As the 2016 airshow season gets underway, the American Air Show held at Duxford’s Imperial War Museum represented the first of the major shows held under the new Civilian Aviation Authority regulations. Celebrating American and British collaboration in the air, the two-day show (held over the last Bank Holiday weekend in May) had a promising lineup and Adam Duffield was there on the Saturday to see the first of the three Duxford shows for 2016.
In March of this year, the American Air Museum reopened (Ed note: have a look at AeroResource’s piece on the reopening here – https://www.aeroresource.co.uk/news/american-air-museum-reopening/) to the public after a major renovation activity that saw it closed for the vast majority of 2015. The new layout and displays that are held within its curved walls have really revitalised the museum, adding a very personal feel to the exhibits with the stories on show. With the Duxford American Air Show being the first real chance for many to explore it after the reopening, the theme of the show was based around American aviation and the role it has played worldwide, especially in conjunction with the UK. Around the show this American theme was evident with ground entertainment from the likes of the Bluebird Belles, Pete Wayre and Miss Holiday Swing playing 1940’s era music alongside re-enactors representing both World War Two and Vietnam.
Despite being so early on in the season, it feels that every airshow report must be started by a recap of the new CAA regulations, and some may say that the potential impact upon Duxford was the most eagerly awaited. Home to an incredible range of warbirds, their displays feature some of the most impressive and dynamic displays on the circuit. However, with the M11 motorway bordering the airfields eastern end and the infamous ‘naughty field’ across from the showground, it was unclear how either would be handled to meet the new safety regulations. And meet them they did with the display datum being moved further towards the ‘Tank Bank’ (Ed note: found on the west of the airfield) to keep displays away from the M11, enforced closure of the roads that allow access to the fields south of the runway and more stringent rulings regarding the areas outside the airfield. With further changes also rumoured for the Flying Legends show, it will be interesting to see how Duxford continues to evolve to meet these new rules.
As always, the flight line walk was open between 10am and 12 noon, allowing a closer view of some of the days display items, albeit at a £6 surcharge per person (including children). The highlight of the static was obvious by the crowds gathered around it for most of the day – Bell-Boeing CV-22B Osprey 12-0063 operated by the 352nd Special Operations Wing out of RAF Mildenhall. For many visiting, the incredible tilt-rotor may well have been their first ‘up close’ viewing and the crew were all more than happy to answer questions about it. It was also possible to get a look inside with the machine opened up for people to walk through as part of the flightline walk. However, it was clear from a number of people at the fence line that being forced to pay the additional fee for the privilege didn’t go down well with many left disgruntled at being asked to pay extra to view this star item. Another star machine, although somewhat understated, was North American L-17B Navion 46-0344/N4956C wearing a matt green US Army scheme. Rarely seen at airshows, this was a great (and unexpected) addition to the static lineup.
Much was also made pre-show of a static display of a Boeing Insitu ScanEagle. However it was tucked away in the American Air museum and those attending on the Saturday found it placed upon its cradle next to an empty trade stall with not a single representative in sight! This catapult launched Unmanned Ariel Vehicle or UAV is in service with the Royal Navy, so it is a real shame that nobody was on hand to talk about it in more detail.
With the start of the flying display scheduled for 1330, the French national display team, the Patrouille de France, roared overhead to open the show’s flying – bang on time! Making their only scheduled appearance of the year in the UK (which is only one of four displays outside of France!) the team – who fly eight Alpha Jets and are renowned for putting on a great show – were basing out of Cambridge Airport for the appearance at the show. The opening act of the Saturday, the team were hit with the worst weather conditions of the day constraining them to their flat display with a series of formation passes by all eight of their red, white and blue jets before splitting in to two sections of four for the second half which included some excellent synchro pairs passes. The second display team to feature on the lineup was that of the Red Bull Matadors featuring Paul Bonhomme and Steve Jones –both of Red Bull Air Race fame – in a pair of Sbach XA41s (D-EYXA and D-EVXA). A great example of precision formation display flying, they were able to display during somewhat improved conditions allowing a full height show, including their impressive ‘slide off’ – an inverted rudder turn at the top of a loop to reposition 90 degrees on to the B Axis.
