2012 Articles

SEP 14 2012
Airshows >> UK: IWM Duxford Airshow 2012

There was a sense of anticipation leading into the Duxford Airshow 2012, the unusually positive forecast combining with a strong, full list of participants which rivalled any other UK civilian airshow to make something of a ‘must-see’ event at the famous IWM Cambridgeshire site. That anticipation was certainly well deserved in this author’s opinion. Casting my memory back a decade or so ago, one could argue that Duxford were coasting along with fairly generic and lacklustre programmes at some of their airshows – even the big September two-day event – relying heavily on the same few based participants and visiting acts to pad out the flying programmes.

The weekend of 8th and 9th September did nothing if not prove that those days are behind Duxford. Looking at the flying programme for both days, there were numerous highlights and débuts, none more eagerly anticipated than that of the Warbirds of Norway collection’s Canadair CT-133 Silver Star, a type not seen at Duxford since Golden Apple’s example was lost in a take-off accident in 2006. The Silver Star headed up an impressive Norwegian contingent, including two de Havilland Vampires and a pair of F-16 Fighting Falcons (one of which was the specially schemed display ship).

Rather cruelly, radio problems caused the postponement and eventual cancellation of the Silver Star’s solo display on Saturday evening, with spectators being kept up to date with the latest developments by commentator Ben Dunnell – as appreciated as this was, it did mean that the situation changed almost comically from “it will fly later in the programme” to “it won’t be flying today” before shifting to “it will display after the Spitfires”, ultimately ending up at “it will be departing to North Weald straight after the show and won’t be displaying” within only a matter of minutes! There was a sense of disappointment, yes, but these things can’t be helped… I had to feel a little sorry for Ben, who was given the unenviable task of relaying these rapid-fire developments!

The Royal Norwegian Air Force F-16s and the Warbirds of Norway Vampires did, however, come good during Sunday’s display (they had been static at North Weald over the weekend, hence their absence on Saturday afternoon), flying over Duxford in a box-four formation before departing for home. It was a very welcome, albeit brief, return from the Norwegians, whose support in recent years is something that sets Duxford apart from the rest – hopefully we’ll see them come back to Cambridgeshire in force one day soon.

The undoubted highlight for many was only the second UK public airshow appearance of The Vintage Aviator Limited’s RE.8 and Albatros DVA, two stunning reproductions brought to the UK from New Zealand and flown here by Gene De Marco and Kermit Weeks. The TVAL duo, accompanied by John Day’s lovely Fokker DR1 and Rob Gauld-Galliers Nieuport 17 reproductions, were perhaps a little lost in the shuffle at Duxford, such was the depth of the flying programme, but their display slot – flown as a four-ship mock-dogfight – was a joy to behold in perfect blue skies.

The choreography of the sequence was really quite terrific, with the TVAL duo initially flying lower circuits while John Day’s machines re-enacted the aerial warfare of World War One overhead. They then switched things up with some opposition passes before alternating positions with one another, eventually breaking into a final flypast that saw the RE.8 and Fokker DR1 in formation, and the Albatros leading the Nieuport, for a run down the crowdline.

I had fully expected the TVAL aircraft to fly figure of eights, as historic biplanes so often do at Duxford, thus lessening their impact and photographic opportunities but it’s fair to say that my expectations were well and truly surpassed. Kermit and co. brought the four-ship nice and close to the crowd, particularly at the western end, and while it would have been nice to have had them all a little closer to the furthest end of the crowdline, it’s only a minor complaint.

Choreography is something Duxford has always done very well. Looking back at some of the more recent airshows, there are many marquee set-pieces that illustrate the point – the 16-ship Spitfire sequence in 2010 (the Hurricane quartet deserves mention here too) and the seven-ship Spitfire finale in 2011 immediately spring to mind. Indeed, Duxford’s association with the Spitfire is one which will never fade; they go hand in hand, and have done since 19 Squadron took up station more than 70 years ago.

It is apt, then, that once again it fell to the legendary Spitfire to provide Duxford with its big, curtain-drawing centrepiece. Although, that statement isn’t entirely accurate, for 2012’s finale was about more than just the Spitfire. The final 20-25 minutes incorporated four separate segments, weaved together seamlessly to create an almost theatrical spectacle. Shying away from the mock-dogfights that have been customary at British airshows for decades, Duxford’s organisers instead concentrated, to interpret it as such, on the beauty and purity of flight; this wasn’t about war, it was about the harmonic relationship between man and machine.

The opening salvo came with a sublime formation aerobatic display by Richard Lake’s and the Aircraft Restoration Company’s Hispano Aviacion HA-1112-M1L Búchons, flown by Cliff Spink and Paul Bonhomme respectively. As you’d expect from these maestros, it was all rock-solid close formation aerobatics with loops and barrel rolls sweeping the Búchons across the evening sky.

It wasn’t a lengthy slot, but it didn’t need to be, for no sooner had the Búchons split into the sunset, the stage was left open for the next duet as John Romain in ARCo’s Spitfire MkI led Charlie Brown in the Historic Aircraft Collection’s Hawker Hurricane XII for an utterly delicious formation routine, the pair flying some of the smoothest formation rolls you could imagine, all the while lit perfectly by the dropping late-summer sun.

