Gary Parsons reports from another successful Flying Legends at Duxford, held over 8/9 July. Pictures by the author and Jack Parsons
Spitfires! Mustangs! Corsairs! Hurricanes! Aerostars! Aerostars? Surely some mistake? Hardly the stuff of legend - while the skill of the pilots cannot be denied, the diminutive Yak isn't what one would normally expect at Flying Legends, the world's premier piston-engined warbird event. More suited to entertaining the crowds at a seaside airshow, their slot during Flying Legends only served most enthusiasts with the chance of a 'Burger break'. But, that minor aberration aside, Flying Legends once again served up an intoxicating mix of fighters, bombers, transport and training aircraft in a three-and-a-half hour flying programme that simply flew past, if you'll excuse the pun.
Commencing with the now traditional dramatic Spitfire tailchase, the afternoon provided a contrast of aerial displays from aircraft that were, in the main, at least sixty years old, but lovingly cared for and in pristine condition. It was the last appearance for two old favourites - P-47D 226671/G-THUN 'No guts, no glory' and F-7F Tigercat 80425/G-RUMT/N7235C have both recently been sold and will make their inevitable journey across the Atlantic to the USA in the near future. G-THUN nearly didn't make the show - a fuel tank and engine cylinder change the day before the show meant the dedicated TFC personnel worked overnight to get it airworthy, an engine test on Saturday morning proving all was well. The Thunderbolt was dismantled immediately after the airshow and will be shipped to California where it will be reassembled and licensed on the US register. The Tigercat, in the capable hands of Pete Kynsey, has traditionally led the 'Balbo' flypast at the end of each day of Flying Legends, but has to go because new EU regulations will restrict the number of pilots able to fly the high-performance twin-engine aircraft.
But aircraft rotation and change is the lifeblood of Flying Legends - hopefully next year we'll have the P-47D's replacement, P-47G 'Little Demon' to savour as well as a possibility of the Fiat CR-42 and another Gladiator. There's always something new and unusual amongst the familiar favourites, and this year it was the turn of EKW D-3801, aka a Swiss-built Morane 406C fighter of the early Second World War. Owned and operated by Association Morane Charlie-Fox and based at La Ferte Alais in France, the pocket-sized fighter flew a very Gallic display with TFC's Hawk 75, also resplendent in Armee de l'Air markings of the early war years, Steve Hinton at the controls of the Curtiss fighter.
Arguably a French 'Hurricane', the D-3801 was a licence-built variant of the Morane-Saulnier MS406, the Armee de l'Air's main fighter at the outbreak of the Second World War. Unlike the Hurricane, it was woefully outclassed by opposing German fighters in respect of both its performance and armament, and as a consequence suffered terrible losses (some 400 destroyed) during the Battle of France between May and June 1940, MS406 pilots in turn claiming 175 victories.
Developed from the MS405, which had been built in response to a requirement issued by the Armee de l'Air for a modern monoplane de chasse, 1,000 MS406s were hastily ordered in March 1938 when the French Government became increasingly alarmed by the Nazi annexations of Czechoslovakia and Austria. Of mixed construction, the MS406 comprised a conventional steel tube frame covered with fabric for the fuselage, with the rest of the structured covered in 'Plymax', a plywood skin bonded to metal alloy. A number of MS406s were sold to anxious European air forces in the final eighteen months of peace to September 1939, with Finland and Turkey both buying substantial quantities and Poland being on the cusp of receiving the first of 160 fighters when it was invaded by Germany. Following the surrender of France in June 1940, surviving MS406s were operated by the Vichy French and by the Luftwaffe, whilst other surplus examples were sent to Croatia, Finland and Italy.
The Swiss Confederation first showed interest in the MS406 in 1939 when two were procured for trials. A contract was agreed for the licence production of eight MS406C-1s, which were designated D-3800s by the Swiss. A further 74 were built in 1940 at three plants in Switzerland, followed by 207 D-3801s which boasted uprated 1,000 hp Hispano-Suiza HS-51 12Y engines. By late 1943, nine Flieger Staffeln (fighter squadrons) and two Ueberwachungeschwader (monitoring squadrons) were equipped with the D-3801, and these were regularly involved in combat with German aircraft straying into neutral airspace as well as forcing damaged/lost Allied B-17s and B-24s down at Swiss airfields. The aircraft remained in service until 1959 when the last D-3801s were decommissioned.
