When the Shuttleworth Collection announced that their 2017 calendar would feature another Fly Navy event, many ‘pencilled’ it in – both those with the memories of last year’s hugely successful edition and those who had heard about arguably ‘the top UK show of 2016’. That said, would 2017 match or even beat last year’s show? AeroResource’s Jamie Ewan & James Innes were at one of the country’s most loved display venues to find out.
Despite being the oldest of the UK’s air arms, the Fleet Air Arm (FAA) – as it is known today – is the one that for many years has missed a dedicated show exhibiting both their progression and their accomplishments in the air. And yes, while many airshows in recent times – especially the likes of Culdrose and Yeovilton – have hinted upon the Senior Service and their exploits, there has not been a show solely dedicated to them. The question is however, in a time where the airshow industry is still adjusting to the post-Shoreham era, how do you get enough aeroplanes with a connection to naval aviation, both past and present, in the same place at the same time? Well, take the Shuttleworth Collection, add a few visiting displays and voila – Fly Navy Mk.II!
In the weeks leading up to the show, the line-up boasted some of the more seldom seen types on the UK circuit including Navy Wing’s Fairey Swordfish and Kennet Aviation’s Douglas Skyraider. Sadly, both machines fell foul to delays in their winter maintenance schedules, as did Terry Martin’s Westland Wasp, which is still undergoing work after its forced landing last year. The Fighter Collection’s Goodyear Corsair was also ‘pulled’ from the line-up, again maintenance issues being given as the reason. As was expected, following its wheels up landing at Yeovilton the week before, the de Havilland Sea Vixen was also withdrawn, but here is hoping we see the mighty twin-boomed jet grace the skies of Old Warden again one day.
Although two of the day’s acts arrived during the morning, both the Barton based Morane-Saulnier MS.317 and Air Leasing’s stunning Supermarine Seafire III sadly withdrew from the flying display – the latter having made a rather ‘hard landing’ on arrival from its base at Sywell in the stiff crosswind battering the airfield.
Of note during the morning flying was the first use of Old Warden’s brand-new Meadow runway at the south-east end of the airfield: The Collection’s Gloster Gladiator I, in the hands of Nick Stone, made a small bit of history on a day where it was being remembered and celebrated!
However, despite the setbacks, the day’s flying saw nearly every decade of Fleet Air Arm history represented in some form from the Bristol Scout to the Westland Wasp with stops on the way with the likes of the Sopwith Pup, Avro Tutor, Westland Lysander and Hawker Sea Hurricane. The modern-day FAA were also represented in the static display with an RNAS Culdrose based Agusta Westland Merlin HM2, and a Leonardo Agusta Westland Wildcat HMA2 which arrived on –morning of the show from its base at Yeovilton. Having arrived the day before, the Merlin was opened up for the public allowing them a chance to get up-close and personal to the airframe that quite literally dominated the exquisite grass airfield.
With the loss of the Seafire, which was due to fly a pairs routine with the Collection’s Sea Hurricane, the first display slot fell solely on the navalised version of Sydney Camm’s masterpiece. Wearing the colours of 880 RNAS while embarked on HMS Indomitable in 1942, the aeroplane was thrown around the sky with gusto including many a topside being thrown in for good measure: A fine way to begin the show and a throwback to the opening of the 2016 edition which commenced with the Sea Hurricane alongside the Sea Vixen. Maybe we will see all three together one day…
As is the story with most aeroplanes in naval history, to get a navalised variant requires developing the conventional airframe and adapting it for use at sea. Therefore, it was of great contrast to see both of the more conventional versions of the Hurricane and Spitfire courtesy of the Royal Air Force’s Battle of Britain Memorial Flight. Arriving on slot from a weather diversion into Bournemouth the fighters performed a number of formation passes. Hurricane IIc LF363 and Spitfire IIa P7350 showed off their new codes on each side of the fuselage for the 2017 season – ‘363 wearing GN-F & SD-A and ‘7350 adorned with QO-J & QV-E. Despite the poor light, their passes were well choreographed and gave the visiting public a wonderful view of the new schemes through their eyes, if not their cameras!
