It’s finally the season to be jolly again as the airshow season returns, kicking off in sensational style with the Shuttleworth Collection, based at Old Warden, just west of Biggleswade. Commemorating 70 years since Victory in Europe, the season premiere event was a thoroughly enjoyable day out despite Mother Nature’s best efforts to scupper the flying programme. Kieran Lear donned the suncream…and the anorak, and writes for GAR! With photographs by James Wheeler.
It’s been a long winter. The bleak, cold days of museum-going and shooting civilian airliners at commercial airports in anticipation of the upcoming season have finally passed and now it’s the start of another five months of aviation events and airshows to look forward to. After a hugely successful 2014 airshow season that included an eclectic Race Day airshow last October and the return to flight of the utterly beautiful de Havilland DH.88 Comet, Old Warden’s 2015 airshow year is set to be one of the highlights on any enthusiast’s calendar.
It’s not just the quality of events that seem to have taken Shuttleworth to new strengths in the past few years; indeed, online marketing and social media presence have given the Collection a new lease of life to some extent, and the attitude towards its online customers and supporters is second to none.
It’s the little things that make a huge difference. The new company logo is very trendy and befitting of a modern organisation, ironic when you consider all the aircraft operated by the Collection date back to half a century before the internet was even a consideration. The road that takes one from the ticket kiosks to the car parks has also been significantly upgraded; gone is the feeling of off-roading in a Defender!
Yes, ticket prices have marginally increased but the quality of aircraft Shuttleworth presents and the way these machines are flown, by some of the country’s most experienced pilots, receives little or no negative feedback from anyone I know.
Shuttleworth has that unique ability to swap and change aircraft depending on unserviceability issues or, in the case of this review, the weather. Either way, visitors to Old Warden are always guaranteed a superb day spent in the company of good friends and a damn fine collection of vintage aeroplanes; a wonderful vista!
Arriving 30 minutes before the flying programme was due to start, even I was surprised at how early I got there. When one of your good friends happens to be Elliott Marsh (GAR’s new editor), a man never with an aversion to early mornings, you soon gain a reputation for arriving at Old Warden with seconds to spare before the flying display begins.
The weather was, thankfully, dry and quite warm as I arrived, a huge difference to the wintery morning of cloud, rain and misery. A strong south westerly wind did hinder the flying programme, with lighter aircraft understandably opting out from joining in with the VE Day celebrations.
Sure enough, flying commenced just before 1400 with a powerhouse display from the Aircraft Restoration Company’s (ARCo) Hispano HA-1112-M1L Buchon, flown brilliantly by warbird pilot and engineer John Romain. John is, without any shadow of a doubt, one of the best warbird pilots this country currently has and his storming aerobatics gelled with some lovely photo opportunities going round “the bend” to give both warbird enthusiasts and die-hard photographers plenty to enjoy.
Duxford-based warbirds have been something of a novelty at Old Warden in recent years, but with the inclusion of the Buchon at the VE Day show, as well as the two Spitfire Mk.Is on seperate occasions last summer, one hopes ARCo and other Duxford operators continue to send these delightful aircraft to thrash the living daylights out of the Bedfordshire countryside.
John’s display certainly hit the right spot and within the ten minutes between him holding to the north, to him slowly disappearing from view heading wast, the atmosphere in the crowd was electric. If there was a better way to start off the 2015 airshow season, I’d love to see it!
Following John was Sqn. Ldr Andy Millikin, who brought along the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight’s (BBMF) Supermarine Spitfire Mk.Vb AB910, fresh from restoration with ARCo at Duxford and sporting a new colour scheme. Whilst not as impactful as the Buchon, credit must be given to the BBMF for supporting Old Warden despite the raging winds that were affecting aircraft across the country, including at the Abingdon airshow. The BBMF were due to bring their Spitfire and Hurricane for a number of flypasts, as well as the Avro Lancaster B.1, but weather and technical issues hindered the team on the day.
Due to the winds, there were inevitable cancellations, so select aircraft were given the chance to fly extended displays, none more lyrical than Peter Teichman’s prolonged appearance in North American P-51D Mustang ‘Jumpin’ Jacques‘.
