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2014 UK Airshows : REVIEW

D-Day Anniversary Air Show, IWM Duxford

On the 6th June 1944, the allied nations landed on the Normandy Beaches within a small window of favourable weather to change the course of the Second World War. Just less than 70 years later, the D-Day Anniversary Air Show at the Imperial War Museum Duxford found itself in a similar weather window to commemorate the actions of the soldiers, airman and sailors that executed the landings against the odds.

Paul Johnson/Flightline UK reports. All photography copyright of the Author.

In June 1944, Duxford was home to the 78th Fighter Group of the United States Army Air Force. At the time, the group were equipped with the potent P-47 Thunderbolt and they flew many missions during the D-Day landings and subsequent days following the invasion to support the massive logistics operation to support the troops on the ground trying to maintain their foot-hold in Normandy.

It is therefore highly appropriate that the biggest airshow to the year to specifically commemorate those landings took place at Duxford. The airshow is not the only event to mark the anniversary at the airfield; the massive Airspace Hangar is home to a temporary exhibition throughout the rest of the year. "D-Day - The Last of the Liberators" is a collection of photographic portraits by Robin Savage of some of the last surviving Normandy veterans. They depict many of the men and women making perhaps their final ever visits to the sites in Normandy which imprinted themselves indelibly on their lives. A further event, the Military Vehicle Show on the 15th June will showcase many of the vehicles used during the landings.

The airshow itself held a couple of weeks before the main anniversary weekend featured an array of aircraft in the air as well as some special exhibitions on the ground. Particularly impressive was the Airborne Forces exhibition at the centre of the airfield. The area featured the modern day forces alongside living history groups highlighting the development in technology over the last 70 years that allows British Forces to deploy at short notice anywhere in the world. Amongst the units represented were 6 Regiment Army Air Corps, 216 (Parachute) Signals Squadron, 16 Medical Regiment, 7 Royal Horse Artillery , 23 Engineer Regiment, 156 Provost Company of the Royal Military Police, The Parachute Regiment, The Royal Anglian Regiment, The Royal Logistic Corps and the Royal Engineers. Amongst the equipment on show were Jackal armoured vehicles, bridging equipment and an example of the WAH-64D Apache AH1.

Providing the historic contrast to the modern day machinery was a number of living history groups each presenting various elements of the Airborne Forces that participated in the landings including representation of light infantry, the Parachute Regiment, Engineers and the Glider Pilot Regiments.

70 Years ago, the weather played an integral part in those landings with poor weather on the original set date of 5th June 1944 forcing General Eisenhower to delay the landing by 24 hours in the hope conditions would improve. And so it was that weather played a big role in the show weekend with Saturday waking to a very wet and unseasonal start before a slow improvement just in time for the flying display. Sunday was much better with a warm day of sunny spells and fluffy white clouds - perfect for an air display.

The flying display was a truly international affair and got underway on the Saturday with La Patrouille de France and their eight Alpha Jet Es not only appearing in the UK for the first time this year, but also completing their first public displays anywhere this year. Saturday saw the team present their flat display while Sunday's blue skies meant the team could present their full show. La Patroiulle's displays are always enjoyable and stand out from their other European counterparts such as the Red Arrows. Particularly eye-catching are the four-ship tailchase sequences, the unique formations that present some aircraft inverted and on knife-edge as well as their own take on opposition crosses. It was particularly appropriate to see the team at the show; not only did D-Day mark the start of the liberation of France, but also many Free French servicemen took part in the Operation Overlord and some of the vital resistance operations that preceded it.

Sadly, few examples of the troop-carrying and transport gliders such as Horsas, Hamilcars and Hadrians still exist, and none in flying condition. However flying display director Jeanne Frazer did put together a superb tribute to the glider operations with a balbo of vintage and modern day sailplanes.

Leading the way was the GliderFX Display Team with their MDM-1 Fox Glider and powerful PA25 Pawnee. Indeed, the Pawnee is so powerful it was performing an eye-catching dual-tow with Granham Saw's Letov Lunak LF107. The dual didn't stop Guy Westgate performing his usual antics while on tow during Saturday's display rolling the Fox in dual two for only the second time at a public airshow.

