Found in the heart of Northamptonshire, Sywell Aerodrome under the eyes of brothers Jack and Geoff Linnell opened in 1928 occupying merely the western portion of the present airfield. Home to air races and displays during its early days, the grass aerodrome soon became a hub of activity and the place to be. Now some 86 years on, Sywell is still buzzing with activity as well as holding a number of major events on the UK calendar. Jamie Ewan headed to the home of the Blades team for the latest bi-annual airshow held in support of the Warwickshire and Northamptonshire Air Ambulance.
Under the Motto ‘You can fly well at Sywell’, the airfield has basked in a rich history, including a huge operation to repair battle damaged Vickers Wellingtons with some 1,841 Wellingtons passing through during the Second World War and a centre of flying training – both military and civilian – operating since its outset, Sywell has remained under private ownership since 1928.
With a very strong line up announced including both the Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum and Battle of Britain Memorial Flights Avro Lancasters along with the Royal Air Force Red Arrows and other Sywell regulars, tickets for the show sold out in the weeks leading up to the event which was dubbed as the Great War Airshow. As with previous years, this year’s show was in aid of the Warwickshire and Northamptonshire Air Ambulance (WNAA) who started operations in 2003. Operating a single Agusta A109E (G-RSCU) out of Coventry Airport, the service provided by the WNAA has saved thousands of lives across the staggering 11,000 square kilometres and approx. 2.5 million people they serve. Working out at an average mission cost of around £1,700 and no government funding, the aircraft and service is funded entirely by charitable donations. With a normal day consisting of three calls, the cost soon mounts up! Arriving just after the gates opened, the aircraft arrived for the showgoers to have a closer look and find out some more about the WNAA. Sadly, the aircraft was scrambled on a shout and departed soon after on another life saving mission.
As well as taking part in their salute to Bomber Command, the Avro Lancaster has a unique link with Sywell with 260 Lancaster Mk.II aircraft test flying from the airfield during the dark days of World War Two. The day before the show the unexpected news came that the BBMF and CWHM had scrubbed a number of events they were due to take part in, caused by the predicted inclement weather systems moving in however they would do their best to make it to Sywell. As with most things these days social media came alive on the day with the news that the aircraft had cancelled and would not be attending, but until official word came from the show many held on in hope. Unfortunately the announcement came that they had indeed scrubbed as the conditions at RAF Coningsby, home to the BBMF, were that bad the hangar doors couldn’t even be opened safely. A shame for the gathered crowds but even more so for the gathered Lancaster veterans who had come to see their steeds one more time.
Despite the lack of eight Merlins growling through the Northamptonshire skies, the Large Model Association managed to launch one of their models in tribute to the Veterans. Adorned in the colours of Lancaster Mk.I W4783/AR-G – better known as ‘G for George’ – the aircraft was operated by 460 Squadron of the Royal Australian Air Force flying an unprecedented 96 combat missions over occupied Europe. Powered by 4 individual motors, the model sports an 18 foot wingspan and is some 9 feet in length! The actual ‘G for George’ still exists now and resides in the Australian War Memorial in Canberra, Australia. Unlike many of the heroes of Bomber Command who gave their lives G-George had distinction of bringing home every crewman who flew aboard it alive. As the model came to a stop amongst the buttercups littering the grass runway after a fine display in blustery conditions a ghostly silence fell over the airfield only to be broken by a huge applause for the Veterans – so loud even the wind couldn’t silence the crowds appreciation!
Sadly the weather also meant the decision was taken that Captain Neville’s Flying Circus, comprising of Thruxton Jackaroo G-ANZT, DHC-1 Chipmunk WP903/G-BCGC and Queen Bee G-BLUZ, would not take part in the show.
To commemorate the centenary of the ‘War to End all Wars’ the Great War Display Team were to be one of the shows highlights flying their stunning dogfight scenarios. The Team, comprised of 9 aircraft of 5 different types (Sopwith Triplane, Fokker Dr1, Royal Aircraft Factory B.E.2, Royal Aircraft Factory S.E.5a and the Junkers CL1), sadly had to cancel their display slot again due to the high winds battering Sywell. A huge shame and loss to the display line up but understandable with the conditions. The crowds however did get to see the aircraft depart hoping to beat the weather and battle the winds. It was quite fitting to watch them climb out, as if standing on the a RFC airfield in France watching these so-called ‘Knights of the Air’ head for battle wondering if they would return.
