Duxford's Flying Legends Airshow 7/8 July
Doubles team Damien Burke and Gary Parsons dodged the rain showers and ignored the tennis...words served by Damien, pics by both.
Rain stops play
As if the weather wasn't bad enough, Legends also had to compete for the attention of the great British punter with Tim Henman and his antics at Wimbledon, the on-off-on again semi-final being a hot topic in the commentary booth. Saturday's weather was mostly dreadful, although the constant rain throughout the morning finally gave way to drier conditions in time for the flying to start - however, decreasing visibility and the onset of more rain curtailed the display at 16:00, preventing the 'balbo' from happening, but at least most of the participants had put up a good show until then.
Sunday morning at Duxford wasn't looking good. Saturday's awful weather looked to have settled in to stay and an early morning arrival found the airfield practically deserted compared to previous years. Thankfully the rain moved off, the cloud base gradually lifted throughout the morning and a strange bright circle could be seen hanging in the clouds. Rumour had it this was called 'the Sun'.
A quick run down the flight line walk found one of the living legends - Bud Anderson - a WWII Mustang ace. Bud brought down more than sixteen Luftwaffe aircraft in his time in Europe, and went on to fly in Vietnam. The Scandinavian Historic Flight's P-51D is painted to represent Bud's personal aircraft, 'Old Crow'. Also attending were Pete Brothers (a Battle of Britain Hurricane pilot, 16 victories), Don Blakeslee (P-51 pilot, 15 victories), Robert Goebel (P-51s again, 11 victories) and Lee Archer (P-51s, one of the famed Tuskegee Airmen, with five victories).
With the flightline now being cleared, it was time to pick a spot to watch the show from. But first, a quick recce as there appeared to be a 'new' Catalina skulking down by the M11 end of the airfield. This turned out to be Super Catalina Restorations' ex-Greenpeace example, newly painted in Coastal Command colours. They'd been up until late on Friday night finishing the painting, and had hoped to fly her in the show, but sadly ran out of time. Still, she looks good and will be flying any day now. But back to finding a spot to watch from - rather than go for the usual spot down by the M11 end, we thought we'd try the opposite end of the airfield instead. It would be quieter, being further away from the flightline, but hopefully not having the light against us would help with photography. This turned out to be a good move, although on Saturday 'light' was a misnomer.
Kicking the show off at 14:00 was a unique formation of Grumman aircraft - not only did the resident Bearcat, Hellcat, Wildcat, Avenger and Tigercat take to the air, but we were also treated to the first UK appearance of the very rare Grumman F3F and G32A (a two-seat F3F), specially imported from Chino just for the Flying Legends show. It was hard to believe these two tubby little biplanes had been in crates only a week before! Taking off, it was easy to spot the family resemblance to the Wildcat - similar landing gear arrangement for a start. The noise, however, was distinctively different. Once all the Grummans were up they came back for the formation pass, which was a hell of a way to kick off the show.
Two Corsairs and the RNHF Sea Fury took to the air next while the F3F and G32A ran in for their display. A precise formation display ensued from pilots Steve Hinton and Stuart Goldspink - they were certainly better performers than expected! Following them, the remainder of the Grummans came back to display while their older sisters landed. TFC owner Stephen Grey was back at the stick of his favourite - the Bearcat - after several years battling illness, though as camera shy as ever.
While Stephen taxied in, the Corsairs and the Sea Fury returned, zooming in and blasting the crowd with the sort of noise only these big fighters can produce. A quick pairs display from the Corsairs was followed by an excellent solo display from the Sea Fury, which looks superb in its Korean war markings.
Saturday had sadly not seen any sign of the BBMF, the weather grounding them at Coningsby. Sunday, thankfully, was now brightening up nicely and the Lancaster could be seen circling in the distance. Running in while the Sea Fury taxied, the Lanc was soon joined by one example each of Hurricane and Spitfire, and they all gave their usual somewhat sedate displays. It's worth noting that it's only really at Legends that you realise how conservatively the BBMF fly, because just about everything else gets thrown around the sky with much more energy - like the two Skyraiders that took to the air next! Hard on their heels, a pair of Yaks - a '3 and a '9, both shortly to be zooming around like maniacs in a spirited tailchase. By now things were in full swing, with take-offs happening so fast it was hard to keep track of it all - watch and learn, Mildenhall organisers!
