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2011 UK Airshows : REVIEW

Flying Legends 2011, IWM Duxford

Duxford’s Flying Legends Airshow is always one of the outstanding highlights of the UK Airshow Calendar and is now probably the world’s greatest warbird airshow. 2011 was perhaps one of the best ever editions of the show with some superb participation from rare and exotic piston power from around the world which included the first appearances of two new fighters in the The Fighter Collection’s fleet and the long awaited UK debut of the Flying Bulls P-38L Lightning and F-4U Corsair pair. Sadly however, the 2011 will be remembered more for a couple of very unfortunate accidents which occurred on the final day of the event.

Paul Johnson/Flightline UK reports. All photography by the author.

Never has there been a greater sense of relief when the commentators announced that Rob Davies was OK following the widely reported mid-air collision between his P-51D Mustang and one of the French owned AD-4 Skyraiders following the show’s trademark “Balbo” finale. The accident had occurred during the finale run-in and breaks following the show’s climax. Rob managed to get out of the stricken P-51 very quickly and take to his parachute while the Skyraider managed to fly a short circuit with a significant portion of its starboard wing missing and land safely on the grass runway. Fortunatly, all that has been lost is some engineering and metal rather than the precious lives of the pilots.

Earlier in the flying display, Mikael Carlson was involved in an unfortunate landing accident when a wing of his Fokker DR1 struck the grass and the aircraft ended up on its nose. Mikael was quickly extracted unhurt from the cockpit and the aircraft was soon moved away to allow the grass runway to be re-opened. As has also been widely reported, there was what appeared to be a further near-miss at the beginning of the flying display when another French Skyraider caught up rather too quickly with the formation of Spitfires that were landing – thankfully some quick reactions prevented a tragic accident. These events have somewhat marred what was another excellent edition of Flying Legends.

Flying Legends is a “must attend” event for any serious aviation enthusiast. No other airshow is as slickly put together nor brings together such exotic machinery to one place. Little is ever published in advance of what to expect at each year’s “Legends”; it does not need to be! Those attending Legends are assured of a superlative day whatever appears on the Duxford grass come show weekend.

Every year there are a few mutterings here and there about the ‘premium’ admission prices to this airshow. But when you considered the sheer costs of operating rare and unique high powered piston fighters, bombers, and then multiply that by the fifty or so aircraft that take part an admission ticket is but a drop in the ocean. However, with such a popular event, and relatively high admission prices it is perhaps not surprising a few comments have quite rightly been made about the lack of stewarding of the event, particularly in light of the rules about stepladders around the M11 end of the crowdline and what appeared to be a very overcrowded area.

However, everything about Legends oozes class –from the turnout of aircraft on show to the souvenir brochure which absolutely stunning with a beautiful painting on its front cover and printed on thicker, glossier paper than other airshow programmes which does set the event apart from others.

There is an atmosphere too unlike any other airshow. People come from around the world come to the show and a European number-plate spotter would have an absolute field at Duxford’s entrance gates!

The show in typically flamboyant style opened with the traditional masses Spitfires with were this year joined by HAC’s Hurricane XII and a unique trio of Hispano HA-112 Buchons from ARCo, Richard Lake and the Air Fighter Academy. Where else but Legends could this be described as just the beginning?

The 2011 edition of Flying Legends had too many highlights to mention every single one. From the home team, the Fighter Collection, there were two new shapes on the crowdline. Firstly there was the newly restored P-47G ThunderboltSNAFU” which though yet to fly was making its first airshow appearance, albeit only on static display. Like its predecessor at TFC, this P-47G also has been painted in the colours of 78th Fighter Group which was based at Duxford in 1944. This time the aircraft represents an aircraft form the 84th Fighter Squadron. The second was the latest Curtis Hawk to join TFC’s fleet, the very rare Rolls Royce Merlin engine P-40F Warhawk which has been painted in the stunning colours of the USAAF 85th Fighter Squadron, 79th Fighter Group based in Italy during the later stages of the Second World War. The aircraft appeared alongside TFC’s Hawk 75A and P-40B Warhawk as well as the French based P-40N Warhawk creating a unique trilogy of Hawks!

Perhaps the most eagerly anticipated debutants were the Flying Bulls pair of P-38L Lightning and F-4U-4 Corsair from Austria. Despite the collection’s popularity throughout European air displays, Flying Legends marked the UK display debut for the company based in the stunning Hanger 7 complex at Salzburg. While the Corsair appears in the fairly authentic colours of the US Navy, the P-38L appears in just polished metal and absolutely gleamed in the mid july sun. Some purists may disagree with the non-military appearance of the aircraft, but for my money it looks absolutely outstanding. The displays by both aircraft were just as stunning as their presentation showing off the aircraft to best effect.

Despite his landing accident on Sunday, Mikael Carlson’s Fokker DR1 display was another outstanding highlight showing off the supreme agility of the type with some low half Cubans and incredibly tight turns.

2011 also saw the much anticipated return of the Horsemen P-51 aerobatic team from the United States with Dan Friedkin and Ed Shipley at the controls. Unlike their previous appearance in 2009, the team appeared as a duo with a pair of P-51D/K Mustangs imported especially from the US for the show. These were the brightly marked “Agile but Fragile” and “February.” The team’s performance is marked by some very close formation flying to the music of movie composer James Horner. Completing the Mustang line-up were ‘Nooky Booky IV’ from France, TFC’s ‘Miss Velma’, OFMC’s ‘Ferocious Frankie’ and ‘Big Beautiful Doll.’ The latter pair also flew as little friends with B-17G Flying Fortress Sally-B.

The highlights didn’t stop with these headline acts. Max Alpha Aviation’s stunning Vought F4U Corsair made its UK debut in the hands of Brian Smith alongside Pete Kynsey in the Fighter Collection’s F8F Bearcat.

There was also an epic gathering of Hawker Biplanes with TFC’s Hawker Nimrod I, HAC’s Nimrod II, the Old Warden based Hawker Demon and the Shuttleworth Collection’s Hawker Hind flying together for the first time at an airshow. It was almost certainly the first time such a formation had flown since the 1930’s!

As ever Naval air power was well represented with trios of Skyraiders and Sea Furies appearing during the afternoon. The latter was a particularly dramatic display with TFC’s Sea Fury T20 and Mistral Warbirds Fury ISS performing some very high speed aerobatics together while the Royal Navy Historic Flight’s T20 performed on its. RNHF’s Fairey Swordfish was also a welcome returnee.

As ever, each day’s show was closed by the stunning ‘Balbo’ finale with saw 28 aircraft on Saturday and 26 in the Sunday. The 2011 Flying Legends was another memorable show but for both good and unfortunate reasons. Undoubtely, there will be investigations in to the incidents that occurred during Sunday’s show and lessons learnt. We also hope that IWM will also look at the stewarding of the event as it’s become clear that the massive crowds Legends attracts does result in dissatisfaction for some. However, what we should never forget is the epic amount of work put into the event by Stephen Grey, Jane Larcombe and the rest of the Fighter Collection in creating a stunning collection of exotic and exiciting machinery from around the world that celebrates the best of piston powered might.

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