2011 UK Airshows

JUL 14 2011
Airshows >> UK: Duxford Flying Legends 2011 - Review

Flying Legends 2011 will, unfortunately, be remembered by many for Sunday's show-closing midair collision between the Air Fighter Academy's P-51D Mustang 'Big Beautiful Doll' and the Amicale Jean Baptiste Salis Collection's Douglas Skyraider during the run-in-and-breaks of the 27-ship 'Balbo' formation finale.

As horrible as it was to see, the incident thankfully saw both Rob Davies and the pilot of the French Skyraider getting down to earth safely; Rob jettisoned the Mustang's canopy seconds after the collision and shortly thereafter bailed out, landing in a field to the west of the airfield with minor injuries. The Skyraider pilot recovered from a roll induced by the collision and landed the Skyraider on the grass runway at Duxford with a significant portion of the right wing sheared off.

There has already been a shocking amount of misinformation and speculation posted on the main aviation forums, which is no surprise given the number of "experts" who often flex their wings following any such airshow accidents. There can be little doubt surely in that both aviators reacted with the highest level of exemplary airmanship under extraordinary circumstances; their quick reactions ensured that we weren't mourning the loss of anyone come Monday morning.

Why can't we leave the dissection and analysis of the crash and indeed, the show's safety as a whole, to the professionals? All that should matter to us is that an equal number of pilots left the show on Sunday evening as entered it on Saturday morning. I must also add that the crowd reaction on the "tank bank" to both the Skyraider's safe landing, and the announcement that Rob Davies had walked away from the crash site, was a rare moment of genuine emotion from the gathered masses as people loudly applauded and, in some cases, cheered in appreciation and relief. I'd also like to take this opportunity to formally send GAR's best wishes to Rob and his family.

The Fighter Collection (TFC) have set the bar incredibly high insofar as both participation and the general quality of the flying are concerned, having spent the last 17 years crafting a precedent for arguably the country's most dramatic flying display. To continue the trend in 2011 is quite an impressive feat, given the ever increasing red tape and restrictions faced by airshows, not to mention the sheer eye watering cost of organising an event of this scale.

Yet they once again delivered in spades, with a slick and seamless (at least on the uneventful Saturday) three and a half hour airshow exhibiting aircraft from World War One through to the Vietnam era in dynamic, layered sequences that are quite simply breathtaking. Cast your eye over this year's programme and it's all action - seven Spitfires, six Mustangs, three Skyraiders, three Buchons, two Corsairs, three Fokker DR1s, two Dakotas...very impressive numbers I'm sure you'll agree.

Arriving very early on Saturday, I wasn't surprised to find the western end suitably packed, with very few spaces left on the crowdline before 8am. It would turn out to be a very busy day - the 'tank bank' was as crowded as I've ever seen it - but thankfully, everyone in my area seemed courteous and mindful of their fellow enthusiasts.

I was pleased to see that the thronging masses were respectful of one another, with no stepladders set up at the front of the crowd and no one seeming anything other than pleasant over the weekend; a feeling shared by everyone I spoke to over the weekend. With the most popular areas being the far eastern and western ends of the crowdline, it isn't surprising that these locations fill to the brim by the time the display starts at 2pm and, like any major airshow, there will always be issues with space.

Having paid the £32 entrance fee (with a reasonable discount applied for Friends of Duxford), visitors to Flying Legends will soon find the costs spiralling. £6 for the admittedly excellent souvenir programme; £5 to access the flightline walk; borderline ridiculous 'gourmet' burger vendors selling lukewarm gristle at extortionate prices... It isn't a cheap weekend, that's for sure. But I can't help feel that, despite the ever mounting costs of attending the show, it's all still worth it.

£5 to get a bit closer to the aircraft on the line may sound steep, but you're getting 50-60+ vintage aircraft, many of which will only appear in the UK at Duxford. I spent a good couple of hours on there each day, chatting to old and new friends, casually moving along the line photographing the many gems on display and waiting to catch those illusive seconds of sunshine. The sum of the flightline walk's parts, to my mind, just about justifies the additional cost.

And what a line-up it was! Kicking off shortly before 2pm on each day, the proceedings were opened by the now traditional Spitfire overture with an interesting twist on the usual format. The scramble of seven Spitfires, three Buchons and a solo Hurricane was a damned impressive sight in itself, and one which could easily headline a smaller event.

This eleven-ship formed up for a quite spectacular low level formation flypast before breaking into three individual display elements. First up were the Hispano HA-1112 Buchons, with John Romain, Cliff Spink and Charlie Brown taking the controls of the Aircraft Restoration Company, Richard Lake and Air Fighter Academy machines for a formation and tailchase set-piece.