The opening to the afternoons flying also paid tribute to the brave airmen who made the ultimate sacrifice during the Great War, with a very evocative poppy drop from Taylorcraft J Auster V G-AMVD/TJ652, courtesy of the Warbird stable at Hardwick. Flying down the display line the drop left the poppies fluttering down over a guard of honour adorned in period World War One dress at display centre. As the wind blew and the poppies fell in salute to the fallen, a commemorative silence was held, only broken by the distant sound of gunfire from one of the local estates nearby. Although not part of the tribute it added somewhat to the thought provoking tribute.
With the weather causing some issues the show organisers did their best to juggle the displays around to try and keep some form of continuity and ensuring that everything that could manage to get up into the air safely, did so.
Showing his truly astounding skills, especially with the wind, Guy Westgate of the Glider FX team took to the air and flew a stunning performance in his Marganski MDM-1 Fox G-IIFX. Formed from Guy’s Swift Display, the display starts with the Fox being aero towed by Piper PA25 Pawnee G-BDPJ in the typical manner you expect from a Glider with some sedate turns across the display line, the air whistling off the airframe. However, that’s where normal stops and truly breathtaking takes over as the MDM-1 starts to roll behind the Pawnee, while still on tow! Climbing to height the Fox is soon released and flying a stunning aerial ballet of loops, rolls and flicks as the wing tip smoke generators create their own patterns in the skies.
As well as the centenary of the Great War, 2014 sees 70 years since D-Day and many commemorations of the landing operations taking place on 6 June 1944. Carolyn Grace’s immaculate looking Supermarine Spitfire LF Mk.IX / TR Mk.9 ML407/ G-LFIX was a very fitting choice to fly a tribute during the show. Built at Castle Bromwich in early 1944 as a single seater, the aircraft was assigned to Flying Officer Johnnie Houlton DFC of 485 (New Zealand) Squadron. It was flying this aircraft that Houlton was credited with the first enemy aircraft shot down over Normandy on D-Day. A rather unique aircraft displayed to help commemorate the 70th Anniversary of Operation Overlord, amassing some 176 operational combat sorties totalling 319 combat hours during its service.
Maurice Hammond and Rob Davies provided another look at Second World War heavy metal with a whistling pairs display in North American P-51D Mustangs “Janie” and “Marinell”, 45-11518/G-MSTG and 44-13521/G-MRLL respectively, from the Hardwick collection.
The words Hope, Faith and Charity spring to mind when one of Glosters finest looking machines takes part in a display or is mentioned anywhere. Although a biplane, the Gloster Gladiator saw action in almost all of the theatres of war during World War Two. Piloted by Pete Kynsey of The Fighter Collection out of Duxford, Gloster Gladiator II G-GLAD/N5903 (adorned in the colours of 72 Squadron while based at RAF Hornchurch in 1937), showed why the type was a match against more formidable foes in combat. During the siege of Malta in 1940 the Hal Far Fighter Flight, operating the Royal Air Forces last biplane, defended the Island after finding the aircraft in crates and putting them together.
Rounding off the World War Two types was the wonderful Hangar 11 Hawker Hurricane Mk.IIB ‘Hurribomber’ BE505 better known as ‘Pegs’. Built in 1942, ‘Pegs’ represents a 174 (Mauritius) Squadron machine from the Spring of 1942. Flown by the collections maestro himself, Peter Teichman, the aircraft closed the show in his typical flamboyant style with some superb topside action as the skies over Northamptonshire turned dark with another storm approaching.
Returning to the airfields roots, a number of 1930s era airframes took to the air to give the crowds a taste of an Air Race – 30’s style! Leading the way pretty much from the start was Ryan PT-22 Recruit (ST3KR) G-WLRG with the types Kinner R5 engine pulling it through the skies. Closely following the Recruit was Miles M.38 Messenger 2A G-AKIN, owned and operated by Sywells own Messenger Trust where the aircraft has been based since April 1952. Bringing up the rear and battling the winds, Miles M.14A Hawk Trainer 3, G-AKAT / T9738 operated by the Real Aeroplane Company at Breighton – also home to the PT-22.
