The highlight of the IWM Duxford year is the Battle of Britain Airshow and in 2021 it was undoubtedly the UK’s premier historic aviation showcase. The Supermarine Spitfire was at the heart of the 2021 edition of the show with the type celebrating its 85th Anniversary. Spitfire’s featured en-masse not only marking the evolution of famous fighter, but also reflecting the many nations that flew the aircraft.
Paul Johnson/Flightline UK reports. All photography by the author.
The Battle of Britain Airshow enjoyed the biggest Duxford airshow audience of the year and going by the numberplates in the car park, also perhaps Duxford’s first international audience of the year too. That perhaps should not be the surprise considering the recent quality of Duxford’s September show in 2018 and 2019. With the relaxation of covid restrictions, this was the most ‘normal’ feeling Duxford event of the year and it was great to see the flightline walks and various exhibition areas thronging with visitors and a real buzz around the whole airfield.
That said, IWM’s airshow project team still faced a few challenges, not least the clash with the Goodwood Revival. While Goodwood is predominately a motorsports event, it also has a significant aviation element with flying displays and the Freddie March Concours d’elegance competition for historic aircraft. As such it’s a favourite with Duxford’s operators and did draw a number of star aircraft including some of the most well-known Spitfires. They did however more than rise to the challenge attracting fourteen civilian operated Spitfires plus a further three from the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight over the course of the weekend.
The flying displays were opened by a tribute to the incredible development of the Spitfire with a three-ship featuring the IWM’s own Spitfire Ia flown by Dave Ratcliffe, Aero Legends’ Spitfire IX with Charlie Brown at the controls and Anglia Aircraft Restoration’s Spitfire XIV piloted by Mark Levy. It was an impressive opening with the three very different variants with their different handling and performance characteristic being kept in close formation before splitting for a classic Duxford tailchase.
In the build-up to the show’s finale, there were a succession of different Spitfire displays. The only RAF contribution to the show, the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight presented a pair of their aircraft with the Spitfire XIVe TE331 joined by Spitfire IIa P7530 on Saturday and Spitfire IX MK356 on the Sunday. The Spitfire was also operated by many other air forces and to represent these Peter Teichman flew a spirited solo in his Spitfire IX PT879 which wears the authentic Soviet markings it wore when transferred under the lend-lease agreement. The RAF squadrons manned by allied nations pilots were also commemorated by the Historic Aircraft Collection’s Spitfire Vb BM597 flown by Dave Harvey. This aircraft wears the colours of 303 Squadron and forms part of the Polish Heritage Flight alongside the Collection’s Hurricane XII. 2022 will hopefully see both aircraft tour Poland as part of commemorations to honour the Polish pilots that served with the RAF during the Second World War.
The Hawker Hurricane was not forgotten during the flying display with a quartet of Hurricane Is in the early part of the programme. These include R4118 from Hurricane Heritage, V7497 from Hurricane 501, P3717 from Bygone Aviation and P9202 from Anglia Aircraft Restorations. This not only showcased the outstanding worker of Hawker Restorations who restored each of these aircraft, but was also the first time four Hurricanes with combat histories from 1940 had flown together as part of a display.
Joining the Spitfires and Hurricanes in the warbird flying displays were a wide variety of American types. The Curtiss Hawk family of fighters were marked with the duo of Curtiss Hawk 75A-1 and P-40F Warhawk from the Fighter Collection. The Hawk 75 in particular was put through a very punchy display by Dave Southwood. Another pairing from the TFC came later in the display reflecting the powerful US naval fighters of the late war. Brian Smith led the pairing in the Goodyear FG-1D Corsair alongside the Grumman F8F Bearcat flown by Pete Kynsey. The Bearcat in particular is always an eye-catching performer at airshows and Pete really extolled its incredible performance in Saturday’s clear skies with some towering zoom climbs with multiple vertical rolls, high speed passes and his trademark 16-point hesitation roll. Adding to the maritime theme alongside the fighters was Plane Sailing’s Consolidated PBY-5A Catalina.
