Some two and half months after originally intended, the Shuttleworth Collection opened the UK and European air display season with the first ever ‘Drive-In’ airshow on the 18th July. As one of the first major public events of any kind to be held in the UK in the wake of the coronavirus, it was no surprise the event sold out quickly and visitors were treated to a wonderful evening display held in near perfect conditions.
Paul Johnson/Flightline UK reports. All photography by the author.
The coronavirus crisis has touched all facets of daily life for everyone and the return to something near what we would call normal is likely to be long and unpredictable one. Charities like Shuttleworth have been hit hard in recent months by the social restrictions required to reduce the spread of the virus. The museum has been shut for many weeks and many of the Trust’s supporting events have fallen by the wayside taking away months of normal income. Clearly being able to re-open and start holding events in as safe as manner as possible is a priority for many such charities but even just a few weeks ago that looked impossible until early autumn. It was therefore a very welcome surprise that the Shuttleworth Collection had put together plans that enabled them to hold an airshow in mid-July and will put them on the path to holding many more events through the rest of the summer.
Getting the go-ahead for a public airshow is not just up to the event organisers. They need to work with local authorities (particularly Safety Advisory Groups) and regulators to prove an event can be run safely for all those involved. Changing from a more usual style of airshow to a ‘COVID-secure’ Drive-in event has been no small feat and huge credit must go to all at the Shuttleworth Trust for putting together the plans for the event and carrying them out so well. From start to finish it was a smoothly run event and it was great to see all the visitors complying with the new temporary restrictions.
On arrival before gates opened, cars were held in ‘Dover Lanes’ in the parkland. As the gates opened these are slowly released and once your ticket was scanned you drove into the airfield much like normal. The large 5m x 5m parking areas were marked out in white paint on the grass which gave each car load its own bubble to view the airshow from. The spaces were divided into zones and each of these had its own set of toilets and catering trailers (with clearly marked queuing areas.) However the museum, visitors centre and restaurant were out of bounds as was the fence-line. To facilitate this the commentary was not carried over the usual public address system and was instead transmitted over FM radio frequencies so it could be picked up by car radios. Such a set up will not suit every airshow venue but the sloped public paddock at Old Warden does lend itself to Drive-In events very well.
The opening display of the evening could not have been more appropriate. The Aircraft Restoration Company has really captured the public’s imagination with its Supermarine Spitfire PRXI – the ‘NHS Spitfire.’ The aircraft has recently been repaired following a landing accident in 2019 and was being air-tested around Duxford airfield during the early spring when COVID restrictions started to slowly be relaxed. ARCo received quite a few messages of appreciation from local villages and that led to some flights during the Thursday night ‘Clap for Carers’. For the final ‘Clap for Carers’ event ARCo added ‘Thank U NHS’ text to the underside of the aircraft. Now the aircraft is touring various NHS sites throughout the summer spreading the message of thanks. It is also raising money for NHS Charities through nominations to have an NHS or key worker’s name painted on the aircraft. You can add a name through the NHS Spitfire Justgiving page. At the time of writing, the appeal has raised nearly £13,000. John Romain put the Spitfire through a wonderful elegant routine to start the display highlighting the underside message.
As ever for a Shuttleworth show, there were some really delightful groups of aircraft flying together. Army Cooperation Flying was represented by the Westland Lysander III, a visiting Piper L4 Grasshopper and the Polikarpov Po-2. A de Havilland section to the flying would have seen the DH60X Cirrus Moth in company with the DH51 ‘Miss Kenya’ but sadly the latter landed early with a slight technical snag. The vintage light aircraft theme continued with a rare display by the Collection’s Parnell Elf which looked glorious in the sunlight against a very grey backdrop. The racing aircraft have become a very popular part of any Shuttleworth show and David Beale’s Percival Mew Gull return to Old Warden to join the Collection’s own example and the DH88 Comet for a fast-paced display.
The Collection’s vintage gliders added some moments of tranquillity between the noise. The EON Primary enjoyed some very favourable conditions for its return to earth even managing to find a thermal to prolong its descent. Graham Saw also put on a very fine display of aerobatics in the Fauvel AV26 complete with delicate wingtip smoke.
More colour came from some of the Military training aircraft based at Old Warden with solo displays from the Miles Magister, Avro Tutor and Percival Provost T1. The Magister also flew as part of the traditional barnstorming display along with the Piper Super Cub, de Havilland DH82a Tiger Moth and DHC-1 Chipmunk. Stu Goldspink also flew a solo aerobatic display in his own Pitts S-1S Special.
Four of the Collection’s First World War aircraft flew during the evening. First to go were the Sopwith Pup and Sopwith Triplane representing the early wars and flying in some quite beautiful golden skies. Later as twilight started to fall it was the turn of the Sopwith F1 Camel and Bristol M1c to take to the skies for a final dusk patrol.
The display concluded back where it started with the roar of Rolls Merlin engines. This time it was the pair of Hawker Sea Hurricane Ib and Supermarine Spitfire Vc which flew in close formation for several passes before splitting into short solo routine. It was a fine end to a very successful Drive-In airshow. The Drive-In concept is a compromise for everyone and we do hope for a return to a more normal style of Old Warden show soon. However, it cannot be understated just how great it is to see public air displays return in some form ahead of better times ahead. Well done Shuttleworth.