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Duxford Flying Legends

13 July 2008

It should have been a true feast of modern military aviation with a Typhoon and Raptor flooding the sky with noise from their powerful jet engines, leaving the likes of the F-16 and F-18 in their wake as little more than display dust. As it turned out, however, Mother Nature prefers the sound of piston engines and flooded RAF Fairford to such an extent that the airfield was inaccessible to the masses expected to attend the Royal International Air Tattoo.

Desperate to get their airshow fix, thousands upon thousands of aviation enthusiasts rushed to Duxford near Cambridge, where during the same weekend, one of the most famous warbirds shows in Europe was held: Flying Legends, organized by the Fighter Collection under the able leadership of Stephen Grey. Each year, this show is a sea of nostalgia to the days preceeding the jet engine, making it an unlikely choice for many who were planning to visit RIAT for a dose of raw jet noise.

Flying Legends could just as easily refer to the pilots flying these classic aircraft as to the aircraft themselves, as each year, some of the finest warbird pilots come from all 4 corners of the globe to take part in this airshow.

The billed star item this year would be the flypast of 3 B-17 Flying Fortresses as Liberty Belle would join the 2 European-based B-17s over Duxford. Unfortunately, a broken engine has grounded Sally B for the time being so the formation was reduced to Liberty Belle and Pink Lady. Still, the US Flying Fortress was an awesome sight in its shiny aluminium scheme. It is likely that this also marked the final appearance of Pink lady at Duxford as the aircraft looks set to disappear from the European airshow scene for lack of a crew to fly and maintain the plane.

With literally dozens of warbirds all crammed in to a 3 and a half hour display, the expression action-packed doesn't do Flying Legends justice as many first-time visitors would discover. Aircraft take off while the previous programme item is still performing and the next aircraft is already in front of the public while the previous one enters the circuit to land. It is one of the charms of Duxford events that instantly wins the hearts of the audience. A tailchase of 6 Mustangs at low level near the crowd doesn't hurt interest either of course, nor does a scramble of 6 Spitfires, who then chase an Me109 around the airfield.

Another highlight that fell through involved 2 Gloster Gladiators flying in formation, but to everyone's regret, the newly restored Gladiator of the Fighter Collection was still not permitted to fly in a public display, so it could only perform a test flight prior to the Sunday show. Old Warden's Gladiator still offered people a glimpse of thiss 1930's fighter, as did its Fury stablemate, which joined the Duxford-based Hawker Nimrod in a nice formation of 1930s bi-planes.

Going back in time even further was Michael Carlson's superb Blériot XI, offering a glimpse of early aviation, offering a 'calm' moment among the heavy metal warbirds at the show. Like many other aircraft at Duxford, it stayed close to the ground, though in the case of this aircraft, it is a necessity: if for some reason, the engine should fail, it would drop like a brick due to its high drag. Staying at low level at least offers a decent chance of survival for the pilot should this occur.

Other aircraft in the display were more common sights in the skies over Duxford, but no less interesting for that.

A formation of a regular Hurricane with a Sea Hurricane allowed an easy comparison of both variants. The Battle of Britain Memorial Flight brought perhaps the least entertaining display of the afternoon with a trio of Dakota, Spitfire and Hurricane. Given the cancellation of Fairford, the absence of their Lancaster was even more regrettable with the presence of 3 B-17s on the airfield. The addition of the Lancaster sure would have been a welcome sight next to the American heavy bombers.

Navy power was demonstrated with a Corsair, Wildcat, Hellcat and Bearcat in formation, followed by a solo performance of organizer Stephen grey in his beloved Bearcat.
3 Curtiss aircraft together are also not a common sight, but Flying Legends provided just that, with the Curtiss Hawk 75 and 2 P-40s. P-39 'Brooklyn Bum' also put on a spirited performance, more than we usually see from this plane.

Classic transporters were not overlooked either with a formation of a DC-3 in Norwegian livery and a Staggerwing. As formations of transport planes go, the DeHavilland Dragon Rapide, Dragonfly and Australia Dragon 3 were difficult to beat though.
Earlier in the programme a Junkers Ju-52 presented itself. It is owned and operated by the Lufthansa Stiftung, which also presented an Me108 at Duxford.

2 Piper Cubs with also graced the skies with their slow graceful ballet and contrasted nicely with the brute attacking power of the Scandinavian Historic Flight's Invader and the Duke of Brabant air force's Mitchell. Another Mitchell, Grumpy, was in the static display after a long absence from Duxford.

Aerobatics are an integral part of any display and it is the same with Flying Legends, with a Bücker Jungmann ably flown by Anna Walker and the first five-ship display by Team Guinot. Another first for Team Guinot at Duxford was the use of red-coloured smoke, adding some extra colour to their already exciting display.

Closing the show was the traditional balbo where all participants take to the sky again and form a large formation to present themselves over the airfield, a moving tribute to all those who gave their lives during World War II. Unfortunately, during landing on Sunday, one of the Mustangs, 'Miss Helen', got damaged during landing, though fortunately the damage was limited.

Thanks to the extensive museum collection, visitors have plenty to see and do prior to the start of the flying display in the afternoon and can find out first-hand about exciting restoration projects like that of the Bristol Blenheim.

Commentator Melvyn Hiscock was well on a role again, which unfortunately could not be said for the other traditional Flying Legends commentator, Bernard Chabbert, even though his knowledge about these classic aircraft is impeccable. Hiscock's wit and banter were clearly better suited to entertain the sizeable crowd.

And sizeable it was: by lunchtime on Sunday, Duxford had reached capacity with 30000 visitors and was forced to close its gates. Given the clash with Fairford, this success undoubtedly came as a surprise to the organizers. There was considerable scepticism among many visitors who went to Duxford as a back-up to Fairford, but this faded quickly as the show got underway. All were surprised by the pace of the display and the close-up action Duxford offers, something which is hard to imagine when seeing warbird displays at large international airshows. Duxford rose to the occasion and succeeded in winning many hearts that weekend. One can only hope that this extra public will make future Duxford shows an equal success, providing funds for more restoration projects to breathe life in the European airshow scene. Perhaps the best way to express how great this show was, is by quoting commentator Melvyn Hiscock: “Woof!”



Report by Chris Janssens

Lay-out and content by Chris Janssens, 2005 - present