For fans of truly vintage aircraft, there is nowhere else in the country where you can experience the excitement of early aviation quite like the Shuttleworth Collection at Old Warden. Ben Montgomery reports from a beautiful Shuttleworth Pageant Airshow, with a few very special exhibits in the air.
The Shuttleworth Collection was founded in 1928 by Richard Ormonde Shuttleworth, a keen aviator and collector of classic cars and aircraft. Many of the aircraft collected by him were restored in the workshops and hangars at Old Warden and displayed at airshows and events – much the same as they are today. The original aims of the collection survive, with as many aircraft as possible restored to airworthy condition, and flown at the regular shows on site.

As well as employing a small team of full time staff, the success of the Shuttleworth Collection is largely down to its team of volunteers – members of the Shuttleworth Veteran Aeroplane Society, or SVAS. The members of the SVAS are often directly involved with the running of the airshows, the upkeep of the aircraft themselves and significant fundraising to the benefit of the Collection. Practical examples of the uses of these funds are no better represented than by the purchase of aircraft including the Collection’s Westland Lysander and Percival Piston Provost.

The Shuttleworth Pageant Airshow is one of many airshows at Old Warden each year and gives a good opportunity to see as many of the collections aircraft in the air as they can fit in the time available for the show. With flying starting in the afternoon, there is plenty of time available in the morning to sample the beautiful Swiss Gardens and Bird of Prey Centre – all of which is included within the entry price to the airshow.

For the 2014 event, weather forecasts and a strong line-up – including the much anticipated first display of the newly restored De Havilland DH.88 Comet – drew a large crowd. What the attendance would have been like had the Three Lancasters Event at East Kirkby not also been on can only remain as speculation, but it undoubtedly may have made the peaceful Old Warden seem somewhat more crowded. After some clouds during the morning, the weather continually improved as predicted and by the time Chris Heames arrived from North Weald in a Hunter T.7 to start the display, the skies were mostly blue (although typically the first banked topside pass was in shade).

After an initial burst of jet noise, Chris departed back to North Weald (to return later in the display for more aviation antics) and the tempo of the display, whilst always remaining dynamic and free of gaps, slowed to the more usual piston and rotary powered aircraft for which the Shuttleworth Collection is famed.

Richard Shuttleworth, and thus today’s Shuttleworth Collection, collected several of the De Havilland Moth family and a number of these were on display during the show. Noteworthy amongst the fliers was DH.60 Moth G-EBLV, the oldest existing Airworthy Moth. Built at Stag Lane in 1925, this aircraft is retained today in its pre-war blue paint scheme. Alongside this aircraft were other examples of the Moth family and anyone who has seen the British Airways avert showing the evolution of flight will recognise the DH.51 which retains the Aircraft Transport and Travel Limited markings used for that production.

In an interesting combination of types, the Collection’s Sea Hurricane IIB and Lysander III took to a display of aerial warfare against the Fiesler Fi-156A-1 Storch. Depicting a possible battle during the North African campaign of the Second World War, the addition of the fast Sea Hurricane indicated how the slow speed manoeuvrability of the Storch was vital to its survival on the battlefield. Able to turn well inside the Hurricane, only the slower Lysander had a chance of “winning” the dogfight.

Old Warden has one of the most varied collection of World War One aircraft and airworthy replicas in the country and it is a real treat to see them displayed at a location that, visually at least, has likely changed little since those times and at the Pageant airshow, displays were provided by a selection of these aircraft. Taking to the skies were the Avro 504K, Bristol M1C, Sopwith Camel, RAF SE5a, Bristol F.2B Fighter – out of which list remarkably only the Bristol M1C is a replica!

Out of the World War One aircraft displayed at the Pageant two of the newest, both in terms of age and duration at Old Warden, were a pair of replica Royal Aircraft Factory BE.2es. Built by The Vintage Aviator Limited (TVAL) in New Zealand, they are some of the latest reproductions to come from that workshop. Many will recall the RE.8 and Albatros D.V from TVAL which flew briefly at Old Warden and Duxford before being displayed permanently at the Royal Air Force Museum Hendon.

