REPORT: Duxford Flying Legends 2017

Hidden amongst the Cambridgeshire countryside lies an airfield that is legendary in the history of British aviation. Home to some of the most renowned collections of historic aircraft in Europe, Imperial War Museum Duxford hosts a selection of airshows and fly-ins throughout the year, including the highly-acclaimed Flying Legends show in July. Towards the end of the First World War, the aerodrome was a flight training school for the Royal Air Force; twenty five years later, Duxford became home to the 78th Fighter Group of the USAAF. Despite being eventually declared surplus to requirements by the MoD in 1969, Duxford is still alive with the nostalgic sight and sound of some of the most famous piston-engined warbirds to have been built.

As a first timer to Flying Legends, I was eager to take advantage of the morning’s flightline walk, which provides photographers and enthusiasts alike, with an opportunity to get up-close to the 40+ participating aircraft; the inclusion of re-enactors also allowing photographers to recreate authentic imagery from the 1930s and 40s. A smooth entry onto the airfield also gave me time to wander along the main traders’ drag, before positioning myself at the eastern end of the crowdline in preparation for the Red Arrows’ display at 13:20. Unfortunately for that reason, I must start this report in a slightly critical tone. Despite being described by the organisers as a “pre-show act”, the addition of the Red Arrows on the Sunday only received a plethora of criticism on social media, with many enthusiasts insisting that the team would be out of place at Flying Legends. It is worth reiterating that a venue requests a display from the Red Arrows in September of the year prior to the event; it is then decided by the RAF Events Team, as to which event they attend, and given the May show was before their season started and the September show clashed with commitments abroad, Legends was their only opportunity to perform at Duxford this year. Following the Shoreham disaster it was evident that the M11 – which runs perpendicular to the eastern end of the runway – would force the Red Arrows to alter their display axis, yet it seems the organisers, who would have undoubtedly known about the issue, chose not to inform the public of the alteration until the Sunday afternoon. As with the RAF Cosford Airshow, the team gave an extremely distant display to the west of the airfield. To make matters worse, the team was forced to halt their display at one point due to a microlight entering their required airspace.

Given that Duxford was once home to the first operational squadron of Supermarine Spitfires, it was rather appropriate to see the show being opened on both days by a mass formation of eight Supermarine Spitfires and one Supermarine Seafire LFIIIC. The nine aircraft then engaged in a tail chase, demonstrating the type’s manoeuvrability and agility. The Seafire (originally Sea Spitfire) is a naval adaptation of the Spitfire – hence the name, and was the Royal Navy’s first carrier-based fighter. The Mark IIIs were the first to have folding wings, allowing them to be stored below deck more easily. Restored and owned by Air Leasing Limited, this Seafire Mark III is an ‘LF’ variant, denoting the aircraft’s capability to perform low-level operations.

Following on from the Spitfires were a trio of fighters consisting of The Fighter Collection’s (TFC)
Goodyear FG-1D Corsair and Grumman F8F-2P Bearcat alongside Anglia Aircraft Restorations (AAR) Limited’s Hawker Fury ISS. An unmistakable sight with its ‘inverted gull’ wing-configuration, the Corsair was a supremely capable aircraft – mostly due to its powerful Pratt and Whitey engine and impressive max-speed of 684km/h. TFC’s Corsair currently wears an 1850 NAS British Pacific Fleet Scheme, representing an example from HMS Vengeance, in 1945. The Corsair last saw active combat in 1969 during ‘The Football War’, which allegedly broke out during a fixture between Honduras and El Salvador. Further contribution from the TFC came in the form of their Curtiss-Wright P-40C Warhawk, P-40F Warhawk, Hawk 75 and Grumman Wildcat FM-2. Unlike the Duxford Air Festival in May and the Battle of Britain show in September, Flying Legends is organised by The Fighter Collection, and therefore it was unsurprising to see such a heavy presence from the collection featuring in the flying display.

Perhaps one of the most poignant display items at this year’s Flying Legends, was B-17 Preservation Ltd.’s B-17G Flying Fortress ‘Sally B’ which gave an emotional but spirited performance. Opening its display, ‘Sally B’ gave two passes escorted by the Norwegian Spitfire Foundation’s North American P-51D Mustang ‘The Shark’. Operated as a flying memorial to the 79,000 Allied airmen killed during the Second World War, Sally B is the only remaining airworthy B-17 in Europe. Following a lengthy absence, Plane Sailing’s Consolidated PBY-5A Catalina finally returned to the Flying Legends programme. Despite being based at Duxford, G-PBYA was a surprisingly late addition to the line-up.

Returning for a second consecutive year, Classic Swiss Formation’s DC-3 Dakota and two Beech 18s provided a splendid sight with the afternoon sun reflecting off their polished bare metal schemes. Also resplendent in its scheme, Dakota Norway’s C-53D gave a majestic routine which included two delightful topside passes. A third example of the Dakota/Skytrain had been scheduled to appear, but was sadly withdrawn due to an engine failure en-route to Duxford – leaving the aircraft stranded at Lelystad Airport in the Netherlands. It was a shame to see noticeably fewer international participants in comparison to previous years, especially with the much-felt absence of the Austrian-based Flying Bulls.

On June 21st, the Aircraft Restoration Company’s (ARCo) Hispano HA-112 Buchón emerged from its hangar at Duxford, sporting a temporary desert scheme. The scheme represents Messerschmitt Bf109 E-7 “Black 8” from the Jagdgeschwader JG-27 (fighter wing) of the Luftwaffe, flown by Leutnant Werner Schroer based at Ain El Gazala, Libya in April 1941. Fitted with a smoke system, the aircraft was pursued by TFC’s P-40F Warhawk in a dogfight scenario, replicating the artwork found on the souvenir programme’s front cover.

