The Battle of Britain Airshow is the Imperial War Museum’s annual commemoration of 1940 aerial battle in which Duxford played a major role. September 2019 also marked the 50th Anniversary of the general release of the wartime epic film ‘Battle of Britain’ and the IWM themed the event around Duxford’s links to many great aviation films. The collection of warbird ‘stars’ went far beyond the Battle of Britain however with many themed sequences of flying representing the Eastern Front, the Korean War, the United States Army Air Force and more.
Paul Johnson/Flightline UK reports. All photography by the author.
Complementing May’s Air Festival in IWM Duxford’s airshows is the Battle of Britain Airshow which is held in late September. Whereas the Air Festival takes in a very wide range of aviation old and new, the Battle of Britain Airshow showcases the very best of heritage aviation culminating with the massed Spitfire flypast finale. The 2019 show was themed around the classic war movies that many of the based Duxford operators and aircraft had featured in as 2019 marked the 50th Anniversary of Battle of Britain movie directed by Guy Hamilton, and produced by Harry Saltzman and S. Benjamin Fisz. Duxford played a pivotal role in the filming as film set and base for the many aircraft which took part. The film also kick-started the preservation movement into restoring more and more airworthy warbirds. Since the filming of Battle of Britain, Duxford has also featured in other productions such as ‘Memphis Belle’ and ‘Monuments Men’ and will soon feature in ‘Wonder Woman 1984.’
The movie theme brought out a touch of glamour around the museum site with live big band music in the hangars plus a wardrobe department and re-enactments. Duxford even created its own version of the ‘Hollywood’ sign outside Airspace with the stunning Douglas C-41A from Golden Age Air Tours as the backdrop outside the Airspace building.
The opening day of the airshow could not have asked for better weather with light winds and clear blue skies all day. However, Sunday did starteoff with fair weather, but a band of rain disrupted much of the middle part of the flying display which was a great shame.
The opening sequence of the flying display was nothing short of sensational and was a homage to the Battle of Britain movie. It featured four Hispano HA1112-M1L Buchons from the Aircraft Restoration Company, three Supermarine Spitfire Ias from the Imperial War Museum and Comanche Fighters plus four Hawker Hurricanes. The quartet are Hurricanes were drawn from Hurricane Heritage, Hurricane 501, Anglia Aircraft Restorations and the Historic Aircraft Collection. Duxford played several roles during the filming of Battle of Britain with a French Chateau built on the South side and in many of the RAF airfield scenes. The scenario saw the Buchon’s attack Duxford before the Spitfires and Hurricanes scrambled through the smoke to see off the intruders. Combined with the soundtrack from the Battle of Britain film, it was a truly memorable piece of aerial theatre with brilliant aerial choreography led by John Romain.
More Spitfires and Hurricane action followed with a display from the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight, the sole military involvement in the flying display. Saturday saw the flight present the Supermarine Spitfire PRXIX PM631 and Hawker Hurricane IIc LF363. Sunday saw the return of the Spitfire, but this time flying with Avro Lancaster B1 PA474.
The Great War Display Team have been involved with some major productions recently. Most notably many of the team’s aircraft masqueraded as German aircraft for the 2017 film Wonder Women. More recently, the Team’s RAF BE2c replica has been used the filming of the forthcoming film ‘The King’s Man.’ For the Duxford, they presented their usual and quite brilliant recreation of a swirling First World War Dogfight. Adding to the Great War theme was only the third public display by the Historic Aircraft Collection’s beautiful Airco DH9. This is the world’s only airworthy First World War bomber and has been subject of an quite incredible restoration by Guy Black who found and recovered two DH9 airframes from India. It was flown during Saturday’s display by Roger Bailey despite some brisk winds.
One display that featured not only some very potent aircraft, but also made an incredible noise was that given by the Hawker Furies. Paul Bonhomme led the formation in Anglia Aircraft Restorations Hawker Fury FB11 and was joined by the pair of Hawker Sea Fury T20s from the NavyWings Heritage Flight flown by Lt Cdr Chris Gotke and Norwegian Spitfire Foundation piloted by Eskil Andal. The trio flew through a very fast pace sequence of formation passes and a tail-chase.
Duxford’s role as a filming location and base for the 1990 David Puttnam and Catherine Wyler film ‘Memphis Belle’ was marked with a large contingent of American warbirds. The sequence was led by Boeing B-17G Flying Fortress ‘Sally-B’ which was one of five B-17s used in the production. For its part in the flying display, ‘Sally-B’ was joined by the Republic P-47D Thunderbolt ‘Nellie-B’ flown by Jon Gowdy representing the ‘little friends’ that escorted bombers over Europe.
