Old Buckenham was built to house the 453rd Bombardment Group of the United States Air Force in 1942. Today, though much of the base has been returned to farming, a small portion remains as a popular general aviation airfield with a small collection of hangars, an excellent café plus a museum and memorial to the men of the 453rd BG and USAAF 8th Air Force. Each year, the airfield hosts a number of events with the jewel in the crown being the annual Old Buckenham Airshow.
Paul Johnson/Flightline UK reports from the opening day of the 2017 event. All photography by the author.
Old Buckenham is one of the most charming airshows on the display circuit. It is very much a true community event celebrating not only the history of the airfield, but also many of the local businesses from the surrounding Norfolk villages and towns.
The airfield is a small site, and the event was very snug fit around the Jimmy’s Café, the hangars and the main control building so it was very easy to see everything you wanted to. One of the really lovely things about small airshows like Old Buckenham is that they are free from the commercialisation of large events. The local Air Training Corps provided the stewarding for the event and the majority of the traders were all local to Old Buckenham. It is a breath of fresh air not to see the usual collection of commercial contractor caterers and instead see a nice collection of different bespoke food outlets with far more variety on offer!
A particularly nice and we think unique touch to Old Buckenham was the “Attack and Destroy Bar” which stocked some specially brewed beers for the event including “Shark”, “Hurricane”, “Sally-B” and “Otto” ales in tribute to some of the show highlights.
Though the event was two days, the flying displays was slightly shorter on Saturday (reflected in a slightly lower admission price) with three more acts appearing on the Sunday. However, both days flying featured some excellent displays from local pilots as well as some very well-known faces.
Opening the flying on the Saturday was Rod Dean flying a Slingsby T67M Firefly. The Firefly used to be a stalwart of the air display scene in the hands of Pete Clark or latterly Alan Wade. Based on earlier on earlier Fournier design aircraft, the Firefly served as the basic training aircraft for the UK armed forces as well as air arms around the world. Rod’s display was a very smooth, flowing routine of aerobatics highlighting the excellent performance and elegant lines of the Firefly.
The light aviation theme was continued by Matt Summers flying a punchy routine in his Vans RV4. Vans aircraft are increasingly popular aircraft thanks to their relatively low running costs, excellent performance and near-warbird like flying experience.
More potent aerobatic machinery was displayed over the weekend by the local team, the Wildcat Aerobatics Team flying two Pitts S2B Specials. Sadly they were missing on the Saturday after pilot Al Coutts had an unfortunate run-in with a wasp! However, the team were able to perform as planned during Sunday’s display.
One of the most eye-catching displays of the weekend was the “Little and Large” duo of full sized Extra 300S flown by Chris Burkett and radio-controlled model Extra 300 flown by champion pilot Mike Williams. The pairing has a new look this year with both aircraft wrapped in the striking Global Stars livery. It was also very good to Chris back on the circuit after his slightly bumpy forced landing at Abingdon earlier in a Twister. The synchronisation between the full sized aircraft and model is always incredible and just seems to get better and better with perfectly matched aerobatics on show throughout their routine.
Nigel Wilson was busy over the Old Buckenham weekend display two very different aircraft. On Saturday he first appeared flying the Nord 1002 (or Messerschmitt Bf108 Taifun). The Bf108 was originally not part of the Old Buckenham line-up, but was a late replacement for the Beech Staggerwing which was suffering from brake issues and only seen on static display. Later he display his more familiar mount, Yakovlev Yak-52 G-BXJB. Despite its rugged look and relatively large size, the Yak is an impressive aerobatic performer, particularly at an intimate venue such as Old Buckenham.
The flying circus really did come to town at Old Buckenham with legendary display pilot Brendan O’Brien bringing both of his current display acts to the event. His trailer top landing routine with his Piper J3 Cub is no stranger to Old Buckenham despite the very short hard runway length. As Brendan freely admits, from a flying point of view it all about confidence, but there is a hige amount of trust between pilot and the driver of the trailer rig. The difficult aspect of Old Buckenham is the runway length and getting the trailer up to 60mph and stopped in time. After some “Crazy Flying” around the trees which surround Old Buckenham, Brendan took just two attempts to get the Cub onto the trailer and safely stopped; a feat the crowd really loved!!
Brendan’s second act was “OTTO the Helicopter.” OTTO (Actually a Schweizer 300C) was imported to the UK by Brendan last year. OTTO was a much loved and successful display act in the United States and fitted right into the American slant at Old Buckenham. With OTTO’s cheeky face applied, Brendan performed an eye-catching “chopperbatics” routine making full use of what he calls “the mother of all smoke systems!”
An airshow at such a historic venue would not be complete with a selection of warbirds. Appearing on both days was the Boultbee Flight Academy operated North American P-51D Mustang “The Shark.” AVM Cliff Spink gave a rousing routine in the mighty Mustang to close Saturday’s flying with a flourish. The Sunday of Old Buckenham saw the Mustang return with spirited displays from the Old Flying Machine Company’s Supermarine Spitfire IX MH434 and Boeing B-17G Flying Fortress ‘Sally-B.” The appearance of the latter being particularly poignant for Old Buckenham with it’s 8th Air Force history.
It’s very hard to find any fault with Old Buckenham and there’s lot to love. The light-hearted atmosphere and the unique quirks of the venue with some brilliant finishing touches such as the specially brewed beers really make Old Buckenham stand out from the crowd. The flying display may be quite small, but it was of the high calibre and presented brilliantly by the pilots and commentator Ken Ellis. 2016 saw Old Buckenham win a local tourism award, its hard to see how they cannot be in the running again this year!