2023 sees the Imperial War Museum mark 50 Years of Duxford Airshows. While it has already held two very successful ‘Flying Days’ this year, the Summer Air Show was the first full flying display of the anniversary season. As well as a delightful mix of displays from across the UK circuit, there was some superb warbird action in the four-hour display including the public display debut of Fighter Aviation Engineering Ltd’s Lockheed 12A Electra Junior, one of the most significant restorations of recent years.
Paul Johnson/Flightline UK reports. All photography by the author.
The first major Air Display of the IWM Duxford air show season has always been a very varied affair mixing some home-based warbird displays with a broad mix of visiting display. In 2022, there was such an influx of visiting displays that many felt the Summer Air Show was perhaps a little too far removed from the norm for Duxford. That all changed for the 2023 edition which was the first event to really mark the 50th Anniversary of IWM Airshows at Duxford. While not on the scale of that seen at September’s Battle of Britain Airshow, the warbird set pieces were back in force with some lovely formations and solo displays. There was even a public display debut for one of the most significant historic aircraft restorations of recent years.
The Summer Air Show did however retain its ‘family’ feel. Supporting the aerial displays was a veritable feast of ground entertainment including a fun fair, live music and living history displays. The promise of good (and very warm) weather also brought out a good crowd for both days of the show. However, for Sunday that warm weather also brought with it some very strong winds which meant some aircraft were unable to fly – fortunately the line-up was so strong that even with a few displays missing there were few notable gaps.
Bookending the flying action at Duxford were contributions by the Royal Air Force. Saturday was UK Armed Forces Day and Duxford gained a flypast by a 30 Squadron Airbus A400M Atlas C1 which was supporting several events around the UK. Sunday’s flying was closed the RAF Red Arrows at the end of a busy weekend for the team. Though they briefly visited the Summer Air Show in 2022, their last display at Duxford was in 2021 on another hot weekend. However, this time at least they didn’t have to complete with thunderstorms!
The main afternoon flying displays on Saturday quite rightly opened with one of Duxford’s most well-loved warbirds, Boeing B-17G Flying Fortress ‘Sally-B.’ The few weeks prior to the Summer Air Show had been difficult for B-17 Preservation Ltd following the issuing of a FAA mandatory Airworthiness Directive (AD) regarding wing spar issues on B-17s. Since the end of May, B-17 Preservation worked with Kearsley Airways to conduct a rigorous “Non-Destructive Test” inspection of the wing spar. IWM Duxford also gave space in AirSpace’s conservation hall for the works to take place. These tests showed no issues and once the results were passed to the FAA and CAA, Sally-B was cleared to fly again just in time for the show. As such, Sally-B’s appearance alongside Fighter Aviation’s Republic P-47D Thunderbolt flown by Alex Smee felt like a very celebratory way to kick off the afternoon displays.
Following the opening warbird display, the action switched to the first of the visiting acts, Team Raven. Flying six Vans RV8s, the team have become regular supporters of Duxford Air shows filling the sky shapes and smoke.
Some colourful biplane displays came from the Aerosuperbatic Wingwalkers, the Stampe Formation Team and Rich Goodwin with his jet-assisted Pitts S-2S Special. Incredibly, this was the Stampe Formation Team’s first Duxford appearance with their classic SV4 training and aerobatic aircraft from Belgium. Set against the fluffy white clouds and blue skies, their colourful aircraft looked superb in the late afternoon light. In contrast to the stately Stampes was Rich Goodwin’s Jet Pitts which powered its way skywards with its small, but very loud Jet Engines as tumbled, looped and rolled across the sky.
Some 1930’s elegance was provided by a very attractive pair of Beech D17S Staggerwings. Peter Kuypers flew his own example and was joined by Nigel Willson flying Geoff Lynch’s stunning maroon example which is normally based at Old Buckenham. A third aircraft from Dick de Ruiter was on static display. This aircraft has just been returned to flight following a length restoration and it had been hoped it would appear in the air with the other pair. Sadly, pilot availability prevented this.
On of the themes to flying displays was 120 years of powered flying. Providing a look at aerial warfare over 100 years ago was the Great War Display Team with a compliment of Avro 504K, Nieuport 17, two RAF SE5as, Junkers CL1 and two Fokker Dr1s. Supported by ground-based pyrotechnics the team create the spectacle of swirling first world war dogfights to great effect.
