Huw Hopkins' 2011 blogGAR Entries

SEP 22 2011
blogGAR: Huw's Duxford 2011 Round-up Featuring Spitfire Mk1 P9374

This year I’ve made more visits to Duxford than ever, many being on weekdays, with most of the trips throwing up something interesting!

The first outing of the year was with Elliott Marsh and his brother, Greg, as we got wind that the Bearcat may have been flying on Sunday, 23rd January. In the end, it sat in the hangar as the weather was unfavourable, but it was just great to be able to see some warbirds at that time of the year, with many at various stages of their winter maintenance.

After attending the Women in Aviation Press Call for the Spring Air Show, on Wednesday, 12th May, I stayed at the airfield for the remainder of the day and was lucky enough to witness a flight by the second Buchon with the Aircraft Restoration Company (ARCo) – the desert schemed machine, being worked on for new owner Richard Lake, which joins his Spitfire Mk.XVI TD248 at Humberside Airport. The Buchon had made its first flight from Duxford just the week before but had proved very elusive, often flying after the museum had closed at 6pm. In the afternoon John Romain took it up for a local flight, keeping just north of the airfield for about 20 minutes. As he returned to Duxford I heard him call in over the radio, ‘Duxford Tower, 109 back with you. Looking for five minutes over the field’ – my luck was in! Romain brought her in from the western end for a cracking initial topside pass, revealing the bold Balkenkreuz set against the sandy yellow, to kick off an incredibly high energy beat up, consisting of many low topside passes that were perfect for the camera. This would prove to be the start of my ‘Buchon luck’!

The following week, on Thursday, 19th May, I hit Duxford in the week leading up to the Spring Air Show as in recent years it’s been common for the based warbirds to put in practice displays during this time. The Old Flying Machine Company (OFMC) pair were already sitting out on the grass being fuelled up when I turned up – it was looking good! Some lighter vintage types buzzed about in the morning air; Chipmunks, Puss Moth, Cub and the arrival of Kennet Aviation’s Harvard with Anna Walker at the controls.

Before MH434 and 'Ferocious Frankie' got airborne there was a chance to go and see the progress of B-17G 'Mary Alice’s' fuselage being removed from the American Air Museum via the fire escape doors. The bomber was heading to the conservation hangar for restoration work and by that time in the day it was already out, about to be assisted by a crane on the short journey.

The OFMC pair then performed the formation section of their pairs routine - a short display (less than five minutes long) which was impressive nonetheless. Following that the Harvard and Prentice went up for a few local flights followed by a Stearman practice display and Stephen Grey appearing in The Fighter Collection (TFC) Staggerwing. The Hawk 75 had been towed out onto the flightline and it looked hopeful that it may fly, but unfortunately it didn’t come to fruition. However, my ‘Buchon luck’ was to strike again as John Romain took the desert machine up once more, this time ending the flight with what seemed to be more of a sequenced display than a beat up, including more wheeling loops and barrel rolls.

As the sandy bandit was hurtling about above, Pete Kynsey had jumped into TFC's Nimrod I and was taxying out for a rare display, I can’t say I recall seeing it before personally, so it was a great surprise. The routine looked superb in the afternoon sun, dancing through the sky to the soundtrack of the RR Kestrel, showing off the agility of the interwar bi-plane with some tight aerobatics.

After two weeks away, I was back again on 2nd June, this time with only a quick drop in on the way back from a day out in the Suffolk countryside. The route took us right past Duxford - it would’ve been rude not to drop in, right? Right! It would have been an insult to Messers Romain and Spink to have missed their Buchon and Spitfire Tr.IX display... As soon as I had stepped out of the visitors' centre my ‘Buchon luck’ struck for a third time with the ARCo’s 'Yellow 10' starting up. It took off and joined up with the Historic Flying Ltd (HFL) Spitfire Tr.IX, which was already airborne, before returning for some formation passes and a tail chase – including some pretty low flying!

Wednesday, 15th June’s visit was for one reason and one reason alone – 'Snafu'! The day before, TFC's razorback P-47G Thunderbolt was unveiled in its new paint scheme after going behind screens for the process nearly a month before. The machine that arrived with TFC as ‘Little Demon’ back in 2006 now represents a P-47D from the 84th FS, 42-74742 'Snafu' – an aircraft which was actually based at Duxford in 1944.

As soon as I got to the airfield I turned my heels for Hangar 2, quickening my step into a walk where I was nearly tripping over my own feet, nearly stumbling head first through the hangar doors! ‘Is this the effect just one warbird can have!?’ I thought to myself. Quite rightly it does, as it looks absolutely jaw dropping – I’ll go out on a limb and say that Snafu’s now one of, if not the (just don’t tell 'Marinell'!), best looking warbirds in the country.

So on to Friday, 24th June – a day jam packed full of activity! Typically as I got there, the desert Buchon was just firing up, ready for a flight up to Humberside and back in the hands of Cliff Spink.

The Grace Spitfire 'ML407' was up and about all morning, entertaining the machine's sponsors for this season and HFL's twin-stick also joined the action with a good few sorties. Two other Spitfires sat out on the line – TFC's Mk.Vb and Mk.XIVe. The Mk.Vb was due to do three flights but went sick upon starting, leading to much to-ing and fro-ing between the flightline and the TFC hangar for engine tests before they finally fixed it later in the afternoon. The Mk.XIVe was out for engine runs after returning to the skies not long before; an absentee since 2008.

