Throughout 2023, Imperial War Museum Duxford has been celebrating 50 Years of airshows at the Cambridgeshire airfield. The ‘Flying Finale’ event fell on Saturday 14th October, 50 years to the day of the very first IWM organised Duxford Air in 1973. Those fifty years have seen the air display circuit change beyond all recognition yet Duxford has remained a keystone venue for UK airshows hosting events and home to some of world’s most important collections of historic aircraft.
Paul Johnson/Flightline UK reports. All photography by the author.
When you think of the most important airshow venues in the UK, Duxford would be high on the list. When the IWM first held the Duxford Air Day in 1973, it was to open the museum’s reserve and oversized exhibit collection site to the public. 50 years later it has become an incredibly important centre for the UK air display community. Not only is the airfield a hub for aircraft restoration and historic aircraft operators, it has become an incredible knowledge base for air display skills. The historic aircraft operators have helped bring together and train some of the world’s most experienced display pilots. IWM has also added to the training of new blood bringing on new Flying Control Committee members and Flying Display Directors.
The 50 Years of IWM supported airshows have also brought more memorable moments that can be listed here. Naturally the ‘Balbos’ of Flying Legends and the big Spitfire formations immediately spring to mind. But there are many other displays that have made Duxford such a special place including displays from commercial airliners and modern military aircraft.
Collectively, all of Duxford 2023 Flying Season events have been celebrating the 50th Anniversary. However, it was the Flying Finale event that was the focus of the anniversary falling on the exact date of the very first Duxford Air Day. For various reasons the past two yeats have seen Duxford’s Flying Finale boast some very impressive line-ups with some added military participation from the Royal and Swiss Air Forces. The 2023 was very different with no current military participation at all. Instead, the day felt like a nostalgic trip back to the Autumn Air Shows of the 1990’s and early 2000’s with a gentle mix of warbirds and civilian aerobatics.
Opening the display was Diana Britten flying an aerobatics masterclass in her Mudry CAP232. Diana has supported many Duxford events over her flying, perhaps most notably the airshows that have celebrated women in aviation. Further aerobatic and civilian displays in the flying marked Duxford’s role in bringing on new generations of display pilots and new acts. The Mono Display Team of Ben Gilmore and Bruce Buglass are a brand-new display act in 2023 and have already performed at the likes of the Midlands Air Festival and Old Buckenham. They fly the Taylor JT1 Monoplane, the first homebuilt designed in the UK following the Second World War.
The Titans made their Duxford debut at last year’s Flying Finale. However, they are very much a Duxford team having done much of training over the airfield. Pilots Patrick Willson and Simon Ansell flying a very punchy duo display in an unusual combination of the American Champion Xtreme Decathlon and the XtremeAir XA42. They get their name from Titan Airways for whom both pilot fly. Another ‘Duxford team’ are the Flying Comrades with their Yakovlev Yak-18T and pair of Yak-52s. The team’s pilots Phil Hardisty, Alex Lewton and Tom Turner have long been part of Duxford displays not with the Yaks, but also flying a wide range of the lighter historic types such as the Piper L4 Grasshopper and de Havilland Chipmunk. Tom is also the head of airfield services at Duxford looking after the aviation activities at Duxford all year round.
Much of the flying display reflected Duxford’s reputation as a leading venue for historic aircraft display flying. On the ground there was a glimpse into the immediate future of the warbird scene with Fighter Aviation Engineering Ltd’s Hawker Tempest II on static display. This aircraft flew for the first time in the week before the finale in the hands of Pete Kynsey. The aircraft took off from Air Leasing’s base at Sywell and landed at Duxford from where it will complete all the flying tests required before it gains all the required paperwork to appear in flying displays.
The earliest days of military flying were marked by Paul Ford’s beautiful Fokker Dr1 replica which is based at Duxford alongside his SE5a configured Currie Wot. Paul’s aircraft have become a regular sight at recent Duxford events often appearing alongside reenactors on the ground and in the air if wind conditions permit.
The Shuttleworth Collection have been an important part of Duxford airshows ever since the first event in 1973. To mark the links, the Collection brought their Miles Magister to the Flying Finale for display alongside David Bramwell’s example. The Collection’s aircraft took part in the first Duxford Air Day with other aircraft from Old Warden including the Avro Tutor. Sadly that was unserviceable for the Flying Finale weekend. David Bramwell’s aircraft was also present at Duxford in 1973 when it was a static airframe under the care of the East Anglia Aviation Society.