Following GliderFX's low level two, the rest of the balbo got airborne. The full sequence involved up to twenty aero tow aircraft and gliders. Leading the way on Sunday's show were Three Piper Super Cubs flown by Anna Walker, Brendan O'Brien and Mike Fairclough aero-towing three vintage gliders, the Slingsby Prefect, Slingsby Kirby Cadet and Slingsby Petrel. Following on were some of the modern day gliders which included some super-efficient sailplanes towed into the air by a trio of Robin Tugs and a SOCATA Rallye. These included a Pilatus B4 flown by Brian Smith, a Schepp-Hirth Ventus flown by Mike Philpott and a pair of sleek Schliecher ASH26Es flown by Peter Wells and Philip Sturley. The final section to get airborne was a trio of motor gliders, the Fournier RF4D flown by Matthew Hill and a pair of Grob 109s. While it may have lacked the historic links to the D-Day Glider operations, the formation of tugs and gliders were highly impressive as it passed over Duxford and certainly gave an impression of how the large formations of gliders must have looked as they headed across the channel to their landing sites in Normandy. The glider sequence concluded with aerobatic solos from Graham Saw in the Lunak and the Fox flown on Saturday by Guy Westgate and on Sunday by Ian Gallacher.

A Royal Air Force segment followed lead by the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight from RAF Coningsby. For this special D-Day show they presented their Douglas Dakota III and Supermarine Spitfire PRXIX both wearing invasion stripes. Duxford was the start of a busy few weeks for the BBMF who will be participating in many of the commemorations in the UK and France over the anniversary period. Sunday saw another of the BBMF's special displays when the Spitfire was joined by 29(R) Squadron's Eurofighter Typhoon flown by Flt Lt Noel Rees for a series of formation flypasts. 29 Squadron have applied special markings to the two aircraft allocated to the solo display team this year, one of which has invasion strips and the Squadron codes for a Hawker Typhoon unit active over the D-Day period. Noel's solo display was impressive too with several figures highlighting the impressive low speed handling and agility of the RAF's principle air defence and swing role fighter aircraft.

Further modern day RAF participation came from No 47 Squadron based at RAF Brize Norton who provided flypasts on each day by one of their Lockheed Martin C-130J Hercules aircraft (a stretched C4 on Saturday and a shorter C5 on Sunday) representing modern transport aircraft. The Hercules made just one low and slow flypast with the rear ramps down. The Army Air Corps sent their WAH-64D Apache AH1 solo display too to show the advance in capabilities they've had. The aircraft come from Wattisham and for the 2014 is wearing special panels on the aircrafts nose to commemorate 100 Years since the outbreak of the First World War.

Saturday's display saw a short break from the D-Day themed flying displays with an aerobatic display from the Twister Duo. Both pilots, Peter Wells and Guy Westgate, were involved with Saturday's glider balbo and their Twister display was an added bonus before they left Duxford for a display in the Netherlands.

However, the bulk of the display was what Duxford shows do best - warbirds. The selection of aircraft ranged from aircraft well known to be involved with the D-Day landings to those whose involvement was perhaps less obvious.

The lighter end of the aircraft involved in the Landings were marked by Jeanne Frazer's Piper L4 Cub flown by Dave Puleston and the Millers Auster 5J1 Autocrat flown by Mark Miller. Both Cubs and Austers were used by the US and British Army's for artillery spotting and other duties during the landings, some of which made the journey to France by Landing craft! Mark Miller also displayed his wonderful de Havilland Dragon Rapide. While Rapides are not immediately associated with the landings, pictures of the military Dominie do show them wearing invasion strips and they were used as Air Ambulances at the time to ferry the wounded back to the safety of the UK.

It was good to see the Fighter Collection's aircraft involved in the show and the first of their participants was another type that would not immediately spring to mind as a D-Day aircraft. The Curtiss Hawk H75-A1 was used by the French Air Force during the Battle of France. When France fell many Hawks were transferred to the Vichy French forces fighting with the axis. However, some ended up back in Free French hands following the North Africa campaign and some were in use in various roles in 1944 and were painted with invasion markings following the initial landings.