‘Memphis Belle’ also featured a large number of North American P-51D Mustangs during the filming and these were represented in the flying by all four of the UK’s airworthy examples. These included aircraft from Robert Tyrell and the Norwegian Spitfire Foundation both of which actually were flown in ‘Memphis Belle’ plus the TF-51D ‘Contrary Mary’ from Anglia Aircraft Restorations and the Hangar 11 Collection’s ‘Tall in the Saddle.’ Due to low cloud, the full four-ship was only seen on Saturday but made for a magnificent sight over Duxford with all four aircraft wearing very different yet colourful markings.
Adding to the American hardware were the naval aircraft. Plane Sailing’s Consolidated PBY-5A Catalina and the Fighter Collection’s Grumman FM-2 Wildcat put on an interesting combined display while TFC also displayed their Goodyear FG-1D Corsair as a solo act.
For the first time in many years, Duxford heard the sound of five Bristol Mercury engines flying in unison. The mercury’s were powering the Bristol Blenheim IF and Westland Lysander IIIa from the Aircraft Restoration Company plus a further Lysander III and the Gloster Gladiator from the Shuttleworth Collection.
One of the most unusual and noisy combinations of the afternoon featured a quintet of American trainers. Opening the sequence was Mark Linney flying an aerobatic solo display in his Boeing PT-17 Kaydet. The biplane trainer was following by two early monoplane trainers, namely Ian Jones’ North American NA-64 Yale and the Vultee BT-13A Valiant from the Early Birds Foundation. The Early Birds Foundation are based in the Netherlands and their Valiant was making its UK debut. It was also the first time a BT-13A Valiant had flown in UK skies for 25 years. Completing the sequence were two examples of the T-6 Harvard with the CCF Harvard IV from the Aircraft Restoration Company and Noorduyn Harvard IIB from T-6 Harvard Aviation.
More international warbirds featured in the ‘Eastern Front’ segment of the flying. Will Greenwood and his Yakovlev Yak-3M was joined by the Yakovlev Yak-9UM from 46 Aviation based at Sion in Switzerland. Yakovlev fighters were well known for their speed and agility and this was ably shown by the pair flown by Emiliano Del Buono and Will.
The only jet aircraft in the flying display were the Lockheed/Canadair T-33 Silver Star and Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-15UTi from the Norwegian Air Force Historical Squadron. Their T-33 made its UK debut at Duxford in 2012 as a static display item. The pair flown by Kenneth Aarkvisla and Martin Tesli recreated a Korean War dogfight during Saturday’s display marking the end of their 2019 UK tour. Sadly they were unable to perform on the Sunday as the runway was too wet for them to operate from.
Bringing the Battle of Britain Airshow to a close was the huge collection of Spitfires that only Duxford can gather. Included in the ‘big wing’ were many different marks highlighting the huge development that the design enjoyed throughout the Second World War. In total, sixteen aircraft got airborne on both days. It could have been seventeen but unfortunately the Max Alpha Spitfire MkVIII suffered a prop strike while taking off during Saturday’s display. While the main mass of Spitfires formed into their respective formations, the Duxford audience was treated to a beautiful solo display by John Romain in the Imperial War Museum’s Spitfire Ia.
The massed Spitfires were divided into two sections. The main section was a stunning ‘diamond nine’ led by Cliff Spink in Richard Lake’s Spitfire FR.XVIII. The second section was led by Brian Smith in the Old Flying Machine Company’s Spitfire IX MH434 and was formed of two ‘vic’ formations. On both days, the two sections performed one pass together before splitting. Each section then performed its own flypasts over Duxford in turn before dividing into sections of three for the run-in and break to land.
The final act on Saturday’s display was Brian Smith superb solo in MH434. ‘MH will forever be closely associated with Ray and Mark Hanna who flew warbirds with such verve at airshows and in various film or TV productions around the world. 2019 marks 20 years since Mark Hanna lost his life after a flying accident in Spain and Brian’s display was a tribute to him and his father Ray.
Sunday’s display saw one more very special solo display by Cliff Spink in the Spitfire FR.VIII. Cliff has been displaying warbirds for 28 years, initially with the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight when he was Station Commander at RAF Coningsby. He continued to fly civilian operated warbirds after his time with the BBMF displaying the Spitfire, Mustang and Buchon amongst others. He also appeared on television, most notably as flying instructor to Colin McGregor during documentaries about the Battle of Britain and Bomber Command. Sunday’s display was his final public display before retiring from airshow flying. Despite the grey cloud, Cliff put on a typically lyrical routine in the growling Spitfire before joining up with Brian Smith in MH434 for one last run-in and break into the sunset – a very fine way to end the Duxford airshow season.
The Battle of Britain Airshow was Duxford at its very best with a display that commemorated and inspired in equal measure. The ‘At the Movies’ theme worked very well creating a wonderful atmosphere on the ground too which complemented the superb flying much of which was set to some great musical scores. All of set-pieces in the flying display were of the highest quality and all the participating pilots deserve credit for creating such a memorable spectacle.