For any warbird fan, the Flying Legends airshow held annually at Imperial War Museum (IWM) Duxford has a well-deserved reputation as one of the best warbird shows in the world and for many it’s a ‘must attend’! With a lineup of over 30 or so aircraft, including a pair of US based P-51 Mustang’s, Flying Legends 2017 promised to be another celebration of historic aircraft and, as Adam Duffield reports, attracted visitors from far and wide.
As I sit reflecting on a weekend of unrivalled aviation heritage I feel I must start with a confession – I am not what you could consider a hardcore warbird fanatic! That’s far from saying I have no interest at all, it’s just my knowledge of the warbird ‘scene’ outside of the UK is somewhat lacking. Maybe that is why, during the years that Flying Legends doesn’t clash with the Royal International Air Tattoo, my biennial trip to the Flying Legends show becomes a mandatory event and a chance to see those aircraft, and displays, that would otherwise elude me. Although a regular attendee at other Duxford shows throughout the year, there is just something different about Flying Legends and ‘that’ atmosphere that surrounds it.
Just like any of those other shows, the main flying display takes place in the afternoon with the 2017 Flying Legends lineup lasting just over three hours in total. Whilst this may not seem long, it really is an action packed three hours with no chance to catch a breather or take a break. The morning is dedicated to the usual Duxford Flightline Walk, however this year entry was opened an hour earlier giving three hours to wander up and down the flightline for a more than reasonable £5 per person (especially given Duxford’s own May show charged £6 for two hours and fewer aircraft!). With Flying Legends hosting more VIP areas than other IWM Duxford shows, it also gave a great chance to get up close to the special visitors which may otherwise be obscured by the enclosures – something that many appeared to do with the flightline packed from start to finish.
The final build up to Flying Legends 2017 was to be dominated by an incredible journey made by one of the attendees. Unlike many single engined warbirds that attend from the US, P-51B Mustang Berlin Express flew the 5,470 miles from Texas to Duxford over a period of six days rather than being packed up and shipped by sea. Flown during the trip by Lee Lauderback, a Mustang veteran with over 9,000 hours on the type in his log book, the journey captivated enthusiasts as it routed through stops in Maine, Goose Bay, Greenland, Iceland and Scotland before finally arriving at the Cambridgeshire airfield on Tuesday July 4. During World War Two, this route would have been regularly used to ferry fighters and bombers across to the European theatre of operations but, some 70 years on, this phenomenal journey is very much a rarity for an aircraft of this age! Of course, this particular aircraft has significant importance other than its journey over – more on that later.
Having any jet aircraft at Flying Legends may seem odd given its pedigree as a haven for pistons and propers – however the choice to include the RAF Red Arrows left many scratching their heads when it was initially announced. Displaying on the Sunday only, the inclusion of the team was announced as a separate ‘pre-show’ item commemorating the 70th anniversary of the RAF’s first formation jet display team – the Black Knights. Despite ‘applying’ for the team on various other dates, shows where they would have arguably ‘fitted’ in somewhat better, those in charge of their schedule opted for making their Legends debut, a decision leaving many dumfounded. Unfortunately just before the display Red 10 announced that the team would be displaying to an amended display line to avoid Duxford village – essentially a repeat of the 45 degree clockwise ‘turn’ in the display that was seen at Cosford last month. It seems strange that it was left to Red 10 to announce this drastic change given that the show organisers would have known about this in advance. As a result, it left anyone near the M11 end of the site searching for the nine jets as they displayed way off in the distance beyond the Land Warfare hall. With a rolling display routine due to airspace height restrictions of 3,000ft imposed by Stansted, the display was further impacted by a Para motorist infringing the restricted airspace in place during their slot, leading to a 5-minute pause in proceedings whilst the offender cleared the area. Although always great to see the national pride that the team represents, this was far from a great display for them and it has to be questioned whether future displays at the venue would even be worthwhile if the revised display line is kept. The fact that this is also the second major display site that has been the subject of this alteration also raises concerns around the as yet unknown impacts to other display locations for the team, as well as curiosity as to exactly what risk the Red Arrows are mitigating by this relocation when others do not feel the need to.
