Flying Legends has long been established as the warbird airshow in Europe. While the other major vintage-centric events, at Hahnweide and La Ferté-Alais, offer a more rounded (and arguably more varied) programme, ‘Legends caters specifically for historic aviation enthusiasts with the focus placed firmly on aircraft of the period 1910-1950.
For 19 years, The Fighter Collection (“TFC”) has given spectators the opportunity to enjoy some unique aircraft that they would not have otherwise seen in the skies over the UK; to name but a few, Flying Legends has attracted the likes of the Horsemen Mustang team from the USA; A-36 Apache; Grumman F3-F and G-32 biplanes; Polikarpov I-15; B-17 Flying Fortress ‘Liberty Bell’; Lockheed Super Constellation; SAAB B-17, and a whole raft of other classic aircraft that live long in the memory.
While 2012 would struggle to match the sheer volume of UK débuts seen in 2011, TFC still laid on a veritable array of new and interesting flying machines. Four aircraft types provided the show’s marquee acts – TFC’s much-loved new Curtiss P-47 Thunderbolt ‘Snafu’, the returning Flying Bulls' P-38L Lightning from Austria, a trio of Mk1 Spitfires (for what must have been the first time since the 1940s) and, making its first mainland UK airshow appearance, Tom Schrade’s wonderful Sikorsky S-38 amphibian.
Insofar as headline performers go, that is quite a line-up by anyone’s standards. Coupled with the usual Flying Legends regulars, it was a typically strong programme, albeit one left somewhat depleted by some notable cancellations (none more sorely felt than the Flying Bulls’ B-25 Mitchell) and surprising absentees.
Indeed, there were several aircraft that have become Flying Legends regulars whose absence was keenly felt. In particular, the comparative lack of French warbirds – with, amongst others, the Amicale Jean Baptiste Salis Collection P-51D Mustang ‘Nooky Booky’ and P-40N Kittyhawk ‘Little Jeannie’ both sitting ‘Legends 2012 out, and Frédéric Akary’s Hawker Fury ISS unable to attend due to ongoing maintenance – was noticeable when perusing the flight-line on Saturday morning.
Still, regardless of the reasons why, you can’t fault TFC for their efforts. Times are tough and operators do not always have the money, resources, time or, indeed, pilots to support shows in the way that they may like to. In any case, Flying Legends 2012 felt like a “quality over quantity” year in many respects and that was certainly the general consensus of those I spoke to over the weekend.
Spectators arriving on Saturday morning were greeted by the now traditional grim airshow weather of low cloud, wind and rain, and those who pitched camp at the crack of dawn in order to reserve their spots on the crowdline deserve credit for enduring the foulest of conditions! The crosswind did allow for the repositioning of aircraft on the flight-line, with participants on the grass parked at around 45 degrees to the taxiway.
This facilitated some new and (in my opinion) more interesting angles than the usual head-on shots you’re restricted to on Duxford’s flight-line walk, and with the morning sun in the right place and the rolling Cambridgeshire hills as a backdrop, some very nice angles could be captured in the lens.
Thankfully the weather perked up before the flying display began – one of the benefits of having an airshow that starts at 2pm – and by midday there were intermittent, warm sunny spells and some dramatic cloudscapes acting as a backdrop. The display began early this year, with a prelude in memoriam to the late Howard Pardue.
Howard had been a regular visitor to Flying Legends since the airshow’s inception in the 1990s, often flying TFC’s Grumman Hellcat or Wildcat in the old ‘Grumman Cats’ opener. Howard was tragically killed in a Bearcat crash in the USA earlier in the year and, to mark his passing, Flying Legends 2012 opened with a sedate Spitfire Mk1 three-ship formation sequence.
This was not a fast-paced, aggressive tailchase; it was a few minutes of calm reflection – Stephen Grey’s memorial to a friend lost before his time. With the Mk1s – led by Steve Hinton in Tom Friedkin’s X4650 with John Romain in the Mark One Partners' P9374 and Stephen Grey in AR213 (the former making its public airshow début) on each wing – flying gentle vic-three formation passes, commentator Bernard Chabbert spoke of the profound impact aviation has on man, drawing comparisons between the commercial airliner flying high above Duxford and the three Spitfires “playing romantic aviation” down below.
“Aviation is all this”, Bernard said. "Business, commerce, progress, changing the world... And at the same time, it's a romantic relationship between man, adventure, the sky and beauty". As Stephen Grey pitched skyward in AR213 in a poignant ‘missing man’ formation, Bernard punctuated the emotions with a heartfelt, “Thank-you, Howard. We miss you.”