The RAF offered two very differing displays for the Saturday (with the Red Arrows taking part on the Sunday only) in the form of the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight along with this year’s Eurofighter Typhoon solo. With the Lancaster still unserviceable, the flight’s Dakota was due to join a pair of fighters – Supermarine Spitfire Mk XVII TE311 and Hawker Hurricane Mk IIc LF363 – however a maintenance issue on startup forced the Dakota to cancel. This left the fighters, flown by OC BBMF Squadron Leader Andy Millikin and Flight Lieutenant Andy Preece to display as a pair to start followed by individual solo routines. Closing the day was the Eurofighter Typhoon flown by Flight Lieutenant Mark Long, who unlike his BBMF counterparts, had some of the best conditions of the day and managed to fly his full display.
Of course, whilst the formation display teams were good additions to the lineup, the key theme of the show was that of American aviation so it’s not unsurprising that the vast majority of the displays were dedicated to that – in one way or another – throughout the ages.
The Vietnam War is one often not represented at shows in the UK however, Duxford did dedicate a sizeable chunk of the flying programme to take the crowds back to the skies of South East Asia. Whilst the T-28 Fennec (517692/F-AZFV) operated by Groupe Fennec is a regular at Duxford shows, its role in Vietnam isn’t normally mentioned – despite having served with both the South Vietnamese Air Force and the CIA! After opening this segment of the display, the unique pairing of North American OV-10 Bronco 99+18/G-ONAA and Short SC-7 Skyvan G-PIGY of the Belgian based Bronco Demo Team followed. These are both regulars at shows around the UK either flying or as part of static display but seeing a display from them as a pair is very rare indeed – in fact it Duxford was the first public showing of the pair and made a great addition to the lineup. Whilst the Skyvan is not an aircraft used during the conflict, it did help represent the short take-off and landing transports that were used extensively such as the C-123 Provider and Caribou. With a formation take-off, the Bronco proceeded to simulates ‘top cover’ for the Skyvan including position marking with its inbuilt smoke system – something dating back to the design of the aircraft and the role it fulfilled rather than a modification for display purposes. With the Skyvan performing a short field landing and take-off on the grass runway, the pair later came in for an impressive formation landing! The only thing missing from the demo was the inclusion of troops mounting/dismounting the transport but, none the less, a nice display variation to the usual Duxford fare. In a similar vein, the rotary pairing of a Hughes OH-6A Loach (69-16011/G-OHGA) and an example of the legendary Bell UH-1 Huey (72-21509/G-UHIH) gave a chance to see two actual veteran of Vietnam in the skies. With both aircraft wearing the schemes that they would have worn at the time – that of 20th Transport Company and 129th Assault Helicopter Company respectively – a formation start to the display morphed in to solo displays by both helicopters.
Showing an example of evolution of the helicopter gunship platform that versions of both the Huey and Loach were capable of carrying out, the Army Air Corps (AAC) Apache Attack Helicopter Display Team returned to Duxford in the capable hands of 3 Regiment AAC, Wattisham. Operating just a single aircraft this year (ZJ223 for Saturday), the Apache is of American design and still at the forefront of current gunship operations and, fittingly, has had the ‘Gunship’ decals applied to the CRV7 rocket pods for this year. The AHDT have always tried to present the Apache in an operational context however, unfortunately for the crowd on the Saturday, public address issues meant that the majority of the commentary was lost for many spectators – which normally helps to explain some of the manoeuvres and positioning taking place in front of them and adds an extra dimension to the display.