One of the highlights of the flying programme was a sequence recreating late war operations by the United States Army Air Force. The sequence was opened by solo display by Boeing B-17G Flying Fortress Sally-B performing in public for the last time in 2021. While it has been a difficult season with fewer shows than usual, it has been good to see ‘Sally-B’ still in demand with a number of appearances at Duxford and around the UK including a trip to Jersey. Following the B-17s return, the airfield was then turned into a USAAF forward operating airfield and came under attack from three Hispano Buchons playing the role of Luftwaffe Bf109s. The Buchons included the two seat HA1112-M4K ‘Red 11’ and HA1112-M1L ‘White 9’ from Air Leasing plus the Duxford based HA1112-M1L ‘Yellow 10’ from the Aircraft Restoration Company piloted by Andy Durston, Dave Puleston and Paul Bonhomme respectively. Their attack supported by pyrotechnics was repelled by Jon Gowdy in the Republic P-47D Thunderbolt plus the pair of North American P/TF-51D Mustangs ‘Contrary Mary’ and ‘Miss Helen’ piloted by Nicholas Smith and John Dodd. It was a very different big set-piece to the usual Spitfire/Hurricane vs Buchon sequence that really highlighted the small size of the Bf109 design; especially when matched up to the P-47!
The Great War Display Team added a further big entertaining set piece to the afternoon display with a pair of RAF SE5as and Sopwith Triplane entering a swirling dogfight with the German Fokker Dr1s and Junkers CL1.
Post war historic military flying also featured in the display. The varied roles of the Army Air Corps were superbly demonstrated by the Historic Army Aircraft Flight with their Auster AOP9, De Havilland Canada Beaver AL1, Agusta/Bell Sioux AH1 and Westland Scout AH1. The flight is one of the few displays to mix rotary and fixed wing aircraft into one display which always keep action in front of the crowd.
The stars of the post war line up were the three historic Westland helicopters from Historic Helicopters. The team from Chard in Somerset brought the Whirlwind HAR10, Wessex HU5 and Sea King HAR3 for a very special display sequence which saw all three helicopters put on their own solos before a final massed hover in front of the crowd. Sadly on Sunday the Whirlwind was unable to take part, but in Saturday’s sunshine the three helicopters look absolutely stunning together. It is perhaps something a few years ago would have been completely unimaginable so huge credit must go to Historic Helicopters for keeping some important heritage aircraft flying and in the public eye.
Amongst all the historic military hardware, there was just one completely civilian display. Team Raven made their first ever appearance over Duxford with a fine routine of formation aerobatics culminating with their trademark ‘Twizzle.’
The finale was pure Duxford magic. There are few more emotive experiences than watching massed collections of warbirds get airborne from Duxford’s runways for a big formation. In all twelve Spitfires and four Hurricanes launched together on each day. Eleven of the Spitfires and the four Hurricanes disappeared from view to form up while John Romain returned in Comanche Fighter’s Spitfire Vc to fly the ‘joker’ solo routine. It has to be said John’s routine was completely enthralling and would have been a worthy finale on its own but he soon cleared the stage for the first pass of the ‘Big Wing.’
For many years, the big formations at Duxford airshows have been choreographed and led by Brian Smith, but this time it was the turn of Jon Gowdy to lead the large ‘wing’ of fighters. The formation was very wide with a large ‘battle’ formation of Spitfires leading the quartet of Hurricanes for a couple of passes with the unique sounded of massed merlin engines reverberating around the Duxford hangars. The final act of each day’s flying was a solo display by Paul Bonhomme in ARCo’s Supermarine Spitfire PRXI – The ‘NHS Spitfire’. It was an appropriate end to an event that honoured the heroic exploits of allied airmen in 1940 linking it to more recent selfless actions by the UK’s health workers during the pandemic.
The Battle of Britain Airshow was very much IWM Duxford at its very best matching anything from pre-pandemic times. The flying was absolutely superb through with some imaginative and original set-pieces alongside some scintillating warbird solo displays. They were superbly complimented by the ground displays which reflected the spirit and atmosphere of 1940’s Duxford creating a very special weekend for all to enjoy.