warden for an event since it returned to flight in 2014.

No Duxford air display would be complete without Spitfires and appearing towards the end of both days displays were a pair of Supermarine Spitfire Mk1as. These were the Imperial War Museum’s own Spitfire 1a N3200 operated by the Aircraft Restoration Company and a very rare public appearance by Comanche Fighters Spitfire 1a X4650 operated by the Fighter Collection. Flown by John Romain and Pete Kynsey, the pair put on a very elegant routine of loops, big barrel rolls and sweeping passes to mark the RAF’s first Spitfires arriving at Duxford in 1938 for service with 19 squadron.

Duxford’s connections with the United States Army Air Force also formed a significant part of the flying programme. Boeing B-17G Flying Fortress Sally-B kick started her display season flying alongside Anglia Aircraft Restorations North American TF-51D MustangMiss Velma’ flown by Richard Grace. Richard put on a very powerful routine in the Mustang showcasing the superb performance of the aircraft in the wide open Cambridgeshire skies. Also taking part was Plane Sailing’s Consolidated PBY-5A Catalina marking the types important roles in maritime surveillance plus search and rescue during the Second World War.

But the highlight of the warbird contribution was not a fighter or a bomber, it was a humble utility aircraft. The Norwegian Spitfire Foundation debuted their Noorduyn UC-64 Norseman at Duxford displaying it alongside the Aircraft Restoration Company’s de Havilland Canada DHC-2 Beaver. It is believed to be the first time since the Second World War that a Norseman has visited Duxford and certainly the first time in many years that a Norseman has been seen at a UK airshow. Norseman played an important role during the war as a utility aircraft and is perhaps most famously known as the type in which Glenn Miller was flying when he went missing over the English Channel on his way to a concert in Paris. The NSF have beautifully refurbished the aircraft which is now finished in its authentic Royal Norwegian Air Force markings.

As well as the Bronco, the Cold War era was marked with an impressive collection of classic jets. Mark Petrie and Ollie Sucking flew a rather pleasing duo display in the BAC Strikemaster Mk82a and BAC Jet Provost T5. It had been hoped to present a duo of Strikemasters as Mark has recently completed restoration of another Royal Air Force of Oman example to join his regular mount. Sadly, it just wasn’t quite ready for Duxford but was able to use Jeff Bell’s immaculate Jet Provost as a worthy substitute. Adding to the jet trainer theme was the Norwegian Air Force Historical Squadron’s Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-15UTi. While the Squadron is based at Rygge in Norway, they decamp to the UK for the display season and this year the MiG will be based at Duxford for much of the year.

One of the star turns during Saturday’s display was the de Havilland Sea Vixen FAW2 from NavyWings. The Sea Vixen put on a typically brutish display of power and noise in the hands of Simon Hargreaves marking the aircraft first appearance at Duxford since it made its display debut at 2001 May Air Display. Sadly, on return to Yeovilton the aircraft suffered hydraulic issues which prevented the landing gear from lowering. The pilot performed a textbook wheels-up landing on Yeovilton runway and walked away unharmed. We await news from the hardworking NavyWings team on the condition of the aircraft.

Aside from all the historic displays, there were some interludes of smoke and colour from some of the UK’s top civilian teams. The Breitling Wingwalkers gave their first UK display of the year with new wingwalkers Gina Marshall and Katie Hobbs on the top wings. Further smoke and colour came from Peter Davies in his Rotorsport Calidus who took full advantage of Saturday’s strong winds to show off the incredible agility and flexibility of the autogyro.

The Duxford audience were treated to two doses of formation aerobatics. The Blades Aerobatic Team with their modern made a rare Duxford appearance on the back of their very successful trip to the World Formation Aerobatic Championships in China. In contrast, the TRIG Aerobatic Team showcased perhaps the most iconic and historic aerobatic aircraft, the Pitts S-1D Special, during a very punchy routine of close formation aerobatics.

The British Army always make an impressive contribution to Duxford events with local regiments exhibiting on the ground. The service was also well represented in the air too.  Sunday’s show saw a display from the Parachute Regiment’s Freefall Display Team, the Red Devils. The Air Festival also marked the first public display appearance of the year for the Army Air Corps Attack Helicopter Display Team from nearby Wattisham. For the first time at Duxford, their display of the WAH-64D Apache AH1 was supported by the impressive ground-based pyrotechnics. As ever their display is a dramatic and eye-catching role demonstration of how UK Apaches are used to support ground troops in operations around the world.

The Royal Air Force’s contribution to both days of the flying was the Eurofighter Typhoon FGR4 from No 29[R] Squadron flown by Flt Lt Ryan Lawton. Like the Apache, Duxford was the venue for Ryan first public display of 2017. Ryan routine is different from those of previous years with some noticeable changes which keeps the aircraft in a much tighter space in front of the crowd showcasing the impressive agility and power of the Typhoon at both slow and high speed.

However, if we had to pick an outstanding highlight of the show, it could only be the Dassault Rafale C solo display from the French Air Force. Flown by Capt Jean-Guillaume ‘Marty’ Martinez, the Rafale simply rocketed its way around the Cambridgeshire sky showing off the aircraft’s amazing turn of speed and agility. Complementing the display is a typically stylish and patriotic special paint scheme for the primary display jet. The tagline for the Air Festival on the publicity posters and social media was “Feel the Power” and Marty’s display certainly lived up to that spirit!

With displays from a Sopwith Pup right through to the dazzling Rafale, you could not fault the Duxford Air Festival for lacking on highlights or variety. It was a very different style of display for Duxford with fewer of home team regulars within the display, but it was still an exceptionally enjoyable event full of memorable moments.