Arriving from crowd rear and continuing their routine with lively half cubans, barrel rolls and wingovers, the Buchons laid down a snarling opening gambit that set the tone for the rest of the display. The low level dive in towards the crowd, dipping below the timeless Duxford horizon, was enough to make the inner man-child jump with joy.

Following the Buchons were the Historic Aircraft Collection's Hawker Hurricane XII and Spitfire Mk1 AR213, formerly owned by Wings Venture and recently sold to an American warbird operator. With the Hurricane making passes up and down the crowdline, punctuated by aileron rolls, the Mk1 flew a beautifully lyrical aerobatic solo, exhibiting the 'Baby Spitfire's' characteristic grace in contrast to the raucous aggression of the Buchons.

The 2011 Spitfire sequence saw six aircraft flying in two elements, with the Merlin powered marks flying a tailchase over the hard runway while Carl Schofield and Eric Goujon tore along the grass in TFC's MkXIV and Christophe Jacquard's MkXIX. While the Griffon Spitfires perhaps weren't quite as low and close as they once were, this was nevertheless a tremendous climax to the opening segment.

Fighter aircraft really were the order of the day, with the big pistons dominating the programme with the most impactful warbird flying you're likely to see all year. The P-51D quartet, flown by Alister Kay ('Ferocious Frankie'), Rob Davies ('Big Beautiful Doll'), George Perez ('Nooky Booky IV') and visiting New Zealander Keith Skilling ('Miss Velma') were positively awesome, thundering through in a lengthy low-level Mustang sonata that epitomised everything I love about warbirds and aviation.

If the Mustang quartet were all about the aggression and sheer firepower of this timeless North American design, the Horsemen Mustang team from the USA were surely the embodiment of the grace and beauty of flight. Their gentle, sweeping manoeuvres were a masterclass in close formation aerobatics and the song they displayed to, put together by Hollywood composer James Horner of Titanic and Avatar fame (amongst many others) added an exquisite touch to their performance. Ed Shipley and Dan Friedkin in 'Fragile but Agile' and 'February' had the crowd stood in silence until the end of their display, where they drew the first round of applause from the crowds.

Continuing the trend were the three P-40 variants, with Patrice Marchasson in TFC's P-40C leading Marc Mathis in Christian Amara's P-40N and Steve Hinton in TFC's new Merlin engine P-40F, sporting a delicious US desert scheme. The 'F flew for the first time in the UK on Saturday morning and I was pleasantly surprised to see it participating in the display.

Like the Mustangs, the P-40s tore up the skies over the 'tank bank' in a Curtiss tribute full of impact while Alan Wade flew a more distant solo display in TFC's Hawk 75. These multi-layered set-pieces are what sets Legends apart from the countless other UK and European airshows. That frenetic style, with aircraft flying over both runways simultaneously and often in opposition, is what makes the show so special.

It's all choreographed so seamlessly that there is always something going on in front of you; take the P-40s - as they were repositioning at crowd rear, the Hawk 75 was flying aerobatics directly in front of you. It's an airshow art form, and one which sets Legends aside from the more leisurely British airshows.

My personal highlight of the weekend was the tremendous 'big piston' Hawker duo of Sea Fury T.20 and Fury ISS. Reprising their duo routine from last year's show were Nick Grey and Frédéric Akary, storming across the airfield in the manliest display of the day as they threw grace and subtlety out the window, instead beating the Holy Hell out of Duxford in what seemed like an ode to Reno.

Akary pulling two point hesitation cubans up into the heavens, Grey dipping behind the horizon in a 360 degree turn, Akary back in with full vertical rolls and Grey firing back by pulling streamers off the wingtips before Akary "brings it" with a low topside pass, bursting from behind the trees at crowd right as someone on the hill shouts "Oh for f---- sake!" in pure joy. It was like a joust, with Furies. I could watch that all day and never stop smiling! Game, set and match Akary... Round three anyone?

A third Sea Fury (a T.20) was provided by the Royal Navy Historic Flight, with Chris Gotke flying solo in a segment dedicated to Royal Naval aviation as the Fury joined the Fairey Swordfish for an interesting display of seaborne airpower from two eras only a matter of years apart.

