The 2018 Duxford Air Festival continued where 2017 left off in the new style of Duxford May shows. Previously following a set theme the opening show of the year now takes on a “variety show” style format with displays from all avenues of aviation on show.
Last year was strangely light on warbird displays with only a few of the home based fighters to be found on display. Thankfully this year was a bit stronger in this respect with a Fury pair along with a corsair display from the Fighter Collection and Anglia Aircraft Restoration fleets alongside a wonderfully performed solo Spitfire display from IWMs Spitfire I N3200.
The undoubted highlight of the warbird displays was the opening act on each day, the return of a duxford favourite. Returning to the UK in May this year, P-47 Thunderbolt G-THUN has now been repainted into a distinctive new colour scheme. Watching the thunderbolt fire up, taxy out and get airborne from Duxford again was an almost surreal sight. It has been so long since Duxford last saw a P-47 (2013 when SNAFU left for the states) and many never believed we would see another fly here. Stu Goldspink, perhaps one of the Thunderbolt’s biggest fans and a regular display pilot of the type had the honours of performing the first display at Duxford for this aeroplane in over 10 years. It never ceases to amaze watching the big, lumbering P-47 performing vertical aerobatics as that heavy airframe picks up momentum and puts on the most graceful show.
As with last years festival aerobatic teams and formation acts also played a big part in the afternoon’s flying. The Flying Circus wing walking team returned delivering their usual slick performance with the great rasping sounds of the classic Stearmans. Continuing the biplane trainer theme was another Duxford appearance from the Tiger 9 team, complete with their trademark commentary.
The Great War Display Team returned to Duxford, this time complete with their newest addition, the Avro 504 which was wonderful to see, though remained a little out of the limelight at points during the routine.
Modern aerobatic routines came from the Global Stars team, as well as a solo display on each day from two different members of the french air force L’Equippe Voltage. This style of display flying can sometimes get repetitive but each of the solo performances brought something a little different.
The French Air Force supported the display in force with the excellent Rafale solo display performing on both days and the inimitable Patrouille de France making a great impression as part of Sunday’s show.
In place of the French team on the Saturday we saw the Chinook display team from the RAF. It has to be noted that this act, usually a highlight of most shows, seems to have lost a little of its spark in the off season. The manoeuvres seemed notably slower and more gentile than previous performances. That being said it was early season so the display may well have livened up a bit as the year has progressed.
“Heavy” warbirds are always a key feature of a Duxford show and this year followed that pattern. Both Sally B and the Catalina performed solo displays and Aces High C-47 also displayed as well as being on static display promoting “Daks over Normandy” which will see over 20 DC3s/C47s descend on Duxford in June next year to mark the 75th anniversary of D-Day.
The 80th birthday of the Harvard/T-6 Texan was celebrated in fine style with the classic trainer getting the “Legends” treatment of an 8 ship formation display followed by a layered tail chase complete with aerobatics overhead. This display was a real assault on the senses (particularly the ears!) and again showed a real step away from the conventional line ups. The North American trainer theme was further developed with a frankly stunning demonstration of the T-28 trojan complete with Vietnam era soundtrack.
A welcome return was the classic Royal Navy History Flight pairing of Sea Fury and Swordfish. This year is the first season in a long while where both types have been airworthy and performing at the same time, now under the Navy Wings banner. The Swordfish delivered a sporty display close into the crowd before the Sea Fury came in for a wonderful demonstration of high energy aerobatics. You certainly can’t beat the sound of a Bristol Centaurus being put through its paces.
Perhaps the outright highlight and surprise of the weekend was the “Schlepp” this Swiss design was originally powered by a V12 Hispano engine but eventually got reconfigured with the much lighter turboprop unit seen today. This conversion, as part of an upgrade programme prior to taking on a target tug role, saw the airframe gain a rather unique looking extended nose. While the airframe may appear anything but graceful or dynamic in reality it most certainly was. A quick turnaround of take off soon led into a full aerobatic routine complete with loops, half cubans and hesitation rolls. You would certainly have to look hard for a more unique, inspired booking this season. A shame that it appeared in what was otherwise a relatively uninspired line up overall.
Overall, the 2018 Air Festival picked up where the 2017 edition left off, still slightly confused and ultimately, missing that “Duxford Spark”. Duxford has a unique selection of home based items and also has the pull and imagination to get unique acts such as the “Schlepp” and international jet teams which should make the May show a real exhibition of flight. While there were undoubted high moments and it is always a pleasant change to see more solo flights from certain aircraft it felt that there were missed opportunities. While more warbirds were added this year we lost the classic jets and classic racers (the Comet and Mew Gulls last year were a real high point). I would rather see a reduction in the formation/aerobatic teams and see a balance of aircraft more suited to Duxford’s reputation return. Flying Legends has the high energy piston aircraft covered and the September show is fast becoming a force to be reckoned with in terms of a full span of aviation history. The May show remains a great opportunity to set out a stall early in the season and deliver another masterclass in airshows. For now though, in the “Air Festival” format, it lacks momentum. Perhaps next year will see a return to a D-Day theme which may give the show direction.
The Air Festival theme isn’t a bad idea, it just needs refining in order to make the most of the wonderful aircraft Duxford have at their disposal and demonstrate in July (through the Fighter Collection) and in September (IWM). Otherwise, I’m all for a one day May show and the return of October!