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A tale of two stalwarts

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Gary Parsons and Bob Franklin report on Duxford's 90th Anniversary Airshow held on 6-7 of September. Pictures by the authors and Mike Kerr

On arrival at Duxford, all you could hear amongst the aviation enthusiasts was "Is the Vulcan going to appear?" One stalwart of the airshow scene not seen for fifteen years was eagerly anticipated; another stalwart of the last fifteen years would definitely be grounded this weekend. It started off quite pleasant, with plenty of sunshine, although for many this was a bit optimistic as Mother Nature has not been kind to airshows this year.

Spitfire snaps
Also scene...

After a cloudless Saturday morning, just half an hour before the start of the display the clouds started rolling in - as that was happening, over the public tannoy came the news that everyone wanted - the Vulcan was running and on its way. Programmed for 14:46, it appeared from the left bang on time. Always graceful, those that hadn't seen the aircraft before fell under its spell - at one point the sun broke through and glinted on the aircraft as turned over Duxford - maybe the summer had yet to start. After a short display it disappeared into the clouds, hoping for a repeat performance the next day - sadly the weather would put paid to that.

From then on conditions deteriorated, with a stiff crosswind and a heavy front of rain on its way. With an hour's flying left, the show was abandoned, the biggest disappointment for the crowd being denied the opportunity to see the nine-ship Spitfire formation and airfield beat-up.

Sunday was similarly afflicted by the weather, but in reverse - heavy rain in the morning eventually gave way to reasonable conditions in the afternoon, enabling almost a full programme to be achieved - except for one notable item, of course. It wasn't the weather at Duxford that was the problem, but that in the south and west of the country. XH558 had been due to display at Southport as well as Duxford on both days, but had been beaten by the weather on Saturday, not making it to the North-West. Hence the priority was to get there on Sunday, and Duxford would have to play second-best, if timings and weather allowed. But, with low cloud over Brize Norton, it was late leaving and could not get back from Southport in time.

Author at work...
Signing his book on RAF Wattisham was our own Dave Eade, creator of the 'Wattisham Chronicles'. Reaction to the book has been excellent, it earning four stars in Aircraft Illustrated, something that is hard to achieve! Dave is considering embarking on volume two, proof that it's never too late to start a new career!

Meanwhile, that other stalwart, B-17G 'Sally B', still sat forlornly on Duxford's apron, the missing port engine making her look like an amputee awaiting a transplant. Just as surgeons began to successfully sew hands back onto a man in Germany, attempts to graft a healthy engine onto 'Sally B' have been frustratingly unsuccessful - two supposedly healthy engines had failed in turn, as Chief Engineer Pete Brown explained: "It has been a bit of a saga - at the end of last season our number one engine had high oil temperatures and low pressure, not a good combination. We had all winter to replace it, so not a problem - the engine had been on for about twenty-five years, had done about eight hundred hours and was last overhauled forty-five years ago! It didn't owe us anything. We had a spare engine, which had been in storage for nine years, and fitted it over the winter. We did some low-power tests, and although the oil pressure appeared slightly low by a couple of pounds, it didn't seem to be a problem. But when we did the high-power tests on the airfield, it failed."

"We had just received another overhauled engine from the States, so in five working days we managed to swap the engines over. Again, we did the low-power tests and everything seemed okay. On the first test flight, just across the back of the airfield, this engine also failed - again, falling oil pressure. The pilot shut it down very quickly to try and save it, but it was too late."

"So there we were with three failed engines - we've traced the first fresh engine failure to a bolt that was stuck in the oil feed pipe and restricting flow - we've no idea how it got there, but must have been missed at its overhaul." Unfortunately for the team, as the engine's overhaul was over a decade ago the chances of any compensation are slim, the warranty long since ceased. This isn't the case with the most recent failure, as this had just been received back from strip down and overhaul, so the Trust is having serious talks with its supplier. Damage is severe, as it needs a new crankshaft. Shipping costs back to the USA still have to be borne, something that the hard-pressed charity cannot easily afford.

On the bright side, the team should have all three engines back before the 2009 season, and assuming the last failure was just bad luck they should secure many more hours of service - maybe next year will see 'Sally B' enjoy a healthy season free from reliability, financial or insurance issues - it's certainly been a trying three years for Elly Sallingboe and her dedicated team of volunteers. "We shall overcome!" exclaimed Elly in the supporters' club tent. More power to them.

Such was the heavy rain on Sunday morning that some of the hangars were closed to the public due to being under water. Torrential showers just after midday didn't promise much, but by 14:00 the worst had gone and as the first display item, the RAF Hawk, taxied out the breeze became drier. What followed was a mixed affair by Duxford standards, but considering the weather proved to be a triumph for the pilots involved. Duxford's September line-ups in recent years have tended to be - well, limp, in comparison to its other events throughout the year. Indeed the October show has overtaken the two-day event in variety and strength of participation, something that is puzzling. Accepted that RAF participation was focussed on Southport, but with only the Hawk on offer modern-day participation was thin to the point of anorexia. Much of the programme on offer had been seen throughout the summer for the serious airshow-goer, who make up a large proportion of the Duxford crowd - only the three-ship Dakota formation and, of course, the nine-ship Spitfire formation lifted this event above any of the seaside shows throughout August.


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