The naval theme continued with the intimidating, almost bruising form of three Skyraiders, two of which flew an aerobatic tailchase of half cubans and aileron rolls that demonstrated the almost improbable agility of these huge aircraft while the tooled up machine from Vega Team/Skyraider Avignon flew straight and level passes along the crowd in yet another impressive layered set-piece. The Vega Team Skyraider curtailed its display on Sunday afternoon having reportedly had a near miss with OFMC's Spitfire MkIX. The Spitfire was on finals to land as the 'Raider began running in for its display, peeling off sharply seemingly, from my angle anyway, to avoid the Spitfire. Swift action was taken by the Flying Control Committee and the Skyraider held to the east of the airfield until the other two had completed their slot.

American naval fighters were also represented, with TFC's Bearcat and Max Alpha Aviation's Corsair flying a duo display, with Pete Kynsey and Brian Smith at the controls respectively. The Corsair in particular offered plenty of photographic opportunities, with close topside passes galore that surely satisfied even the biggest churls. The Flying Bulls' Corsair couldn't quite match the German aircraft's panache, though the Sunday display in particular boasted some memorable passes and a fine exhibition of the Corsair's power.

That brings me nicely on to what was probably the individual highlight of the display; from Salzburg in Austria, the beautiful Lockheed P-38 Lightning. Having seen plenty of YouTube footage showing this very aircraft flying basic straight and level passes at airshows, I'd almost resigned myself to the Lightning's appearance being one of those "it looks nice, but it isn't particularly impressive" acts. It was to my pleasant surprise then that the P-38 flew two comparatively spirited practice displays on Thursday, following that up with a weekend of excellent displays that represented the aircraft in fine fashion.

This wasn't the sedate display profile I'd been expecting; instead, the Lightning flew aileron rolls, Derry turns, four-point hesitation rolls and some gorgeous "photo passes" and tight turns that were a far cry from the pedestrian routines you'll find on YouTube. A true 2011 season highlight, undoubtedly.

Contrasting nicely with the aforementioned Furies, and effectively demonstrating the rapid advancements in aviation developments in the space of just one decade was the beautiful sight of four Hawker biplanes, with the Demon, Hind and Nimrod pair from Demon Displays Ltd (Stuart Goldspink), the Shuttleworth Collection (Willy Hackett), HAC (Charlie Brown) and TFC (Pete Kynsey) providing the highlight of the show for many with their formation display.

Entering in box four for a couple of flypasts, the Hawker quartet then split into two, with the larger Demon and Hind flying some close formation passes at lower level while the Nimrod flew simultaneous loops and barrel rolls above. Pure Kestrel magic, and a sight that will likely be bettered by a five-ship in 2012 when HAC's Hawker Fury joins the ever increasing 1930s Hawker biplane population.

The Hawker four-ship led the way for a number of other vintage types that often get lost in the shuffle at Legends, overshadowed by the high-octane fighter displays that are synonymous with the event. Providing a welcome change of pace this year were the likes of Junkers Ju-52 and Bucker Jungmeister, de Havilland Dragon Rapide and a pair of de Havilland Dragons and a surprisingly lively World War One dogfight pitting a Fokker Dr1 against a Nieuport 17.

One of the finest routines of the day, and an act that would likely be a show stealer at a smaller venue, was the scintillating fully aerobatic display by Mikael Carlson in his Fokker Dr1, another UK debut. Mikael is notorious for his dynamic displays in his Tummelisa and Blériot replicas, but his Dreidecker performance (and it is a performance!) takes it to a whole other level, with countless loops, rolls and split-S manoeuvrers showing the remarkably skittish capabilities of the Dr1 in a style hitherto unseen in this country.

Unfortunately, Mikael suffered a minor landing accident on Sunday that saw the Dr1 ending up on its nose; thankfully, he walked away without injury and the aircraft looks to be in a fairly good condition, all things considered.

With the 'heavies' in the programme sadly lacking in recent years due to the absence of B-25 Mitchells, A-26 Invader, Catalina and B-17 Flying Fortress 'Pink Lady', it was pleasing to see a tremendous formation routine by two Douglas DC-3 Dakotas (or a C-53D, to give the Norwegian machine its proper name). One of these, the silver invasion-striped aircraft from Association Normandie in France, was making its UK debut, and what a debut it was!

The Dakotas proved that you don't need oodles of power and speed to fly a dramatic and hugely impressive routine; towering wingovers, low passes and numerous topside photographic opportunities made the duet one of the high points of the weekend: they certainly left a lasting impression!

The Dakota pair was the penultimate act on the flying programme, leaving the stage clear for a spectacle that has become as much a part of British airshow history as Flying Legends itself. The massed 'Balbo' formation, comprising some 28 aircraft on Saturday and 27 on Sunday, is still a sterling sight after all these years, not least due to the logistics and cost of putting the thing together. If anything, I'd say that some people have almost come to take the 'Balbo' for granted.