The “BE” of the BE2e stands for Blériot Experimental – interestingly the Royal Balloon Factory, from which the Royal Aircraft Factory was born, was not authorised to produce new aircraft designs and so the experimental designation was used as a way of getting around the limitation and aircraft in need of repairs would be adapted during the repair process such that they effectively became a new design. Designed by the chief designer of the Royal Balloon Factory (one notable Geoffrey De Havilland), the BE2 family began in 1912 and the BE2e made its first appearance in 1916 based upon considerable design evolution. The BE2e was the most numerous of all BE2 variants and, unlike the original model, featured standard ailerons as opposed to wing warping for roll control. Now that the aircraft have arrived from New Zealand, they will be maintained and operated by the WW1 Aviation Heritage Trust for at least the next four years (to mark the centenary of the First World War) in order to better educate the public in the design and role of the aeroplane in that conflict.

Although definitely classed as an aeroplane, those who have seen the English Electric Wren participate in Shuttleworth shows before may be dubious of the legitimacy of this claim. Designed in 1921, and weighing in at a mere 105kg, the Wren actually entered and won the Lympne Light Aircraft Trials of 1923 by covering over 140 kilometres on one gallon of fuel. After being offered Wren No.3 in the 1950s, the Shuttleworth Collection used parts of the second airframe (confusingly this was Wren No.4), which had been displayed at the Science Museum. Test flights were frustratingly hard to achieve and only an engine retune to provide over 100 extra horsepower provided aviation capability once again. Because of the difficulties of launching the aircraft (originally a large bungee was used) the Wren rarely achieves more than a few inches of height in its sojourns down the runway at Old Warden. However, for the Pageant airshow this year Rodger Bailey managed to achieve a truly massive height of several metres, which coupled with a sporty turn onto the cross runway to avoid the hedge at the end of the main strip made this one of the best Wren displays for some time.

Perhaps one of the more unusual aircraft on display at this show was the recently restored Fauvel AV.36 tailless glider design. Designed by French designer Charles Fauvel, whose speciality was flying wing style designs, and first flown on December 31st 1951 this particular example was discovered by Graham Saw in 2013 and restored to flight at Booker Gliding Club with the first post-restoration test flight taking place in July 2014. When originally certified in France, Canada and Germany the certificate authorised the AV.36 to conduct basic aerobatics, which is exactly what Graham demonstrated during his display at Shuttleworth. After an aerotow to altitude by the SVAS Piper Cub, he took advantage of the 26:1 glide ratio of the design to throw in as many loops, descending turns and climbs as possible. Whilst over 100 AV.36s were built, as well as additional improved AV.361 variants, few remain in flight today and this particular example (No. 133) is a relevant and important addition to the Collection.

As is customary with the Shuttleworth airshows, when the wind has dropped sufficiently (usually at the end of the show towards the sunset) an endeavour is made to fly the Edwardian era aircraft – some of the oldest airworthy aircraft in the world. Perhaps because of the presence of the still gentle wind, or the desire to retain some light for a possible Comet display, only the replica Bristol Boxkite and Avro Triplane IV flew during the Pageant. Built for the 1965 film “Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines”, the replicas were donated to the Collection after the completion of filming. The Triplane was constructed by Peter Hillwood of Hampshire Aero Club in accordance with the original A.V. Roe and Company designs and the design is faithful to the original in that it includes wing warping rather than ailerons for roll control.

Of course, no matter what other important or historic aircraft were on offer at the Pageant the star of this particular show was only ever going to be the recently restored De Havilland DH.88 Comet (which likely would have retained that accolade even if the Lancaster pair had been in attendance). It is worthy at this junction of discussing some of the history of this aircraft, which despite its relative fame, must have one of the smallest production runs in history.

