The American Air Show, IWM Duxford

The American Air Show, IWM Duxford

The Imperial War Museum, Duxford opened its flying season for 2016 with the American Air Show. Duxford shares some important links with the US Military, not least because during the latter stages of the Second World War it was home to the 78th Fighter Group of the United States Army Air Corps. Today it is also home to The American Air Museum which is the largest collection of american military aviation artefacts outside of the Unisted States. The American Air Show celebrated many facets of US-inspired aviation history from the First World War to the current day.

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

2016 marks the re-opening the American Air Museum at Duxford following a major transformation project. It therefore provided a fitting theme for the opening air show of the season at Duxford over the May Bank Holiday weekend.

The American Air Museum, designed by Fosters & Partners, was originally built at IWM Duxford in the late 1990s on the former site of First World War US hangars, to present the best collection of American military aircraft on public display outside North America. It stands as a memorial to the approximately 30,000 US airmen and women who were killed while serving from Great Britain during the Second World War.

The museum tells the story of Anglo-American collaboration in twentieth and twenty-first century conflict, as seen through the eyes of the people linked with the aircraft and objects on display. From Private to President, the American Air Museum tells the personal stories of 85 people whose lives have shaped or been shaped by their experiences of conflict. It focuses on the key role played by American air power, in conflicts from 1918 to the present day, with dramatic displays of historic and contemporary aircraft.

The transformation, made possible by a number of private and commercial donations plus support from the Heritage Lottery Fund, was revealed to the public on Saturday 19th March when the American Air Museum reopened. The transformed museum highlights several different themes reflecting the history of American Air Power and how it shaped the history of the United States. These are the World Wars, the Cold War and War in the Mountains and Deserts and all these themes were reflected in the afternoon flying display at the American Air Show.

As ever, the morning at a Duxford air show can be spent exploring the Museum and also the flightline. Living history groups on the airfield had Second World War and Vietnam War era displays plus there was American flavour 1940’ swing music and dancing within the showground. Both days saw rather murky starts with Saturday proving to be a rather humid hazy day and Sunday being somewhat fresher.

As well as the flying display aircraft, there were a couple of notable visiting aircraft on the ground. A rare visiting ‘warbird’ was the Aeronca L3B Defender. These were used to training the US Army Air Force’s Aerial Observation and Liaison pilots before they headed on to front line types such the Piper L4 and Stinson L5.

Bringing things right up to date was a USAF Bell/Boeing CV-22B Osprey based at nearby RAF Mildenhall. These tilt-rotor aircraft are used in the Special Operations Role alongside specialised variants of the Lockheed MC-130 Hercules. They replaced the MH-53 Pave Low helicopters and conduct  conduct long-range infiltration, exfiltration and resupply missions. In the American Air Museum, Boeing-Insitu displayed an example of the ScanEagle remotely piloted aerial system (RPAS.)  This system is now widely used by a number of nations as an affordable long-endurance RPAS system overland and in maritime environments.

The flying displays were opened on the Saturday by La Patrouille de France with their graceful and very photogenic display of formation and synchronised aerobatics. The cloudy conditions limite the team to their poor weather show, but it was a a very polish routine. Like the UK, France has enjoyed a close relationship with the United States Air Force so they were a very appropriate addition to the show.

Their compatriots from the Royal Air Force, the Red Arrows, closed the event on Sunday evening with their usual panache. Further Royal Air Force participation came from the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight, flying the pair of Supermarine Spitfire XVI and Hawker Hurricane IIc. Leading the formation was OC BBMF, Sqn Ldr Andy Milikin in the Spitfire while Flt Lt Andy Preece followed in the Hurricane. It was one of Andy’s first shows with the BBMF after four seasons as the RAF’s Tutor display pilot. Duxford also saw the public debut of Flt Lt Mark Long’s Eurofighter Typhoon FGR4 solo display which was certainly caught the attention of the audience with a display that appears to show more of the Typhoon’s outright performance and agility.

Another “out of theme” display came from the only civilian display team in the show, the Red Bull Matadors. Their close formation aerobatic routine really is one of the very best in the world with their stunning mirror formation work and their trademark inverted flat-turns.

The main american themed displays were supported by the excellent and informative commentary from Ben Dunnell. The show commentary mixed interviews and videos from the IWM archives which were played out on big screens plus movie soundtracks and music comtempory to the era of the displaying aircraft. It was extremely well balanced and created “Theatre of the Air” that really enhanced the experience of the flying display.

The opening American themed segments of the flying display looked at the very earliest years of aerial military cooperation between the UK and US in the First World War. This saw two of the Great War Display Team’s RAF SE5a replicas take on a solo Fokker DR1. Appropriately one the SE5as wore the markings of an American unit during the latter stages of the Air War in 1918.

The next major theme looked at the build up to American involvement in the Second World War. This included a look at a number of training aircraft used by the United States armed forces and American types used by the Commonwealth Flying Schools to train allied pilots. Opening this segment were Golden Apple’s Boeing BT-17 Stearman Kaydet and Peter Holloway’s new and rather beautiful Ryan STA.

It has been a while since we’ve seen a formation of three North American T-6 Texans or Harvards together at a UK show. The aircraft came from the Aircraft Restoration Company, Aero Legends and T6 Harvard Aviation. The Harvard formation really impressed with the group staying in close vic formation throughout and making a tremendous buzzsaw sound as they powered their way around the Cambridgeshire skies. This led into a salute to the American Eagle Squadron’s which served with the Royal Air Force during the early stages of Word War Two ahead of official US involvement. This salute saw the Historic Aircraft Collection’s Hawker Hurricane XII joined by the Imperial War Museum’s own Supermarine Spitfire Ia and the Fighter Collection’s Spitfire LFVb.

