WORDS: ADAM LANDAU & ALEX PRINS | PHOTOS: ALEX PRINS
Following on from a pair of extremely successful drive-in airshows at Shuttleworth, the honour of hosting the UK’s first conventional air display of 2020 went to IWM Duxford, with their first of the year’s three planned Showcase Days taking place on Tuesday 4th August. Was this, then, a taste of the dreaded “New Normal”?
Introduced in 2019, Showcase Days at Duxford are a halfway house between a normal museum day and a fully-fledged airshow. They offer visitors a chance to see some of the airfield’s many resident aircraft in flight, but allow plenty of time to explore the museum itself, without having to contend with a 10,000-strong airshow crowd.
At £23 per adult, the entry cost is very high for a small show with just 90 minutes of flying, but this is made much more reasonable when you consider that it amounts to less than £4 more than a conventional museum ticket – and entry is free for Imperial War Museum members, which costs as little as £35 annually.
With large grounds consisting of indoor and outdoor attractions, there was a good deal of uncertainty about how effectively the Imperial War Museum would enforce social distancing, particularly along the crowdline during the air displays. As it happened, the modest crowd size was easily small enough for visitors to space out along the fence, and the vast majority observed appeared to be politely maintaining their distancing. This meant that, despite the very sensible provision of hand sanitizing stations and regular announcements reminding visitors to stay two metres apart, walking around the museum felt extremely normal (albeit wearing a mask) and the crowd was comfortably sparse.
Unfortunately, however, it wasn’t just the crowd who were keeping their distance, and the bulk of the air displays felt remote and detached. This perhaps wasn’t helped by the performers that the museum had selected, which included quite a few aircraft that rarely feature at Duxford’s main airshows. One feels, perhaps, that there is a reason for this: during the Formula One segment, for example, featuring a Cassutt Racer IIIM and the world’s only surviving LeVier Cosmic Wind, it was easy to forget that there was an air display happening at all. This was a shame, as the Cosmic Wind’s solo routine was surprisingly energetic and impeccably executed by Pete Kynsey, but its diminutive size and the faraway display line hurt this particular act badly.
This was not the only performance to combine similar aircraft types during the day, and another to do so with mixed success was a pair of trainers featuring T-6 Harvard Mk.IV “Wacky Wabbit” and the world’s only airworthy NA-64 Yale. The duo started their display with some not-quite-in-formation flypasts before breaking into simultaneous solo routines. Of these, the Yale was by far the most engaging, performing a pattern of gutsy low turns and wingovers, while the Texan’s aerobatics seemed much higher; on such a flat, grey afternoon, it simply failed to hold much attention.
One of the highlights of the day, and a performance which redeemed the flying display significantly, was a tribute to the 100th anniversary of de Havilland, consisting of a DHC-1 Chipmunk T.10, DHC-2 Beaver and DH89a Dragon Rapide. After some pleasing three-ship formation passes, the Dragon Rapide broke away for a spirited sequence of tight turns and wingovers, which proved to be among the most intimate flying action of the afternoon.
While Duxford is well-known for grouping aircraft by role or theme, there were several unalloyed solo displays throughout the afternoon as well. Performing for the first time in its new colour scheme was the Norwegian Spitfire Foundation’s P-51D Mustang “Warhorse”, though even the solo ‘heavy’ warbird felt quite tamed by its home venue. A second unfamiliar paint job came courtesy of visiting French-based Yak-50 “Sasha”; although its pilot, Peter Kuypers, is more used to displaying larger aircraft such as B-17G Flying Fortress “Sally B”, his performance in the Yak was equally accomplished, including a full rolling circle and a particularly dramatic lomcevak. However, the display felt as though it was sorely missing a smoke system, particularly as the predominantly silver aircraft was performing against a flat grey sky.
A display somewhat similar in style and pace to the Yak came from rookie display pilot James Hepnar in an Extra 300L. Hepnar’s air display debut had occurred at Shuttleworth just three days earlier, and with at least one more show planned this summer he is probably set for one of the busier display seasons of any UK civilian display pilot, such is the rollercoaster that is 2020! The performance was a cautious one, featuring only intermediate-level aerobatics, and was probably less dynamic than that of the much older Yak-50 that came before it, but it is always good to see a new face joining the airshow circuit, and Hepnar’s displays will hopefully develop with experience.
The final performance of the day was a pairing of Spitfire Mk.Ia N3200 and Hurricane Mk.I R4118, flown by John Romain and David Ratcliffe, commemorating eighty years since the legendary air battles of 1940. The display began with a short non-aerobatic formation sequence, followed by solo displays from each aircraft, and there were audible gasps from the crowd as Romain repeatedly dipped the Spitfire low to the ground and pulled up into arcing ‘Victory Rolls’ and topside passes in an extremely fitting finale to the flying display.
Outside the official displays, there was a great deal more flying action, both from locally-based and visiting aircraft. The event organisers had pulled together an impromptu fly-in, which featured more than a dozen classic aircraft as diverse as a Bücker Bü 181 Bestmann and the Civilian Coupé, the only flying example of its kind. With a de Havilland theme, other visitors included a DH.90 Dragonfly and DH.87B Hornet Moth, complementing further de Havilland activity from resident Tiger Moths and Classic Wings’ Dragon Rapide, which were performing pleasure flights throughout the day. Heavier warbird movements came from the Yale, Anglia Restorations’ Hawker Fury Mk.I, and aircraft from the Aircraft Restoration Company’s hangar including the Spitfire TR.IX, the Mustang which participated in the flying display, and the Norwegian Spitfire Foundation’s Sea Fury T.20. The latter was unfortunately involved in a dramatic forced landing later in the day, which badly damaged the airframe. Luckily, both occupants escaped with only minor injuries.
Now, more than ever, small-scale air displays with modest crowds such as this, could be the best and most sustainable way forward for the airshow industry, and Duxford’s remaining Showcase Days (scheduled for the 19th August and 10th October) probably have a better chance of going ahead than the museum’s full-blown Battle of Britain Airshow, for example. In any other circumstances, Duxford’s first Showcase Day of 2020 would not have been a particularly memorable affair, yet what the event may have lacked in terms of top-tier air displays, it more than made up for in simply restoring a little bit of normality to our lives, for one day at least, and for that we are extremely grateful.