The Tigercat was back in the air, joined by the Dutch Historic Invader Association's A-26C, and they along with the Skyraiders and Yaks kept the sky nice and busy. One thing definitely noticed amongst all this action, though, was seven Spitfires taking to the air. Sadly one came back in pretty quick, with an undercarriage problem - pilot Steve Hinton brought her back in gently and safely. The remaining six were now evenly split into Merlin and Griffon-engined examples, three of each. The six now came back for what was, for me, the highlight of the show - the Merlin examples carried out a tailchase the other side of the runway while the Griffon ones performed much closer to the crowd - coming within feet of those of us at the far end of the airfield - or so it seemed! That much Spitfire, going that fast, certainly looks like its overhead, even when it isn't. Noisy, adrenaline-pumping magic - and the sun even came out!
With Old Warden's Gladiator and a pair of Hurricanes taking to the air, the three Merlin-engine Spits came in for a symbolic missing man formation, the middle of the trio pulling up into the clouds. While the Spits all taxied in, it was the turn of their less famous counterparts - the Hurricanes. The two Hurris, piloted by Dave Southwood and Paul Bonhomme, surprised us all with possibly the tightest formation display of the day - very unexpected, but very welcome. Sneaking into the air without fanfare, TFC's newly restored Hawker Nimrod was put through its paces, and very nice it was too - a baby Hurricane! Even the resident Classic Wings' Dragon Rapide took to the air, along with Torquil Norman's Dragon Fly. But all eyes were soon distracted by the big bombers starting up - B-17 Sally B was once again to be joined by Pink Lady, visiting from France. Escorted by TFC's P-47, sadly once again the opportunity to get the pair of B-17s anywhere near each other was missed. Just like last year they may as well have been displaying separately, keeping well clear of each other.
Grumpy the B-25 took to the air while the B-17s finished their display, joined by B-25 'Sarinah', a repeat visitor from last year. While the B-17s taxied in - the only chance to get them both in the same photo, and even then it was a fleeting opportunity - Merlins once again made their presence felt. This time it was four Mustangs taking to the air, Robs Lamplough's gorgeous 'Miss Helen', Rob Davies' 'Big Beautiful Doll', 'Nooky Booky IV' (JCB Aviation, visiting from France) and finally 'Old Crow'. Sadly one P-51 remained on the ground. But never mind - it was really hotting up now, with more and more aircraft taxiing out to take off in preparation for the show's finale - the balbo.
New balls, please
If you've never been to Legends - GO! That said, if you've never been, you may not have ever seen anything like the balbo that they end the show with. This is a mixed formation of as many aircraft they can get in the air - the limiting factor normally being the number of available pilots, rather than aircraft! This year on Sunday they managed twenty-seven, and while they were forming up away from the airfield, Stephen Grey kept us occupied with a dazzling display in his Bearcat. If there was ever a man enjoying himself in a cockpit, this was it!
Game, set and match
The final balbo was tighter than usual - instead of a long trail, one group was put to the side and the rest brought a little closer together, more photogenic than usual and just as awe inspiring. If it wasn't for the engine noise you'd be able to hear a pin drop - it really is a moment where time stands still and you just enjoy. All too soon though it was over and the balbo began to break up, becoming smaller with each pass as different aircraft peeled off to land. As I was walking back to the car - hoping for a quick getaway - the commentators (who had been mostly out of my earshot, so I can't comment on the quality of their gabbling this time) put on some music - Somewhere Over The Rainbow - in memory of the friends who couldn't be there this year. A fitting end to another fantastic Flying Legends show.
You cannot be serious...
And oh yes, the OFMC's Breitling Fighters turned up a few minutes later. Late! Better get yourselves some decent watches, eh boys?
Postscript: Yak-9 F-AZYJ was heavily damaged during a missed landing at its home base of Dijon-Darois. As he was coming back from the Duxford airshow on Sunday, the pilot, Albert Hage, intentionally pushed the aircraft off the runway to avoid obstacles. During this manoeuvre the main landing gear was damaged, destroying the propeller and causing major damage to the engine and airframe. Due to the severity of the damage we may not see it back in the sky for several months. (Info from Hervé Da Silva)