The American involvement in the Second World War was very well represented in the flying displays. It was great to see the Pacific Air Conflict well represented with a section involving aircraft right from Pearl Harbour attack right through the latter stages of the conflict. Set to music from the film ‘Pearl Harbour’ this section of the flying display saw the Fighter Collection out in force with their Curtiss Hawk 75A-1, Curtiss P-40C Tomahawk, Grumman FM2 Wildcat and Goodyear FG-1D Corsair. They were joined by a very visitor from France in the form of AeroRetro’s Mitsubishi A6M Zero replica. This is actually a modified Harvard with a three blade propeller, re-profiled Cockpit and tailplane to recreate the distinctive lines of the iconic Japanese fighter.

The US participation in the European theatre of operations saw similar treatment with a scenario that saw Boeing B-17G Flying Fortress ‘Sally-B’ being attacked by the pair of Hispano HA-1112M1L Buchons of the Aircraft Restoration Company and Spitfire Ltd. Flying top-cover for the B-17 were the Fighter Collection’s North American TF-51D Mustang and the Norwegian Spitfire Foundation’s P-51D Mustang. The sequence concluded with a tailchase wheeling around Duxford’s skies recreating the scene of late-war dogfights over northern Europe. ARCo’s Buchon was notable as it was wearing temporary markings for the filming of a new feature film ‘Dunkirk.’ The aerial sequences for the filming were taking place at the time of the Duxford Airshow over the English Channel and also involved the pair of Spitfire 1as from Comanche Warbirds and a modified Yak-52TD flown by Mark Jefferies.

The support of the land troops was not forgotten either with a theme called “Supporting the Troops and the Shaft of the Spear!” This saw a collection of liaison, army co-operation and transport types display together including David and Mark Miller’s de Havilland DH89a Dragon Rapide, a Piper L4 Cub from Adrian Acres plus a pair of Douglas C-47A Skytrains from Aces High and Dakota Heritage.

There were several themes representing post war period and more modern American air power. Sadly, these days is impossible to cover the Cold War period in any detail as so many types are not airworthy or available from this period. Instead certain periods from the cold war were picked out for the flying display to complement the Cold war aircraft and stories from the American Air Museum.

An interlude of civilian flying in this theme saw an unusual pairing of ARCo’s de Havilland Canada Beaver and Pete Kynsey’s Le Vier Cosmic Wind. While the Beaver is well known for its roile supporting the British and US Armies in various roles, the Cosmic Wind’s links are perhaps less so. In the early 1960’s, a company called American Electric took the Cosmic Wing design as a basis for the Pirnaha, a small and agile counter insurgency aircraft. It was evaluated under project ‘Little Brother’ and it carried rockets and a 500lb bomb.

It is certainly unusual to see a theme marking the Vietman War at a British Air Show, but it provedto be  one of the stand segments of the flying display. Saturday saw Groupe Fennec’s North American T-28S Fennec representing one of the many piston types used by the US and South Vietnamese Air Force’s for close air support. But perhaps the overall  highlight of the show was a stunning and very unique pairs display from the Bronco Demo Team flying their North American OV-10B Bronco and Shorts SC-7 Skyvan. They played out a scenario with the OV-10B escorting a tactical transport (such as a C-130 Hercules or C-123 Provider) played by the Skyvan into a landing zone. The OV-10 then provided close air support and marked areas with it’s built in smoke system as the Skyvan performed a short tactical landing and performance take-off. The pair finished with a beautifully synchronised steep approach onto Duxford’s grass and hard runways.

The Vietnam War was also marked by major helicopter operations. MSS Holdings made their Duxford debut with two true veteran aircraft from the conflict. Most familiar is their Bell UH-H Iroquois ‘Huey’ utility helicopter with the distinct thumping beat of its two-bladed rotors that became an iconic soundtrack to US Army operations. Alongside the ‘Huey’ was their Hughes OH-6A Loach. A far smaller helicopter, the Loach was used a variety if utility and offensive roles and the example at the show was fitted with a mini-gun on the side of the fuselage.

Saturday also saw the modern day United States Air Force contribute to the flying display with a flypast by a Boeing KC-135R Stratotanker from the 100th Air Refuelling Wing at RAF Mildenhall. It is one type that has been a constant participant almost throughout the entire Cold War and into this new uncertain age of conflict in the Middle East and therefore was an ideal exponent of the theme “War in the Deserts and Mountains.”

Bringing the story right upto date was the AgustaWestland WAH-64D Apache AH1 from No 3 Regiment, Army Air Corps. The Hughes AH-64 Apache was designed for the US Army as a successor to the AH-1 Cobra attack helicopter and to combat the massive threat of the Soviet Tanks and land armies which threaten Western Europe throughout the Cold War. However, it proved itself more than worthy in the Post-Cold war environment during both Gulf Wars and the Balkans. The British Army Attack Helicopter Display Team is back to just a solo display for 2016, but it is impressive as ever showing the agility of the large attack helicopter as well as some of the low level tactics it employs in operations.

Flying wise, it was a solid start for the 2016 season at IWM Duxford with some very interesting displays and flying set-pieces. There were some great suprises such as the trio of Harvards, the Vietnam era flying and also the tailchase of Mustangs and Buchons. It was also an event support relatively well by the modern day USAF will the KC-135R flypast and the CV-22B which certainly captured a good crowd on its departure on Sunday evening.

It did however feel a little quiet, particularly on the Saturday. 2016 has seen Duxford move to an “Advance Ticket Only” policy with E-Ticket Sales closing on the Friday before the show. Maybe a combination of cost, some slightly dodgy weather forecasts and the continuous uncertainty over display distances did put people off. They certainly missed out on a good day out in the company of aviation.