No original French-built Morane 406Cs survive today, the Association Morane Charlie-Fox airframe being brought together using parts from three D-3801s saved from scrapping in the early 1970s by Hansruedi Dubler. Under the direction of warbird engineer Max Vogelsang, the forward fuselage of J-84, the wings of J-276 and other sections of J-143 were combined during a six-year, 10,000 man-hour restoration undertaken at Vogelsang's workshop at Wohlen. Fitted with an overhauled HS-51Y engine prepared by Naef of Fischenthal, the aircraft made its first flight in forty-one years from the military airfield at Stans-Buochs on 9 June 2000. Initially marked up as a Swiss Air Force aircraft from 1940, J-143 has recently been repainted as an Armee de l'Air MS406 from the 'Phoney War' period after its purchase in April of this year by Association Morane Charlie-Fox.
The Morane/Hawk 75 formation was one of several unique formations throughout the day. Most amazing of all was the sight of three Bristol Fighters in the air at once - surely for the first time since the late 1920s! Joining TFC's F2b F4516/G-ACAA and the Shuttleworth Collection's F2b D8096/G-AEPH was the Historic Aircraft Collection's recently rebuilt F2b D-7889/G-AANM - a genuine Great War survivor, it was acquired by HAC in 1982 from the Shuttleworth Collection and the subsequent restoration was split between Skysport, the Shuttleworth Collection and Retrotec. The airframe was completed in 1999 and the engine in early 2006, having been found at the Brussels Air Museum and exchanged for a Gnome rotary and a supercharged Kestrel engines. The first post-restoration flight took place as recently as 25 May, Legends being its first official airshow appearance. As the three biplanes trundled around the Duxford circuit, one could imagine being at the Western Front and seeing these state-of-the-art fighter-bombers put fear into the Hun!
In other formations, the two B-17s, 'Sally B' and 'Pink Lady', once again threw the challenge to photographers to get them both in the same frame, as did the two Catalinas - Dutch Navy-coloured PH-PBY joining Plane Sailing's Duxford-based example. Owned by the 'Stichting Neptune Association' based at Valkenburg, PH-PBY has recently returned to the airshow circuit after a four-year restoration and has been named Karel Doorman in honour of the famous Dutch Rear Admiral, who was killed on 28 February 1942 in the Battle of the Java Sea.
Cavorting with the Catalinas and also making a Duxford debut was Kennet Aviation's beautiful Seafire MK XVII SX336/G-KASX. Contrasting with the earlier mark Spits, it's hard to believe it shares its lineage with the Mark 1 Spitfire of the Battle of Britain, such is the difference in airframe. The Seafire was discovered in the scrapyard of Joseph Brierley & Sonof Warrington, Lancashire in 1973, the wreck of SX336 and sister ship SX300 forming the basis of the rebuild. SX336 is one of only two airworthy Seafires in the world, the other being Jim Smith's FR47 VP441 based at Crystal Lakes, Montana. Earlier in the day it flew in formation with Kennet's Skyraider and the Royal Navy Historic Flight's Sea Fury, providing a unique Naval inspection not seen for many a year.
With a two-ship Mustang formation aerobatic display from Ed Shipley and Lee Proudfoot, and three Corsairs in formation, there was much warbird action to be had. Sometimes there was so much going on it was hard to know what to look for next!
So once again Flying Legends delivered the goods, but there's a worrying sign of 'dumbing down' with the introduction of the Aerostars and many non-aviation related trade stalls (including the dreaded 'craft' tent). Flying Legends is about the men and machines that were true legends, and diluting the experience is hard to justify given the hefty entrance price compared to other aviation events. If warbird participation is becoming more difficult due to cost and insurance hikes, maybe it's time to broaden the scope from piston engines to include jets from the forties and fifties - with a Me-262 now flying in Europe, let's consider the jet fighter pilots from the late Second World War and Korean theatres and their mounts as being the 'stuff of legends' too. Sabre versus MiG next year, anyone?