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Duxford can ‘spring’ a surprise takes a quick review of the Imperial War Museum at Duxford’s season-opening spring airshow, about to celebrate its tenth year.


2001 - The mighty Sea Vixen was the star of the show. Image courtesy Gary Parsons

Perhaps the biggest surprise of the ‘Favourite Airshow Poll’ running on is the popularity of Duxford’s Spring Airshow, currently third behind the two expected favourites of the Royal International Air Tattoo and Duxford’s Flying Legends. A comparative newcomer to the airshow calendar, it’s one that does not normally boast any of the show-stopper acts, such as the Red Arrows or the Vulcan; but perhaps here lies the secret of its success. The organisers are obviously good at ‘thinking outside the box’ and usually manage to showcase some less familiar participants, such as the BAe 146, Islander and VC10 that made last year’s show so memorable. The result is a flying programme that is refreshingly different. Of course its popularity might also owe a lot to the age-old outburst of enthusiasm that marks the onset of summer!

Opening events of the airshow season – such as North Weald’s Fighter Meet that topped the calendar for most of the 1990s – have always pulled in the crowds. For many years before that, Mildenhall’s dearly-loved ‘Air Fete’ was traditionally the big opener, once it settled into its Whitsun weekend slot after alternating with August Bank Holiday during the early years. With the final event having been held in 2001, there was obviously a gap in the market, which Duxford has neatly filled since its first May airshow, held by coincidence that same year. That first one is still memorable, largely because the Royal Air Force’s 33 Squadron elected to hold its annual Crete Day commemoration, bringing along a trio of its Puma HC1s plus a German Army CH-53G that provided the day’s best photo opportunity when it departed. The flying programme featured a cavalcade of aircraft types from the squadron’s history, such as the Avro 504, Bristol Fighter, Bristol Blenheim and Hurricane.

In 2002 there was the Jubilee Show, the main theme being ‘Royal flying’, but with the more interesting secondary subject of the 20th anniversary of the Falklands War. Unfortunately the weather was more typical of the South Atlantic than Britain for that time of year and for the first, and not the last, your scribe beat a hasty retreat.

2003 - The 60th anniversary of the Dams raid was commemorated by a visit from a 617 Squadron Tornado GR4. Image courtesy Gary Parsons
The highlight of the 2003 show was the commemoration of the 60th anniversary of the Dams raid, and a formation flypast was planned with the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight (BBMF) Lancaster and a Tornado GR4 from 617 Squadron, still wearing its Operation ‘Telic’ markings fresh from the Iraq conflict. Regrettably high crosswinds at RAF Coningsby prevented the Lancaster becoming airborne, much to the consternation of photographers, including yours truly.

The 2004 event was the only officially recognised D-Day 60th anniversary commemoration to take place in this country and consequently was held later than usual in early June. Whether it was due to the later date promising better weather or just the fact that it captured the public imagination is impossible to say, but it attracted tens of thousands of people causing dreadful traffic problems when the gates shut at 12.30 because the site had reached full capacity. Some semblance of normality returned in 2005 for the ‘Victory in Europe’ Day show.

In the following year the show moved forward a couple of weeks from its traditional May Bank Holiday slot to the middle of the month in the hope of better weather, but frustratingly this proved to be the wettest event yet! The theme was ‘Airspace’ aimed at promoting the exhibition being planned in the new ‘Super Hangar’ due to open later that year with many of the future ‘inmates’ out in the open air for the last time.

2007 - A commemoration of the 25th anniversary of the Falklands conflict, headed by a genuine ex-Argentine UH-1. Image courtesy Gary Parsons
Being the 25th anniversary of the Falklands War, 2007’s show seemed promising when first announced, but the flying programme was dominated by helicopters and lacked any RAF fast jet participation. Undoubtedly the ‘most missed’ type was the Harrier, the force being kept busy in Afghanistan.

There was a packed display in 2008 and although there was no particular theme, it was a jolly good way to kick-start the season. The RAF’s Typhoon made its first appearance of the year and the team from BBC’s Blue Peter children’s programme did a spot of wing-walking.

Which nearly brings us up to date –the 2009 show had the theme being ‘Best of British’, and only the chilly northerly wind marred my enjoyment, prompting an early exit. The appearance of the VC10 was especially welcome as the former airliner enters the twilight of its RAF career.

2010 - Saturday May 15 will be a day dedicated to the RAF's Battle of Britain Memorial Flight, last seen in 2007. Image courtesy IWM
This year’s Spring Show, which takes place on May 16, promises much with its ‘Battle of Britain anniversary’ theme. Indeed, Duxford’s season will be launched the preceding day when BBMF aircraft will be available for inspection along with a number of current RAF types. Naturally the Flight’s aircraft will feature prominently in the airshow’s flying programme, along with the Typhoon, Tucano and Sea King. Whatever the weather, for many enthusiasts it will be the first of regular airshow visits throughout the summer, and all the more enjoyable as a result!

This year’s airshow is intended to demonstrate the breadth and range of aircraft flown by the Royal Air Force from its inception to the present day. Complementing the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight will be the Typhoon, Hawk, Tucano, Tutor and Sea King HAR3, which will perform a search and rescue demonstration.

There will also be a display by a pair of Folland Gnats, the aircraft previously used by the Red Arrows, prior to the Hawk; the Black Cats, the Royal Navy’s helicopter display team, will also present their own contribution to the day’s celebrations. Duxford-based aircraft displaying will include B-17G Flying Fortress ‘Sally B’, the F-86 Sabre, Dragon Rapide and a Hawker Hurricane paired with a Hawker Nimrod.

Through the years...

Filed Under Airshows Features.


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Edward Charles Wood said on the 15-Apr-2010 at 23:53

duxford is the best air museum in the world,there air shows are the best,but because it has lost the best airshow pilots (mark and ray hanna)other pilots and new aircraft (mosquito/wellington bomber etc)are going to work really hard to bring things back to that high standard,i am sure they will be succesful,,, see you there.

Rod McKenzie said on the 4-Nov-2010 at 18:54

I have to admit, I find it hard to believe people really rate this show as highly as Legends! As your article details, the spring show is a real mixed bag - generally entertaining, but there have been a couple of clunkers: my overriding memories of the 2004 debacle are sitting in a monster queue on the M11, then sitting under the wings of the IWM Vulcan watching possibly the most boring flying programme ever assembled (no disrespect to the Miles Messenger, but I never expected it to be the high point!). Last year's edition had good intentions, but was decimated by cancellations thanks to the weather. Nonetheless, I'll be there for this year's!

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