Not to be outdone by their British counterparts, the two aeroplanes from across the pond, both from the Grumman stable, were on hand with more powerful and aggressive, yet equally as impressive, displays. Seldom seen away from their Duxford home, The Fighter Collection’s (TFC) F4F Wildcat and F8F Bearcat flew a ballet like pairs display before splitting up for energetic solo efforts showing off their outright raw power – the Wildcat’s reciprocating Wright engine purring away while the Bearcat’s Pratt and Whitney unit snarled as they dragged these machines through their slots. The wilder of the two cats could also be heard drawing a faint, yet spine tingling, whistle as Dave Southwood cavorted with it through the menacing skies. With the FAA historically operating the Wildcat – or Martlet as it was known in Royal Navy service – it was rather fitting that the TFC machine wears the colours of an 846 Naval Air Squadron example while flying from HMS Tracker in 1943.
Unlike the Wildcat, the Bearcat was never operated by the Royal Navy but the inclusion of this brutish machine allowed visitors the chance to see the progression of US naval aviation and the Grumman works, the F4F being the manufacturers first monoplane and the F8F being the swansong of the propeller driven era, designed on the advent of the jet age. Grumman would eventually go on to produce one of the most iconic naval fighters of all time, the F-14 Tomcat. Although the concept of the Bearcat was forged during the Second World War, it was too late to see active service. This was a similar story to the machine that was, for many, the star of the flying display: The beautiful Hawker Fury.
When it comes to energetic warbird flying, Richard Grace is up there – especially given his recent display in TF-51D ‘Miss Velma’ at IWM Duxford. A typically aggressive yet smooth display was therefore expected by many from Richard Grace and the Hawker Fury II as they made their first Old Warden appearance together. Yet, sadly, an issue with aeroplane’s tail wheel, led to a somewhat more sedate display. That said, despite this, Grace flew a number of spirited passes down the line followed by huge sweeping wingovers to reposition interspaced with a mixture of appealing aerobatics thrown in. One of the more sought after ‘birds’ on the UK airshow circuit, his display really did show of the machine’s stunning representation of the Sea Fury’s prototype ‘SR661’ scheme it carries. Yet, while the Fury itself never flew with the Royal Navy, the Sea Fury did and was responsible for the only recorded victory of a British piston-engined aeroplane over a jet fighter during the Korean War!
Following the second appearance of the Sea Hurricane, this time in a dynamic solo-display, the audience was treated to an exhibition of the slightly slower end of the speed spectrum with a pair of vintage helicopters taking to the stage.
The first of the pair was the Bell UH-1 ‘Iroquois’ (perhaps better known by its nickname the ‘Huey’) with the example on show, G-HUEY, making its way ‘up North’ from its home of North Weald in Essex. Before it is asked, ‘when did the the FAA fly the Huey?’, this example of an American icon was in fact used to support British Forces in the Falklands, including the Navy, following the ceasefire after it was ‘liberated’ from the Argentine Army!
Joining the unique sounding ‘Huey’ was a type with slightly more naval heritage than its partner, the Westland Wasp HAS.1 – the seldom seen XT420 visiting from Thruxton Airfield. Entering service with the Fleet Air Arm in 1963, until eventually retiring in 1988, the Wasp also saw service in the Falklands Conflict where the type was pivotal in the action against the Argentine submarine Santa Fe on April 25, 1982 – the sub becoming the first casualty of the sea war.
Joining up for a number of ‘loose’ formation passes, the two choppers broke into well-crafted individual solo routines along the airfield’s famous display line. Copious amounts of blade slap reverberated around the airfield from the ‘Huey’ with Mark Fitzgerald in control, while the Wasp ‘buzzed’ about with sheer delight in the expert hands of John Beattie.
In addition to the Seafire and Sea Hurricane, further Second World War-era types were on hand with the collection’s Gloster Gladiator and the Westland Lysander flying their usual graceful and well thought out displays – something many have come to expect from the machines that owe their survival to the Shuttleworth Collection and Old Warden. An aeroplane that is instantly recognisable, the Lysander has a level of manoeuvrability that surprises even those whom see it on a near-annual basis. Used by the Navy primarily as a glider tug, 18 Lysanders served across three squadrons during the Second World War.
Following the Lysander was another Old Warden resident in the shape of BAE Systems’ beautiful light blue Avro Nineteen. Although this 1946-built aeroplane has been seen more regularly across the UK in recent years, it is always a privilege to see her up-close in her own back yard.
Plane Sailing’s all white Consolidated PBY Catalina better known as ‘Miss Pick Up’ was yet another Duxford resident making its way across to Old Warden. Despite being a common sight across UK airshows nowadays, the aeroplane gave quite possibly one of its best performances – hugging the airfield’s perimeter even tighter than has been seen previously, including a somewhat animated final pass at astoundingly low-level straight down the display line!