B-17G 'Sally B' was due to have her crew training day, with the first flight of 2011. There were some very smoky engine starts and a few minutes later she lifted effortlessly into the air to come round for a flythrough. I was acutely aware of how lucky we all were to be witnessing a B-17 in-flight after the devastating event that saw the B-17 Foundation's 'Liberty Belle', which came over to Flying Legends in 2008, destroyed by fire after making a successful forced landing in a field outside Chicago.

After a spot of lunch I found TFC's Spitfire Mk.XIVe sitting out on the grass beside Hangar 2 after its engine runs, so I had a close-up look at this wonderful machine. We should never take for granted how lucky we are to get opportunities such as this at Duxford – given that we are respectful and under no circumstances touch anything – a few people came over to it to have a look around.

I was just about to call it a day when I noticed HAC's Spitfire Mk.Vb sitting just outside Hangar 4 making for a nice photograph. After spending a few minutes exploring different angles I turned around to see a low-loader lorry coming around the corner – what was on the back made me do a double take! Sitting there, wrapped in cling film, was the immaculate fuselage of the Hawker Fury I along with its wings and tail. A fantastic paint scheme has been chosen for the bi-plane, that of 43 Squadron ‘The Fighting Cocks’, with the black and white chequered markings on the upper wing surfaces and fuselage. The final assembly and test flights were due to take place at a ‘secret location’, so the plans clearly changed. Howard Cook mentioned how it would be interesting to see the difference compared to the Nimrod II as the Fury has half the horsepower but also half the weight.

Outside The Fighter Collection hangar sat two shipping containers which contained The Horsemen's P-51D Mustangs ‘February’ and ‘Fragile but Agile’ which arrived from the USA for Flying Legends. I would spend five days at the airfield with the days leading up to and including the airshow, seeing the US ‘Stangs plenty of times!

It was the first time I had done more than two days for Flying Legends and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I thought the show was a classic, with many, many highlights – albeit along with the sad loss of 'Big Beautiful Doll'. I got to see HAC's Hawker Fury complete for the first time as well as TFC's latest acquisition, Curtiss P-40F Kittyhawk – a Merlin powered variant. I won’t go on, as I already covered the pre-show days, and Elliott Marsh did the airshow review proper. At the end of July I was back to cover the 'Sally B and Friends Day', too.

On Friday, 9th September, after an absence of well over a month, I returned to Duxford with hopes of catching a flight by the latest restoration out of ARCo's workshops – Supermarine Spitfire Mk.I P9374.

As it turns out it was already in the air when I arrived, on an air-to-air photoshoot for the Sunday Telegraph newspaper. I was surprised to see it coming over in formation with the Harvard photo ship.

The Spitfire had made its first post restoration flight just eight days prior and was already on flight number eight. After running in with the Harvard they broke, allowing the Harvard to land and the photographer to get out and capture the Spitfire from the ground.

Meanwhile, over the back of the airfield, John Romain was busy performing some leisurely barrel rolls before bringing her over the field. I noted how quiet the engine note sounded and how slowly it seemed the propeller was turning – both trademark characteristics of the early Rolls Royce Merlins such as the Merlin III in P9374. In addition at this early stage in the test flying, the engine won’t have been really ‘wound up’ yet, so to speak.

P9374 has a wonderful story behind it. Being delivered to 92 Squadron in March 1940, it saw action early on in the War. The aircraft was damaged in a dogfight over Dunkirk, the day before the evacuation started, and it belly landed on a sandbar near Calais, being encased by the shifting sands until the early 1980s when the wreckage re-appeared. The restoration by ARCo has been monumental in the design work and research as no-one has ever done this before with an early Mk.I. It even has the original hand pump style undercarriage, smooth grass-type Dunlop tyres, the Merlin III, fabric ailerons and so on and so forth – it is the little details combined to make this Spitfire a pure Mk.I.

John Romain performed some feisty passes around the M11 end of the airfield, with plenty of topsides and undersides, showing off the wonderful early war black and white underside markings – some of the passes over the grass were quite low too. He finished off with a typically curved Spitfire approach and, whilst taxying past the fences now lined with people, Romain gave a little smile that said it all!

I can’t wait until this Spitfire is on the display circuit – we may be seeing some fellow Mk.Is joining it in not too many years!

The rest of the day was quiet flying wise, so I took to the hangars and utilised some lenses I wouldn’t normally use going around them – my 50mm f/1.8 and 100-400 – trying to get something fresh by taking close up detail shots. It turns out I’m quite pleased with some of my efforts! Later in the afternoon 'Sally B' made her return from a foray to Jersey and set down in some wonderful afternoon light.

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2011-09-22 - Bryan Wetton
For someone stuck in Aussie these pictures are a sight for sore eyes- was at Duxford in 2005 but no display and only a few flying.

2011-09-22 - Ian Waudby
A brilliant report with stunning photos. Thanks.

2011-09-22 - Alvaro
Very nice! Sums all the Duxford excitement, is like happy land! Superb work with the photos, your "tests" really worked wonderfully.

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