Battle of France Airshow, Old Warden Sunday 7th May 2000
John Partridge reports that the lovely little grass aerodrome at Old Warden was the setting for one of the first air displays of the season, and the Shuttleworth Collection made a fine job of it.
With its L-shaped crowd line and small area, and with the sun lighting the aircraft from behind the spectators, Old Warden is perfect for displaying the veteran aircraft of its own and other collections. Old biplanes banking sharply as they turn on the angle of the 'L' by the control tower make excellent photographic subjects, and the result often looks like a genuine air-air shot. The slipstream whistling in the bracing wires of those old aircraft makes an evocative sound.
The display had a theme - the Battle of France. On the far side of the runway the French and Union flags, personnel, vehicles and tents simulated a French airfield in the dark days of 1940. The atmosphere was further enhanced by the presence among the crowd of volunteers in various uniforms of the day, and the commentary by Mark Whall during the flying display was interspersed with recordings of contemporary radio broadcasts such as Chamberlain's sombre announcement of the declaration of war and Churchill's announcement that the Battle of Britain was about to begin.
Recorded music of the era complemented that played live by the Mainland Big Band in Hangar 3. The atmosphere was further enhanced by Shuttleworth's customary parade of vintage vehicles carrying people dressed in the costumes of the time. Of particular note was a beautiful Rolls Royce carrying a very convincing impersonator of Winston Churchill.
But of course it was the aircraft that were the main stars of the show.
Before the display, at 12:00 the incoming Military Auster Flight reported cloud base as 1,500 feet. Soon after it started to rain, and in the next forty minutes more than one visiting aircraft had to go around for a second attempt at landing, while one aborted and flew back to base.
Soon after the display began at around 14:00, however, the sun came out. The Bristol Fighter and SE5 opened the show, flying as a pair in a surprisingly tight formation. Following a break left and right they then flew singly. Now and throughout the programme Mark Whall gave us much history and interesting operational information, though many of us would appreciate a pause while the aircraft are flying past so that the loudspeakers don't drown the beautiful sound of those old engines.
A contrast in speed was provided by the Gladiator and Hind flying singly in high-speed passes, then both Hurricanes from the RAF Memorial Flight each performed a run-in and break followed by lazy barrel rolls.
Running in from Duxford, Stephen Grey appeared next in the Fighter Collection's Grumman F4F Wildcat, putting on a polished display of fly-bys, rolls and zoom climbs. The distinctive popping sound of the 14-cylinder radial engine was a joy to hear.
Next came a display by a Westland Lysander and an Auster. The Lysander, complete with ladder and dummy 150 gallon fuel tank, made an impressive tight right turn on take off and the Auster, having gained height, made a spectacular spiralling descent to low level without actually spinning.
A Miles Magister made a slow fly-by with flaps down. At this point a simulated attack was made on the simulated French airfield, accompanied by suitable pyrotechnics. Credibility was somewhat stretched by the fact that the attacking aircraft was Andy Haig-Thomas' Grumman Avenger. We just had to use our imagination a little. Two Hurricane XII - one from the Real Aeroplane Company and one from The Fighter Collection - were scrambled and duly chased of the raider.
The Magister again took to the air, flown by the Duke of Hamilton accompanied by a Shuttleworth pilot. His father had flown a Magister to France in 1940 on a mission to report on the growing crisis to Lord Dowding, C-in-C Fighter Command.
The Duke of Hamilton later read out a letter addressed to the Old Warden crowd from HRH the Queen Mother, in which she recalled those days and wished us an enjoyable day. Further displays by the Jungmann and Lysander were followed by a display by the world's only flying example of the Hawker Tomtit trainer.
Spectators were then treated to the first ever display by the recently restored Desoutter 1, and the show closed with a polished display of the Shuttleworth's Sea Hurricane 1b flown by Andy Sephton and a Spitfire flown by John Allason.
The Shuttleworth Collection succeeded in putting on a varied and interesting flying display and managed to create just the right atmosphere to evoke the period which gave the day its theme. It is to be congratulated on displaying four of the five airworthy Hurricanes existing in this country.
The organisers are to be congratulated also on a matter of administration: to my delight they had installed signs forbidding the use of wind breaks on the crowd line. Perhaps Duxford could take note. And, as usual, trade stands were situated well away from the crowd line to give an unobstructed view of the aircraft.
All round it was an excellent day. Apart from the themed flying display there was plenty to see and do, and a visit to the hangars before the display rewarded the visitor with close-up views of such gems as the DH 88 Comet G-ACSS, Parnall Elf, Sopwith Dove and replica Bristol M.1c monoplane fighter of 1916.
Rarely for an air show nowadays, getting out was no trouble. A short drive to the A1 and all that remained was the journey home during which to think about a day well spent.
Information about Old Warden and the Shuttleworth Collection can be found at http://www.shuttleworth.org.