It’s early May, the sun is out and the smell of castor oil lingers over a picturesque Bedfordshire airfield. A new season is upon us, and with that comes the first show at Old Warden: The Shuttleworth Season Premiere. Michael Lovering was there for AeroResource.
I should begin this review by stating that, until this year, I did not have the fortune of attending one of the many airshows held annually by the Shuttleworth Collection at their home of Old Warden. As such, it is therefore written from the perspective of someone who has no preconceptions about the venue or previous flying displays there. The reason for me writing this short disclaimer will be apparent to those who are familiar with recent news within the airshow world!
The first thing to greet the Old Warden airshow-goer is the stunning nineteenth century mansion house that sits in the centre of its namesake’s park. The entire site is steeped in history, including the small grass airfield that has now housed the Shuttleworth’s collection of vintage vehicles – both land and air going – for over eighty-five years. Now a perennial of the UK airshow scene, the collection holds a number of themed airshows throughout the year featuring a large selection of the collection’s aircraft. One of the most unique features of any Old Warden airshow, apart from the stunning machines it possesses, skillful flying and friendly atmosphere, is the distinctive ‘dogleg’ in the display line. The result of this layout makes the venue one of the most photogenic in the country, especially in the clear blue skies such as those that this year’s season opener was blessed with.
However, 2016 was always going to be a bit of an ‘unknown’. Following the tragic Hunter crash at Shoreham and the subsequent CAA review of airshow regulations, display lines have been adjusted to those specified by the Military Aviation Authority (MAA) – the people responsible for shows such as RIAT and Cosford. Many thought that this would ruin such unique and intimate venues like those of Old Warden and Duxford, and there were occasions throughout the day where aircraft did seem to be higher and further away than necessary. Faced not only with new regulations, the display pilots were also challenged by a gusty, on crowd crosswind across the main runway. Many lighter aircraft opted to use the shorter cross-runway, and a number of items sadly cancelled including the wonderful DH.88 Comet racer and the exquisite Edwardians – both Shuttleworth favourites. Nevertheless, despite the wind, a good selection of mostly vintage aircraft displayed over the course of the afternoon.
The show actually sold out in the week leading up to it: a consequence of the favourable weather forecast and the headlining display by the Red Arrows. The Reds very rarely perform at Old Warden and so their choice to make the season premier their own season opener certainly boosted ticket sales. The 2016 Red Arrows display is as professional as ever, with a mixture of old and new aerobatic figures. Especially touching was the renaming of the synchro double roll manoeuvre to honour the passing of Eric ‘Winkle’ Brown. Unfortunately, a rogue Gazelle ignored the NOTAM towards the end of the display causing a short delay as the formation of nine red jets performed a sighting pass to scare it off! The Reds were not the only display team making their first 2016 UK show at Old Warden: Mark Jefferies superbly led The Global Stars, fresh from a tour of India, in a very polished display of formation and solo aerobatics complemented by a novel ‘dotty’ smoke system. The team is a welcome addition to the UK airshow scene and provide an interesting contrast to The Blades, who fly similar aircraft but focus more on formation work as opposed to the unlimited aerobatics displayed by the Global Stars.
Aerobatics were also provided by a number of solo performers, although unusually, both did so without power! Chris Heames, who did well to complete a full routine in the challenging wind conditions, put the Fauvel AV-36 flying wing glider through its paces. Later in the day, Graham Saw performed an equally impressive display in the aerobatic Letov Lunak. One of the joys of solo glider displays is the sound of the aircraft whistling through the air, providing a brief aural respite in amongst the growl and whine of piston and jet engines. Another unusual performance came from Peter Davies in his Rotorsport Calidus Autogyro. An ever-popular display, it showed off the unique capabilities of the machine and included an impressive ‘no hands’ pass as Peter waved to the crowd with his distinctive hi-vis gloves!
