Duxford Air Festival – 25th May 2019

Now in its third year the Duxford Air Festival has certainly attracted plenty of comments, both good and bad. Back in 2017 the Imperial War Museum made a notable change in their traditional airshow format. The May show has historically taken on a different theme each year, with recent examples being D-Day, VE Day and 2016’s American Air Day.

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With the unveiling of the “Air Festival” brand in 2017 Duxford introduced a family freindly show that aimed to attract a wider audience and presumably to address some comments in the community that Duxford line-ups rely heavily on the based warbird collections (which I certainly never complained about!). Over the past two years this has seen us treated to visiting foreign military and rare gems such as the racing trio from Old Warden in 2017 and the unique Schlepp in 2018.

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This year saw the third variation on the Air Festival theme and it didn’t immediately jump out as an amazing line-up, with no particular unique acts. In the final days leading up to the show it was announced that there was a 75th anniversary of operational jets theme, which perhaps felt a little rushed, though the list did feature plenty of jet aircraft. The Imperial War Museum actually took the excellent step of bringing their Sea Vixen and Sea Hawk out for external static display within the show ground. I have distant memories of the Gannet and other naval types being brought out for static appearances over 10 years ago, so this was a great change. The Sea Hawk was positioned on the hangar base alongside a rare static appearance from one of Martin Bakers Gloster Meteors – now the only two airworthy examples in Europe.

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In the air, the flying kicked off with an up to date chapter in jet aircraft development with the debut 2019 performance of the RAF Typhoon display. The Typhoon always puts on a good display and against the bright blue skies above Duxford it certainly made a great impression. An excellent contrast followed going back to earlier RAF days with the Tiger 9 team putting their 8 Tiger Moths and Moth Major through their paces, the latter flying a half cuban at the end of the routine being a particular highlight.

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The flying programme was well paced with a good blend of lighter and heavier acts meaning that the show never really lost momentum and made great use of the types available.

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At times short themes were developed such as the Jet Provost family demonstration. Originally billed as a Piston/Jet Provost pair, technical difficulties led to a Harvard being drafted in for the piston role. The sight and sound of a Harvard diving in at speed alongside a Jet Provost 3 was, to my knowledge, a first and made for a great performance as did the effortless aerobatic account of the North American Trainer.

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The Strikemaster pair followed with the first sighting for me of the new Strikemaster, which joined the team last year. With the lifting of the straight wing aerobatic ban last year, it was great to enjoy a full performance from the Strikemaster team again.

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Rotary wing types featured in a  number of displays with the Chinook and Apache performing solo while the Scout and Sioux performed alongside their fixed wing stable mates, the DHC Beaver and Auster as part of the Army Historic Flight.

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There were a number of lighter piston aircraft on display, with the RAF Grob Tutor putting on a great aerobatic performance as well as the Aerosuperbatics Wingwalkers delivering a typically polished performance. A new display team for 2019, Bader’s Bus Company, made their debut at this show. This team features a trio of PA28s all being flown by disabled pilots, a first for the UK and fitting that Duxford was the site for this first performance given Douglas Bader’s links to the airfield.

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It is no secret that for many, myself included, a visit to Duxford is incomplete without some vintage aeroplanes or warbirds. Both were represented in this show, albeit on a smaller scale than you might expect. Duxford heavies Sally B and Plane Sailing’s Catalina flew graceful solo displays that always remind you to not take these two seemingly ever-present machines for granted.

Following its welcome return at last year’s Air Festival, P-47D Thunderbolt “Nellie B” was a highly anticipated inclusion in this years line up, flying alongside TF-51D “Contrary Mary”. This pairing operated by Ultimate Warbird Flights were put through a sublime pairs routine. An impressive formation take-off (given the dramatic difference in ground acceleration) gave way to a breathtaking performance.

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The opening dive and pass alone would have left many walking away smiling but what followed was precision close formation aerobatics, opening with an impressive double loop combined with high speed top sides before a graceful on-crowd break concluded a memorable routine. This was a wonderful hint of what is to come later this year when the new Ultimate Fighters team make their debut.

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One act that had slightly slipped under the radar for this show was the Miles trio. This saw a Gemini and two Messengers put together a graceful formation performance before splitting off into interweaving solo routines. The sight of a Gemini displaying has become an increasingly rare sight over the years and I can’t recall seeing this example perform before. This was a wonderful chance to enjoy three rare British classics.

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A highlight for many was the inclusion of the Breitling Jet Team. Without the Red Arrows being available for much of this season, owing to a US Tour later in the year, we can expect to see a lot of this team in the coming months. The team fly a graceful series of aerobatic figures along with some dynamic solo and pair figures. It was great to see L-39s back at Duxford as they were a common sight some 20 years ago when being operated by the Old Flying Machine Company. The final flourish of a break with flares made for a memorable finale to their display.

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As has now become a well established tradition, the Air Festival was closed by a solo performance from Spitfire N3200. An early Spitfire performance can lack the high energy of some of the later warbirds but it provides the perfect final note for a great days flying in the sunshine. This routine was a wonderfully flowing performance concluding with a graceful pass into the circuit before dropping the gear and returning to Duxford’s grass.

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I think this show can certainly go down as being far greater than the sum of its parts. The display flowed well and featured plenty of acts that either haven’t been seen at all, or seen at Duxford in a long while. I believe it is telling that the high points of this show, looking back, were almost certainly those that Duxford has built its reputation on (the Ultimate Warbirds Pair, Spitfire and Miles Trio). Perhaps this is a further clue that while a few new or different acts are a welcome change, there wasn’t quite the need to reinvent the wheel (there is certainly no need for the bizarre marketing strategy that the Air Festival seems to continually attract).

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There is something about Duxford though, it always feels like a home from home, even with no flying at all. So while I only made it to one day of this show, I certainly enjoyed it!

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