Well, we are all in the same situation at this point in time, stuck inside and chances are we will be staying that way for at least the first half of the coming season and summer. With that in mind, I thought I’d use the chance to put a small theme together. This series of posts (which I hope is relatively short!) will take a look at some special moments from the Fighter Collection’s Flying Legends show over the years. For many Legends is a key point in the airshow season and has cemented many, many fantastic memories in my mind.
Throughout this series I’ll be going back as far as my archives can go, either focusing on specific pilots, aircraft or even types/manufacturers. I’m conscious to avoid repeating myself as lets face it, I talk Legends a lot. With that in mind this week I’m starting with a topic I’m pretty sure I haven’t ever covered in isolation before, Balbo leaders.
It seems a little backward to start with the traditional show finale but the Flying Legends Balbo has always been unique around the world. Other shows may have put together massed formations but none with quite the variety of Legends. Some years are smaller than others (I’m pretty sure 1996 still holds the record) but is never fails to impress. Over the years three pilots have planned and led the formation.
In the early days of Flying Legends, the Balbo was headed up by the Fighter Collections P-38 Lightning (image of the Flying Bulls example above), starting the twin engine tradition that would be carried on for over a decade at Flying Legends. During those early shows it was the then chief pilot of the collection, Hoof Proudfoot who headed up this impressive flight.
In 1997 there came a change of leader, with the tragic loss in 1996 of both the P-38 and Hoof Proudfoot as Jack Brown took the lead in Spitfire XIV MV293 (pictured above in 2019, then in an all over silver scheme) which again took the lead in 1998.
From 1999 to 2006 the Balbo was led by the same machine, the incredible Grumman Tigercat. For many, myself included this will always be engrained on the mind as how the Balbo should look. The sight of a twin engined machine heading up the pack, often joined by its Navy counterparts with a seemingly endless stream of WW2 fighters in trail.
I used to love watching this tricycle geared machine turn into wind on the hard runway at Duxford for power checks as the other aircraft formed up behind before launching into that classic nose high pose and off into the July sunshine.
The Tigercat left Duxford in early 2007 bound for the states and it was fitting that its replacement as Balbo leader would perform the same flight in the other direction only a few months later. TF-51D Mustang “Miss Velma” was flown over the Atlantic by Ed Shipley as part of the Operation Bolero II expedition, designed to replicate the route that P-38 Lightning Glacier Girl was set to have followed on its fateful trip that saw it end up lost in the ice for decades. Sadly the P-38 was forced to turn back with technical problems at Goose Bay and once again, failed to complete the mission.
Ed Shipley continued however in a fondly remembered video series that charted his flight across the Atlantic arriving at Duxford a few days before Legends 2007. It was commented in the 2007 Legends DVD that the Mustang was actually slightly better suited to the lead role than the Tigercat, which always wanted to go faster! Pete Kynsey used Miss Velma to lead the Balbo for each year from then until 2012, with the return of a P-47 to the Fighter Collection line up.
“Snafu” led the Balbo in 2012 and 2013 before being sold and moving back to the United States. The Thunderbolt certainly made a great Balbo leader with its distinctive profile.
2013 was very much a handover year at Legends, with Stephen Grey performing for the final time in the Bearcat, handing over the “Joker” role to his son Nick who performed in the Gladiator for many years. With the Bearcat therefore available for a Balbo slot for the first time in a number of years, it took up the lead slot through to 2018. Fitting, given the role is so closely associated with Grumman cats for many.
In 2019 the Bearcat returned to the Joker slot in the hands of Nick Grey, alongside Richard Grace in Anglia Aircraft Restorations Fury, resulting in the Fighter Collection’s Corsair filling the lead role. The Corsair is still a large machine that quite rightfully stands out in the lead position of this annual tradition.
As we have come to expect over the years there is so much more to Flying Legends than simply a show once a year. There are nuances and traditions embedded in its history that can quite happily fill a blog post (or series) and many an afternoon can be whiled away watching archive footage (wingstv is a great new way of doing this by the way!) remembering Legends past like old friends.