Flying Legends 2017 – Back to Basics

At a recent Shuttleworth Collection airshow, the commentator passed comment of an airshow being like a rock concert. Plenty of people go to see the big hits or tracks from the favourite album, but the band are always keen to work in some rarer gems and newer material in-between the big hitters.

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That analogy really struck me and hit home in a big way over this years Flying Legends weekend. Across the four days I spent at Duxford this year there was that distinct feeling of the old Legends days of the early 2000s and I couldn’t quite place why. That brought me back to the rock band analogy. It is a well trodden story as an artist ages they expand the group tour by tour until they are carrying a small orchestra around the planet. I love a wall of sound as much of anyone, but I think we all appreciate the appeal of that stripped back original line up raw power from time to time.

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The past few years have seen Flying Legends attract some genuinely incredible aircraft, First World War Fighters and those wonderful 1930s bi-planes offering a graceful contrast to the high energy big iron of the second world war.

Due to a number of different factors this year didn’t see any of those 1930 biplanes in the line up, which was a real shame as seeing the Hawker Bi-planes and Gladiator pair become a regular feature of ‘Legends has been a real treat over the past few years.

2017 had all the hallmarks of a classic ‘Legends, a huge number of Spitfires, big hitting Naval Fighters, a rare Curtiss Trio and the return of ‘Legends Royalty – The Horsemen.

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It may have been the inclusion of the Horsemen that really gave this years show that nostalgic feeling. Some of my fondest memories of Flying Legends revolve around watching Ed Shipley and Jim Beasley putting Princess Elizabeth and Twilight Tear through their paces over a decade ago and standing stunned as they completed one of their signature slot rolls. Since then we have seen the Horsemen in a number of different line-ups, including 2013 when they delivered a moving display in three Spitfires.

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This year was the first performance by the Horsemen at Duxford since that year and would see the team back in Mustangs. Airshow icon Steve Hinton took the lead in UK based Mustang “The Shark”, with Ed Shipley and Dan Freidkin flying on each wingtip. Another fond memory of past Legends is watching guest aircraft being assembled after a long trip across the Atlantic, this year saw the UK debut of Comanche Fighters incredible P-51D “Frenesi”. Up until a few weeks prior to the show Frenesi certainly had top billing, but it was then announced that another Mustang would be making the trip across the atlantic, only this one would be flying.

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It wasn’t just any Mustang either; P-51B “Berlin Express” has long been on my must see list. The incredible attention to detail, Malcolm Hood and of course, those whitewall tyres  make it a dream for many enthusiasts. With the last transatlantic Mustang flight (Ed Shipley in Miss Velma) having taken place 10 years ago, it was incredible to be able to track Berlin Express on the great journey in almost real time. Piloting duties this time were left to Lee Lauderbeck, who has almost 10,000 hours in Mustangs alone. It was a real special moment to watch the live video of Berlin Express parking up at Duxford for the first time. There is an excellent article, by the Vintage Aviation Echo, on the crossing, which can be found here. It is well worth reading for a rare insight into an epic journey.

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With Berlin Express on site the Horsemen were able to put together their incredible routine. There display is pure airshow magic, they appeared glued together throughout their routine making this spectacle seem absolutely effortless. They must be applauded for working up the routine using “Miss Helen” in place of “Berlin Express” after the latter suffered a problem on the Saturday of the display. I’ve included some shots from Berlin Express on the ground leading up to the show, along with some from Nick Grey’s stunning practice on the Thursday.

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Closer to home, the show got underway with the now traditional Spitfire tail chase. If there is one thing Duxford does well, it is a mass Spitfire sequence and ‘Legends ’17 was no exception. Watching nine Spitfires fly an arching topside pass in front of you is real sight and sound to savour, the tail chase which followed was equally incredible with some thrilling flying. Later on in the show there was the beautiful sight of the Comanche Fighters Mk I pair flying close formation aerobatics above the field in a striking contrast to the high octane opening sequence.

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Naval aviation always plays a key part in Flying Legends and continued the theme of close formation aerobatics with Pete Kynsey and Richard Grace reviving their Ultimate Pistons routine from the IWM September show. This routine saw the wonderful Fury II lead the Bearcat through a graceful sequence of low level loops, barrel rolls and quarter clovers in a seemingly endless display of power and lyrical flying. There were also impressive sequences from the Fighter Collection Corsair and Wildcat.

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The IWM Duxford Air Festival in May provided the first opportunity to see the undoubted Flying Legend that is the DH88 Comet operating from Duxford – but it was truly special to see this aircraft as part of the ‘Legends line-up. The Comet led an impressive air racing segment joined by the Mew Gull, Mystery Ship and Cosmic Wind, complete with expert guest commentary from Red Bull Champion Paul Bonhomme.

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As so often happens in aviation it is the understated moments that can provide the true highpoint and evoke the most emotion from an audience. That special moment this year came from the Battle Of Britain tribute. No fewer than five Hawker Hurricanes led in the Blenheim and three Mk I Spitfires in a stunning early war Balbo. Not long ago it would seem incomprehensible to imagine five Hurricanes flying together let alone ahead of those other iconic machines. We were even treated to a multi-axis Hurricane display, with Stu Goldspink flying aerobatics in new arrival G-ROBT while the other four Hurricanes flew a graceful tail chase. Watching this segment of the show on each day was a real “I was there” moment that will live long in the memory of all at Duxford this year.

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Each day of the show concluded with the traditional final act, the Balbo. This saw 19 of the fighters from the display take off and join up for a series of mass formation passes. The sight of that many aircraft positioning on the runway, carrying out power checks and rolling down the runway never fails to impress.

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One other key act as part of this finale is the “Joker” slot. The idea is much like the Joker would entertain medieval courts, a solo performance would entertain the crowd while the slow turning balbo formed up and worked its way around the circuit. Traditionally this has been a role carried out by the Grey family, with Stephen Grey having favoured the Bearcat over the years and Nick Grey in the Gladiator. I’ve previously run out of superlatives when describing Nick Grey’s elegant routine in the Gloster bi-plane so it is no small admission when I say that it was great to see the return of a high powered radial fighter filling the joker slot again.

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The show programme promised a pair of jokers in the form of the Gladiator and Anglia Aircraft Restorations Fury II, which would have been an incredible prospect. With the Fighter Collection’s Gladiator unable to fly the Saturday show saw two jaw-dropping performances from Richard Grace in the Fury while Sunday saw the stage shared between the Fury and a wonderful Mk I Spitfire routine from Nick Grey (I’ve certainly never seen a Mk I flown like that before!). Seeing the Joker slot flown in a more traditional mount really helped feed that feeling of nostalgia that the 2017 Legends seemed to bring up. That said I sincerely look forward to the sight of the Gladiator looping its way around Duxford in July next year – paired with the Fury it might just be airshow perfection!

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I’ve picked out some key highlights from this years show as there really is far too much to mention with other notable performances including 2 DC3s and the classic Curtiss trio. What I wanted to achieve in this report is to convey how truly special Flying Legends has been and I hope will always continue to be. Whether in full “big band” format or stripped back to basics, ‘Legends cannot be missed. There may be other special airshows, but there will only ever be one Flying Legends –  an ever-growing narrative of the constantly evolving historic aviation preservation scene in the UK and around the world.

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