With a number of varying types at their disposal, the Great War Display Team brought three of their aircraft to demonstrate the earlier days of American military aviation. Operated during World War One, the Royal Aircraft Factory SE5 was a type that saw service with the 25th Aero Squadron US Army Air Service and was also flown by a number of American pilots flying under the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) – it was therefore fitting that two of the three aircraft were replicas of this type. Of course, no GWDT display is complete without an enemy to chase and this came in the form of the Fokker DR.1 Dreidecker (Triplane in German). Whilst normally seen with a greater number of aircraft at a display of such size, the three aircraft still managed to put on a great show especially with their speed allowing them to fly closer to the crowd than most. It was announced by the team after the show that they had been operating at 75m separation thanks to an exemption from the CAA after reviewing the display – a glimmer of hope for other displays/venues that similar exemptions may be possible.
Representing American training aircraft was the pairing of the Ryan ST-A (NC18923) and Boeing PT-17 Stearman (G-RJAH). As aircraft aesthetics go, the Ryan was quite possibly the most beautiful aircraft on show and, with its highly polished bare metal finish, looked just as good on the ground as it did in the air. Given the type’s speed, the aircraft’s separation from the crowd – which is based on aircraft speed – were like the GWDT closer to the crowd line allowing a more engaging display.
A slightly ‘odd’ pairing of the de Havilland Beaver (G-DHCZ) and LeVier Cosmic Wind (G-ARUL) may have left many searching the skies for the later. The Beaver could just has easily fitted in with the Vietnam segment given its role operating as a liaison aircraft on austere airfields however its civilian scheme doesn’t really fit with a military presentation! The display however worked well with it being able to operate in front of the aerobatic Cosmic Wind which, with its diminutive size against grey skies, was difficult to pick out until it came down to a lower level.
Part of the ‘Supporting the Troops’ segment featured two different pairs of aircraft. The first pair was that of Piper L-4 Cub (3681/G-AZGP) and de Havilland Dragon Rapide G-AGJG. Once more, the slow speed of the Cub allowed it to display nice and close to the crowd with the Rapide slightly further out as they performed numerous figures of eight. Following them was a pairing of two Skytrains – Aces High’s C-47A (2100884/N147DC) and Dakota Heritage Ltd C-47A ‘Drag em oot’ (2100882/ N473DC). With a graceful formation display whilst Michael Kamen’s Band of Brothers Requiem echoed over the speakers, a rare silence descended amongst the crowd leaving just the sound of the twin-engined transports. To finish, a very impressive formation landing was carried out on the grass runway – an incredible sight for those on the ‘Tank Bank’.
As a modern sentiment of ‘Supporting the Troops’, especially in terms of the United States Air Force and their allies in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, a rare flypast from a Boeing KC-135R (58-0100) operated by the 351st Air Refuelling Squadron, 100th Air Refuelling Wing out of RAF Mildenhall took place. The machine carried out a single pass with the refueling boom lowered and extended allowing many a rare chance to catch an example in the air at a show in the UK.
For regulars at Duxford, the sight of Boeing B-17G Flying Fortress ‘Sally B’ (124485/G-BEDF) in the flying display is not a rarity however, the Second World War segment which it appeared was one of the highlights of the day with the telling of a story that would have been all too common during the types service. After completing a number of passes as part of its solo routine, it was joined by a pair of ‘Little Friends’ in the form of The Fighter Collection’s TF-51D ‘Miss Velma’ (44-84847/G-TFSI) alongside the Norwegian Spitfire Foundation’s shark mouth marked P-51D Mustang (44-73877/G-SHWN) flown by Brian Smith and Lars Ness respectively. Providing fighter cover for the bomber, the three machines provided some lovely formation passes after which the ‘51s split from the B-17 to fend off an enemy attack flown by Cliff Spink and Steve Jones in a pair of Hispano Buchons (Black 2/G-AWHK and Black 1/G-AWHE respectively). With a lengthy tail chase segment ensuing, this is one area where the new separation distances seemed to apply the most with the quartet of fighters seemingly slightly further out than at previous shows. Not that this distracted from the sight and sound of the display though and, as a display segment, certainly one of the most enjoyable especially with G-AWHK making its first public appearance in a temporary ‘Black 2’ scheme as part of filming for the new Dunkirk film currently in production.
