20th October 2004, a rainy and claggy morning, my Dad and I were stuck in heavy traffic at the Blackwall tunnel, on our way to a small airfield in the Bedfordshire countryside, Old Warden. Known by many to be home to the Shuttleworth Collection of historic aircraft.
Why head towards an airfield on such a grey day after the airshow season has finished? You might ask, and rightly so. The reason became clear as we pulled into the car park that day, sitting out on the airfield somehow still gleaming red against the dark clouds, sat the reason for our journey; Grosvenor House.
One of the most beautiful aircraft ever made, the de Havilland DH88 Comet was built for the 1934 MacRobertson air race from Mildenhall, England to Melbourne, Australia. Three of these aircraft were entered. Grosvenor House, won.
Hearing that this aircraft achieved such a milestone, one might expect to find it hung up in the Science Museums gallery with other famous aircraft of the pre war years, and yet here it was sitting outside in the middle of Bedfordshire.
I’d visited old warden before of course, for the collections airshows and marveled at the closeness and variety for which it is renowned. But there was one aircraft that seemed to be hidden and tucked away in the hangars at each of my visits. It had been flying when I was a young child, but even if I had seen it there was no chance I would remember. It had made one flight in 2002, which sadly ended with damage to the aircraft, so once again I missed it.
Yet on this cold morning I was faced with a chance, not to see the aircraft fly, but to see it outside and to see it alive. As a commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the race Shuttleworth had laid on a taxiing event with the comet, where we would be able to watch the aircraft start up and taxi around the field.
I must confess at this point that my recollection of the aircraft actually moving are a little hazy, but I remember being amazed by its lines out on the field and how fast it looked simply sitting there. The reason this day felt so important and worth travelling in the pouring rain was that it felt like a real step towards finally seeing the aircraft fly.
But since then, year after year seemed to pass where the same question would be asked, much to the frustration I’m sure of the Shuttleworth team, when will it fly?
It was static and taxied at a number of shows in the following years, but sadly whenever I attended I once again found G-ACSS at the back of a hangar.Every couple of seasons the aircraft would pop up on the flying list of the collections last show and embers of hope would light up again on the internet wondering if this time could be it.
But years went by with this cycle and I think many of us became content with the idea that perhaps the Comet should stay on the ground. Though maybe this was just to hide our disappointment.
Fast forward to the 1st of August 2014, as I checked the usual internet forums for aviation news as I often do, I found myself having to pick my jaw off the floor as I saw the title “Comet has flown,” or words to that affect. My mind dismissed the idea that it was the illusive DH88 and thought perhaps I had missed out on news of a DH106 Comet airliner restoration.
But this wasn’t the case, I delved in further and found that it was indeed the Shuttleworth machine; it had made a successful test flight. No warning, no rumour mill and coming in under the radar Shuttleworth had pulled off one of the most important post restoration flights of the past decade.
My attentions then of course were drawn to the collections event calendar to make my own assumptions on when I might finally get to see her take to the skies. Their “Race Day” airshow seemed the obvious choice, but wasn’t until October which seemed an age away at the start of August, but I’d waited 10 years, I could handle a few more months.
As luck would have it, it was soon announced that the aircraft would be taking to the skies at the “Shuttleworth Pageant” show on the 7th of September. The day of the show came around, which I must admit had one of the most exciting line ups I have ever seen for a Shuttleworth show even without the Comet.
It seemed fitting as we left Kent, that despite the wonderful forecast, we were leaving in poor visibility, rain and low clouds, just like that day in October all those years ago. Sure enough as we made our way up the country the weather started to clear.
Once again we pulled into the car park and saw that gleaming red aircraft outside, only this time in sunshine and with real promise. A stunning afternoons flying followed in ideal conditions, though rumors were already appearing online stating that the Comet may not be flying if the wind remained the same.
This seemed initially baffling to many airshow goers I am sure, especially when it got to the “after show” and the Edwardian aircraft were flying.
It was not until late on in the day that it was explained that the comet could only use runway 21, as it needed a suitable overrun. The wind steadily dropped as the evening came in and the gusts eased off, I watched as Dodge Bailey finally walked out to the aircraft, climbed the ladder and settled in.
The airfield by now was silent as the engines fired up and roared into life. There was still a slight tailwind, but nonetheless Dodge lined the aircraft up and opened up the throttles, the machine accelerated and swung and fought showing its thoroughbred pedigree.The aircraft eventually lifted off into the summers evening and was met by applause from the assembled masses who had stayed nearly two hours on from the scheduled conclusion.
The display that then followed was superb; no other word can describe it and the combination of a silent airfield, the beautiful backdrop, the evening light and a pilot who knew exactly where to put the aircraft made for a moment I will never forget.
Without doubt, this was one of the airshow moments of a lifetime. After a number of beautiful, graceful passes it was time for Dodge to bring the aircraft back in to land. The Comet is well known as being a difficult machine to take off and land and it was certainly proven here, with a very high landing speed, the aircraft touched down positively and then disappeared down the runway in a matter of seconds bouncing on the uneven ground as it went, eventually slowing down with room to spare.
Then there was the wait for Dodge to taxy back down the runway and park the machine up. Once he had the canopy open and his helmet removed he was met with one of the loudest rounds of applause I have ever witnessed at an airshow. Many dreams were realised that day of finally seeing Grosvenor House take to the skies, and did she ever deliver.
If I have to wait another 10 years, so be it, she’s worth it. Whenever it may be I consider it a privilege to have been at Old Warden on such an historic day and wish to congratulate everyone who made it happen. Thankfully this wasn’t the case, I believe the Comet has only missed one Old Warden show this year. It has been great to see so many appearances from this classic racer.
Of course the Comet is not, in the traditional sense a warbird, but it certainly started a lineage, which would lead to something great, the Mosquito, which leads me to another post. Watch this space.
I’ll leave you with this beautiful video of the Comets return to display flying. (once again courtesy of the Shuttleworth Collection (http://www.Shuttleworth.org) and Peter Baughan @hdvsmedia (https://www.youtube.com/user/hdvsmedia – for more excellent content.)
The Comet now regularly performs at Shuttleworth Collection shows, keep an eye on their website for more information http://www.Shuttleworth.org.