Opening the formal flying display for Flying Legends 2017 was a formation of nine Spitfires of varying models. With 12 in total attending this year’s show, the Spitfire – as is often the case – was by far the most well-represented type on display and the ‘Spitfire Orchestra’ did an excellent job of opening the proceedings. Starting with all nine aircraft in formation, they then split allowing six of the formation (MkVb BM597 G-MKVB, Tr.9 PV202 G-CCCA, Seafire LF III G-BUAR, Mk IXb MH434 G-ASJV, LFVb EP120 G-LFVB and FR XIV MV268 G-SPIT) to perform a tail chase sequence whilst the remaining three (MkXVIII SM845 G-BUOS, MkIX ML407 G-LFIX and MkIX RR232 ‘City of Exeter’ G-BRSF), led by Cliff Spink, flew numerous fast and low passes closer to the crowd. With constant activity in the skies, the accompanying sound was simply outstanding and set the scene perfectly for the rest of the planned flying.
The display axis layout for Flying Legends differs slightly to that of normal Duxford shows in that there are both front and rear display lines. This means that many of the display routines feature aircraft performing aerobatics behind others that are simply flying down the crowd line – all of which can be carried out in perfect safety (thanks to the separation distances) but in a visually impressive manner.
Making use of these dual axes on the weekend were many of the smaller formation elements such as the display of Curtiss Fighters. Curtiss-Wright Hawk 75 (G-CCVH) performed a medley of aerobatics whilst Curtiss-Wright P40C (G-CIIO) and Curtiss-Wright Warhawk P40F (G-CGZP) performed loose formation passes. A fourth aircraft, Curtiss-Wright P-36 (G-CIXJ) was due to join this formation, however, appeared to be unserviceable over the weekend with engine issues believed to be the reason.
Perhaps the best example of these display lines, however, was the Mustang Trio of ‘The Shark’ (P-51D G-SHWN), TF-51D Miss Velma (G-TFSI) and P-51D Miss Helen (G-BIXL). Duxford has a strong history linking it to Mustangs with the type having operated from there under the 78th Fighter Group towards the end of World War Two, and displays by the type never fail to impress at the venue. With Miss Helen and Miss Velma demonstrating the sheer speed and power available, ‘The Shark’ was left to perform graceful aerobatics at the hands of Lars Ness. At the end of the display, ‘The Shark’ joined up with Boeing B-17G Sally B for a ‘little friends’ flypast with the Mustang escorting the bomber as would have been seen in the very skies it was being recreated in all those years ago. After a couple of formation passes, the Mustang split off to land whilst Sally B completed her usual graceful routine.
Another regular aircraft displaying was Plane Sailings PBY Catalina. For anyone having attended a show at Duxford before this would be no surprise, however, this edition of Legends saw the flying boat joined in the air by Grumman Wildcat FM-2 G-RUMW in another utilisation of the dual display lines. Size wise there couldn’t have been a more polar opposite pair but on the day, as odd the pairing would seem, it worked well with the Catalina going about its display in the background whilst the Wildcat was set free in the hands of Dave Southwood.
The Naval Fighters formation of Goodyear Corsair FG-1D (G-FGID), Grumman Bearcat F8F (G-RUMM) and Hawker Fury MkII (G-CBEL) represented, for many, three crowd favourites – even if the Fury itself only masquerades as a Sea Fury, having originally been built as land based fighter for the Iraqi Air Force. With the distinctive gull-winged form of the Corsair taking on the aerobatic performance, the Bearcat and Fury returned to beat up the airfield with plenty of close formation fast passes and topsides – the power between the two nearing 5,000hp and the sound reverberating around the airfield!
One of the larger themed segments of the lineup was dedicated to the early days of the Battle of Britain. Opening with a pair of Spitfire Is (R9612/G-CGUK and P7308/G-AIST) flying a superbly tight formation display these were followed by, what was for many, a real highlight – a massed formation featuring the Bristol Blenheim, five Hurricanes (although only four on the Saturday) and a trio of Spitfire Is! With the two previously mentioned Spitfires being joined by N3200/G-CFGJ, the five Hurricanes comprised of four land based variants – MkI R4118/G-HUPW, MkI P3717/G-HITT, MkXII Z5140/G-HURI and MkI P2902 / G-ROBT (the aircraft missing from the formation on Saturday) – along with the sole airworthy Sea Hurricane MkIb, Z7501/G-MKTH.
Following a single pass, the formation spilt as four of Hawker’s finest proceeded to fly down the line, whilst P2902 joined behind with a gently flown sequence of aerobatics. It was great to see this particular machine making its Duxford debut (as part of what is likely to be the largest gathering of Hurricanes to be seen in the UK this year) following a lengthy restoration that was completed in January this year – some 75 years after crashing near Dunkirk. With the Hurricanes complete, it was then time for the Blenheim and N3200 to return for their own solo routines performed in opposition to each other. A superb segment of the show and great to see so many types representing such an event, especially given the recent increase in numbers of these warbirds, thanks to numerous lengthy and complicated restorations reaching their culmination in the last few years.
