The sight of an original 1917 Bristol F2b carrying out power checks viewed through the trees and open grass at the southern end of Old Warden is a truly incredible way to kick off the 2017 season.
Shortly after arrival there was a real sense of anticipation that seems to be unique to that first day back. Plenty of visiting aircraft joining the circuit accompanied by collection aircraft carrying out artists and practice display, such as the aforementioned Bristol Fighter (is there a finer welcome to Old Warden than the sound of a Rolls Royce Falcon overhead?)
2017 certainly looks to be an equally popular year for the collection’s shows as the past few seasons, with the airfield noticeably busy with members of the public setting up shop for the afternoon with the usual array of picnics and the classic garden part atmosphere in evidence.
Matt Dearden, known by many as one of the bush pilots featured in the TV series “Worst Place to be a Pilot” opened up the show, making his display debut in Plane Sailing’s Consolidated Catalina. The PBY is always an imposing sight at Old Warden and this routine, which combined a series of tight turns, topside passes and various different flight configurations – including the classic floats down passes. Duxford visitors are always a welcome sight and this was a fine way to begin the show.
One of the main themes of this show was a tribute to the late Alex Henshaw, legendary Spitfire test pilot and interwar record breaker. Alex Henshaw is of course primarily associated with the Spitfire, of which two examples were on display (including the BBMF Mk XVI, still wearing black primer mid-way through a re-paint). Other lesser known types were flown in tribute to the great man, including a wonderful Miles pairing of Messenger and Gemini, the latter of which has been on my wishlist for many years, a wonderful design.
de Havilland aircraft and Old Warden are almost inseparable so it was fitting that Peter Vacher’s beautiful DH85 Leopard Moth was able to make its public debut at the Premiere show. Taking to the skies in the capable hands of Keith Dennison, who gave one of the displays of the day in this classic design.
Other de Havilland highlights included a wonderful solo from Mark Miller’s Duxford based Dragon Rapide, which also performed alongside the Old Warden based Avro XIX and of course, Richard Shuttleworth’s first aircraft, DH60X Moth G-EBWD.
With Alex Henshaw’s name being a key part of this event it is worth noting that the collection is actually home to two aircraft once owned and flown by Mr Henshaw. The Hawker Tomtit is an elegant interwar design, planned to replace the Avro 504, (though later beaten to the role by the Avro Tutor) which Alex used as his personal “hack” aircraft during his test flying days during the Second World War.
Perhaps the most famous of any of Alex Henshaw’s mounts is Percival Mew Gull G-AEXF, in which he set the cape record in 1939, flying from Gravesend to Cape Town and back again in 4 days and 10 hours, a record that would last until 2010.
The Mew Gull is a wonderfully powerful aircraft and the Premiere brought the chance to see a pair of these classic designs, with ‘XF being joined by David Beale’s replica G-HEKL. These two racers were led around in formation by the DH88 Comet for a series of passes before breaking off into a stunning tail chase. The Mew Gulls were flown by Dodge Bailey and Jean Munn and were followed by a graceful solo by Paul Stone in the DH88 Comet, which is always a welcome sight.
On a typical airshow day the sight of three iconic racers such as those above chasing each other around Old Warden would without doubt be the display of the day. As it turned out this years opening show had one very special card to play. John Romain brought the Imperial War Museum’s Spitfire I N3200 over from Duxford and joined both Old Warden based Hurricanes for a wonderful early war formation display.
Once the formation element of the display the Spitfire entered an incredibly graceful aerobatic display, perfectly showing off this early examples clean lines, while the Hurricane pair perfumed fighter sweeps in tight formation low across the field. Many will know that these sort of set pieces are synonymous with Duxford but on Sunday Old Warden seriously raised the bar, I found it impossible to stop smiling throughout this entire routine, capped off by two stunning Hurricane solos from Frank Chapman (collection Sea Hurricane) and Stu Goldspink (R4118).
It had been hoped that the Collection’s Sopwith Camel replica would be making its debut at this show but the aircraft has not yet flown so this will have to wait until later in the year. Thankfully however the winds allowed for another Sopwith type to make a welcome return to the Old Warden skies.
Joining the F2b and Sopwith Pup was the Collection’s Triplane replica “Dixie II”, the Triplane is a well known aircraft at Old Warden but has been undergoing repairs for nearly three years. Leaping into the air this aircraft quickly re-established itself as a spritely performer with that classic rotary sound purring across the airfield. With the return of the Triplane and hopeful debut of the Camel, 2017 looks to be an incredible year for WW1 aircraft at Old Warden.
The show was brought to a graceful close with the pairing of Polikarpov PO2 and Westland Lysander, another pair of Old Warden classics being flown in spectacular style.
As you’ll have no doubt gathered by now this was another great example of the Shuttleworth team finding a great theme and fully following through. A wonderful array of lesser spotted gems such as the Messenger, Leopard Moth and Gemini was perfectly supplemented by big crowd pleasers such as the Catalina, Calidus Autogyro and multi aircraft sequences. 2017 looks to be another classic season, with the return of the evening shows and Fly Navy being the next big event on the calendar, I certainly wouldn’t advise missing that one!