The rest of the display was filled with a variety of based and visiting vintage aircraft, split into a number of themed formations. The first of these was the collection’s Westland Lysander and Fiesler Storch. The Lysander always comes across as a large bulky aircraft on the ground, especially when compared with the Storch, but in the air, it’s a different story. The manoeuvrability of the Lysander, required for performing low-level missions behind enemy lines, was demonstrated perfectly as it performed a number of passes around the Storch which in turn was performing its party piece of almost hovering into wind before making a ludicrously short landing on the cross runway. Other Second World War types featuring with solo displays were Peter Teichmann’s P-40 Kittyhawk and Kennet Aviation’s T-6 Texan flown by John Beattie. Both performed polished aerobatic routines, although the P-40 display was disadvantaged by the awkward light at the start of the show and more noticeably the newly CAA imposed display line. Neither felt further away than at other venues and both provided plenty of photographic opportunities.
One of the most enjoyable displays of the day to watch – as well as photograph – was a quartet of based interwar trainers. The initial formation consisted of a deHavilland Tiger Moth, Blackburn B2, Miles Magister and Ryan ST-A in a box four, making a number of passes down the display line. The Blackburn B2 then broke off and performed an elegant solo aerobatic display whilst the remaining aircraft repositioned into line astern for a tail chase sequence. The star of the display was the immaculately polished ST-A which gleamed perfectly in the clear blue skies.
The collection is probably best known for its Edwardian and First World War era aircraft, and whilst many were grounded as a result of the wind on the day, two of their original Great War fighters did manage take to the skies – the Royal Aircraft Factory S.E.5a and the Bristol Fighter. Both performed a number of photogenic topside passes around the display lines ‘dogleg’. Flying the Brisfit was Squadron Leader Jim Schofield, one of the UK’s F-35B test pilots – the cockpit of the WW1 bomber turned fighter swing-role aircraft is a little more basic to that of its modern equivalent, but the aircraft was shown off perfectly in his capable hands!
The final themed formation included the collection’s 1930s fighters consisting of a three ship of Hawker Demon, Gloster Gladiator and Hawker Hurricane. After a number of formation passes each performed a solo display and, of these, Stu Goldspink’s presentation of Hurricane Mk.I R4118 was one of the highlights of the afternoon. The light was perfect as the Hurricane was put through its paces sympathetically; almost always in front of the crowd and making fine use of the Old Warden display line.
The finale of the show, and for many people the star attraction, was the Aircraft Restoration Company’s Bristol Blenheim Mk.I. Operating from Old Warden for the day, John Romain entered his display following a unique formation pass with the collection’s Avro 19. This was an interesting comparison of two aircraft originally designed as passenger transports! The Blenheim’s solo display was exactly what we have come to expect from John Romain who can seemingly exhibit the aircraft perfectly regardless of the venue. The display certainly lived up to expectations, and was an ideal way to close the show as the sun descended low in the sky.
In conclusion, as a first time visitor to old Warden I was mightily impressed. The show ran smoothly, with no discernible gaps despite a number of cancellations. The atmosphere on the ground was superb with the visiting vintage car and bike parades being very popular, and despite selling out it did not feel busy like many UK shows do in similar situations. Getting in and out was also quick and easy despite arriving and departing at peak times. Adding to the atmosphere was the expert narration by Tim Callaway. In all honesty, I was expecting the worst regarding the changes to the display line distances, but left pleasantly surprised. It certainly felt no different to other displays I have viewed in previous years and generally, 400mm on a crop body was perfect for photography (too much in some cases!). However, there is a general feeling amongst Old Warden regulars that the magic has been lost, and a number of pilots have commented on the new distances pushing their displays away from the sterile airfield towards trees, houses and ploughed fields northeast of the runway. Whilst I personally still enjoyed the show, I hope that the CAA listen to feedback from enthusiasts, the public, and most importantly the pilots, to ensure that Old Warden is both as safe and as spectacular as it can be. Will I be back? Most definitely.
Were you at the Old Warden Season Premier? What did you think of the new display lines? Post a comment below and let us know your views!