Representing the North African campaign Curtiss-Wright Warhawk P40F (G-CGZP) returned to the skies once more, joined by a familiar Duxford sight now in new colours – Bf109 Buchon G-AWHK (which is actually a Hispano HA-1112-M1L Buchon). Revealed just a few weeks ago, the Buchon has been given a temporary desert themed scheme with some heavy weathering effects to represent Black 8 of JG27 flown by Leutnant Werner Schroer – a welcome change to the scheme normally seen on the Buchon. After a series of formation passes led by the Warhawk, it was then time to re-enact what would have been a common sight in the North African theatre as a tail chase ensued with Lee’s Hope chasing down the enemy aircraft – eventually leading to a ‘kill’ as signified by a newly installed smoke system in the Buchon.
Anna Walker in the Bücker Bü 131 Jungmann represented the inter-war years with a superb example of competition style aerobatics beautifully flown with ballet-like precision – given the relative quietness of the Bücker, it was refreshing to see a display accompanied by music.
In a rare UK appearance, the Classic Formation from Switzerland featured a Douglas DC-3 flying alongside a pair of Beechcraft Model 18s. An unusual sight to see a formation team of such sizeable aircraft, this did not stop an excellent routine with varying tight formations and even the DC-3 flying through the pair of Beechcraft during an opposition segment.
A second DC-3, this time Dakota Norway’s C-53D (LN-WND) took to the skies for a solo display and, seemingly, the crew may have forgotten the type of aircraft they were flying! For those more used to the tamer and somewhat less dynamic display of the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight’s example, the crew put on a demonstration that showed just how capable and manoeuvrable the venerable ‘Dak’ can be with some incredible topside passes and high bank angle turns that provided an unexpected standout display.
With a quartet of air racers taking to the air, Flying Legends took a brief departure from warbirds and focused on a slightly different aspect of aviation from a similar era. Consisting of the de Havilland DH.88 Comet ‘Grosvenor House’, Alex Henshaw’s Percival Mew Gull, the diminutive LeVier Cosmic Wind and the Turweston based Travel Air Type R Mystery Ship replica, these four aircraft demonstrated four different solutions to the same design question – ultimate speed. Unfortunately, the display left a lot to be desired on the day with the opening formation making a distant approach before performing numerous ‘laps’ of the airfield. Whilst this may be a true representation of air racing, as public displays go it did nothing to engage the gathered masses – a real shame given what could have been.
Making a welcome return to Flying Legends was the US based P-51 display team, The Horsemen. Led by world-renowned warbird pilot Steve Hinton, he was joined by equally renowned pilots Ed Shipley and Dan Friedkin on the left and right wings respectively and their addition to the lineup was sure to be a highlight. Although the team have displayed at Flying Legends in both 2011 (in a pair of Mustangs) and 2013 (a trio of Spitfires), the last three ship Mustang display from them in the UK was during Flying Legends 2009, making this appearance all the rarer. The original plan was for the team to use a pair of US based P-51’s – the formerly mentioned P-51B Berlin Express and the P-51D Frenesi (which was shipped over two weeks before the event and reassembled by The Fighter Collection) flying either side of P-51D ‘The Shark’. Both Berlin Express and Frenesi wear schemes representing the 357th Fighter Group which operated from RAF Leiston and were credited with the highest number of air-to-air victories of any Eighth Air Force unit during World War Two. During the war, the original Berlin Express, itself a P-51C piloted by Bill Overstreet, flew under the Eiffel Tower of Paris whilst engaged in combat with a Messerschmitt ME 109, marking its place in aviation folklore.
Unfortunately, fate was against those attending the Saturday show when the canopy of Berlin Express shattered during the first pass of a solo display flown by Nick Grey leading to noticeable damage around the tail and horizontal stabilisers – sadly putting the aircraft out of action for the remainder of the weekend. Hopes that one of the other Mustangs could be commandeered for the display were also then dashed when it transpired that Frenesi was suffering technical issues and also unable to fly. Whilst this was most disappointing, especially for anyone only attending day one, the team were able to carry out an evening test flight having resolved the issues with the latter and by borrowing Miss Helen to take over from Berlin Express – giving hope to those attending on Sunday. To fill the gap in the Saturday display, the Grumman Bearcat took to the skies once more for an incredible solo display of its own.
Thankfully, luck stayed on the side of The Horsemen as they took to the skies with the three P-51Ds in the late afternoon on Sunday. What was to follow was quite simply a masterclass of formation aerobatics with the three Mustangs seemingly joined at the wingtips by a 6ft length of rope! Throughout the display, this separation distance was maintained perfectly no matter the manoeuvre they were flying and was a perfect demonstration of why the team has the legendary status they do.