Following the Spitfire and Hurricane were a trio of Spitfires led by Dave Ratcliffe in Richard Lake’s MkXVI, the other two – Dave Harvey in HAC’s MkV and John Dodd in ARCo’s TrIX – fixed on his wingtips for several banking vic-three formation passes. With the three-ship breaking into the circuit, the stage was left open for John Romain to return for a scintillating solo display in the Spitfire MkI; what finer way to draw the Duxford Airshow 2012 to a close than with the world’s oldest airworthy Spitfire flying graceful, balletic aerobatics as the early Merlin engine’s velvety purr filled the calm evening air. Lovely, just lovely.

In contrast to the MkI’s silky-smooth performance was the more raucous beat-up of Duxford by The Fighter Collection’s Curtiss P-47G Thunderbolt ‘Snafu’ and TF-51D Mustang ‘Miss Velma’, with messrs Pete Kynsey and Nick Grey bringing the full power of their mounts to bear on the airfield. This was only the second public display by the Thunderbolt and it’s fair to say that any concerns about the aircraft being handled gently, stemming from its Flying Legends 2012 début, were roundhouse kicked out of the window by TFC’s Chief Pilot.

Opening with a fast and low formation pass, the aircraft split into two individual solos, each utilising both axis to effectively fly simultaneous solo routines. There was much to savour here: the Jug’s tremendous, penetrating vertical aerobatics; Nick’s ode to Reno as he dipped behind the hill to the south of the airfield, fast and low; Pete’s precise eight-point roll in ‘Snafu’; the Mustang’s amazing scream as it burst into an aileron roll from behind the ‘tank bank’ and, for those who rate their displays solely on the number of topside photographic opportunities they present, the Thunderbolt’s nice arcing pass from left to right must’ve stirred something in the loins.

This type of sequence, showing off the best of both aircraft without compromising their full display envelopes by limiting them to, say, displaying in opposition to one another over the grass and hard runways (a la the admittedly awesome Sea Fury duo at Flying Legends), was something I’d certainly like to see more of. It’s all pure aggression and excitement and for the warbird enthusiasts in attendance, it really doesn’t get much better! The enthusiastic applause on the ‘tank bank’ as Pete taxied in captured the moment nicely.

While the Thunderbolt is still very much the new kid on the block and deservedly draws the most attention, it would be remiss not to mention TFC’s other contributions to the weekend. Flying one of his favourites was the boss, Stephen Grey, taking up the Grumman F8F Bearcat for his typically powerful display. Harnessing far less power, but arguably boasting a little more charm (of the art deco variety in this instance) was the Curtiss P-40B Warhawk, with Dave Southwood (of BBC ‘Test Pilots’ fame) at the helm.

TFC's assets don't appear at many airshows outside Duxford and so it is always a pleasure to see them in action; equally, a trip to Duxford isn’t complete without a wander around Hangar 2 to see the latest goings-on. Tantalisingly, the Grumman FM-2 Wildcat and Grumman F6F Hellcat, both of which have been grounded since 2008, are receiving some long-overdue attention and one awaits their (imminent?) return to flight with anticipation. Pleasingly the Hawker Sea Fury T.20, an aircraft which has been absent for the 2012 season as it went through the lengthy process to transfer it from the US to UK civil register, recently flew again and can now re-join TFC’s unmatched collection of ‘ultimate big pistons’.

Adding a unique touch to the proceedings, and one of the heavily promoted displays in the pre-show press releases, was the ‘big biplanes formation’ that saw the Antonov An-2, Fairey Swordfish and de Havilland Dragon Rapide joining up for a couple of loose passes in vic-three configuration. While I’m still struggling to deduce any real purpose for the threesome, it was one of those unusual, “never thought I’d see that” combinations that added some spice to the programme; certainly more effective, in my view, than simply booking the three biplanes in solo displays.

However, solos we also enjoyed, with Bill Leary putting the An-2 through its paces in a typically pleasing demonstration of slow-speed flight. The An-2 has a lot of presence and gnarly charisma as an airshow act, and it’s big enough to avoid getting lost in the Duxford crowdline; excellent too was the Swordfish, with an elegant display that drew appreciative applause from the crowd as it taxied back to its parking slot.

In addition to these ‘set-pieces’ was a raft of solo and formation display acts, including one crowd-pleaser making a return to Duxford after a four year absence. The Avro Vulcan made its re-début at Duxford in September 2008 with a brief appearance that seemed to peak before it had really got started. Feathers were further ruffled when the aircraft had to scrub its Sunday display owing to poor weather. Would the Vulcan make up for its 2008 disappointments on this occasion?

Well, yes and no, in truth. XH558 flew on Saturday only, captained by Martin Withers, and above all else it has been one of the big talking points of the Duxford Airshow on the aviation forums and social media websites. It’s hard to deny that the Vulcan was quiet – almost unusually so – with very little power applied directly in front of the crowd and, as we’ve seen regularly since the aircraft’s return to the airshow circuit in 2008, the few power climbs that were performed were done so at a great distance from the crowd.