It was a beautiful moment made all the more meaningful on Sunday by the terrible news filtering through from Old Warden, where Trevor Roche had been killed in the crash of the Shuttleworth Collection’s de Havilland dH53 Humming Bird earlier in the day. There must’ve been few untouched by the opening memorial display; it said so much about the bond between pilots, through so little.
At the very top of the Flying Legends 2012 bill – and proudly adorning the official poster – was TFC’s really quite sublime Curtiss P-47G Thunderbolt ‘Snafu’. Rarely do restoration projects attract as much excitement from the enthusiast community as the Thunderbolt’s rebuild over the last few years and indeed, come ‘Legends, anticipation for the public airshow début of TFC’s new crown jewel was at fever pitch.
‘Snafu’ flew fairly early on in the Flying Legends 2012 programme, displaying simultaneously alongside long-term Duxford resident B-17 Flying Fortress ‘Sally B’. In the very capable hands of Stuart Goldspink, one of the legendary stalwarts of the British warbird movement and a man who has flown just about everything there is to fly, ‘Snafu’ was displayed with power and grace in equal measure, with plentiful vertical aerobatics to demonstrate the aircraft’s somewhat unlikely manoeuvrability. It was a fine christening for what we hope will become a regular fixture at British airshows in future.
It was not, perhaps, the barn-burning scorcher of a solo display that we had hoped for deep down; I think it’s fair to say that many of us had visions of the Jug blasting about at low level, while what Stuart Goldspink delivered was a somewhat higher and more sedate offering that left some photographers in particular frustrated at the lack of closer passes.
However, I think that while displaying the Thunderbolt alongside ‘Sally B’ may not have been the obvious choice for its first outing, the slot worked very well and there are few more evocative sights and sounds than a B-17 escorted by its ‘Little Friend’ flying top cover, with the Manhattan Dolls singing live over the loudspeakers in accompaniment.
Indeed, it isn’t all about the photography. For some in attendance, the pairing of Flying Fortress and Thunderbolt restored memories of loved ones lost long ago in the skies over Europe, or those who came home and told the story of what they had experienced in their eyes. For the rest of us, it was an opportunity to reflect on an important part of East Anglian history courtesy of two tremendously flown vintage flying machines.
In contrast to the Thunderbolt’s intimidating bulk was the Flying Bulls’ P-38L Lightning, flown with terrific panache by the Bulls’ Chief Pilot, Raimund Riedmann. While the Lightning was the bonafide star of Flying Legends 2011, it took second billing to ‘Snafu’ here, although the P-38’s fully aerobatic display was the more impactful of the routines.
Flying graceful loops, half cubans and quarter clovers, interspersed with the occasional aileron or barrel roll, the Lightning’s display was a far cry from the routine seen last year – and let’s not forget the sound of the machine. Oh, the sound! Just a beautiful, sighing purr from the pair of Alison engines. Gorgeous!
At the opposite end of the spectrum to the Lightning’s sleek lines was the rather ungainly, but quite brilliant, Sikorsky S-38 ‘Osa’s Ark’, flown to the UK by its owner Tom Schrade as part of the S-38’s ongoing world tour.
The harsh sounding radial engines, zebra-stripe colour scheme and unique appearance of the S-38 gives it a lot of presence as a display aircraft, although the routine itself is brief (comprising three straight and level low passes, one of which was in a loose formation with Plane Sailing’s Catalina, itself making a welcome return to ‘Legends after several years’ hiatus).
While it would naturally have been nice to see the S-38 in the air for longer, the Flying Legends slot was no longer or shorter than either of its displays at Hahnweide or La Ferté-Alais (where I had previously seen it in action) and indeed, the aircraft’s size and handling characteristics don’t lend themselves particularly well to display flying in any case! It’s one of those aircraft that is great to see, but it’s more about the type itself than the display profile.
In addition to the headline acts, Flying Legends 2012 boasted four separate storming warbird tailchases. The third display on each day was provided by the traditional ‘Legends Spitfire sequence, this year involving seven Spitfires covering the broad spectrum of the type’s development, from the pure Mk1 to the gravelly-toned, raucous Mk PRXIX.
Opening with a low-level formation flypast combining the seven Spitfires with their 1940’s adversaries (in a sense), two Hispano HA-1112 Búchons, the elements then split, with Nick Grey leading a five-ship tailchase comprising (in the order of the day) TFC’s MkV, Steve Jones in the Old Flying Machine Company’s MkIX, Dave Ratcliffe in Richard Lake’s MkXVI, John Romain in the Mk1 and, visiting from Germany, Maxi Gainza in the Max Alpha Aviation's MkVIII.
