A sky full of Spitfires
Welcome to this latest edition of Aerodrome and our regular delve into the fascinating world of aeroplanes and the historic aviation scene in the UK. Well, it had to happen sometime – the magnificent weather under which the 2018 Airshow season and the historic centenary year for the Royal Air Force has been played out finally cracked. For an event heralded as the finale to a spectacular year of RAF 100 flying tributes, this year’s Duxford Battle of Britain show boasted strong Royal Air Force participation and resulted in a clamour for tickets which saw sell-out crowds heading for the famous Imperial War Museum airfield site at Duxford in Cambridgeshire, with all hoping they would be present at one of the most memorable Airshow events of 2018. Featuring a flying programme the like of which could not be seen anywhere else in the world, the only thing that could undermine all the planning and hard work of the show organisers was the weather and unbelievably, following a summer which has proved to be a real bonus for outdoor events in Britain, it did its level best to spoil this celebration of aviation. Unperturbed by what appeared to be a potentially disastrous forecast, the crowds turned up, the airfield activities sprang into life and aeroplanes took to the air - when did grey skies and a forecast for heavy rain ever stop a UK Airshow audience?
Although this latest Duxford show promised to be a high profile end to the Centenary commemorations of the RAF, with flying displays from several current front line aircraft types and significant support from RAF ground display teams, there was one specific reason which attracted many taking their place amongst the crowds to book their tickets early for this show and that was Spitfires – lots of Spitfires! With Duxford’s historic airfield site being inextricably linked with the Supermarine Spitfire, there is something quite magical about witnessing a display by Britain’s most famous fighting aeroplane at this former RAF fighter station and this latest show held the irresistible prospect of seeing several restored examples of the aircraft in the air at the same time. Indeed, if everything worked out as the organisers had intended, the Duxford crowds could be witnessing one of the largest formations of Spitfires seen in British skies since the end of the Second World War. Our latest edition of Aerodrome braves the conditions at Duxford’s 'Battle of Britain Airshow', to see if the Spitfire would have the final say in this RAF Centenary year.
A centenary of flying from Duxford airfield
As the first RAF station to accept production Spitfires in service, Duxford will always have a special bond with Britain’s most famous fighter aircraft
It is somehow fitting that the honour of hosting the flying finale to this year’s centenary celebrations of the Royal Air Force should fall to the Imperial War Museum airfield site at Duxford, a venue which has done so much for the preservation of Britain’s aviation heritage over the years and one which is now recognised as one of the most popular locations in the world where visitors can immerse themselves in the subject of aviation history. Construction of the original airfield at this site began in 1917, on land secured near Duxford village the previous year, with the intention of building a training establishment for the rapidly expanding Royal Flying Corps, schooling young men in the art of aerial warfare, before sending them to fight above the trenches of the Western Front. The first RFC Squadrons arrived at the airfield during March 1918, which initially served as a mobilisation station, even though the site was far from finished and construction works were still continuing at that time.
Duxford airfield was officially opened in September 1918, just two months before the cessation of hostilities in the Great War, which could have thrown the future of the airfield in some doubt, however the following year saw the welcome decision to retain it as a permanent RAF station and resulted in a further period of development and expansion taking place. Since these early years, there have been plenty of interesting developments throughout the history of Duxford airfield, but perhaps none so significant as the arrival of the RAF’s first Supermarine Spitfire on 4th August 1938. With home based 19 Squadron having the honour of introducing Britain’s most famous fighter into RAF service, this began an enduring link between the airfield and arguably the world’s most famous fighting aircraft, which is proudly preserved to this day, with Duxford skies regularly reverberating to the sound of Merlin and Griffon powered Spitfires.
With the history possessed by Duxford airfield, it continues to be a special place for anyone with an interest in aviation to visit
Duxford based Spitfires and Hawker Hurricanes would make significant contributions during both the Dunkirk evacuation and the Battle of Britain which followed soon after, with the fighters seeing plenty of action at this early stage of the war and claiming many enemy aircraft destroyed. Whilst flying operations covering the evacuations at Dunkirk, Duxford based fighters would claim 77 enemy aircraft shot down and a further 19 damaged, as the Luftwaffe received a taste of the battles which lay ahead of them. During the Battle of Britain, Douglas Bader would lead Duxford’s ‘Big Wing’ of five fighter squadrons into battle with the Luftwaffe, which was an intentional and defiant show of force at this critical period of the battle, which forced German bomber formations to break up and abandon their original attack plans on a number of occasions. Although the subject of some controversy in the years which followed, Duxford based pilots claimed that the sight of these large formations of RAF fighters served to bolster their morale at a critical time and must have had a demoralising effect on the Luftwaffe, who were now suffering their first significant losses of the war, with Fighter Command only appearing to be getting stronger and more effective.
