Victory in Europe?
Gary Parsons was at Duxford for the first major airshow of the year. Photography by the author and Jack Parsons, additional info by Greg Marsh
It was a weekend of contrast - the weather, as well as the fortunes of aircraft operators, being very high profile. Ironic then that on this weekend of celebration of the liberation of Europe, it should be the European Union that cast a big shadow - all talk was of the plight of the B-17 Preservation Group, a registered charity, and the grounding of B-17G 'Sally B' after a draconian EU Regulation came into force on 1 May. Regulation (EC) No 785/2004 requires all operators of large aircraft to have sufficient level of Third-party insurance, and determines the level on the maximum operating weight of the aircraft. In the case of 'Sally B', this equates to it being classified along with types such as the Boeing 737 and consequently an ultimate liability of some £65 million, resulting in an increase of insurance charges to the order of 500%. The Regulation does not consider the operation of historic and vintage aircraft that may only operate a few hours a year - unlike a 737, 'Sally B' is on a 'Permit to Fly' and can neither fly commercially, carry passengers, fly for hire and reward or fly over built-up areas.
Elly Sallingboe, owner of 'Sally B', has been lobbying hard for a change in the Regulation or the Government to grant an exemption - sadly all requests to the CAA and Government have been met with indifference, bordering on the insulting. Hence Elly had to take a drastic step - not fly on the 60th anniversary of VE day, which should have been one of the B-17's starring roles this year. Media coverage before the show was extensive, with TV slots and a feature on Radio 4 to highlight the lunacy of the Brussels bureaucrats' legislation. 'Sally B' is fully able to fly, but the Group cannot finance the extra £1,000 per flying hour required by the new insurance rules, so Elly took the decision to remain on the ground until a solution can be reached. It is particularly sad that this should happen during the B-17's thirtieth year on the UK display circuit and on its sixtieth anniversary.
Contrasting with Elly Sallingboe's fortunes was Peter Vacher, who brought his recently rebuilt Hurricane I R4118 for its first official display outing. A genuine Battle of Britain veteran, R4118 first came to prominence in December last year when, following an extensive three-year restoration, it flew for the first time in over sixty years. During the Battle of Britain, R4118 flew some forty-nine combat sorties and shot down a number of enemy aircraft. One of the pilots who flew this aircraft during the Battle, Wing Commander Bob Foster DFC, was present to witness his former aircraft demonstrate its first public air display.
The journey from Battle of Britain fighter to restored aircraft has been a long one - R4118 was delivered new to 605 (County of Warwick) Squadron at Drem on 17 August 1940. After being battle damaged on 22 October 1940, the aircraft was rebuilt and taken on charge by 111 Squadron at Dyce on 18 January 1941. There it was flown on patrol over the North Sea and was again in combat.
Over the following two years it was used primarily as a training aircraft with 59 and 56 OTUs and was rebuilt a further three times following major accidents, including hitting a lorry on the runway and being stuffed into a snow bank!
In December 1943 R4118 was crated at Cardiff and shipped to India as a training aircraft. It remained in its packing case in Bombay until 1947 when it was struck off charge, never having been used. It was donated to a university for engineering instruction where the fuselage stood outside in a compound with the propeller, wings and tailplane laid on the ground. There it remained until June 2001 when Peter Vacher, a man passionate about restoring vintage Rolls-Royce motor cars, was able to conclude six-years of negotiations and R4118 was loaded into a container.
Hawker Restorations Ltd in Suffolk undertook meticulous restoration work, including fitting every piece of equipment that was in the aircraft during the Battle of Britain, such as the first of the VHF radios (the TR1 133), the Identification Friend or Foe (IFF) unit, eight Browning machine guns and the camera gun in the starboard wing. It is said to be one of the most historic fighter aircraft to have survived the war.
Heavy showers dominated the two days, interspersed with brilliant sunshine, with the stiff breeze forcing the cancellation of one or two items. It was a typical Duxford display programme, regular resident display aircraft being joined by service aircraft from all three branches of the military - the RAF sent the Tornado GR4, Hawk and Merlin HC3, while the Navy provided a singleton Sea Harrier FA2 and the Army's Blue Eagles completed the modern-day content. Due to the tight restrictions of Duxford's airspace the Blue Eagles were restricted to a two-ship routine comprising the Lynx and a solo Gazelle, but otherwise most performed both days except for the SHAR, which was Saturday only. A particularly heavy shower just before the BBMF restricted their display to a single flypast on Sunday.
Somehow though, despite the endeavours of the display pilots, who were all as skillful as usual, there was a low-key feel to the event - it wasn't quite the VE-style celebration airshow we were expecting. Maybe it was partly the 'Sally B' situation, but even though it was a fine airshow in itself one was left with the feeling of an opportunity missed - a greater emphasis on the 1945 period with a few more set-pieces would have gone some way to addressing this. Many veterans were present, but one was hard-pressed to know unless visiting the aviation art stands - some on-air interviews during the flying would have brought some atmosphere to proceedings. In ten years the opportunities will be much fewer, for sure.
Elsewhere, the 'Sally B' team was active with a petition over the weekend, gaining many thousands of signatures of support. It would seem that the authorities want to do little to help, despite 'Sally B' being an iconic symbol of the sacrifices made by so many American airmen from East Anglia during World War II - give your support by writing to your MP here. It seems a second, although much smaller, Victory in Europe needs to be won.