While the five Merlin-powered Spitfires flew big, graceful figures over the hard runway (with John Romain having what must’ve been an interesting time trying to keep up with the Mk1’s younger, faster brothers!), Carl Schofield and Bernard Charbonnel (of Breitling Jet Team fame) provided the power in the two Griffon-engine machines, tearing in over the grass runway for fast and low passes.
I thought it was one of the best Spitfire sequences of recent years, with constant movement in front of the crowd and no dull moments. The ‘tiered’ tailchases over the grass and hard runways have become a Duxford trademark and, as a sky filling slice of aerial drama, you’d be hard pressed to find a more impactful set-piece.
This Spitfire overture was followed by a tremendous mock-dogfight between TFC's MkV and the two Búchons (piloted by Messrs Charlie Brown and Cliff Spink), with each pilot working hard to get onto the tail of their 'adversary'. As far as simulated WWII aerial combat goes, this was up there with the best of them - and, in a novel twist, the Luftwaffe even won the day on Sunday!
Equally impressive were the powerful tailchases flown by the Curtiss Hawk fighters and the Yak trio of Yak-11, Yak-3 and Yak-9. The former, led by Alan Wade in TFC’s elegant P-40B with Patrice Marchasson bringing up the rear in the P-40F while Dave Southwood flew a terrific solo demonstration of the earlier Hawk 75 in the background, was pure Flying Legends magic, with plentiful close topside ‘photo’ passes at each end of the crowdline.
Credit too must go to Dave Southwood, whose Hawk 75 display was a superb account of the pugnacious fighter’s capabilities. The Hawk may lack the glamour of the P-40's almost art deco lines, but it has bags of grunt and charisma, making it an excellent airshow performer. One looks forward to seeing more of the Hawk lineage joining this already impressive line-up in years to come.
The Yak trio, led by Rob Davies making a triumphant return to Duxford in his Yak-11, followed a similar format to the Hawks, with the -11 and -3 (the now-UK-based ‘White 100’, piloted by Richard Grace, who was making his Flying Legends début) ploughing down the grass at low level while Paul Boschung filled in the gaps with a typically spirited display in his -9.
To those at the western end of the airfield in particular, the close banking turns allowed some unusual shots looking almost directly into the cockpits of the Yaks (showing just how close they were on some passes). All three men flew their mounts like they stole them, tearing up Duxford in inimitable fashion - positively awesome stuff!
The big ‘Mustang stampede’ has always been a Flying Legends highlight, but this year saw the ‘Stangs appearing in depleted numbers, with three examples present (half the 2011 quota) from the UK and Germany. That isn’t to say that it wasn’t an impressive sequence – with the likes of Paul Bonhomme, Keith Skilling and Marc Mathis taking the reins, it was never going to be lacklustre – but Saturday in particular was a shade below last year’s scorcher.
That said, Sunday’s Mustang trio took on a different format, with Paul Bonhomme flying solo as a backdrop to Skilling and Mathis, who took it upon themselves to beat the holy hell out of Duxford. The ‘tank bank’ was the place to be for those low, straight-over-the-top passes.
Some of us were a pass or two away from screaming “P-51, Cadillac of the sky!” but we’d already embarrassed ourselves enough earlier in the day with our excited, puppy-like reaction to the Yaks and Curtiss Hawks…
The quality of flying elsewhere was up to its usual high standard, with the solo standout being Eric Goujon’s powerhouse of a display in Christophe Jacquard's smoke-winding Hawker Sea Fury FB11, an aircraft making its UK début at Flying Legends. Eric's penetrating climbs and graceful aerobatics - punctuated by precise aerobatic manoeuvres, including some lovely aileron rolls at the apex of his loops - were really quite captivating, aided by the Fury's unique smoke system that almost adds a fourth dimension to the routine.
Further naval airpower was represented by a sensational Bearcat and Corsair duo, flown by Pete Kynsey and Brian Smith, and the pairing of Swordfish and Sea Fury T.20 from the Royal Navy Historic Flight. The former were responsible for some of the most dramatic passes of the weekend, with the Corsair in particular giving those at the western end some cracking photographic opportunities.
Flying Legends isn't just about the fighters, however, and indeed the display by Dakota Norway's Douglas C-53 was possibly the finest demonstration of this Duxford regular to date. Flown with plenty of speed and agility for a transport, the C-53 enjoyed some of the finest conditions of the weekend, displaying in bright sun with a moody backdrop of distant rain showers.
The big piston set-pieces will, no doubt, be the ones that people remember, but that isn’t to say that Flying Legends 2012 didn’t offer up a pleasing number of aircraft on the lighter scale of vintage aviation. First and foremost has to be the pair of Hawker Nimrods from the Historic Aircraft Collection and TFC, flying an extended routine of loose formation aerobatics with a tailchase element.
