Less than a month ago I was logging into the excellent Shuttleworth Collection virtual pilots chat on the racing aircraft in the collection. This was an innovative event put together with a number of collection pilots, including two in the hangar with the racing machines spoke for an hour in fascinating detail about flying this wonderful collection.
It’s hard to believe then, as I write this post today, that last night I witnessed those same machines in the air, in wonderful light as part of an actual airshow in 2020! There were certainly points in the depths of lockdown where I honestly felt like no airshow would take place. Thankfully the Shuttleworth Collection took the bold step of announcing a world first in a drive in airshow. Old Warden is almost tailor made for such an event of course with the crowd areas forming a natural grandstand.
The crowd was split into three main parking areas, A, B and C. Zone A was near the tower, Zone B towards the tree line at the end of the traditional main crowd area while Zone C was beyond the road alongside the runway extension. After an understandable and well managed wait in the holding pen (we arrived about 3:15pm and were parked up by 4ish) we found ourselves second row towards the far end of Zone C. Happily this has been our viewing point of choice for the last two seasons so felt less out of place than it might for some. Each car had its own 5x5m box in which everyone kept within well. Access to food and toilets was straightforward, well managed and with plenty of hand sanitiser available.
What was most impressive, aside from the fact the whole thing felt like a very well oiled machine, was that the special Old Warden atmosphere was unaffected. The same garden party, picnic in a park feel was maintained and there were all the usual characteristic applause after each act (with the odd car horn thrown in).
It was a fitting start to the first airshow in this unprecedented year to see John Romain lift off from Old Warden in Spitfire XI PL983 “L”, known for the time being as “The NHS Spitfire”. The Aircraft Restoration Company painted ‘Thank U NHS” on the underside of the airframe to coincide with the final “clap for our carers” and have since launched a fundraising campaign for the NHS. As an aside this was also the first public display for PL983 since repair work was completed following a landing accident last summer. John Romain’s display remains as polished and graceful as ever, with the new added flourish of an on crowd pull up into a quarter vertical roll before pulling through the loop into his usual routine. That opening statement clearly demonstrating the fitting message to those key workers which was bed with a wonderful round of applause. There would be no more appropriate start to the show.
The Spitfire was followed by an Old Warden based trio of Lysander, PO2 and Cub performing a nice tribute to Army liaison types. Other classic collection performances came from the EON Primary and Fauvel AV36 gliders and the Avro Tutor. The latter of which flew in incredible light during a sporty display.
While conditions at height prohibited the Edwardians finishing the flying display off, conditions did allow four of the Collection’s rotary WW1 types to fly. The Sopwith Pup and Triplane flew graceful routines together before the Bristol M1C and Camel demonstrated the later war designs. The Camel in particular flown in impressive style. It was wonderful to hear that classic rotary sound over Old Warden again.
Over the last six years or so Old Warden has, perhaps more than ever become associated with interwar racing types, with the DH88 Comet becoming something of a flagship for the collection since its return in 2014. Watching that iconic red twin line up at the end of the runway and leap into the air was arguably my highlight of the night. For it to be followed by two Mew Gulls was even better! Unlike most evening shows where the Comet is concerned, the sun actually stayed out too.
The trio flew a graceful formation routine before a show stopping pairs routine from the Mew Gulls powering around the airfield followed by a typically polished routine from the Comet. There are few sights in aviation as special as the Comet towering above Old Warden as a it performs a wingover and as always, was worth the price of admission alone.
Three hours after this unique event had started it was coming to an end once again with the sound of the Rolls Royce Merlin. The collection’s Sea Hurricane was joined by their Spitfire V for a graceful pairs display in the fading light before breaking off into solos. The final display being another graceful Spitfire aerobatic display.
The icing on the cake was John Romain departing in the MK XI to head back to Duxford as the fading sunlight re-appeared from behind the clouds as the based Spitfire and Hurricane throttled back and joined the circuit to land.
Against the odds the Shuttleworth Collection not only managed to deliver the first airshow in Europe but also managed to have no change in quality or enjoyment. It did exactly what it was supposed to in that it was just like a “normal” evening at Old Warden. That exact same magic has been maintained that we had all been missing and at no point did I or anyone I was with feel concerned or unsafe. A superb effort and I would wholeheartedly encourage anyone considering either of the next two shows in the drive in format to book before they sell out as I am certain they will!