In the years following the end of the Battle of Britain, Duxford continued to be at the forefront of Fighter Command’s defensive and increasingly offensive capabilities, as well as playing host to a rather interesting unit. The Air Fighting Development Unit were engaged in assessing aircraft and equipment prior to their potential service introduction, which also included the return to airworthy condition and evaluation operation of captured enemy aircraft. This may well have seen Messerschmitts sharing Duxford’s facilities with RAF Spitfires which were engaged in destroying as many Luftwaffe examples of the aircraft as they possibly could. AFDU were also influential in the development and introduction of the Hawker Typhoon, which proved to be such a devastatingly effective aircraft during the final months of the Second World War. From April 1943, RAF Duxford became known as Station 357 and home to the 78th Fighter Group of the USAAF Eighth Air Force, with their mighty Thunderbolt escort fighters, later traded for the North American Mustang, in an Anglo-US military link which is recognised and celebrated to this day.
The mighty Republic P-47 Thunderbolt was one of the first American aircraft to be stationed at RAF Duxford
Following the end of the Second World War, although the RAF experienced a period of significant contraction, Duxford was one of the stations selected to remain open and entered the jet age by playing host to RAF Meteors, Javelins and Hunter jet fighters, as the base continued to play an important role in the defence of Britain’s skies. This lasted until 1961, when a Gloster Meteor made the final operational flight by an RAF aircraft from Duxford, before the airfield was abandoned, quickly falling into a state of disrepair. In what turned out to be a significant development in the history of the airfield and possibly acting as a stimulus for future preservation plans, 1968 saw Duxford transported back to its former wartime glory, as it was used as a major location in the production of the now famous Guy Hamilton directed movie ‘The Battle of Britain’ and temporary home to one of the most impressive collections of airworthy former WWII aircraft assembled since the end of the Second World War, a legacy which this enigmatic airfield proudly continues to this day.
The RAF out in force
The RAF ground displays proved to be a popular attraction at the latest Duxford Battle of Britain Airshow
As a young man fascinated by aviation and dreaming of a career in the Royal Air Force, the opportunity to attend as many Airshows as possible and get up close to my beloved aeroplanes was one I grabbed as often as I could. In those days, Airshows were not only seen as an excellent opportunity to engage with local communities in which bases were situated and may therefore be inconvenienced by their flying activities, but also as a rich harvesting opportunity for encouraging attending youngsters to consider a career in the Royal Air Force. With ground displays which included actual aircraft and the opportunity to sit in them under the watchful supervision of an enthusiastic and knowledgeable member of staff, it seemed as if nothing was too much trouble in the search for positive PR and a future supply of recruits. These opportunities appeared to become less important to the RAF during the 1990s and beyond, but thankfully, there seems to have been something of a renaissance during this centenary year, with both ground based ‘RAF 100 Inspire’ displays and the excellent STEM initiative, which will surely produce a new generation of talented engineers and scientists to drive Britain forward in the years to come. For this final Duxford display of the year, the RAF ground displays were out in full force and with poor weather causing the crowds to dodge the showers for most of the weekend, these attractions proved to be extremely popular for the duration of the show and a significant bonus for younger members of the crowd.
It was quite a coup for the show organisers to have the new RAF ‘Tempest’ concept fighter on display at Duxford, only the second time that it has been on public display. The jury is still out with regard to the appearance of this future sixth generation fighter
Proving to be a particularly noteworthy coup for the show organisers, the impressive RAF ground display included the full size concept model of the recently announced ‘Tempest’ fighter aircraft, which is described as a sixth generation fighter and proposed Typhoon replacement. This futuristic design was unveiled at this year’s Farnborough Airshow by the Secretary of State for Defence, Gavin Williamson and this was only the second time (including Farnborough) that the aircraft could be viewed by the general public and the first whilst displayed in the open air. Clearly, there is much work to be done before this new fighter takes to the air along-side the F-35 Lightning II and the Typhoons it is scheduled to replace and the resultant aircraft will probably look very different to the concept model we have all been introduced to. It will therefore be interesting to compare these initial images with the actual production aircraft, which is scheduled to enter RAF service in around 2035 and keep Britain at the forefront of world fighter technology. Having listened to some of the comments expressed by people looking at the concept model for the first time, it is to be hoped that the impending period of development results in the production of a more attractive looking aeroplane, as the general consensus was that this one is an ugly beast. We will not have that long to wait, as the Government are planning to develop the aircraft immediately, with firm proposals for this important aircraft available by 2025 – definitely something to keep an eye on over the next few years. The excellent RAF ground display at Duxford also included a full size Typhoon exhibition model (in RAF 100 livery) and a walk through Chinook display, both of which proved extremely popular over the Airshow weekend.