Displaying on Sunday only, thanks to the efforts of Saturday’s gusting crosswind, were the trio of Fokker Dr1, Sopwith Triplane and Nieuport 17, who deserve special mention for displaying in what must have been some very tricky conditions. Reproductions they may be, but their inclusion in a show like Flying Legends – where the focus lies with WWII fighters in the main – illustrates the rapid development of the fighter aircraft in only a few decades.
Credit must also go to the Shuttleworth Collection who, in light of Sunday's terrible events, continued to display both the Westland Lysander and Peter Holloway's Fieseler Storch in an entertaining 'what you can do, I can do slower' square-off. GAR sends its deepest sympathies to all at Old Warden in what must be the toughest of times.
In contrast were a pair of Beech Staggerwings, provided by TFC and Edwin Boschoff, bringing some 1930s class to the proceedings late in the programme (although it is worth noting that the latter suffered what appeared to be a minor prop strike with the grass whilst taxying to the runway on Sunday, which prevented it from appearing in the display).
Perhaps destined to get lost in the shuffle were the Breitling Wingwalkers and the Aerostars display team, providing an interlude to the fast-and-furious warbirds. They aren’t everyone’s cup of tea, but it’s hard to moan about the Wingwalkers given the Boeing Stearman’s historical importance (not to mention the lovely ladies mounted on the wing…) and, as for the Aerostars, their display is tightly choreographed and always dynamic, even in less-than-favourable winds. They were both most welcome in this reviewer’s eyes – who said ‘Legends is all about the big pistons?!
That said, it was up to the fighters to draw the show to a close, with a 20-aircraft ‘Balbo’ formation putting the exclamation mark on what had been a supremely enjoyable flying programme. Even with reduced numbers, the ‘Balbo’ still packs a punch; the massed scramble on both hard and grass runways, with several aircraft tearing over the western ‘tank bank’ at low level, stirs this warbird enthusiast’s soul in ways that few other things ever will.
While that little lot were forming up to the south, Stephen Grey took centre stage for a few minutes in his ‘Joker’ slot, entertaining the crowds while the formation flew a wide circuit. And what a display it was, with pure fist-pumping power almost radiating from the Bearcat as Stephen rode her round the aircraft at high speed, all big, penetrating vertical manoeuvres. Bloody marvellous!
I’ve said it before and I’ll likely say it again next year, but it’s very easy to become almost indifferent to something like this. We’ve been spoiled by large warbird formations at Duxford and nowadays, there may be a sense of “seen it all before” in some quarters.
It’s easy to overlook the simple fact that these are 20 aircraft all of different eras, powerplants, roles, sizes and speeds. Each aircraft has its own nuances and personality; getting them all together in such a tight formation requires a hell of a lot of planning and skill. When you’re snapping dozens of photographs as they pass overhead, it isn’t difficult to forget that!
As per usual, the weather waited until the very end of the day to “go epic”, and that it did, with the ‘Balbo’ run-in-and-breaks (now performed in a more sedate echelon formation following last year’s collision, keeping visibility between aircraft to a premium) bathed in beautiful early evening light. Stunning, simply stunning.
In all then, Flying Legends 2012 delivered exactly what people have come to expect from this, the very best of warbird airshows. It may not have been a classic, but the quality of flying across the board was excellent and I certainly can’t find much to criticise in the programme itself.
Judging by the post-show reaction online, you would have thought it was a subpar ‘Legends. The number of comments on the aviation forums criticising various aspects of the show was very surprising, considering how much I enjoyed both days of the airshow and how, to a man, everyone I spoke to either at or after the event couldn’t praise the ‘show enough.
Yes, there were some short gaps between display items, and to an extent, the frenetic ‘all-action’ Flying Legends feeling was absent as a result. Necessarily following the events of 2011, the flying programme felt a lot more relaxed, with little conflict between departing, landing and displaying aircraft as had become commonplace in recent years.
Ultimately, if it means the pilots and spectators are a little safer, it’s very hard to complain. After all, the individual display slots themselves didn’t feel lacklustre or toned down in any way – indeed, the likes of the Spitfires and Yaks were as good as it gets, full of power and adrenaline. Comments regarding distant displays were, I can assure you, and as illustrated by the photographs here, simply untrue.
2012-07-17 - andrew abbott
A very eloquent, humorous and informative article. It echoes everything I saw on the day, after reading criticism on another website, I thought they were not at the same show as you and I Elliott. The photography is great in the article too, which makes a real difference. keep the great articles going, Elliott.
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