Mid-September saw IWM Duxford host its second major airshow of the year, the Battle of Britain Airshow. The 2023 edition concentrated on historic aviation with the bulk of displays reflecting aircraft from the First World War through the early part of the Cold War. On top of the iconic massed Spitfire and Hurricane flypast, the flying display was packed with some superb warbird action and a very special signature moment.
Paul Johnson/Flightline UK reports. All photography by the author.
The Imperial War Museum Duxford’s Battle of Britain Airshow is always one of the most anticipated events of the year. The show commemorates the events of Summer 1940 with one of the finest historic themed flying displays in the UK augmented by wartime themed ground entertainment and of course all of the exhibits in the various museums and hangars dotted around the Duxford site.
The 2023 Battle of Britain Airshow proved to be exceptionally popular with the public with 33,000 attending across the weekend. This was a post-pandemic record attendance for a Duxford airshow and the crowds were rewarded with some iconic moments right from the start of the flying programme.
Opening the display were the Royal Air Force Battle of Britain Memorial Flight with the Avro Lancaster B1 and on Sunday the pair of Spitfire IIa P7350 and Spitfire IX MK356. It was however what followed that will remain long in the memory. As the Lancaster disappeared to the north following its solo display Boeing B-17G Flying Fortress Sally-B took off to join up with the Lancaster. The two Bombers then returned with the Lancaster closely following Sally-B through some wheeling turns over Duxford. It has been a very long time since both Bombers have shared the same flying slot at an air display, the last being the 1995 Battle of Britain Open Day at Biggin Hill. Prior to take the Lancaster and Sally-B were joined by the French operated B-17 ‘Pink Lady’ at the 1993 Great Warbirds Air Display at Wroughton. However, on both those previous occasions the ‘formations’ were much looser than that seen at Duxford.
Following on from the Bomber formation were a sequence of classic Duxford set-piece displays. A Battle of Britain scramble was re-enacted by a pair of Hispano Buchons from the Aircraft Restoration Company and Air Leasing duelling with Supermarine Spitfire Ias from the IWM and Comanche Fighters. Later sequences saw a trio of Hawker Hurricanes from Hurricane Heritage and Hurricane501, a trio of North American TF/P-51D Mustangs from Fighter Aviation Engineering, Comanche Fighters and the Aircraft Restoration Company, a Battle of France salute from the Curtiss Hawk 75A-1 and P-36C Hawk plus a look at some of the late war ultimate piston powered fighters in the form of Fighter Aviation Engineering’s Hawker Fury II and Republic P-47D Thunderbolt. Saturday’s display also saw a World War One display from Paul Ford’s Duxford based Fokker Dr1 and RAF SE5a replicas.
Another Duxford based display, the Flying Comrades, provided a short interlude from the warbird flying with some gentle formation passes and aerobatics in their Yakovlev Yak-18T and two Yak-52s.
Adding to the Duxford based display were a raft of visiting aircraft. Perhaps one of the most prominent themes in the flying was maritime flying and in particular the Battle of the Atlantic. This brought together Plane Sailing’s Consolidated PBY-5A Catalina and the NavyWings Heritage Flight’s Fairey Swordfish. Saturday’s display also saw the Fighter Collection’s Hawker Nimrod I join the fray represented pre-war Naval flying.
Aircraft from the Shuttleworth Collection also made a sizable contribution to the displays. The Collection’s Avro C19 Anson led a radial engine segment and on the Saturday was joined by the Gloster Gladiators from both the collection and TFC. The Shuttleworth Westland Lysander IIIa also made the trip over from Old Warden and joined ARCo’s example for a spirited duo display. Adding to the special operations theme was Fighter Aviation Engineering’s Lockheed 12A Electra Junior.
A highlight of the warbird displays was the pairing of the Old Flying Machine Company’s Supermarine Spitfire IXb MH434 with Spitfire IX MH415 from Air Leasing. Not only did the display unit two aircraft which flew together at RAF Hornchurch on 222 Squadron, it was also a family affair with the father and son team Brian and Nick Smith flying a beautifully elegant formation aerobatic routine.
Cold War representation in the flying display came from the Norwegian Air Force Historical Squadron’s de Havilland Vampire FB6. The Squadron have once again offered superb support to the UK air display circuit during 2023 with their handsome jet appearing at a number of events such as Bournemouth Air Festival, the Royal International Air Tattoo and of course a number of flying events at Duxford. Martin Tesli was at the controls for the Vampire’s final UK appearances of 2023 and on Sunday departed during the display for the long trip back to Rygge in Norway.
It is however the massed Battle of Britain flypast that is the real draw for Duxford’s September show. Nothing quite matches the emotive sights and sound of the stream take-off and the aircraft forming up to the south of Duxford. As in previous editions, John Romain flew solo aerobatics while the formation got in position. For 2023 he flew the stunning Spitfire XIV RN201 from Aerial Speed Icons which on Sunday was illuminated beautiful against the rain clouds in the early evening sunshine. This year the massed Spitfires and Hurricanes presented a big wing formation with 18 aircraft taking part on the Sunday with the late addition of Aero Legends’ Spitfire IXT NH341. And what an incredible sight it was against some dramatic cloudscapes.
The ’Big Wing’ set-piece was closed with an emotional salute to Carolyn Grace who passed away in December 2022. Carolyn determination and fortitude in learning to fly Supermarine Spitfire IXT ML407 following the loss of her husband Nick was a truly inspiring story. She went on to make a major contribution to the airshow scene displaying across Europe. For many years, Duxford was the home airfield for ML407 and her other aircraft. Pete Kynsey, one of the pilots who taught Carolyn to fly the Spitfire, flew a final solo display in ML407 in the late afternoon sunshine to pay tribute to Carolyn and the legacy she leaves behind.
Closing the Battle of Britain Airshow were the RAF Red Arrows. Sunday’s display marked the team’s final UK display of 2023 and it took place in perfect conditions with blue skies taking the place of the grey clouds.
This was Duxford at its very best showcasing the rich variety of the UK’s historic aviation scene in unique style. After the show, Air Show Event Manager, Phil Hood, said: “We’re thrilled to have welcomed so many visitors to the Battle of Britain Air Show this weekend as we continue to celebrate 50 years of flying displays at Duxford. We’ve had a stand-out line-up this year, with an array of crowd favourites, from original vintage warbirds – including a mass flypast of Spitfires and Hurricanes – to the daring aerobatic displays of the world-famous Red Arrows. Seeing the Avro Lancaster and ‘Sally B’ fly together for the first time in almost 30 years was a truly unforgettable moment and we hope to bring more of these unmissable experiences to visitors for many years to come.”