A military training themed section to the flying encompassed nearly a full 100 years of aircraft development from post-war biplanes through to the electric powered aircraft that look set to provide the future of pilot training. The earliest type in the set-piece was the Shuttleworth Collection’s Avro Tutor. The timeline of aircraft went on include Classic Wing’s de Havilland DH82a Tiger Moth, David Bramwell’s Miles Magister, the AOSY Group’s DHC-1 Chipmunk T10, Michael Miles’ Scottish Aviation Bulldog and Nigel Willson’s Slingsby T67M Firefly. Sadly, the current day Grob Tutor T1 was unable to participate due to issues with the RAF’s fleet, but the potential future of military pilot training was demonstrated by Sam Whatmough giving a short demonstration in NEBOAir’s Pipistrel Velis Electro. This electric ultralight aircraft has already been evaluated by several governments as they look to a more sustainable (both in terms of environmental and financial concerns) future of pilot training.
Another set piece by visiting aircraft remembered the early jet age. The Norwegian Air Force Historical Squadron returned to Duxford with their beautiful de Havilland Vampire FB52 flown by Kenneth Aarkvisla. This year, the Vampire sports Italian Air Force markings to help celebrate that air arm’s centenary. The markings depict an aircraft from 6⁰ Stormo, 154⁰ Gruppo (Diavoli Rossi) with the distinct devil insignia on the tailfins. Joining the Vampire for some formation passes and aerobatics were the two BAC Strikemaster Mk82s from North Wales Military Aviation Services. Their combined display recognised two of the most prominent organisations that have kept the classic jet movement in the eye of the British public for the past eight years. Further Cold War flying came from the Project Lynx pair of Westland Lynx AH7 and Westland Gazelle HT2. This was the first time in several years that a combination of Lynx and Gazelle has displayed together.
However, with Duxford celebrating 50 years of airshows, it was the home-based operators that really shone during the afternoon. The Fighter Collection presented one of their classic ‘naval’ sequences with the Grumman FM-2 Wildcat joined by the Goodyear FG-1D Corsair and Grumman F-8F-2P Bearcat. Another classic Duxford formation and tailchase sequence saw the TFC Spitfire Vb fly alongside Fighter Aviation’s Spitfire Vc, the ARCo operated Spitfire VIII and Hurricane Heritage’s Hurricane I. On Saturday Hurricane Heritage also presented their unique two-seat Hurricane IIb in a solo display.
The purring sound of the Bristol Mercury was celebrated by a wonderful combination of the Aircraft Restoration Company’s Bristol Blenheim 1F and the Fighter Collection’s Gloster Gladiator II. The latter aircraft was making a very welcome return to displays having spent five years grounded with engine issues. Brian Smith gave a beautiful aerobatic display in the silver-doped Gladiator which looked so right over the crop fields just to the south of Duxford.
Concluding Saturday’s display was the Korean War pairing of Fighter Aviation’s Hawker Fury II (ISS) and Robert Tyrell’s North American P-51D Mustang. Flown by Paul Bonhomme and John Dodd, the pair’s opening pass was beautifully positioned and was following up by a tailchase and solo displays highlighting the potent performance of the two piston engine fighters.
But the outstanding moment of the flying was the photo reconnaissance pairing of the Aircraft Restoration Company’s Supermarine Spitfire PRXI and Fighter Aviation’s Lockheed 12A Electra Junior G-AFTL. The latter aircraft has recently been subject to an extensive restoration by Air Leasing Ltd at Sywell returning it to the condition and appearance it had when operated by Sir Sidney Cotton in 1939. As war loomed in Europe in the late 1930s, Cotton was enlisted to carry out covert reconnaissance flights over military assets in Germany to build up intelligence on Germany’s capabilities. His aircraft including G-AFTL were modified with various hidden camera installations and flown across Germany under the cover of Cotton’s business interests. The aircraft even attended air rallies as part of the intelligence efforts. Air Leasing have carried out an exquisite restoration returning the airframe to its 1939 appearance, though without the cameras. As such, it is perhaps one of the most significant historic aircraft restorations of recent years. Cotton’s pre-war work laid the foundations for the Royal Air Force’s own surveillance efforts hence the very appropriate appearance alongside the PR Spitfire.
The 2023 Summer Air Show felt like classic Duxford with not only superb historic displays, but a great variety of entertaining and interesting displays. Overall, this was a very worthy celebration of what has made Duxford so special for the last 50 years. With such a high bar set by this event, we cannot wait to see what IWM have in store for September’s Battle of Britain Air Show.