In 1933 and to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the State of Victoria in southern Australia, the Lord Mayor of Melbourne organised an air race from Mildenhall to Melbourne which, upon the backing of industrialist Sir Macpherson Robertson became known as the 1934 MacRobertson air race. Aviation was still a relatively rich man’s sport and the world maintained a healthy interest in its progress. As such, and because of a worry that Britain would not remain competitive in designing high performance aircraft, Geoffrey De Havilland offered to produce a 200km/h racing monoplane. Worthy of note is that despite winning the Schneider Trophy outright in 1931 in a Supermarine S.6B seaplane, Britain had no competitive aircraft that could handle the long overland portions of this race. Whilst willing to make personal sacrifice to help the development of the aviation industry, De Havilland still needed firm orders in order to fund part of the development – if three aircraft were ordered at £5,000 (around £300,000 in 2014 sterling) before February 1934, the project could go ahead. Three orders – and only three – were received by the deadline, and so the project went ahead  completing the design to a first flight stage in only 9 months and six weeks before the start of the race.

The three Comets to take part in the race were G-ACSR “Black Magic”, G-ACSP and G-ACSS “Grosvenor House” – the latter of which is the aircraft now resident at Old Warden. Owned by Mr Albert Edwards, and taking its name from the hotel he owned and managed, “Grosvenor House” was flown for the race by Flight Lieutenant Charles William Anderson Scott AFC and Tom Campbell Black. Despite not starting first, Scott and Black would go on to win the race with an overall time of 70 hours and 55 minutes. They would have also won the handicap race, but the rules dictated that a single aircraft could not win both titles.

After the race, the aircraft was purchased by the Air Ministry for Air Force trials, and given the identification number K5084. It suffered two crashes due to collapsed landing gear whilst on trial at RAF Martlesham Heath, and was sold for scrap in 1936. Rescued and restored by Mr F.E. Tasker in 1937, it was renamed “The Orphan” and flown in the Marseilles-Damascus-Paris race of that year in which it came fourth. After a trip to Australia in 1938, the aircraft was stored until 1951 when it was restored to static condition and displayed by De Havilland. Finally in 1965 it was donated to the Shuttleworth Collection, and after an extensive restoration flew again in 1987. The aircraft was kept at Hatfield and flew from there until the runway closed in April 1994 after which it remained at Old Warden in taxiing condition (with one brief flight in 2002). After another lengthy maintenance and restoration period, the Comet flew again for the first time on August 1st 2014 and the Pageant airshow would be its first official public outing.

For the debut display at Old Warden, the Comet took to the skies in the hands of the Collection’s Chief Pilot, Rodger “Dodge” Bailey. Because of the specialised design of the Comet and it’s extremely tail heavy characteristics, it may easily develop a pronounced swing – especially in a heavy crosswind. Sensibly the Collection have wisely decided to limit the Comet’s flying to calm conditions, much the same as the Edwardian aircraft are. Whilst this did cause some consternation as to whether the aircraft would be able to safely fly (and being slightly critical of the commentary, it would have been nice to have at least an update on the likelihood – or even uncertainty – of a flight during the course of the afternoon, given how probable it was that a significant proportion of visitors were there to see that aircraft above all others), it did mean that when Dodge took to the skies at the culmination of the display the light had softened into a warm summer evening glow. Taking off into the wind due to the requirement of an overrun in the event of an aborted takeoff, the Comet performed a relatively sprightly display which was in no doubt helped by the curved display line at Old Warden. This allowed Dodge to show of the aesthetic curves of the design to the still crowded flightline, and to the obvious delight of the gathered photographers. How often does a first display occur in such perfect conditions?

Upon a very rapid landing at the culmination of the display and the fading of the light, it was requested, and pleasingly observed, that the crowd waited until Dodge had removed his headgear before giving him a thoroughly deserved round of applause.

As the sun finally vanished, so did the spectators. It’s always pleasing to see that even immediately after the show, Old Warden rarely suffer with traffic jams. Many are already lauding this Pageant as one of the finest shows of recent years at Old Warden and it would be hard to argue. With the debut of the Comet, the remarkable performance of the Wren, the display of the BE2e pair and a strong showing from the rest of the Shuttleworth Collection’s repertoire (as well as several visitors), there is little to criticise, and even less to improve. Those who have yet to venture into this secluded part of Bedfordshire are undoubtedly missing out.