The Fly Navy II programme also featured one of the highlights of Fly Navy I – that being the Duxford based Hawker Nimrods of The Fighter Collection and the Historic Aircraft Collection. Flown alongside the delightful Hawker Demon of the Shuttleworth Collection, the trio gave a beautiful set of passes before splitting up for a rambunctious tail-chase. Despite the weather being dark and grey for the for the majority of the day, the three biplanes managed to find some of the day’s best light with some stunning dark clouds in the background giving beautiful contrast to the shiny silver top-sides of Sydney Camm’s lesser known early naval fighter.
Fly Navy II also featured a pair of ‘resident’ trainers from the same era as the Demon and its Nimrod brethren – the immortal DH82a Tiger Moth and Avro Tutor both adorned in the scheme of the Central Flying School (CFS). An interesting point of note was that the pilot of the DH82a Tiger Moth, former RAF Sqn Ldr Jim Schofield, became the first RAF pilot to carry out a vertical landing in the Lockheed Martin F-35B Lightning II in 2013. Despite exhibiting a slightly less advanced aircraft on this occasion, we can but hope for a Lightning II appearance at Fly Navy before long.
Continuing the trainer theme was the workhorse of the CFS fleet during the cold war, the de Havilland Chipmunk. These sturdy aircraft are still used by the services to this day, providing vital tailwheel conversion and continuation training for pilots both old and new! This particular example, the rarely seen WK608 in its very smart red and grey Navy scheme, was flung around the sky in an ever so a graceful and elegant display of height and energy management by Air Force Cross recipient Lt Cdr Chris Gotke RN, while the Tutor and Tiger Moth frolicked below.
The Old Warden faithful were also treated to a bygone era of aviation with several machines of Great War Vintage taking to the unsettled early-summer sky. The first of which was the beautiful Bristol Scout – a small machine with a hugely poignant and historical background. As a type, the Bristol Scout become the first conventional land based aeroplane to take-off from a moving ship and saw service with the RNAS in the very early, pioneering days of naval aviation. It is however the history of this particular machine (G-FDHB / ‘1264’) that is interesting. Rebuilt to represent the aircraft of Flight Sub-Lieutenant ‘Bunnie’ Bremner, this highly authentic representation includes parts from the original ‘1264’ (the only known remnants of a Scout anywhere in the world), which flew with No 2 Wing in the Eastern Mediterranean at the beginning of World War One. The second biplane to display was a slightly different animal despite coming from the same manufacturer: The much larger Bristol Fighter F2.b gave a typically well-polished display under the gloomy grey skies, staving off the wind with ease when compared to its smaller Bristol built stable mate. A perfect example of the rapid development by companies during the early war years as aerial combat gained strategic importance in the art of war, the ‘BrisFit’ was followed by the Collection’s 1916-built Sopwith Pup – the Navy being the first to fly the type in battle with action over the Somme.
With such an eclectic collection of machines on hand, mixed formations have always been a ‘speciality’ of The Shuttleworth Collection. Following a similar approach to last year, the show was again to be closed with a mini-Legends-style ‘Balbo’ made up of two formations – the first being the Lysander, Gladiator and Demon and the second being the Sea Hurricane and the TFC Grumman pair.
Unfortunately, during the final pass of the ‘Balbo’, the Collection’s Gloster Gladiator was quite evidently struggling – coughing, smoking and spluttering its way down the display line which eventually resulted in the old lady peeling away and making an emergency landing in a nearby field. Fortunately the pilot was not harmed and no damage was sustained to the aircraft. In fact the only damage sustained at all was that inflicted on the trees that needed to be removed to allow the Gladiator back onto the airfield from the adjoining field that night! The incident was extremely well handled by the Shuttleworth organisers who kept the crowd aware of the ongoing situation while the Lysander circled overhead the stricken aircraft. When an update on the condition of both the aeroplane and pilot was announced it was greeted with a huge applause from the crowd.
Despite the cancellation of arguably the top billing aircraft and the less than ideal weather compared to 2016, the team at Old Warden have again ensured that the ‘Fly Navy’ themed shows will remain one of the highlights of the UK airshow season. Should they continue on to 2018, will the lack of the Sea Vixen prompt a rethink? Not based on this showing!