Of course, anyone familiar with Flying Legends will be aware of the Grand Finale – the Balbo. This massed formation of attending warbirds is an element of the display that is simply unrivalled anywhere else in the UK, or even beyond! As the aircraft took off once more in a seemingly endless stream, it really is a remarkable sight – almost evocative of the scrambles so common at the airfield during the war. Once ‘whipped’ into position, the formation started their approach to the airfield and the air was soon filled with a cacophony of sound as the mixed engine notes dragged their steads towards Duxford. It’s difficult to explain the feeling of the Balbo formation as it passes, it is something that is captivating in every sense – both sound and sight, each as emotional as the other. With a formation so large, it takes time not only to gather after take off but also to return after their first pass. In true Legends fashion, there can be no gaps in the flying display, and therefore the honors are left to the ‘Joker’ display to sneak in and entertain the crowd. Saturday’s ‘Joker’ slot saw Richard Grace in the Hawker Fury power through the skies of Duxford during the two separate Joker” segments, whilst Sunday saw the Fury take the first slot, and Nick Grey flew the second in a Spitfire MkI with similar aplomb.
This year’s Balbo formation consisted of the following 19 participating aircraft (as viewed from above) –
|Grumman Wildcat FM-2 G-RUMW||Grumman Bearcat F8F G-RUMM||Goodyear Corsair FG-1D G-FGID|
|Curtiss-Wright Hawk 75 G-CCVH||Curtiss-Wright Warhawk P40F G-CGZP||Bf109 Buchon G-AWHK|
|TF-51D Mustang ‘Miss Velma’ G-TFSI||P-51D Mustang ‘The Shark’ G-SHWN||P-51D Mustang ‘Miss Helen’ G-BIXL|
|Curtiss-Wright P40C G-CIIO|
|Supermarine Spitfire IX ML407 G-LFIX||Supermarine Spitfire Mk XVIII SM845 G-BUOS||Supermarine Spitfire FR XIV MV268 G-SPIT|
|Supermarine Spitfire Tr.9 PV202 G-CCCA||Supermarine Spitfire Vb BM597 G-MKVB||Supermarine Seafire LF III G-BUAR|
|Supermarine Spitfire HF MkIX RR232 ‘City of Exeter’ G-BRSF||Supermarine Spitfire Mk IXb MH434 G-ASJV||Supermarine Spitfire LFVb EP120 G-LFVB|
As the formation broke to land on the closing of Sunday’s show, TF-51D Mustang Miss Velma suffered an engine issue on the downwind leg ending with a forced landing in a field at the runway 24 approach end. Thankfully, news soon came through the tannoy system on site that the pilot was safe and emergency services were on scene dealing with the situation. A heart-stopping moment for everyone watching, there was a mass sigh of relief up and down the crowd as the news filtered through that nobody had been injured.
Although the show closed on a low point following the incident, it should not be the lasting memory of Flying Legends 2017. Despite one of the main highlights confined to the ground for almost all of its planned sorties, there was still plenty to excel in the air – the Horsemen stamping their mark on Duxford during the Sunday, Dakota Norway’s pristine looking C-53D, the Buchon and Warhawk tail chase sequence and quintet of Hurricanes in the Battle of Britain formation all stand clear in the memory. Flying Legends shows really are like no other in the UK, especially when it comes to the massed formations that it is known for – where else can you see the Balbo finale comprising 19 aircraft, nine Spitfires in formation or a Blenheim sandwiched between five Hurricanes and a further trio of Spitfires! There may not have been the plethora of European-based fighters that has been seen at previous shows but the quality of the UK based examples demonstrates the resurgence in UK restorations.
The show may be organised by The Fighter Collection, but its location at IWM Duxford naturally leads to comparisons being drawn with their own shows. Cost of entry is often a criticism aimed at all IWM shows therefore it’s interesting to note that the controversial car park charge (£5 per day for the Duxford May show) wasn’t in effect and both the flight line walk and show programme were cheaper than their IWM show counterparts. These may only be small things but, coupled with a well thought out social media strategy providing almost daily updates in the months leading to the show, it’s a major point that the IWM should certainly reflect on going forwards.
As mentioned at the start, there is a certain atmosphere surrounding Flying Legends and it is difficult to describe – part is a sense of excitement, part is a sense of awe, part is something simply indescribable. Whatever it is, Flying Legends really is a show that must be attended at least once in a lifetime!