Over the past three years, the Imperial War Museum has gone through a number of notable changes in relation to their own flying displays. The May show has gone from a changing “themed” event to a new rebranded “Air Festival” format. The September show now seems to have the permanent Battle of Britain theme, generally reserved for anniversary years.
Alongside this change, the September show, since 2017 has taken on a remarkable warbird theme. Even up against warbird royalty such as the Flying Legends event, the September shows have been strong contenders to that special crown over the last two years. 2019 was no exception, with an incredible array of piston engine military machines from WW1 through to the 1950s. The Norwegian Historical Flight also brought the shows only jet powered displays.
This years show built on the past two events of the “new era” combining a number of impressive set pieces with some more familiar sequences.
Flying began each day with a Battle of Britain film sequence. It seems that since the impressive Sywell based Buchon resurrection of the last two years that such a display is becoming a regular feature. This saw four Buchons airborne for an airfield attack only to be “jumped” by a trio of Mk I Spitfires. The impressive combination of aircraft wheeled around in a sweeping tailchase and just as the routine was becoming predictable a four-ship of Hurricanes arrived at the M11 end in a tight box four formation before splitting into a dynamic tailchase. How great it was to see Hurricanes take centre stage while the Buchons and Spitfires took a step back.
Before the impressive Hurricane and Buchon revivals of recent years, there was a long time in the mid 90s to mid 00s where Mustangs often performed en masse at UK shows. With the departure and loss of a number of familiar airframes this has become less common in recent years. There are now only four P-51s airworthy that are regularly flown in the UK and those particular airframes (G-TFSI “Contrary Mary”, G-SIJJ “Tall In The Saddle”, G-BIXL “Miss Helen” and G-SHWN “The Shark”) have never been seen in the air together. This show changed that, putting all four aeroplanes up in an impressive extended routine. After a number of passes in a four-ship formation, the fighters broke off into an aerobatic tail-chase, a welcome reminder of those big Mustang sequences of Duxford shows of the past.
Another multi-aeroplane sequence not seen for a long while was the Sea Fury/Fury routine. Led by Anglia Aircraft Restoration’s ISS Fury II, with Shaun Patricks T20 and another T20 operated by Navy Wings bringing up the rear. Rather than a typical formation and separate/concurrent solos as seen before, this was a fully choreographed routine combining flowing aerobatics and impressive tight formation rejoins.
It wasn’t just the usual “heavy metal” grabbing attention at the September show. There was an extended training sequence including two Duxford Debutants. After an initial aerobatic performance from a Duxford based Stearman and Harvard, two lighter trainers took centre stage. Though based at Duxford for well over a decade, this was the first time that the based NA64 Yale actually displayed at an airshow here. This is thanks to a new owner being much more active with the machine.
Though from the outside this machine appears to be a Harvard with the gear down, there is much more to it than that and it is a joy to see it active at last. The Yale was joined by another rare fixed gear trainer, the Vultee Valiant, over from Holland for the first time.
With Mustangs otherwise occupied, it was left to P-47D “Nellie B” to carry out escort duties for B-17 Sally B. This was followed by a majestic solo performance from the big american fighter. After many shows leading the Ultimate Fighters routine, it was nice to see the Thunderbolt performing on its own, showing off its surprising grace and performance in this space.
The Saturday of the show saw the second Duxford appearance from the Historic Aircraft Collection’s DH9. Dodge Bailey was at the controls again and put on a great display in clearly less than ideal wind conditions. Hopefully we will get plenty of chances to see this incredible restoration display again in the 2020 season.
In another “nod to the nineties” the Mercury Flight was once again included in a Duxford flying program. This saw five examples of the Bristol Mercury in the air together, with the Aircraft Restoration Company Blenheim and Lysander joined by the Shuttleworth Collection’s Lysander and Gladiator. This meant that a pair of Lysanders were seen together for only the second time since the Duxford example returned to the skies late in 2018.
Traditional participants in the Duxford September shows are the Norweigian Air Force Historical Squadron who this year returned with their Mig-15. However, rather than the familiar Vampire pair, this year saw the return of their T-33 for the first time since an appearance in 2012. They put on a great dogfight routine with the straight wing T-33 being able to put on an aerobatic performance. This was also a great throwback to the Golden Apple T-33 and F-86 pair that was once so familiar.
Closing the show in the usual way was a mass formation of Spitfires. It has been said before but there really is a danger of this part of the display becoming less special by being an annual event.
Though recent years have seen this move from an extended tail-chase sequence to more of a “balbo” approach, it is often the other acts of the day that stay longer in the memory. Cliff Spink led the collection of Spitfires for a series of undoubtedly impressive passes before the formation broke off into the circuit.
As hinted above, it was the Spitfire solos that left a far greater impression. John Romain took on the “joker” role as the formation built up in Mk 1 N3200, which was flown with typical style.
The centre piece of the Spitfire sequence was a touching tribute to Mark Hanna, 20 years on from his tragic death, with a show-closing (on Saturday) performance from Brian Smith in Sptifire MH434, an airframe that is so closely tied to the Hanna family.
Following this emotional display on Sunday it was time for an entirely different type of emotion as we watched Cliff Spink put on a wonderful farewell performance in Richard Lake’s Spitfire XVIII, which has been Cliff’s regular mount since its return to flight. Words can’t really do the sequence justice and it meant so much to those in attendance that have grown up with Cliff’s displays in a number of warbirds.
Brian Smith rejoined Cliff for one final run and break, fittingly into the setting sun and flown very much in Hanna style that made for a fitting tribute and farewell all at the same time.
Yet again, the September show from the Imperial War Museum was full of great, great moments. Stunning solo displays interspersed with short and sweet formation sequences make for a great afternoons flying and the emotion of those final Spitfire displays will live long into the memory of many no doubt.