Aero Legends Battle of Britain Airshow, Headcorn

Aero Legends Battle of Britain Airshow, Headcorn

An annual fixture on the display calendar is the Aero Legends Battle of Britain Airshow at Headcorn Aerodrome in the heart of Kent. The show is primarily a showcase for Aero Legends to show off its fleet of aircraft which are available for experience flights, but the event also includes a select group of visiting aircraft and acts. The 2024 event also saw the public display debut of Spitfire IXT MJ444 ‘Lady Luck’, the latest aircraft to join the Aero Legends fleet.

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

2024 has been a very busy year for Aero Legends. They were heavily involved in the historic aircraft operations that supported the 80th Anniversary of the D-Day Landings notably with C-47s and DC-3s of the D-Day Squadron. Their C-47B Skytrain ‘Pegasus’ also supported the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight ‘bomber’ pilots over the winter allowing them some multi-engine training time in lieu of the Lancaster and their own Dakota. Perhaps more significantly for the world of airshows, they are busy introducing a new show at the beautiful Compton Abbas airfield in August. We wish them every success with that venture as the circuit desperately needs new events and new opportunities for operators and pilots.

It was perhaps all that extra work that meant the 2024 Battle of Britain Airshow at Headcorn seemed rather forgotten earlier in the year. It was not until late March that the date was officially confirmed and tickets went on sale. Also, it just didn’t seem like there was much effort to publicise the event in the local area – usually there are roadside posters all around Maidstone for the event. This year we didn’t see one until we reached Headcorn. When it came to the date, it was a busy weekend both locally and nationally. Just the other side of Maidstone, the Kent County Show was taking place at Detling and on the national level it clashed with Wimbledon, the British Grand Prix and England’s quarter final football match in the Euros. Combined with a very unsettled weekend forecast, the Saturday at least (which was forecast to have the better weather of the weekend) did not seem as well attended as previous Headcorn airshows I’ve attended. The influence of the football also seemed to affect the crowd that did attend with it thinning considerably as the afternoon wore on – not helped by a few weather-related gaps towards the end of the flying programme.

 

The weather across all three days played a major role in the shape of the flying displays. Friday was a pretty awful day with a heavy overcast and persistent showers plagued much of southern England. The headline act, the RAF Red Arrows was forced to cancel but later in the day, Headcorn did manage to stage a two-hour flying display with some of the aircraft that had made it through the weather. Saturday dawned much brighter, but there were still some sharp showers and a stiff breeze. The beauty of an event like Headcorn though is that there is quite a bit of flexibility and Flying Display Director Mike Stanway was able to put together a very enjoyable afternoon flying display with a fine selection of historic aircraft.

The flying was opened in style by the Stampe Formation Team with their four Stampe SV4 biplanes. The conditions were incredibly bumpy but the team really put on an excellent display of formation flying in their colourful aircraft set against the dark rain clouds to the north. The finale to their routine was a quite spritely solo aerobatic routine by Richard Ward in the bright red Stampe.

 

Another biplane team battling the wind were the Tiger9 Display Team. Reduced to six de Hvilland DH82a Tiger Moths as some hadn’t been able to make it to Headcorn, the team got airborne and performed a single but very pleasing ‘flutter-by’ in two vics before most of the aircraft returned to land. However, in place of the formation routine the crowd were treated by the most superb solo aerobatic display by Robin Russell. He was also able to display the slow speed flying of the Tiger Moth all but hovering with the aid of the winds! More biplanes were on display on the Sunday with the Aerosuperbatics Wingwalkers adding some barnstorming to proceedings.

 

Another visiting team adding some colour to the afternoon were the Flying Comrades from Duxford. The team of Phil Hardisty, Alex Lewton and Tom Turner fly the Yakovlev Yak-18T and a pair Yak-52s and are a regular at Duxford and other events across East Anglia. While their aircraft may be somewhat more robust that the biplanes, they nevertheless had to deal with some challenging conditions for their display. It was particularly impressive too with a sublime mix of formation passes and solo aerobatics that really suited the relatively small crowd line at Headcorn.