Flying as part of a Battle of Britain formation, ARCo’s Bristol Blenheim Mk.I flew alongside five Hawker Hurricanes and three Supermarine Spitfire Mk.Is. The sight of so many Hurricanes with so much combined history in the air at one time will definitely be one of the highlights of the 2017 season. Perhaps the most noteworthy of the Hurricanes, was P2902, which returned to the skies for the first time in 77 years on June 19th. Restored by Hawker Restorations Ltd., the aircraft was forced to land on a French beach in May 1940, having been damaged over the skies of Dunkirk. The pilot, 19-year-old Plt Off Kenneth ‘Mac’ McGlashan, was rescued by British soldiers and later escaped from Dunkirk. The aircraft was eventually brought to the UK for restoration, where it was registered as G-ROBT in 1994.

Less than a month before the show, it was announced that the 25th edition of Flying Legends would be welcoming the very rare P-51B Mustang ‘Berlin Express’. Flown by Lee Lauderback, the aircraft undertook an onerous 4,775 nautical mile transatlantic flight following the perilous route taken by ferry pilots during the Second World War. Having clocked over 9,000 flying hours on the type, Lee is the most experienced Mustang pilot in history. Undoubtedly the most eagerly anticipated participant of the weekend, it was heart-breaking to hear that the aircraft’s Malcom Hood canopy type, the first seen in the UK since the end of the Second World War, had shattered during a high speed pass on the Saturday. This meant that not only would the aircraft be grounded for the rest of the weekend, but it would miss the Royal International Air Tattoo, where it was scheduled to appear as part of the USAF Heritage Flight.

Also making the burdensome voyage from America, albeit via container ship, was P-51D Mustang ‘Frenesi’. Having originally been built at as a P-51K, Frenesi was one of only 164 Mustangs to be converted to the F-6K photo-reconnaissance variant. The aircraft was one of three Mustangs displayed by the renowned Horsemen Flight Team, along with the Norwegian Spitfire Foundation’s P-51D ‘The Shark’ and Robert Tyrell’s P-51D ‘Miss Helen’. The Horsemen give a remarkably tight and dynamic display, which included barrel rolls, quarter clovers and one extremely low pass.

In a first for Flying Legends, four iconic vintage air racers presented an unusual but welcome sight over Duxford. Leading the four-ship formation, was the Shuttleworth Collection’s de Havilland DH88 Comet ‘Grosvenor House’, which first flew in 1934 from nearby Hatfield. Registered as G-ACSS, this delightfully-schemed racer is famous for having won the 1934 England to Australia Air Race, only to be outshone four years later by another agile air racer. Built by Percival, Mew Gull G-AEXF won the 1938 King’s Cup, and eventually went on to set an astonishing record time of 4 days, 10 hours and 16 minutes, for a return flight from the UK to Cape Town, South Africa. Originally registered ZS-AHM, the aircraft flew in pursuit of the Comet on both days, with the Le Vier Cosmic Wind and Travel Air Type R following behind.

As usual, the flying programme was closed in traditional Flying Legends fashion, by a Balbo formation consisting of 19 aircraft. Named after the infamous Italian flying ace Italo Balbo, the sight and sound of so many warbirds in the sky at once is an impressive spectacle to behold. Unfortunately Sunday’s show was slightly overshadowed by an incident involving TF-51D ‘Miss Velma’, when the aircraft was forced to make an emergency landing in a nearby field. All credit must be given to Mark Levy, who managed to keep the aircraft upright, whilst avoiding the M11. Fortunately, Mark was able to walk away from the incident unharmed. Playing the role of the ‘joker’, AAR’s Hawker Fury ISS was tasked with entertaining the spectators whilst the Balbo repositioned in between each pass. Despite having originally been delivered to the Iraqi Air Force, where it was allocated the serial of ‘135’, G-CBEL now wears the markings of the Sea Fury prototype SR661. It is clear to see why Richard Grace is one of the most distinguished warbird pilots on the UK airshow circuit, with Rich giving an elegant display. Born into a family of aviation, Richard operates Air Leasing along with his mother – Carolyn Grace. Unfortunately both the Sea Fury FB.11 F-AZXJ and TFC’s Sea Fury T.20 G-CHFP were unable to participate. Nevertheless, with the Royal Navy Historic Flight’s Sea Fury T.20’s return to flight imminent, there could soon be up to seven airworthy (Sea) Furies in Europe.

All-in-all, Flying Legends proved to be an extremely entertaining affair, and my passion for warbirds flourished as the day progressed; a taxiing B-17 or Catalina in close proximity is enough to inspire anyone. However, I will admit that Flying Legends does have a few imperfections, with the distant display line being the most frustrating. Newly revised regulations by the Civil Aviation Authority now require aircraft with a maximum take-off weight in excess of 1200kg, or maximum speed in excess of 300kts, to use a 230m separation line rather than the previous 100/150m lines. Any aircraft performing a manoeuvre where energy is directed towards the crowd is further restricted, and must do so at least 450m from the crowdline. It also seems unlikely that we will see the re-opening of the ‘tank bank’ (a popular viewing spot on a small hill at the western end near the Land Warfare Hall) for some quite some time – something that was once a major part of Flying Legends’ appeal. Due to a clash between Flying Legends and RIAT next year, it is unlikely that I will be making an immediate return. Nevertheless, I do look forward to returning to Duxford again at some time in the near future.

James Connolly is a student and aviation enthusiast whose future ambitions lie in journalism. He is based in the UK and attends several airshows each year. Additional photos come from Jim Lucas.