No Duxford event would be complete without reflecting on the Battle of Britain. The Flying Finale saw two Battle of Britain themed set-pieces. The first saw Fighter Aviation Engineering Ltd’s Hawker Hurricane I teamed with the pair of Comanche Fighter’s Supermarine Spitfire Ias for a display of solo and formation aerobatics. Towards the end of the display FAEL’s Hurricane I took the air once again and this time was joined by Hurricane501’s Hurricane I and the Historic Aircraft Collection’s Hurricane XII. HAC’s aircraft flies in partnership with the Polish Heritage Flight. For the 2023 season the Hurricane XII wears the markings of 302 (City of Poznan) Squadron. This squadron was briefly based at Duxford during the Battle of Britain and the flight’s Hurricane wears a dual scheme representing the machines flown by Flt Lt Tadeusz Chlopik & Wing Commander Julian Kowalski.
Further Spitfire action came from Aero Legends who came to Duxford with their Douglas C-47A Skytrain ‘Pegasus’ and Supermarine Spitfire HFIX TD314. This particular C-47A did not fly at the 1973 Duxford Air Day, but was present on the ground. At the time it was under restoration. It subsequently went on to become part of the Air Atlantique fleet and was used for many years as a test-bed for radar systems. The pairing also offered a preview of what to expect next year as IWM marks the 80th Anniversary of the D-Day landings in June with a number of US based C-47s due to appear at the Summer Air Show.
A final Spitfire solo came from the Rolls Royce Heritage Flight with their Supermarine Spitfire PRXIX flown by Mark Discombe. This aircraft was one of the founding aircraft of the RAF Battle of Britain Memorial Flight which supported the first Duxford Air Day and have made countless appearances over the Cambridgeshire airfield ever since. Sadly due to pilot availability the Rolls Royce P-51D Mustang was unable to join the Spitfire.
Even without the P-51, there was plenty of American aviation heritage in the display. The largest aircraft to take part in the finale was Plane Sailing’s Consolidated PBY-5A Catalina. Plane Sailing have been a long-term resident at Duxford and taking part in many air displays at the venue. Another aircraft with a long association with Duxford was the Beech D17S Staggerwing owned and flown by Peter Kuypers. This aircraft was formerly own by Robs Lamplough who has owned a very varied fleet of historic aircraft which have graced many Duxford events. These include P-51D Mustang ‘Miss Helen’ and Spitfire VIII MT918 which are now both residents at the airfield under the care of the Aircraft Restoration Company.
The North American T-6 Texan/Harvard has been an important type over the last 50 years at Duxford. Multiple examples have been operated from the airfield by numerous owners, often to offer training to new and experienced display pilots plus fly members of the public on pleasure flights. The type was celebrated by a trio of the type flown in two different displays. The first came from Rod Dean and Nigel Willson who presented their eye-catching tailchase duo in ARCo’s Harvard IV and Anglian Warbirds’ AT-6D Texan which was first seen at the 2002 Duxford Summer Air Show. They were followed by the Noorduyn Harvard MkIIb from CK Aviation Services Ltd. This aircraft used to be a Duxford resident with the Fighter Collection but is now mainly based at Bicester airfield. It was flown by Isobel Rutland performing one of her first public displays – a further reminder of the role Duxford has played in bringing new talent into the display community.
The only jet is the display was the BAC Jet Provost T.5A flown by Chris Heames and operated by G-JPVA Ltd. The 1973 Duxford Air Day saw a number of displays from the Royal Air Force including the Gemini Pair flying a pair of Jet Provosts. Today the Jet Provost is surprisingly quite a rare item at a UK display despite just how prolific they were in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
The final act of the Flying Finale was a classic Duxford warbird set piece. Choreographed and led by Paul Bonhomme, the routine featured FAEL’s Hawker Fury ISS and Republic P-47D Thunderbolt together with the Goodyear FG-1D Corsair and Grumman F-8F-2P Bearcat from the Fighter Collection. Joining Paul were Steve Jones in the P-47, Stu Goldspink in the Corsair and Brian Smith piloting the Bearcat. As well as a fourship, the aircraft split into pairs while alternated with each other performing some formation aerobatics. Particularly eye-catching were pair of Fury and Bearcat zooming into the clear blue skies; an emotive reminder of the incredible routines flown by Ray Hanna and Stephen Grey in the same types during the 1990’s at many Duxford shows including Flying Legends.
Many may have felt it was a low-key celebration of 50 years of Duxford Air Shows, but there was plenty to enjoy at the Flying Finale with some great flying and a memorable closing set-piece. 2024 promised to be another exciting year for IWM’s flying events and we cannot wait to see what the Airshow team put together.