As you would expect for such an auspicious aviation occasion as this, the air display itself was also extremely well supported by the current Royal Air Force and included the Red Arrows, the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight, Typhoon FGR4, Grob Tutor, Airbus A400M Atlas, F-35 Lightning II and the final UK Airshow appearance for the soon to be retired Panavia Tornado GR4. We will be looking at these and all the other general show highlights in a forthcoming edition of Aerodrome, ensuring that we produce as thorough a review as possible for this enjoyable celebration of aviation.
Duxford’s 2018 ‘Big Wing’
This early Spitfire is currently based at Duxford and whilst it is owned by Comanche Fighters, is operated by The Fighter Collection
For many people who visit the hallowed aviation ground at Duxford, there is one aircraft which fascinates more than any other and keeps them coming back time after time, the incomparable Supermarine Spitfire. As Duxford based No.19 Squadron were the first RAF unit to receive production examples of the Spitfire back in 1938, the station has always enjoyed a particularly strong bond with Britain’s most famous fighter, made all the more robust in recent times by the number of Spitfires which have been either restored, hangared or operated from this famous airfield. As far as a Spitfire display is concerned, there is perhaps no place quite like Duxford to appreciate the historic importance of this aircraft and to remember the men and women who built, tested, delivered, maintained and flew these magnificent aeroplanes in combat. The only British fighter to be in production before, during and after the Second World War, the Spitfire has something of a spiritual home at Duxford, particularly as it is one place where large numbers of people can see examples of this famous fighter on a daily basis and may even be fortunate enough to see one take to the air during their visit.
Operated by the Historic Aircraft Collection, this Mk.Vb represents an example of one of the most popular Spitfire variants
Spitfire IXB MH434 is without doubt, one of the most famous historic aircraft in the world
Any Duxford show can always be relied upon to feature at least a couple of Spitfires in either the flying or static aircraft display, however this latest ‘Battle of Britain’ show promised something very special indeed – an impressive gathering of Spitfires from all over Europe, brought together as the climax of the years RAF centenary commemorations and a massed formation flypast at the end of both days of the Airshow. The prospect of seeing this aviation spectacle was enough to ensure that thousands of people secured their show tickets many weeks in advance of the event, determined that they will be amongst the people lucky enough to be present for this historic occasion. The only thing that could influence proceedings now would be the good old British weather (in conjunction with the usual aircraft serviceability and pilot availability issues) and unfortunately for the large crowds which assembled on both days of the show, it would do its level best to have its say.
Representing one of the most impressive Spitfire gatherings for many a year, the organisers had arranged for nineteen aircraft to be assembled on the flightline at Duxford, with examples ranging from an early Mk.1 machine, to the Griffon powered Mk.XIV, a development of the Spitfire which provided the fighter with an almost 100mph speed increase over the first machines to enter RAF service. The number of Spitfires present was also to have particular poignance, as it represented the Squadron number which first welcomed the Spitfire into RAF service at this very airfield on 4th August 1938 and began the enduring association between the airfield and an aircraft which can genuinely claim to be amongst the most famous aeroplanes to have ever taken to the skies.
Although still a member of the Spitfire family, the Griffon powered Mk.XIV has a very different and far more aggressive appearance to earlier machines
Just to add a little balance, the show could also boast no fewer than four Hispano Buchons, representing the Luftwaffe’s contribution to RAF 100. All these Spitfires needed something to chase, right?
The majority of the Spitfires which prepared to scramble for Duxford’s RAF 100 flying finale were machines powered by the famous Rolls Royce Merlin engine, a powerplant which proved so crucial to Britain during the Second World War and was produced in vast numbers – almost 150,000 of these engines were manufactured and proved to be the backbone of the Royal Air Force, in their hour of need. Only two of the nineteen Spitfires were powered by the later and more powerful Rolls Royce Griffon engine, which endowed the aircraft with exceptional performance and speeds approaching 400mph when using the new 150 octane fuel. This made it an ideal aircraft to combat the indiscriminate V-1 Flying Bomb attacks which were hurled against Britain during the summer of 1944 and allowed Griffon powered Spitfires to destroy over 300 of the dreaded ‘Doodlebugs’, undoubtedly saving countless innocent lives in the towns and villages below.