A poignant moment came with the display of the two BAC Strikemaster Mk82s from North Wales Military Aviation Services flown by Sean Chiddenton and Ian Brett. They were part of the display due to the partnership between NWMAS and Aero Legends which sees the jets used for passenger experience flights from North Weald. However, their preservation and operation in the UK is thanks to Mark Petrie who sadly passed away earlier this year. Mark was a great supporter or airshows and the classic jet scene, particularly during the challenges of recent years. Headcorn was one of the first displays since Mark’s passing and there can be no finer tribute than the continued operation of his beloved pair of Strikemasters.

 

However, the day as always belonged to the warbirds, and in particular the Aero Legends fleet. Their aircraft featured a various displays and combinations throughout the afternoon with their pair of Supermarine Spitfire IXTs featuring on multiple occasions. While NH341 ‘Elizabeth’ has been stalwart of events at Headcorn and occasionally at Duxford, 2024 saw the debut of MJ444 ‘Lady Luck.’ This aircraft has been subject to a meticulous restoration at Duxford by the Aircraft Restoration Company at Duxford. Built as a single seat Mk.IX at Castle Bromwich in 1943, MJ444 served with 403, 443 and 411 Squadrons of the Royal Canadian Air Force. While with 411 Squadron, MJ444 was based at North Weald which is one of Aero Legends’ current operating bases for experience flights. She emerged from the Aircraft Restoration Company’s hangars at Duxford earlier this year following a three year restoration project and following testing has already been busy supporting passenger flight operations. MJ444 and MH341 were, as always, flown by Aero Legends’ senior pilots Anthony ‘Parky’ Parkinson and Charlie Brown. The pair first appeared in their own formation display, but also scrambled later in the display to see off Paul Bonhomme in ARCo’s Hispano HA1112-M1L Buchon.

 

Aside from the Spitfires, Saturday’s display also featured one of Aero Legends’ North American T-6G Texans, their Douglas C-47A Skytrain “Drag ‘Em ‘Oot” and C-47B Skytrain ‘Pegasus.’ The T-6G Texan first appeared in its own aerobatic display in the hands of Richard Ward. But towards the end of the flying, he was joined by Chris Gotke in the NavyWings North American (CCF) Havard IV, the two Spitfires and the two C-47s for the Flying Legends ‘Balbo.’

The Saturday also saw the C-47s fly with Boeing B-17G Flying Fortress Sally-B to salute the ‘heavies’ of the Second World War. Led by the B-17 flown by Jon Corley, the three aircraft fly a gentle tailchase in the dramatic skies much like used to happen at the Great Warbirds Air Display that used to be held just up the road from Headcorn at West Malling. After the tailchase, Sally-B gave a rather majestic display including some really stunning topside passes.

But the absolute highlight of the afternoon was the fighter balbo and tailchase. With Charlie Brown playing the ‘joker’ role in NH341 on the overhead, this saw Spitfire IXT MJ444 take to the skies joined by the Imperial War Museum’s Spitfire Ia N3200 flown by David Ratcliffe, Martin Phillips’ Spitfire IX RR232 piloted by Neil Parkinson, Hawker Hurricane I R4118 with James Brown at the controls, Hurricane IIb ‘Pegs flown by Mike Collett and Hurricane I P3717 flown by Stu Goldspink. The six fighters flew off to the south to form up before returning to Headcorn in two vics led by the Spitfire Ia. In the skies of Kent, an area at the forefront of the Battle of Britain in Summer 1940, such a formation of merlin powered fighters is always evocative. After a couple of passes the formations the split into a beautiful tailchase with the six fighters wheeling above the Wealden countryside.

 

Headcorn has its faults. Pre-show publicity seemed much less that usual and there seems little point to the ‘Flightline Premier’ area when the showground is quite long and thin. You can sit or stand quite a way back from the fence-line and not feel too distant from the action. With aircraft parked along the fence, being ‘on the fence’ can actually hinder your view of the flying! The ‘premier’ enclosure was noticeably quite underused on Saturday with most spaces not taken so perhaps Headcorn’s audience agree!

Faults aside though, when the sun shines Headcorn is a very fine venue for warbird displays and the afternoon programme was very enjoyable despite the last-minute changes. In particular all the participating pilots should be congratulated for putting on such wonderful displays in what were some very unseasonable and challenging conditions – particularly those in the Stampes and Tiger Moths!