It has long been a tradition that every July Duxford plays host to the wonderful Flying Legends airshow. Historic aircraft from around Europe and the world fill the airfield and put on spectacular displays.
Flying Legends is of course the brainchild of Stephen Grey, owner of The Fighter Collection. Over the years Stephen and his team have brought countless aeroplanes to this country that we simply never would have seen in any other context.
The finale to every Flying Legends show is of course the Balbo, when all of the performing aircraft that can keep up go up together and form up into a mass formation, usually between 20 and 30 aircraft take part. This is enough of a spectacle in itself. But Flying Legends is a slick operation, with hardly any gaps; so waiting around for this spectacle to form up is hardly in keeping with the show.
It is for this reason that Stephen Grey invented the “Joker”, though I suspect it was partly an excuse to enjoy his aeroplane and his party. The idea is that while the Balbo gets into position the crowd is kept entertained by a high-energy solo aerobatic display.
Stephen flew this display for well over 20 years in all manner of aircraft, but the aircraft that become truly his was of course, the Grumman Bearcat.
Much like Ray Hanna in a Spitfire, Stephen Grey truly makes the Bearcat his own. With combinations of super highspeed passes and climing rolls all without leaving the airfield boundary it was always a joy to behold.
So it was a shock in 2013 when Stephen announced it would be his last Flying Legends and he would be retiring from display flying. There was little question in anyone’s mind as to who would take the role over. It was of course Stephens son, Nick. The bigger question was which aircraft would he fly? Stephen had such strong ties to the Bearcat, so that seemed unlikely.
In the end it was the surprise choice of the Collections Gloster Gladiator that Nick decided would be the suitable Joker, and what a decision it was. Nicks aerobatic display in the Gladiator is truly mesmerizing and without doubt he has made the aircraft his. Graceful loops combined with low level passes and turns. I could wax lyrical about Nicks Gladiator display all day every day.
The transition between father and son was handled beautifully, with Stephen starting things off each day with a Bearcat solo and Nick closing the show in his own new style.
In 2014 Nick split the joker role between two aircraft. The gladiator was used on the Saturday of the show and, due to tech problems on the Sunday the Hellcat was used on the Sunday.
It was fascinating to watch the same exact display as flown in the Gloster Gladiator in a big American fighter such as the Hellcat. I didn’t really think I’d get used to not seeing the Bearcat display at the end of each Legends but the Gladiator is certainly earning its spot, here’s to more of the same.