This impressive collection of airworthy Spitfires also clearly demonstrated a current phenomenon in the world of Spitfire restoration, as it featured a number of two seat trainers, aircraft which have become increasingly popular in recent years. Owning and operating a classic Spitfire is an extremely costly business and comes on top of the huge sums required to either purchase the aircraft in the first place, or finance its specialist restoration. The income generated from Airshow appearances is nowhere near enough to meet the annual bills associated with operating a Spitfire and in an attempt to offset some of these crippling costs, many recent and current restoration projects have centred around the production two seat Spitfires, enabling each aircraft to operate as a business and pay its own way. Allowing the owner/operator to offer experience flights in Britain’s most famous fighter and even help with the training and conversion of pilots hoping to become future Warbird pilots, these ‘Spitfires made for two’ are proving to be extremely popular at the moment and there appears to be no end of people desperate to say that they have flown in a Spitfire, no matter how long the waiting list may be. This is proving to be a welcome and slightly unexpected off-shoot of the historic aviation scene and one which is breathing new life into both the restoration of classic aircraft and engagement growth in the Warbird industry from the members of the general public. In any case, surely it is not possible to spoil the classic lines of the famous Spitfire, whether you make it for one person or two, is it? Whatever your thoughts on this question, there is certainly only one way that most of us will ever have the chance to fly in a Spitfire and that is when it is being piloted by someone else.
Climbing into the leaden skies. Nineteen Spitfires taking off at the same time was an experience many would never forget
The narrow undercarriage of the Spitfire can make take-off and landing something of a challenge, however despite the conditions, the Duxford pilots showed their flying credentials
As the Red Arrows were executing the final manoeuvres of their expertly polished display, Duxford reverberated to the sound of seventeen Merlin and two Griffon engines roaring into life and everyone on the airfield excitedly anticipated what was about to unfold over the next half an hour, or so. By the time the Red Arrows had completed their special RAF 100 tribute flypast finale, the Spitfires had left their flightline positions and were on the airfield, preparing for a massed take-off, an experience which was definitely worth the entrance fee alone. Allowing everyone to experience something of what it must have been like to see Duxford’s ‘Big Wing’ heading off to meet the latest Luftwaffe raid back in 1940, the Spitfires were cleared for take-off – the aircraft which had the honour of leading this magnificent tribute was Supermarine Spitfire IXb MH434, undoubtedly one of the most famous historic aircraft in the world and a future subject of a tribute edition of Aerodrome. It was closely followed by the rest of the Spitfires in small groups, using safe separation and both the hard and grass runways to launch this many aircraft in as short a time as possible, with safety always the primary concern. The plan was to allow the main formation of Spitfires to form up to the south of the airfield, whilst the Imperial War Museum’s delightful Spitfire Mk.I N3200 performed a solo display to entertain the masses, before the formation of Spitfires returned for just a single 18 ship flypast.
One for the record. The conditions dictated that this magnificent formation would be flown under grey skies, however, these two pictures prove that we were fortunate to see eighteen Spitfires in close formation – a modern day ‘Big Wing’
We mentioned how the weather was to play a significant part in proceedings and unfortunately, the sight which most people had been desperate to witness all day would be played out under grey leaden skies, however the magnificent sight and sound of eighteen Supermarine Spitfires was enough to warm even the coldest of hearts. As the ‘Sangatte Spitfire’ N3200 cleared the airfield, everyone at Duxford stared to their left, hoping to catch a first glimpse of the mighty Spitfire formation – approaching from over the impressive ARCo hangar at the M11 end of the airfield, 18 Spitfires in close formation paid their own unique tribute to this RAF centenary year and either had people taking as many pictures of this historic flypast as they could, or bursting into a spontaneous round of applause and what was a truly emotional sight. Proving to be one of the largest formations of Spitfires seen at this famous former RAF station since the end of the Second World War, this was an extremely memorable way in which to bring this centenary year of the RAF to a close and although we did not know it at the time, this single pass would be the only opportunity the Duxford Battle of Britain Airshow crowds would have of seeing this many Spitfires flying in formation together in 2018. The weather forecast for the following day was so poor that a number of the aircraft headed for their home airfields at the end of Saturday’s show and with the usual serviceability issues which affect the operation of historic aircraft, this number of Spitfires would not be repeated for the Sunday formation, even though the weather actually turned out to be slightly better than the conditions we had been forced to endure the previous day.