Whilst not one of the best performances from Peter, the Mustang had the pleasure of displaying with the dramatic background of a passing storm which had, thankfully, narrowly avoided Old Warden.
Plane Sailing’s PBY-5A Catalina had a very busy day, operating from Abingdon to display at Old Warden, then displaying back at Abingdon before flying back home to Duxford. The Cat’ is always a joy to watch at an intimate event, and the team have to be some of the most reliable crew around for providing lovely displays.
The home-team, as expected, provided the main bulk of the flying programme. Not scheduled to fly but included in the programme as a replacement for the lighter aircraft, the Piston Provost gave a neat account of 1950s RAF training, flown elegantly by Paul Shakespeare.
Also flying earlier in the day was the Polikarpov Po-2, flown by John Hurrell. Whilst the common perception is that this aircraft dates back to the pre-World War Two era, Po-2s served gallantly in the Eastern Front right up until the end of the war, so the unusual “rat-atat-atat” song of the Po-2 was very apt for the VE Day commemorations.
More Shuttleworth types involved with World War Two included the Gloster Gladiator and Hawker Sea Hurricane. Whilst familiar at Old Warden and always a pleasure to watch and photograph, these displays, flown by Frank Chapman and Chris Huckstep respectively, have to be some of the best I’ve seen from the types. The Gladiator in particular was a very punchy, well-flown routine that seemed to rarely stray far from the airfield boundaries. Imagine Frank in the Glad’ leading The Fighter Collection’s example around Old Warden…
BAe Systems’ Avro 19 was also a welcome participant in the VE Day commemorations, particularly as the brethren of the type played such a crucial role in oft forgotten aspects of the Battle of Britain. Joining the Avro was Bob Morcom’s shiny Spartan Executive. Bob has recently become a regular pilot at the Shuttleworth Collection, so one hopes the Spartan will be a frequent visitor to Old Warden airshows; it’s an an aircraft that is seldom seen outside of Little Gransden and the aircraft exhudes style and suave.
Surprisingly, but nonetheless very welcome indeed, the solo act of the day came from Chief Pilot Dodge Bailey in the DH.88 Comet who, in my opinion, gets the award for top airmanship of the day. Displaying in the worst conditions of the afternoon, with rain and a wind strong enough to wake the dead, Dodge can only be applauded for completing a thoroughly enjoyable and safe routine for those brave enough to stay at the flightline. It’s fantastic Shuttleworth want to get the Comet flying as much as possible, and with the red beast down to fly at the next two Old Warden evening shows, there should be plenty of chances to catch this gem of the UK airshow scene at its home base.
Highlight of the afternoon, and after several failed attempts, was certainly the Hawker biplane trio with the based Hawker Hind and Hawker Demon joined by The Fighter Collection’s (TFC) Hawker Nimrod I. The Nimrod had been scheduled to fly at Old Warden on three previous occasions and it had become a running joke that whenever the Nimrod was down to participate, something would plague it from happening, be it weather or servicability. There was mild disbelief, then, that as the Hind and Demon were running power-checks prior to their departure a small dot appeared to the north, as the irrepressible Brian Smith braved the trying weather conditions to finally bring the navalised version of the Hawker Fury to Old Warden.
What followed were several flypasts by the trio, bending round the countryside, their Rolls Royce Kestrel engines echoing around the tranquil confines. The Nimrod then broke away as the Hind and Demon subsequently carried out a gentle, short tail chase, no doubt tweaked somewhat due to the impeding rain approaching from the south-west. Brian then performed a lovely solo display, culminating in a quite spectacular low pass for the crowds. If you didn’t know Brian came from the Ray Hanna stable of display flying, you certainly would have after that!
The show finale was a fairly quiet affair, with SVAS Piper Super Cub towing two gliders in tandem. When released, both performed a display in formation, an incredible show of pilot skill as they held formation in the gliders.
Then, it was all over and Old Warden had completed its first airshow of the season. For once, the season premiere event didn’t completely succumb to the weather and despite some damp moments, a safe, enjoyable afternoon of entertainment was had by all. Look out for Old Warden’s upcoming airshow events; the next being the airshow featuring the Light Aircraft Association on 7 June.
GAR would like to thank James Wheeler for the use of his photographs – to see more of his stunning work please visit his Flickr stream.