Text and Photography by Alessandro Taffetani
The Flying Legends air show at Duxford airfield in England, is a regular July appointment for all WWII aircraft aficionados in Europe: the two-day event is the biggest gathering of WWII aircraft in the whole continent and sees participants and visitors from all over the world.
As many will know, the venue itself is a special place. The former RAF Duxford aerodrome dates all the way back to 1918; some of its buildings having been erected by German prisoners of war. The RAF used it as a fighter station in the interwar period, and resident 19 Squadron was the very first unit to receive the Supermarine Spitfire at Duxford in 1938. The station saw extensive use during WWII, including the Battle of Britain where the famed, legless ace Douglas Bader rose to fame at the head of 242 Squadron. Duxford also hosted the first Hawker Typhoon wing, playing a major role in the type’s development. The decision to re-engine the Mustang with a Rolls-Royce Merlin instead of the Allison V-1710 also owes part of its genesis to questions first mooted at Duxford. About a year after the United States entered WWII, the US Army Air Force occupied Duxford for the rest of the war with the 78th Fighter Group taking up residence in April 1943, first with P-47 Thunderbolts, and later with Mustangs. The base returned to RAF control after the war, and continued as an operational field until decommissioning in 1961, it played a major role in 1968 as both a set and staging post for the movie Battle of Britain. The Ministry of Defense disposed of Duxford in 1969, but it wasn’t for another 8 years that the airfield’s history took a positive turn when the Imperial War Museum bought the facility… and rest, as they say, is history. The base is now a thriving partnership between permanent museum exhibits and several warbird operators/restorers. One of these civilian groups, The Fighter Collection, is the outfit which runs Flying Legends, and the show lives up to its name in every way!
Despite some cancellations, the display aircraft list for Flying Legends was a truly impressive one, making for one of the most exciting airshows in several years. This year was particularly significant, as 2015 marks the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Britain and the line-up reflected this, with some 14 Spitfires and one Seafire taking part in the air show.
The preparation for the air show starts a few days in advance of course, and many display pilots and crews arrive earlier to do trials and meet with other colleagues. We were there on Thursday morning and had an interesting encounter with the legendary Steve Hinton and Klaus Plasa, EADS display pilot.
Meeting a pilot who has experience on 109s, Buchons and Fw 190s is great, but meeting two together and listening to them exchanging impressions is just priceless! Hinton and Plasa agreed on the fact that each of the Fw 190s they have tried (mostly Flugwerk replicas) was very different from one another, but that they were not as challenging as flying the Bf 109G or Buchon, as the landing gear geometry of the Messerschmitt design is more closely-coupled and demands particular care. Interestingly Plasa pointed out that the really challenging moment is at takeoff, when the 109 seems to go in a different direction every time! Things are considerably better with the Me 109E according to Hinton; the behavior of which is much more docile and akin to a Curtiss P-40.
Klaus Plasa then invited Steve Hinton to sit in his Bf 109 G-4’s cockpit and talked him through the layout and controls. We can assure you that witnessing these two extremely skilled pilots exchanging impressions was a truly humbling experience!
WarbirdsNews was at the formal air show on Saturday (we understand that our friends who went on Sunday weren’t as lucky with the weather!), and the vibe as usual was fantastic. The gates open at 8am, and visitors have plenty of activities to engage in whether it be strolling through the world-class resident museum or the various stands with all sorts of aviation related items. The show also boasts live music and activities for children… Flying Legends offers a perfect family day experience.
We spent the morning wandering around the many stands and having a closer look at the flight line (you can see the pictures on our Facebook page), which allowed us to get closer to two of the highlights of this year’s airshow: the recently restored Blenheim Mk.I, operated by ARCo, and the ‘Bf 109G-4’ belonging to EADS.
The well-orchestrated flying routines meant that the audience enjoyed a solid 3.5 hours show, with commentators doing the usual brilliant work and giving all sorts of interesting information on the warbirds. The airshow started regularly at 2pm, with the traditional tail chase display, brilliantly executed by 11 Spitfires… for a good 10 minutes the sky was full of Supermarine’s finest fighters!
A new entry from The Fighter Collection was the freshly-restored Curtiss P-36, a unique airworthy example, which gleamed in the sun and joined TFC’s Curtiss Hawk 75, P-40C and P-40F in a superb display.
Four P-51 Mustangs followed, with the “Tigershark” P-51D, representing an RAF 112 Squadron Mustang Mk.IVa, completing the display with a formation flypast together with Duxford’s resident B-17G “Sally B”, a wonderful aircraft that is also an air show veteran with an impressive 40 years on the circuit!
The show went on with some Navy fighters (two F-4U Corsairs and a Bearcat), a rare pair of Gloster Gladiators, a trio of Hawker biplanes (two Nimrods and a Fury), the wonderful Bf109G-4 accompanied by two Buchons, the exotic MS.406 in Swiss markings, and many other aircraft.
The displays were too many to mention, but you can see the complete list of attending aircraft by clicking HERE. There are a few special mentions that need to be made though of performances that made this show even more remarkable:
!: The French-based Hawker Sea Fury FB.11 with its wingtip smoke system, drawing incredible shapes in the sky and marveling the whole audience;
2: The wonderful formation of Spitfire Mk.Is, Hurricane and Blenheim Mk.I, representing the RAF’s backbone in the beginning of WW2.
3: The superb display of three Piper L-4s delighted the audience with their incredible maneuverability whilst paying homage to an important, yet seldom celebrated WWII protagonist.
4: As the display came to an end, just like the initial tail chase marked the show opening, a Flying Legends air show is not considered complete without the final massive formation flypast. It’s called a “Balbo” in remembrance of the Italian aviator Italo Balbo who promoted and led the first seaplane formation transatlantic crossings. During the Balbo form-up, TFC’s Nick Gray performed his “joker display” in the Gloster Gladiator as wave by wave of air show participants took off and formed up for several flypasts over the runway. The sound and look of this large formation is always truly emotional, and it is considered by many to be the finest tribute to the many who wrote aviation history in WWII.
So there it is! Another fantastic Flying Legends has finished, and we already can’t wait for the next one. Next year will definitely be a very big one as we heard through the grapevine there will be even more unique aircraft displaying, so make sure you book your trip well in advance!
WarbirdsNews wishes to offer many thanks to Alessandro Taffetani for his marvelous article and photographs. We hope you’ve enjoyed seeing them as much as we enjoyed sharing his work!