The entire half an hour sequence - from the massed take-offs on both grass and hard runways, Stephen Grey's now famous 'Joker' display in the Bearcat, the first run through, the second Bearcat slot and then the breaking down of the 'Balbo' into two sections, with each element running through and breaking into the circuit while the remainder of the formation repositions for another run through - is utterly superb and to think that all the pilots do it unrehearsed makes it even more of an impressive feat.

Yet when you look at the reactions to the show online, the vast majority of people seem to almost overlook it when discussing the event highlights. I suppose it's a testament to the overall quality of Flying Legends that their grand finale isn't necessarily the absolute highlight of the flying programme, but I can't help but feel that many people have become a little bit blasé about it all. Perhaps we've been spoiled by almost two decades of large scale warbird formations, I don't know. When you put the camera down, step back and take it in, it's quite the unrivalled spectacle. An aerial orchestra, to paraphrase one of the group I spent Sunday with. We're lucky to have it.

Words really can't do an event like this justice. For one, there aren't enough adjectives in the dictionary to describe the merits of each display! I've attended Flying Legends since its inception in 1994 and I'm yet to see a dull year. Sure, there are shows that stand out in the mind as having been more memorable, for whatever reason, than others but TFC has managed to maintain such consistency in the quality of aircraft and set-pieces that each year you wonder whether they'll be able to match the previous season's efforts.

As for 2011, well, the flying was certainly up to the usual standard. There were countless highlights and a whole raft of exciting débuts (the Flying Bulls, two of the Buchons, a Dr1, a Dakota, two Mustangs, P-40F...) and a welcome return by many familiar faces, such as a Morane-Saulnier MS406 and Yak 9 which flew an interesting formation pass and solos on each day, to name but two.

I genuinely cannot see how anyone could find fault in the flying programme. The fighter tailchases were all close to the crowd, with plenty of topside angles for the photographers and in general, the warbird solos offered enough closer flypasts to please even the biggest churls. Putting aside Sunday's incidents, I thought this was a vintage Legends. As a massive warbird enthusiast, Flying Legends 2011 delivered on every level (though that may make me a little biased). There are complaints - the cost, space issues, generally poor food vendors and a programme that is borderline niche in many respects - but I'm of the opinion that they pale into insignificance once you're on the airfield, surrounded by all that history.

The flying was magnificent (particularly on Saturday), the social aspect and banter was first rate and the atmosphere over the whole weekend was up there with the best of the UK airshows. You're surrounded by enthusiasts from across the world, all drawn to Duxford by our unfaltering love of it all. It's meeting those people, catching up with your friends and chatting the morning away on the flightline walk that make the show what it is. I don't want to say that the aircraft are secondary, but it's the breaking down of social barriers, born out of our shared enthusiasm that makes the event so special.

Flying Legends is, to my mind, more than "just" an airshow. It's an experience that has, in a way, transcended the common airshow. Yes, the 50+ vintage aircraft that make up the event's tight three and a half hour flying programme are certainly the backbone of it - they are, after all, what we're all there to see - but there's a whole other dimension to the event that has blossomed into something quite special in the 17 years that Flying Legends has held a prominent position on the airshow calendar.

It's a truly international experience in every sense; the hotel I spent three nights in was, according to the hotel staff themselves, full to capacity over the Flying Legends weekend with an estimated 80% of guests attending the airshow, with that percentage made up primarily of Europeans and Americans from what I saw. That gave my brother and I a couple of superb nights at the bar, either with familiar faces or new friends, including some very sociable German enthusiasts. At the airshow itself, anyone who's anyone seemed to be there, and it was great to have a natter with friends from the USA, France, Malta, Dunmow and beyond.

Beyond the social aspect, there's the deeper vein of remembrance that runs through the weekend. These aircraft carry so much history with them that it's hard not to be moved by the sights and sounds presented over the two show days. It's about so much more than photographic opportunities and perfectly lit topsides; without getting too sentimental, and speaking on something of a personal level, it's about remembering the people who sacrificed so much in order that we can share our love of aviation with other enthusiasts from across the globe. Long may it continue!

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2011-07-23 - Snorch
Thank you for a brilliant resume of the airshow. I coldn;t attend, but your descriptions give me some very good idea of what I missed - apart from the smell and sound and sun-burn! Your latter observations of our expectations are true - but the problem is that it is SO good, you cannot pick out highlights! As you said it is 3 and a half hours of utter joy - an art form. Hang the cost.

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