A somewhat unexpected highlight of the day was a trio of Harvards representing the ‘America before Pearl Harbor’ theme. Three very different schemes gave an interesting insight in to the sheer number of operators that have used the type – the Portuguese Air Force (1747/G-BGPB), US Navy (52-8543/G-BUKY) and Californian Air National Guard (49-3209/G-DDMV) all being represented. With a series of close formation passes, the air was filled with the buzz of the three radials dragging the machines through the sky as the trainers went about their display. Also displaying as part of this segment as a trio featuring the two most well-known fighter types operated by the Royal Air Force – the Spitfire and Hurricane. Representing the role played by American volunteer pilots as part of the ‘Eagle Squadron’ prior to America’s full involvement in the war, the display featured Spitfire Mk Ia (N3200/G-CFGJ) and Hurricane Mk XIIa (P3700/G-HURI) performing close formation passes whilst, displaying behind and somewhat higher was the clipped wing Spitfire LF Mk Vb (EP120/G-LFVB). With the Mk V Spitfire also operated by the 31st and 52nd Fighter Groups on their arrival in the UK, it is yet another link to the important role played by American pilots during the war.
The penultimate display segment on the Saturday was another highlight that represented the war in the Pacific and the attack on Pearl Harbor. With Aérorétro’s Mitsubishi A6M Zero Replica F-AZRO – which is based on a Harvard airframe – being one of the star visitors to the show it was joined by a wide variety of types for the segment. Joining it was Grumman FM-2 Wildcat G-RUMW and Curtiss Hawk 75 G-CCVH operating as a pair which were complemented by Goodyear FG-1D Corsair KD345/G-FGID and Curtiss P-40F Warhawk 160/10AB/ N80FR for a a brief spell of tail chasing. It may not have been the full on tail chase that many would have expected but with such a performance difference between types it could well have been difficult to achieve. Instead, the Wildcat and Hawk 75 performed some beautifully close formation passes whilst the Corsair and Warhawk pair showed some of their more potent performance characteristics as they displayed in opposition passes to the Zero. With the Japanese fighter seen off, all that was left was for the four American aircraft to join up for a formation pass set to the evocative backing of Tennessee by Hans Zimmer.
Overall though, upon leaving the show it seemed to be with a slightly deflated feeling that is difficult to pin down. With a strong start and finish to the show, it seemed to lose pace in the middle section of the lineup – something not helped by the introduction of a 10-15 minute scheduled break in the flying. The seemingly ‘thin’ crowd also contributed to the feeling with the entire site appearing to be very quiet all day. I certainly can’t remember the last time you could arrive at the ‘Tank Bank’ after the flying started and still comfortably find a space both on the bank and also the fenceline! Maybe the new ban on windbreaks and tents at the fenceline also helped – a much welcomed change! It has to be wondered if part of how quiet it was is in fact down to the IWM’s change of policy to make this an advance ticket only event and to also introduce a £5 charge for parking on site. If you take in to account ticket price, parking, flight line walk and a programme the cost for a single adult to attend is £46.50 for a flying display of around four-hours making it a potentially expensive gamble for those who want the best weather. This change to advance ticket rules does at least give Duxford a chance to ensure they have the increased permission and new post-show display charges covered before anything leaves the ground that, in the current climate, many shows may have to do to ensure their own financial viability.
The Duxford American Air Show may not go down in history as one of the best but despite the negatives, it was still a solid event with some excellent display sequences such as the Mustang/Buchon tail chase, Harvard trio and Dakota pair. The changes enforced by the new CAA regulations didn’t have as much of an impact as some had thought and, with time, the displays will hopefully evolve and adapt to make the best of the situation they find themselves in. Duxford has certainly not been neutered by the regulations, but may well take a few shows to get back to its former glory.