Gary Parsons reports from the first 'major' of the year, Duxford's Spring Airshow, held on 18 May. Pictures by the author and Roger Cook/Pynelea Photo Bureau
Three weeks of sub-tropical weather and clear blue skies finally gave way to a cool, stiff easterly breeze and leaden skies for much of the day - yes, the 2008 airshow is finally upon us! Duxford's opening event for 2008 didn't profess to be about anything in particular, but just focussed on giving a well-balanced afternoon of warbirds, modern jets, helicopters and light aircraft for the large crowd to enjoy. Forget the 'credit crunch' - Duxford's crowd bucked the economic downturn, proving that there is still a strong thirst for aviation in the UK and high ticket and petrol prices wouldn't stop the entertainment being enjoyed (we still think that kids should 'go free' though…).
It was the first opportunity for the majority of the RAF displays to stretch their legs for the first time after a winter's hibernation, particularly the Typhoon and Chinook, the former flying direct from Coningsby, as did the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight trio of Lancaster, Spitfire and Hurricane. On the deck were the Tucano, Hawk and Chinook, so it was a fine turnout by the much stretched Royal Air Force, setting the scene for hopefully a full and safe season across the UK this summer.
All the pilots are new to the display circuit this year, and Flt Lt Dave Davies could also be the last Hawk solo display pilot if MoD plans to further prune the display fleet come to fruition next year. Dave joined the RAF in 1998 and was selected for fast jet training, going to AFTC in Canada and eventually streamed onto the Tornado F3 with 111 Squadron at Leuchars. He has spent time on detachment in the Falklands and has experience on Quick Reaction Alert (QRA), chasing both airliners and Ilyushin Mays. "The F3 is a fantastic plane - it's a shame it's going out of service in a few years. I love it." It's Dave's final year of a three-year stint as instructor with 208(R) Squadron, and he wanted to finish on a high, volunteering for the display slot. "I'm not married, have no kids, so I was a good candidate!" This year's display will be slightly different to last year, but as Dave said "There's only so many manoeuvres you can do in the Hawk - you want to keep the display tight, you want to show off the performance but it's not particularly loud compared to Typhoon, but you try and make it as noisy as possible." Dave has just been selected to join the Red Arrows for the 2009 season at the first time of trying, so despite the solo Hawk disappearing will still be doing the job in twelve months' time!
While many enthusiasts won't be particularly worried about the loss of the solo Hawk on the display circuit, especially when there are usually nine red ones in attendance, it does leave a gap for the smaller events where the impact of a Hawk display would be the major attraction - maybe a reduced commitment, but one concentrated on the Abingdons and Roughams of this world would provide the perfect balance and get the most out of the RAF's Engagement Strategy?
Flying the Tucano is Flight Lieutenant Stew Campbell, 28, educated at Peebles High School in the Scottish Borders. He studied at the University of Edinburgh where he gained a BEd in Physical Education and spent much of his time flying the Tutor training aircraft with East Lowlands Universities Air Squadron (ELUAS). Having completed his Initial Officer Training at Cranwell in July 2003 he was posted to RAF Linton-On-Ouse, where he undertook Basic Fast Jet Training (BFJT) on the Tucano. Graduating and receiving his wings in October 2004, he then moved to 208(R) Squadron, RAF Valley, to fly the Hawk. In November 2005 he successfully graduated from Advanced Flying Training and was selected to return to RAF Linton on Ouse, to become a Qualified Flying Instructor (QFI) - this continued a long RAF tradition of selecting a small number of graduating trainees for this role, known as being 'creamed off', giving rise to the rather unusual title of 'Creamie' instructor. He is currently part of the Central Flying School at RAF Linton on Ouse, and teaches pilots how to instruct on the Tucano. This is his first year as the Tucano Display Pilot, and Stew's next posting will be to 19(F) Squadron at RAF Valley to complete Tactical Weapons Training before progressing to a front-line squadron. In the future, he hopes to fly the Harrier. Until then he has no less than two specially-painted aircraft at his disposal!
Certainly the most dynamic and energy-intensive display of the day came from the Typhoon, new display pilot Flight Lieutenant Charlie Matthews putting the jet through its most aggressive display routine seen since Eurofighter demonstrations at Farnborough. Charlie is a Qualified Pilot Instructor with 29(R) Squadron and his day-to-day job involves teaching RAF and international student pilots to fly the Typhoon and to prepare them for service on the front-line squadrons.
Duxford-based warbirds blossoming into action included a trio of Spitfires led by the irrepressible Charlie Brown in BM597 and the Fighter Collections Cat collection, ably supported by Corsair. One must applaud the pilots of the afternoon, who gave spirited displays mostly buffeted by the breeze and capped by cloud until the latter part of the day. Missing in action though was the beleaguered B-17G 'Sally B', which had just suffered a second engine failure in a month just a few days before. "We are sorry that 'Sally B' is momentarily grounded," says owner Elly Sallingboe.
"Now in her sixty-third year, the job of keeping this flying memorial in the air is always hard work and sometimes luck is just not on our side. Over the winter, in readiness for the flying season, a replacement engine was fitted, but in early May this sadly failed during a test run. With important assignments coming up the decision was taken to change the engine - thanks to the wonderful recent financial contributions from Bertie Ashby and our 'Sally B' Supporters Club members we were in the position to be able to enlist a full-time professional engineer to assist with this second engine change, which would put us back on schedule for the season. "However, all concerned were devastated when this engine also failed during its first flight. Lady luck is just not with us this time. At this moment we cannot tell you when 'Sally B' will be back where she belongs - in the air. Everything that can be done to turn this situation around safely and quickly is being done. We hope to resume our flying programme in July at the Flying Legends Air Show at Duxford."
A solid, if not spectacular start to Duxford's season, and one hopes that the forthcoming clash of Flying Legends won't dent the crowd figures too much - it will be a sterner test of Duxford's popularity than this season-opener, that's for sure.