At the beginning of 2013 it was announced that the Classic Air Force (CAF) would relocate the vast majority of its collection from the existing base at Coventry to the Cornish town of Newquay. Now, just over two years after its official opening, CAF have returned to Coventry and, on Saturday 2nd of May, held an open day to mark the occasion.
It has to be said that the original decision to move the CAF collection, both static and airworthy airframes alike, to Cornwall left many enthusiasts somewhat shocked. Its central Coventry location combined with the nearby Midland Aviation Museum seemed a winning combination to draw visitors from a wide geographical area. And whilst a dedicated team of volunteers worked hard to ensure its success at the new location in Newquay, including the addition of such important airframes as the QinetiQ BAC 1-11 and ex-RAF Vickers VC-10, they are now left to try and build their own facility with the airframes that will remain at the site – something that we wish them all the best with.
Regardless of the decisions that brought CAF to its return, the Open Day was a chance for many to reacquaint themselves with some of the rare and unique airframes of the collection and, with the promise of a small flying display as well, drew a crowd of around 2,500 to the event. That’s not to say that the Coventry site had been dormant for the last two years – instead Airbase had opened its ‘no-frills’ experience allowing visitors to get up close and personal to the oft forgotten maintenance aspect of classic aircraft operation.
The event itself was a small and intimate affair – just a handful of stalls, two trailer mounted engines (that ran a couple of times during the day) and two cockpit sections including an impressive Shackleton front section. The collections exterior exhibits included the record breaking Canberra B.2 WK163, de Havilland Heron G-AORG, a British Eagle liveried Douglas DC-6 G-APSA, Dakota DC-3 G-ANAF and two of the more well known examples in the shape of Nimrod MR2 XV232 and Avro Shackleton AEW2 WR963 – both of which were open for internal viewing at a small additional charge (more on that later).
Two hangars make up the small site – one containing the airworthy fleet and the second housing the maintenance area. The fleet that CAF operate contains some very special examples and on display were a number that wouldn’t be participating in the afternoons flying programme. Dominating the back of the hangar was the Royal Air Force Transport Command C-47B KK116 (G-AMPY), whilst the sides were lined with smaller items including Miles M-65 Gemini (G-AKKH), Auster Autocrat (G-JAYI), a pair of Jet Provost T3’s (G-BVSP and XM424/G-BWDS) and ex-Swiss Air Force de Havilland Vampire T.55 (F-AZGU). The most interesting however was Percival Pembroke XL954 (G-BXES) which has recently been spotted taxiing around the airport and, after a final CAA inspection, should return to flight in the very near future. In the maintenance hangar being actively worked on during the day was Percival Prentice VR259 (G-APJB) along with a pair of de Havilland Dragon Rapides including G-AGTM with its engines removed. Tucked at the back was Meteor T7 WA591 (G-BWMF) which currently has a communications issue preventing it from taking part in any displays.I In the adjoining space was Twin Pioneer G-APRS in ETPS markings, and it is clear to see that there is much more waiting in the wings to be worked on, with fuselage sections and engines stashed in every nook and cranny of both hangars.
With a flying display programme comprising just 5 separate display slots it certainly wasn’t a rival to a full blooded airshow. Spread out across the afternoon, the displays featured CAF’s own aircraft which, with the rarity of some of them at larger shows, certainly isn’t something to be scoffed at. Opening with Avro Anson WD413 (G-VROE) it also featured Percival Proctor G-AKIU and Jet Provost T5A XW433 (G-JPRO) with some very nice displays. The cream of the crop however were the de Havilland Devon VP981 (G-DHDV) and the Historic Pair. The Devon spent the majority of the morning carrying out sedate passenger flights, along with Dragon Rapide TX310 (G-AIDL), however its display showed exactly what it was capable when not being restrained. Representing the jet operations of the outfit, the Historic Flight pairing of Meteor NF11 WM167 (G-LOSM) and de Havilland Vampire T55 XJ771 (G-HELV) was a real sight to behold. With the T7 having stolen the attention over the last couple of years it was a pleasure to see the NF11 back in a display. Starting as a pairs display before splitting into solo routines, hopefully it will be a display seen at other shows – although it would be good to have had more than three passes from the Meteor. The main disappointment around the flying however was not the aircraft or the quality of the displays but the absolute lack of any information about proceedings. With what appeared to be a woefully inadequate public address system and crackling radio microphone there was little to no information given out about when displays were due to take place and with large gaps in between (up to 30 minutes) the crowd were often left pondering when the next action might take place.
For many though, the highlight of the day may well have been, ironically, an item that received no funding at all from the £12 entrance fee. Avro Shackleton WR963, operated and maintained by the Shackleton Preservation Trust, is well known amongst enthusiasts and its regular engine runs throughout the year attract many visitors. Raising funds towards a potential return to flight for the aircraft, those attending were treated to a lengthy engine run at close quarters. Despite number 3 engine refusing to start the sound and feeling of the three engines running captivated everybody on site at the time and even one lucky visitor winning a raffle prize of a spot on board during the run. With only a small brake related snag to resolve, it won’t be long until this magnificent aircraft will be capable of taxiing under its own power – a testament to the volunteers that have worked so hard and a positive sign for its future.
Overall, the Classic Air Force Open Day seemed to be missing that little something to make it a ‘must do’ in the future. Those going for pleasure flights on one of the fleet no doubt had a brilliant time but those attending purely for the ground attractions and air displays may have wanted more, especially in terms of information. A particular shame was the aerobatic Extra that was seen making numerous flights during the day as part of filming for a Discovery Channel programme featuring actor Idris Elba – a shame that visitors couldn’t have witnessed the aerobatic antics firsthand given the importance his appearance at the event has subsequently been given. Despite this, catching the Devon and Meteor NF11 in the air along with the impressive Shackleton ground run meant that it was still worth visiting and hopefully something to be improved upon with some simple fixes.