Two more replicas of the 30s racing era took part in the day’s packed flying display – Percival E.2 Mew Gull G-HEKL/4 and Travel Air Mystery Ship ‘Type R’ G-TATR/29. Flying a single formation pass down the display line from the South West, the aircraft broke to fly some stunning solo passes showing off their impressive lines and speed. The Mystery Ship, for many the star of the show, was built by Ron Souch of Aero Antiques for well known aircraft collector Richard Seeley and is fitted with a with a 9 cylinder Lycoming radial engine. Taking to the air for the first time in the latter half of 2013, the aircraft made its public debut at the Light Aircraft Association Rally at Sywell on August 30 of that year. Flown by notable names such as Jimmy Doolittle, Doug Davis, Frank Hawks and Pancho Barnes in their hay day, just 5 of the type were built in the 1930s.
As well as retracing the air racing roots of the home of Northamptonshire aviation, the Breitling Wing Walkers in a pair of their Boeing Stearmans decked in a lively Orange and White scheme, added a flavour of barnstorming to the day. The team flew their highly entertaining wing walking display with the girls on top of the aircrafts wings and the aircraft’s Continental R-670-5 seven-cylinder air-cooled radial engine engines growling away. Also adding to the retro feel of the day was 70 year old Tony ‘Taff’ Smith with his bright yellow 1934 Bücker BU.131 Jungmann out of the RAC collection at Breighton. Designed to provide ab-initio training for military pilots during the inter-war years in Germany, the prototype of the aircraft was rolled out under the guise of an aerobatic aircraft in 1934 to circumvent the restrictions imposed on Germany by the Treaty of Versailles. Another of the Bücker stable, this time Bücker Bu.133C Jungmeister G-BUTX, was on display with a fine example of aerobatics and poetry in motion as the aircraft was thrown around the sky. Joining the Jungmeister for a number of flypasts before giving a solo display was yet another Bucker in the form of Bücker Bü 181 Bestmann G-TPWX/TP+WX. Technically an Egyptian licence built Heliopolis Gomhouria 181 MK.6 adorned in a German scheme, the aircraft was flown by well known UK display pilot Will Greenwood during the show.
Formation Aerobatics were on show with the Trig Team flying their usual well-presented demonstration of close formation work in their pair of yellow and metallic purple Pitts Special S-1D biplanes (G-IIIP & GPIII). Flown by Dave Puleston and Richard Grace the aircraft are thrown around the skies skilfully combining the high speed and precision flight expected from any high class aerial performance.
Airshow favourites, the Blades were on their home turf flew their four Extra 300s like they had stolen them with one of the best displays seen from the team . Flying their usual foray of formation and unlimited aerobatics, the team brightened up the dark skies with their well known orange and black schemes.
Returning to the skies over Sywell this year was rotary expert Martin Lovell in the Skytech MD Helicopters MD-500 G-RISK. With the use a traffic cone, knocking it over and using one of the skids to pick it up before placing it back where it started, Martin shows of the immense manoeuvrability of the type as well as his expert skills as a helicopter pilot.
Jet noise was dished out during the show by two examples of the UK’s vibrant classic jet scene – Folland Gnat T.1 XS111/G-TIMM and the worlds sole airworthy English Electric Canberra PR.9, XH134/G-OMHD. Operated by the Gnat Display Team out of North Weald, G-TIMM (originally XP504) is decked out in the colours of Ray Hanna’s machine during his time as Leader of the Red Arrows back in their early days. Wearing an all over silver scheme, XH134 has become one of the true stars on the UK airshow scene since her return to flight in July 2013. Operated by the MidAir Squadron out of the ex RAF Kemble the aircraft was put through its paces by Mike Leckey as he showed the crowds why the type was a world beater.
Celebrating their 50th Anniversary this year, the Royal Air Force’s Red Arrows were on hand to represent the modern day RAF. Flying their nine BAe Systems Hawk T.1s in their now familiar 50th Anniversary scheme the team flew a full looping show between the gaps of approaching clouds. Flying their 50th public display of their Golden anniversary season, the Reds showed why they are the best at what they do in terms of precision formation aerobatics. The sight of a the diamond nine powering through the skies smoke billowing is one to make anyone smile, especially on a cold August day in Northamptonshire.
With some unseasonable weather causing the cancellation of both the Great War Display Team and the Lancasters, the majority of the show went ahead as planned with some superb displays and flying for the sell out crowd of some 10,000 people. From the very first fighters in aviation through to one of today’s well known and loved jet trainers that’s bathed in history and stopping on the way to celebrate the airfields heritage, there was something for everyone at the show. I’m sure this year will see another record breaking donation to the Warwickshire & Northamptonshire Air Ambulance.