Sywell Airshow Weekend 2024

Sywell Airshow Weekend 2024

One of the mostly hotly anticipated airshows of the year was Sywell 2024, an event put together by Richard Grace and his team at Air Leasing. Hosted at the historic Sywell Aerodrome, the show promised a line-up of warbirds from across Europe supported by some select aerobatic acts and closed on Sunday evening by the RAF Red Arrows.  The result was perhaps the best “new” UK airshow of the past 20 years with some truly brilliant flying and a wonderful laid-back atmosphere.

Paul Johnson/Flightline UK reports from the Saturday. All photography by the author.

Sywell Aerodrome is no stranger to flying displays. It was the home of fantastic Blades Aerobatic Team from 2006 through to 2023 who not only practiced at the Northamptonshire airfield, but also hosted many corporate events that featured some impressive aerial action. The annual Sywell Classic also always features a couple of flying displays. However, it was been 10 years since the aerodrome held a full public airshow. Those previous airshows were very highly regarded with some great line-ups of classic aircraft and airshow favourites.

When Air Leasing and Sywell Aerodrome announced the intentions for ‘Sywell 2024’ it immediately caught the eye. Coming in the wake the announcement that Flying Legends would not return in 2024, the prospect of a brand new ‘warbird show’ in the UK was warmly welcomed. It became even more enticing as some of the participating aircraft were announced with an excellent selection of European and even US based aircraft joining an impressive collection of UK warbirds. That was certainly enough for my plans to change from attending an airshow in Europe the same weekend.

 

There were some lovely touches on the showground. Some of the flying display aircraft were brought into the paddock area and displayed alongside some very well thought out re-enactor area. Then there was the Battle of Britain Bar located in one of hangars vacated by the Blades. Not only was there a fine range of beers, but there was a big screen showing some aviation related Sunday afternoon war movies flanked by Air Leasing’s Hispano HA-1112M4K Buchon and Supermarine Spitfire LFIXb MH415. Both aircraft were themselves used in the filming of the Battle of Britain movie. It was probably the last time MH415 will be seen on public display in the UK before it departs to new owners in Germany. Further aircraft taking part in the static display were the Beech GB1 Staggerwing from Elizabeth Charbney-Ulfig and the Douglas C-47A Skytrain ‘Placid Lassie’ from Tunision Foundation. The flying display aircraft were also available for close up viewing through a flightline walk which provided some great access.

 

In an ITV interview ahead of the airshow, Richard Grace said that his airshow organising took the mantra of “Go Big or Go Home” with what they were planning. This was more than evident with the ‘flypasts’ that opened the flying action for the whole weekend which saw Fighter Aviation’s Republic P-47D Thunderbolt ‘Nellie-B’ flown by Cameron Rolph-Smith leading mark Levy in the P-51D Mustang ‘Jersey Jerk’ and a United States Air Force Lockheed Martin F-35A Lightning II from the 495th ‘Valkyries’ Fighter Squadron based at RAF Lakenheath and piloted by Captain Everett Montano. The combination made three passes before the F-35 added a final flourish with a low overshoot and a zoom climb to depart; one incredible coup for a new show.

The main flying display opened by continuing the Americana with a salute to the United States Army Air Force’s aerial campaign in Europe featuring the fighters from the opening flypast plus Boeing B-17G Flying Fortress ‘Sally-B’ plus two further P-51D Mustangs from Robert Tyrell and the Flying Bulls. Adding to sense of aerial combat were two Hispano HA-1112M1L Buchons from the Aircraft Restoration Company and the Biggin Hill Heritage Hangar which intercepted the P-47 before being seen off by the trio of P-51s.

 

A second spectacular big set piece of the afternoon reflected the development of American naval fighters during the afternoon. The opening formation featured the Fighter Collection’s Grumman F8F Bearcat piloted by Pete Kynsey, Stu Goldspink flying TFC’s FM-2 Wildcat, Brian Smith in TFC’s Goodyear FG-1D Corsair, Baptiste Salis piloting the Vought F4U-5NL Corsair from Casques de Cuir and Eric Goujan in the Flying Bulls’ F4U-4 Corsair. It has been quite some time since three Corsairs have flown together in the UK and the three-ship was undoubtedly a highlight of the display.

The Austrian Flying Bulls team also presented their aircraft in their own display with the North American B-25J Mitchell leading the Lockheed P-38 Lightning, North American P-51D Mustang ‘Nooky Booky IV’ and the Vought F4U-4 Corsair. Opening with some four-ship passes, the B-25J then split away for its own solo before three fighters closed out the sequence with a stunning formation aerobatic display – 15 minutes of pure magical flying.

 

Aside from the big set pieces, there were solo and duo warbird displays. Trevor Dugan and Gabriel Barton presented a very elegant aerobatic pairing of the Hawker Hurricane Is from Hurricane501 and Fighter Aviation. Later Hawker fighter design came in the form of Fighter Aviation’s Hawker Fury II which was put through a very punchy routine of aerobatics. A further aircraft from the Fighter Aviation stable in the display was the beautiful Lockheed 12A Electra Junior that flew as part of the UK clandestine intelligence effort ahead of the outbreak of the Second World War.

