2018 marks the end of the 100 year anniversary commemorations of the Great War. Seemingly under the radar the past four years have seen the UK First World War Aviation community grow and diversify across a number of groups. As we approach 100 years of the armistice being signed, I wanted to take a look at some of the high points of the last year from an enthusiasts point of view and some highlights still to come.
The Great, Great War Display Team
It would not be a UK WW1 commemoration without performances from this stalwart team of the British airshow scene. Over the years the team have gone from strength to strength adding aircraft on an annual basis now arriving at an impressive 9/10 aeroplanes at larger shows. 2017 saw a very brief debut for the Avro 504k replica, making a single appearance at Abingdon in May before technical problems precluded inclusion from the rest of the season.
No other display captures the frantic scenes of early air combat quite like the layered, dynamic routine put on by the GWDT. They make great use of distance and scale allowing a mixture of full scale and reduced size aircraft to share the same space and not seem out of context with each other. The addition of pyrotechnics at some shows really adds to the spectacle and help tell the story of the Great War in a unique way that the original aeroplanes simply couldn’t.
Bremner Bristol Takes to the Sky
One of the most inspiring stories in historic aviation in recent years has to be the wonderful Bristol Scout project. A simple and ambitious idea from two brothers to build an accurate flying replica of the aircraft their grandfather flew from the islands of Greece in the First World War. As if building and flying such a replica was not enough of a feat they then went and flew the aircraft from the very same spot their Grandfather would have flown from. Simply remarkable.
David Bremner has been one of the great personalities to emerge in the airshow scene in the past few years. I have watched with interest as he has detailed the challenges faced in operating a WW1 Scout and greatly enjoyed seeing him display his incredible creation. Watching the Scout leap into the air for a display is a highlight of any airshow.
Shuttleworth Sopwith Special
Since 2014 the Shuttleworth Collection at Old Warden has become a further hub for WW1 aircraft, both with increased strength within the collection and with visiting and privately owned replicas choosing to base out of the airfield.
Long-time attraction and resident, the collection’s Sopwith Pup has been a constant presence throughout the anniversary period appearing at a large number of shows. The Pup was joined in 2016 by the wonderful Sopwith Dove replica which had not flown in over a decade. The Dove is a two seat variant of the Pup, though in practice has more in common with the Snipe and Camel. It has been wonderful to see the Dove take to the skies over Old Warden at its limited appearances over the years as a reminder of the civilian uses for this iconic design house.
Sopwith Triplane replica G-BOCK “Dixie” is an Old Warden favourite and the aircraft made a welcome and memorable return to display duties at the season premiere show in 2017 following a major rebuild after a landing accident in 2014. The Triplane has always been a spritely performer and it has certainly maintained that reputation since returning to the flightline.
Perhaps the most hotly anticipated Shuttleworth project of the past decade, aside from the Spitfire, the Camel replica took to the skies after 20 years work in May 2017. This represented a huge milestone for the Collection and the Northern Aeroplane Workshops team who constructed the replica. The addition of an original design rotary powered Sopwith Camel to the UK display scene is truly incredible. Thanks to a combination of troubleshooting and poor weather the Camel was unable to make its debut display in 2017. Fittingly it is set to make its first appearance early in 2018 which I have no doubt will be a highlight of the year.
TVAL – WAHT Treasures
Without a doubt the most impressive sight of the past few years has been the arrival in the UK of a quartet of wonderfully detailed reproduction Great War aircraft from The Vintage Aviator Ltd.
The arrival and operation of these wonderful aircraft is largely down to the great efforts of Dick Forsythe and the WW1 Aviation Heritage Trust or “WAHT”. WAHT began their operations with the arrival of a pair of BE2es in the summer of 2014. Based at Old Warden for much of the 2014 season the BE2s made a great impression creating some real airshow magic during a number of pairs performances. Their is something special about watching the BE2 amble into the air and parade around the sky in a tractor like state with a distinctive puff of smoke emerging from the exhausts. Up close these aeroplanes are absolutely extraordinary recreations down to the finest detail.
Following quickly on the heels of the BE2s were another pair of arrivals in July 2015, this time it was Oliver Wulf’s stunning Albatros D.Va and TVALs wonderful Sopwith Snipe. I don’t think anyone who attended the Shuttleworth “Best of British” evening show that concluded with the Snipe’s debut will forget that impressive dusk performance in a hurry. It really is incredible that the UK was treated to such regular display appearances for a Sopwith Snipe over the past few years.
The Snipe, Albatros and one of the BE2s were kept very busy throughout 2016 with regular displays at their home base of Stow Maries and away days at Duxford and two trips to France for the Albatros and BE2. Sadly the Albatros was badly damaged in a landing accident on the return from the second European trip, which brought an end to its flying career for the time being.
This past season, 2017 saw further displays from the Snipe, with a particularly memorable final UK performance at Shuttleworth in August. 2017 also saw the return of the other BE2 which had remained grounded at Bicester since early 2015. Jean Munn put each of the BE2s through their paces at a series of Old Warden shows throughout the summer, though sadly a planned pairs display in August was thwarted by a reluctant engine.
As the 2017 season closed the news broke that the Snipe and one of the BE2s had returned back to New Zealand, this was a great shame but I am incredibly thankful that we were able to enjoy these aeroplanes for so long.
Looking forward to 2018 we are set to see a resurgence from WAHT. Currently the UK based fleet is reduced to a single BE2 based at Stow Maries but it is expected to be joined by an SE5a, currently being restored by TVAL along with the return of the Albatros following repair work. Another highlight from closer to home will be the arrival of Olvier Wulff’s Fokker DVIII currently being completed in Austria. The sight of a DVII and Albatros flying together in UK skies will truly be something special to behold.
Jewel In the Crown – Coming Soon?
Perhaps the most significant and highly anticipated return to flight in the WW1 scene is the prospect of the Historic Aircraft Collection’s Airco DH9 making its first flight. The aircraft arrived at Duxford in July 2017 and is expected to take to the sky this year. Hopefully we will be able to see this incredible aeroplane take part in this years’ commemorations. I certainly hope to be featuring the DH9 prominently throughout 2018.
2018 certainly looks set to be an incredible finale to the Great War Commemorations with many fine replicas and incredibly unique survivors set to take part in displays throughout the UK to pay a fitting tribute to the incredible pilots that gave so much during those early days of air combat.