TFC's Grumman FM-2 Wildcat was a sole representative of Fleet Air Arm operations during Operations Neptune and Overlord. Wildcats were flown off the decks of aircraft carriers in support of the naval armada that crossed the channel. Pilot Dave Southwood gave a great display in the little fighter which has a performance that certainly exceeds expectations of its somewhat tubby appearance.

Making a welcome return to the display circuit at the show was the Old Flying Machine Company's duo of Spitfire IX MH434 and North American P-51D Mustang Ferocious Frankie. The latter was off the display circuit for over a year but is now back to full strength. The Mustang lead the duo on this occasion flown by Alister Kay with the Malaysian Red Bull Air Race winner Nigel Lamb in close formation in the Spitfire behind. It was a lyrical display of smooth loops and wingovers that captivated the crowd's attention from start to finish.

The biggest set-piece warbird display of the afternoon looked at some of the Royal Air Force and Luftwaffe fighters engaged in operations over Normandy in June 1944. The Hawker Hurricane XII flown by Dave Harvey may not have been a frontline fighter during D-Day, but the type was still in useful service in Europe at the time and was used as a mail-delivery aircraft connecting forces in Normandy. During Duxford's display, the Hurricane was intercepted by John Romain and Cliff Spink flying a pair of Hispano HA-112M1L Buchons representing the Bf109Gs of the Luftwaffe whose presence may have been significantly degraded by the time of the landings, but still provided a significant threat to allied aircraft and ground forces. As with these set pieces, the Luftwaffe didn't have its way for too long and a small wing of Spitfires came to the rescue. These consisted of TFC's Spitfire V EP120 flown by Carl Schofield (Saturday) and Brian Smith (Sunday), the Biggin Hill Heritage Hangar's Spitfire IX MK912 flown by Dan Griffiths, ARCo's Spitfire T9 PV202 flown by Lee Proudfoot and the Grace Spitfire T9 ML407 flown by Richard Grace. All these Spitfires were in service in 1944 with the latter three all on the frontline. ML407 is credited with the first RAF kill during the D-Day Landings while both the other Mark IX aircraft were involved in operations following the intial landings. All bar TFC's Mk.V were wearing their authentic invasion markings. Sunday display was particularly special for Dan Griffiths as it was his 500th public display!

The finale to both days flying was another extraordinary tribute to the airborne forces, this time involving four Douglas C-47A Skytrains and the Parachute Regiments Parachute Display Team, the Red Devils. Two familiar C-47As from UK based Aces High and Dakota Heritage were joined by further examples from the United States who were over in the UK for the D-Day Commemorations. Performing a solo display was the New York state based National Warplane Museums's "Whiskey 7." This aircraft was the lead aircraft of the 27th Troop Carrier Squadron based at nearby Cottesmore during the early hours of the D-Day landings having already served with the USAAF 12th Air Force in the Mediterranean in 1943.

The second US C-47A joined the two UK examples in close vic formation climbing to altitude to drop the Red Devils. This was from Tradewind Aviation based in Connecticut. It was another D-Day survivor being part of the 73rd Squadron of the 434th Troop Carrier Group based at Aldermaston in Berkshire and was used to two Waco gliders into Normandy. Both the UK examples are also veterans of 1944. Aces High example flew with the Royal Canadian Air Force in support of the Arnhem landings while Dakota Heritage's "Drag em' oot" flew on D-Day and in the Arnhem Landings. It is a rare survivor in that is was used in Snatch operations to recover gliders from Normandy fitted with cable winches in the nose of the aircraft.

The entire sequence flown by the C-47s was incredible emotive supported by a wonderful commentary by Ben Dunnell and was a superb way to close a very special flying display at Duxford. The D-Day Anniversary Air Show once again proved these big commemorative events are what Duxford does best with some great imaginative and unique spectacles within the flying display.

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