It baffles me that engine cycles are used up to reposition like this, at a distance where the Vulcan howl is barely audible, rather than in front of the crowd where they would have maximum impact. It’s almost embarrassing to hear Sean Maffett waxing lyrical about the wonderful sound of the aircraft when you’re denied experiencing it! The final gear-down “dirty” pass was high and comparatively quiet to recent displays too; there was none of the crowd-centric noise that I’d seen at Dunsfold and Shoreham in recent weeks.

Yet, for all the gripes about the lack of noise and the Vulcan’s sedateness, it’s no lie to suggest that she’s nearing the end of her tenure as a display act. Arguably, the Vulcan’s mere presence should be enough to warrant enthusiasm, particularly given that her flying days are ultimately numbered. It just seems like something of a waste to not give her the send-off she deserves; she’s a much-loved part of British aviation history and for her displays to lack the power and glory that is synonymous with the Vulcan is disappointing to see.

With the Vulcan acting as Saturday’s big draw, it fell to the RAFAT, the Red Arrows, to pull in the punters on Sunday, closing the show in style. That division of popular assets is a commendable and sensible move; one assumes that the spread of acts over both days helped diffuse the crowds, rather than frontloading one day with a stronger line-up than the other and risking a sell-out!

One of the most eagerly anticipated display acts at the Duxford Airshow 2012 was the Duxford début of the RAF Tornado GR.4 role demonstration, with two ‘Tonkas’ from XV(R) Squadron flying into their slot towards the start of the programme. As suspected, the GR.4s were quite awesome from the ‘tank bank’, tearing up the field with low afterburner pass after low afterburner pass.

Whilst the Duxford locale precluded the usual pyrotechnic display, the routine itself lacked none of the impact it has elsewhere; a definite hit with the crowds, and a terrific engagement exercise by the RAF. The Tornados weren’t the only RAF assets on show, as they were joined by the Tucano T.1 and Hawk T.1 demos, the latter of which in particular is receiving heavy praise this year, and deservedly so.

I wouldn’t say it’s a marked improvement on previous years’ sequences – I’ve generally had the opinion that the Hawk is a fine solo act, always flown with precision and innovation, contrary to the general military spotters’ viewpoint (I jest, I jest). I doubt anyone could fail to be impressed by the slow speed loop; always a bit of a show-stopper!

Supplementing the RAF and Royal Norwegian Air Force assets was a single fly-by from four F-15C Eagles from RAF Lakenheath. That the USAFE would open Lakenheath and operate four fighters on a weekend when the base would ordinarily be closed shows the level of support and respect between Duxford and the US armed forces (further demonstrated annually at the popular American Air Day in August). Some may bemoan the fact that it was one flypast at relatively high altitude, but I certainly can’t sniff at four Eagles powering overhead… Perhaps it’s more about upholding the relationship between the two entities than an opportunity to shoot Eagles doing something more dynamic.

The remainder of the flying programme comprised the usual locally-based favourites, bolstered by the two Gnat T1s of the Red Gnat Display Team. The Gnats have tightened up their routine in recent years but they still leave me feeling a bit flat; maybe the addition of a third aircraft to the team in 2013 will change that.

The B-17 Flying Fortress and T-28 Fennec appear at the majority of Duxford airshows but they are always nicely flown and, in the B-17’s case, there’s a historic bond there that will always justify the aeroplane’s inclusion, and rightfully so. Joining the B-17 was another historic US military ‘heavy’ with a strong connection to East Anglia, with C-47 Skytrain ‘Drag 'Em-Oot’ flying a typically polished and entertaining display.

Martin Willing’s T-28 displays are generally “flat” displays, with mostly straight and level passes with the odd bank at either end of the crowdline. While I prefer the more dynamic aerobatic sequences flown in the machine by the likes of John Romain and Dave Southwood, objectively speaking Martin’s style keeps the aircraft close to the crowd with each pass, nicely illustrating the Fennec’s growling radial power.

One of the really underrated acts on the British airshow circuit is the Aerostars, flying six Yak-50s. The team’s been around for years in various incarnations (I fondly remember the Red Star Race Team of the mid-'90s!) but under their current, and longest-serving guise, they are as good as any other civilian display team out there.

The Aerostars keep momentum going with constant motion in front of the crowd – as one segment repositions for the next manoeuvre, another group is diving in to fill in the gaps. The choreography is excellent and while they enjoyed fine conditions at Duxford, it’s worth noting that these guys will fly in the most hideous of weather (as those at the Duxford Airshow 2011 will “fondly” remember, I’m sure!).

The Duxford Airshow 2012 had it all – fast jets, warbirds, civilian aerobatics and a fine selection of débuts and interesting, lesser-seen types to please the enthusiasts. The injection of a little innovation into the display at points – the ‘big biplanes’, WWI sequence, US fighters and the finale being the ones that stand out – went a long way; it wasn’t revolutionary by any means, but the presentation, choreography and quality of the entire programme made this one of the most enjoyable and rounded IWM Duxford airshows for some time.

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2012-09-15 - Grahame Foskew
thanks for the kind comments re our display

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