Another star item as far as I was concerned were the Fokker Dr1 and Fokker DVII reproductions from Swedish restorer and pilot Mikael Carlson. Mikael’s Fokker Dr1 features a genuine Le Rhone rotary engine rather than the rather more modern engines seen in UK based Dr1 replicas. Mikael showed off the triplane’s incredible agility with very tight turns, rolls and wing overs. The Fokker DVII was flown by Stu Goldspink and to the best of my knowledge was making its UK debut. It represents probably the most formidable of the First World War fighters and is powered by the throaty sounding  Daimler D III.

 

Interspersed amongst the warbirds were a clutch of civilian displaying. Making a stunning low approach during the display was the Boeing 727-2S2F from 2Excel Aviation and Oil Spill Response captained by former Red Arrows leader Adrian Thurley. Even more eye-catching was the jaw-dropping wingwalking antics of Danielle Del Buono on 46 Aviation’s Boeing Stearman. Danielle is no stranger to the UK airshow scene having started wingwalking with Aerosuperbatics. However, having moved to Switzerland, she has developed her own startling wingwalking act with husband Emiliano which is very different to anything seen in the UK before. The display saw Danielle move from the top wing to a lower wing and at one stage even hanging upside from the wing by her feet! As Emiliano and Danielle returned to their parking spot they quite rightly earnt a huge round of applause.

Another UK debut display came from Melanie Astles flying her Extra 330SC. Melanie was born in the UK but moved with her family to the south of France. She learnt to fly at the age of 21 and then worked towards a commercial aviation career. She took up aerobatics in 2006 and soon gained success in competition working her way up the ranks and classes. She has also represented both France and the UK in international competitions. Between 2016 and 2019 she also competed in the Red Bull Air Race as the series’ only female pilot achieving a victory at the 2017 Indianapolis Speedway round. At Sywell she presented a display of crisp competition aerobatics before moving into some freestyle flying before a short simulation of the kind of flying required in the Red Bull Air Race.

 

More aerobatic flying came from Steve Jones flying the very latest generation of aerobatics aircraft, the Gamebird GB1. Steve gave a master class of low-level aerobatics in his striking tiger striped GB1 in the blue skies highlighting the performance of the latest design by Philipp Steinbach.

On both days, the main part of the flying display was closed by one final big warbird set piece showcasing the Supermarine Spitfire. Nine very different Spitfires were involved including  the Spitfire Vb of the Fighter Collection, the Spitfire Vc from Fighter Aviation, the Biggin Hill Heritage Hangar’s Spitfire IX, Air Leasing’s Spitfire T.IX ML407, Old Flying Machine Company’s famous Spitfire LFIXb MH434, the Aircraft Restoration Company’s Spitfire PRXI, George Haye’s Spitfire XVIe plus the Griffon powered Spitfire FR.XIVes from Fighter Aviation and the W Air Collection from France. This stunning sequence opened with the two Griffon Spitfires making some high-speed passes in front of the crowd as the Merlin powered aircraft took off and formed up behind the crowd. There were then some big formation passes led by Paul Bonhomme in MH434 before the Spitfires peeled off in turn for a classic Spitfire tailchase which filled the Sywell skies. Some final flourishes saw Paul Bonhomme return with the two Mk.V Spitfires on his wing for some formation aerobatics before some final passes by Sywell’s own Spitfire T.IX ML407 flown by Ben Cox.

 

The Saturday and Sunday displays both saw different finales. Sunday saw the RAF Red Arrows close out the weekend with their colourful and precise display of formation aerobatics. Saturday’s crowd was treated to an altogether different treat with a short flying display of historic aircraft in the early evening sunshine. It was opened by Mark Levy flying Fighter Aviation’s P-51D Mustang ‘Jersey Jerk.’

However perhaps the most significant display of the evening session was that given by Danny Williams flying John Scurr’s de Havilland DH82a Tiger Moth G-AMTV. For Danny it was a very significant moment as it was his first public flying display after gaining his display authorisation in the week before the show. However, it was also a very significant display for Sywell as it highlighted the work of the Thomas Castle Aviation Heritage Trust. Formed in memory of Thomas Castle by his father Ian Castle, the trust aims to support young pilots who have gained their PPL in to entering the world of vintage aviation through flying and engineering training on the Tiger Moth.

The evening was brought to an end by Jim Schofield flying Fighter Aviation’s Supermarine Spitfire Vc. Jim flew a flowing routine of loops, rolls and passes in the now golden skies  – the perfect way to end a memorable day.

 

Sywell may have hosted airshows in the past, but Sywell 2024 was led by a new team and they really excelled themselves. This was not a Duxford or a Flying Legends clone, this a superb new and original event with its own distinctive relaxed and entertaining style.  A big part of the show’s atmosphere came from commentary pairing of historian James Holland and display pilot Mike Ling. They articulated the history and how the displays were flown very well, but more importantly their enthusiasm for what was happening in the skies absolutely shone through. There may have been some minor niggles with car parking etc, but this in my view was the best ‘new’ UK airshow for many, many years and clearly proved popular not only with British enthusiasts and families, but also those from France, Germany and the Netherlands going by the number plates spotted in the car park. We sincerely hope that it becomes a regular fixture on the airshow calendar.