May the 4th be with you
Duxford's Spring Airshow, 4 May
Gary Parsons kicks off the airshow season with some old favourites
No Luke Skywalker, but the force was well in evidence, given the strength of the wind. Although it was a beautiful day with wall-to-wall blue skies, the strong breeze scuppered the advertised highlight of the show, namely the Lancaster and Tornado flypast to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Dambusters raid, as the veteran bomber remained locked in its hangar at Coningsby, the crosswinds being out of limits. Although many were disappointed, PA474 remains a national treasure and must be treated as such - at least we can look forward to future attempts. Thus it was left to Tornado GR4 ZG777 from 617 Squadron to perform a singleton flypast, appropriately flown by one Wing Commander Gibson - this being the current OC of 15(R) Squadron, who is otherwise known as Bill. Taking the salute was a trio of ex-617 veterans, headed by Ray Grayston, one of the few surviving members of that historic raid in May 1943. Accompanied by former adjutant Harry Humphries and later member Tony Iveson, he found himself busy for most of the day signing books and paintings - it would seem the public's captivation of this famous squadron grows stronger with time, rather than fading.
Against the odds
As a backdrop to the celebration of the dams raid, the flying programme had an 'Against the Odds' theme, featuring aircraft that had participated in daring missions throughout the history of modern aviation warfare. Suffering a number of last-minute cancellations, one did get the impression that the missions were chosen around the aircraft available, which had a familiar Duxford airshow feel to them. Although part of the local scenery, it was B-17G 'Sally B's turn to feature high in the pre-show publicity, once again playing the part of 'Memphis Belle' in celebration of the 60th anniversary of her 25th and last mission - spookily also on 17 May 1943. Just as Guy Gibson was landing back at Scampton from attacking the Mohne and Eder dams, so Captain Robert Morgan was starting the engines on 'Belle a hundred miles to the south at Bassingbourne, just a stone's throw from Duxford. With Stephen Grey providing 'top cover' in the TFC's P-47 after a brief landing to secure its loose canopy, 'Sally B' admirably coped with the stiff breeze and looked superb against the blue sky and contrails left by passing airliner traffic.
The wind prevented the opening 'Against the odds' act of the RAF Falcons, representing 'Operation Market Garden' and the assault on Arnhem. Several passes by the Hercules compensated, including a tactical approach to Duxford's 4,000 ft runway showing the new C-130J's ability to stop on a sixpence. Making a breeze of the stiff wind was HAC's refurbished Fieseler Storch (actually a French Criquet, but we won't go there) that literally took off within a few feet of moving off. Almost stationary in the air, it ably demonstrated the agility needed for the daring mission 'Operation Oak' to rescue Mussolini from the Campo Imperatore Hotel at the peak of Grand Sasso in the Abruzzi Apennines on 12 September 1943. Further Mediterranean gallantry was represented by Frank Chapman flying the Shuttleworth Collection's Gloster Gladiator, three of which ('Faith', 'Hope' and 'Charity') defended the island of Malta during 1941.
the wind was strong and gusting, pushing the aircraft towards the crowdline,
the standard of flying was excellent, with only one or two raised eyebrows
on occasion...particularly spirited was John Romain in the Blenheim, who
along with Mike Collett in Air Atlantique's Anson loosely represented
the Battle of the Atlantic and the many long and lonely reconnaissance
missions performed in the early phase. Later radial-engined types as used
in the fifties and sixties were represented by Martin Willing's Radial
Revelations T-28 and Percival Pembroke, the latter having flown risky
photographic-reconnaissance missions along the air corridors to Berlin
in support of NATO during the Cold War.
RAF in strength
One thing that was quite surprising given recent world events was the strong showing by the RAF, which must have been Duxford's biggest operational aircraft gathering since the heady days of the Gloster Javelin in the early sixties. Two Tornados, the 617 Squadron example being fresh from Operation Telic, two Harriers, a Jaguar, two Hawks and two Tucanos filled the ASP and significantly bolstered the mid-morning flightline walk for the enthusiasts. Such was the paucity of aircraft that the normal £3 charge was reduced to £1, but actually the lack of aircraft aided photography as the planes were arranged in a haphazard fashion, rather than a regimented line, meaning some superb static angles could be achieved in the glorious weather. Marvellous value at a pound, but with the cost of entry to the airshow getting ever higher the IWM should consider scrapping the flightline walk charge or encouraging savings elsewhere - as with the 'kids go free' scheme of last year. A family of four would have had to spend £50 just to get in the gate - a considerable sum for many, and certainly an encouragement to leave the kids at home if possible, who are the enthusiasts of tomorrow.
Sorry, let's put the soapbox away for a while, and look at the RAF's flying contingent - starting the service's contribution was Flt Lts John Nixon and Stu Oliver in 15(R) Squadron's official GR4 display, having taken the role from Obi-Wan Kenobe's brother from last year. Full of the usual fast and noisy stuff, it contrasted nicely with Martin Day's routine in the Tucano, which noticeably struggled with the wind more than the Tonka. Making a rare appearance at Duxford was the Jaguar, flown once more by Mike Hayes from 16(R) Squadron. Flt Lt Steve Kenworthy from 208(R) Squadron performed the Hawk display, and wrapping up proceedings was Roly Sharman in the Harrier.
Airshows like buses - none for ages, then four all at once!
day to start the season, but an uncomfortable feeling that it was the
weather that really made it hugely enjoyable, as most 'acts' were regulars
and little was different from last October's Autumn airshow. Yes, cancellation
of the F-16, Canberra and others did make a dent, but with three other
reasonably high-profile aviation events happening the same day, substitutes
would be hard to find and the enthusiasts with a tough decision to make,
thereby diluting the potential attendance at each - maybe a shake-up of
the airshow calendar is due?