Recovery. What goes out has to come back in and allowed everyone at Duxford to enjoy a closer look at these classic aircraft
The restoration of two seat Spitfires has been popular over the past few years
Following the euphoria of witnessing a sky full of Spitfires, the formation began to break into smaller groups and prepare for the safe recovery of these magnificent aircraft. The delightful Mk.I Spitfire returned to perform a second solo slot for our entertainment, allowing the formation to become separated into smaller sections and approach the airfield once more for a final run and break for landing. As the aircraft were landing from the same M11 end from where I was situated, this actually turned out to be one of the highlights of the show for me, as each aircraft made its classic curved approach to the airfield, with some landing on the grass runway, relatively close to my position – a real treat for the aviation photographer. As several of the aircraft taxied past us heading for the ARCo hangars and their overnight accommodation, the pilots enjoyed the gratitude of the crowds and exchanged waves with the people who had been the beneficiaries of their flying expertise and a memorable end to the show. As the Spitfire engines fell silent and the applause finally came to an end, everyone slowly began to gather their things and head for the exits, all safe in the knowledge that they could say that ‘they were there’ for Duxford’s RAF 100 Spitfire tribute and one of the most memorable sights the world of historic aviation produced during 2018.
A gathering of Spitfires. Several of the Spitfires taking part in the formation were under the care of the Aircraft Restoration Company and they made their way to the M11 end of the airfield at the end of the display
The sun sets on what was a magnificent display and a fitting finale to the centenary year of the Royal Air Force
With sell-out crowds on both days of the show, many of the people who attended on Saturday would have been intending to come back the following day, but those who were will have been keeping a keen eye on the weather forecast. Although we all got wet on Saturday and most of the show was performed under grey skies, the forecast for Sunday was for much worse, with persistent heavy rain and strong winds potentially threatening to decimate the show and bringing an unfortunate end to Duxford’s 2018 Airshow season. Although conditions did turn out to be rather terrible until around 1pm, the crowds still turned up en mass and the Airshow did take place – the conditions actually turned out to be much better than had been forecast, even though a number of display acts were unable to take to the air for various reasons. Thankfully, Duxford has plenty to keep people occupied in the event of bad weather and even with thousands of people crowding into the display hangars, there was more than enough of room to accommodate everyone. Both the show organisers and the display pilots should be congratulated for serving up a real feast of aviation in what were clearly extremely challenging circumstances and it is to be hoped that many of the people who turned up to support the show will be back again next year to sample the unique delights of Duxford airfield. Next year marks the 75th Anniversary of D-Day and I am sure that Duxford’s ambitious display organising committee will already be planning something special for us in 2019 – whatever that turns out to be, your roving Aerodrome reporter is intending to be there to document proceedings.
Newark Air Museum Indoor Aeroboot Aviation & Avionics Sale
Our friends at the Newark Air Museum have asked us to inform Aerodrome readers about a forthcoming event which is taking place at their magnificent museum on Saturday 13th October – their latest Indoor Aeroboot & Aerojumble Sale. This charity fund raising event has once again attracted interest from a wide range of sellers and all spaces have been fully allocated. The funds raised by the museum from organising the event will be used to support the development of facilities at its Gateway Aviation Site, which is located in eastern Nottinghamshire close to the Lincolnshire border.
Forty eight (48) tables, featuring a host of different sellers from around the UK will be arranged amongst the aircraft in Display Hangar 2 at the museum. Buyers / visitors who attend this fund raising event will have the opportunity to search through a varied selection of aviation and avionic items including books, paintings, prints, DVDs, plastic kits, die-cast models, clothing, radio equipment and aircraft parts. We intend to provide regular updates and seller’s information on the news page of the museum website, which can be found at www.newarkairmuseum.org
Buyers / visitors at this event will be able to access the museum site on Saturday 13th October, 2018 at a special discounted admission price of just £4.50 per person. The museum opening times will be 09.00 to 17.00 hours, with the sale taking place between 09.00 and 14.00 hours. To be in with a change of finding the best bargains we suggest that you arrive early. Further details are available on the Events Page of the museum website www.newarkairmuseum.org or by telephoning 01636 707170.
If you are making the trip to Newark, we hope you have an enjoyable day and please send us a couple of pictures for the blog.
I am afraid that’s all we have for you in this latest edition of Aerodrome, but we will be back as usual in two weeks’ time with more aviation related features for your enjoyment. If you have any ideas for a future edition of our blog, or if you would like to supply a feature of your own which will be of interest to our worldwide aviation readership, please send your suggestions to our regular contact e-mail address at email@example.com, where we will be only too pleased to hear from you.
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The next edition of Aerodrome is due to be published on Friday 19th October, where we look forward to bringing you more interesting aviation related features then.
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