The Flying Legends phenomenon and the move away from Duxford
Welcome to this latest edition of Aerodrome and our regular look at the fascinating world of aeroplanes and the historic aviation scene in the UK.
As this will be our final Aerodrome blog of 2020, it seems like the ideal opportunity to reflect on an Airshow and aviation related event year like no other we have ever experienced and in particular, a specific development which not only shocked thousands of enthusiasts the world over, but also seemed to underline the seriousness of the situation our hobby finds itself in at this present time. Although we have a huge back catalogue of museum visits and previous Airshow attendances we can call upon when producing an edition of Aerodrome, capturing information from the latest events is something we have always prided ourselves upon, but with the unprecedented restrictions the country has been forced to endure over the past nine months, those opportunities have been extremely few and far between. Thankfully, recent developments in the fight against this hateful virus will certainly have us all thinking a little more optimistically about the future, even though the long term impact of this year’s event cancellations have yet to fully manifest themselves. As we all prepare to welcome in another year, perhaps it is more important to look forward than at any time since the end of the Second World War.
In what has been a tumultuous year for a great many reasons, there really could only be one subject for this final Aerodrome blog of the year, bearing in mind the rather seismic news enthusiasts were made aware of just a few short weeks ago. For this final edition of 2020, we will be taking a reflective look back at an Airshow which many people regard as the finest Warbird event in the world and a phenomenon which has been taking place behind the backdrop of the Imperial War Museum’s historic Duxford site for the past thirty years or so - the iconic Flying Legends Airshow. In a definite case of taking away with one hand, only to give back with another, we will see how 2020 turned out to be a defining year for this iconic show, without a single propeller actually turning. We will be looking back at some classic shows of years past, before reflecting on what the future has in store for an Airshow which many enthusiasts view as their only ‘Must do’ event of the year. As we all prepare to take stock this Christmas holiday period, this 156th edition of Aerodrome is unashamedly a Duxford Flying Legends tribute.
One of the world’s truly historic Airshow venues
For those of us who take great pleasure in attending some of the many Airshow events which are held across the country during the summer months, each one of us will no doubt have our own personal favourites, with the venues often becoming as important as the aircraft taking part. Whether your preference is for the high octane heavy metal thrills of the Royal International Air Tattoo, or the flying intimacy of an Old Warden show, the UK based enthusiast is truly blessed when it comes to event choice and the aviation highlights these shows can boast. Having been fortunate to be able to take my place at many hundreds of these aviation gatherings over the years, I have to say that over the past thirty years, there is one Airshow which is always the first one to be added to my coming schedule at the start of every new year, Duxford’s Flying Legends Airshow. I say Duxford’s Flying Legends a little guardedly, because even though this magnificent Warbird extravaganza is arranged and organised by The Fighter Collection, it has, until now, always taken place at the Imperial War Museum’s Duxford site, a venue which is familiar to millions of people all over the world and one which definitely added greatly to the atmosphere of this unique show.
When it comes to the subject of UK Airshow venues, the Imperial War Museum site at Duxford certainly has to be regarded as one of the most atmospheric, a place where you really do need to just stop for a moment, close your eyes and let your imagination run riot. A visit to Duxford at any time of the year really is like taking an aviation step back into history, with an unrivalled collection of historic airfield buildings on both sides of the A505 road and the knowledge that both the Royal Air Force and US Eighth Air Force personnel were based here during the Second World War. In addition to being home to a huge collection of historic aircraft, spanning the entire history of flight, Duxford is also a home for several of Europe’s most important Warbird operators, meaning that on any given day, visitors could not only see some of the rarest airworthy aircraft in the world within the museum’s hangars, but may also be lucky enough to see some actually taking to the skies. Nothing comes close the experience of standing in Duxford’s historic surroundings as a restored Spitfire or Mustang takes off using the airfield’s grass runway, with the sound of its mighty Merlin engine reverberating off the huge hangar walls, enveloping you in a symphony of piston power, just as it must have done during wartime years.
The military airfield at Duxford officially opened in September 1918, just two months before the cessation of hostilities in the Great War, a development which could have thrown the future of the airfield in some doubt. Thankfully, the following year would see the welcome decision to retain the airfield as a permanent RAF station and resulted in a further period of development and expansion taking place. Since those 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 the home based No.19 Squadron having the honour of introducing Britain’s most famous fighter into RAF service and with it, marking the start of an enduring link between the airfield and arguably the world’s most famous fighting aeroplane.
During WWII, the airfield would play a prominent role during the Battle of Britain and towards the end of the battle, over sixty Spitfires and Hurricanes would be dispersed around Duxford and the nearby satellite airfield at Fowlmere. In the months which followed the end of the Battle of Britain, Duxford continued to be at the forefront of Fighter Command’s defensive capabilities, but also proving significant as the RAF moved on to offensive operations. In this regard, the airfield would be the home of a rather interesting unit, the Air Fighting Development Unit. The AFDU were engaged in the assessment of aircraft and equipment prior to their potential service introduction and fascinatingly, also included the return to airworthy condition and evaluation of captured enemy aircraft within their operational remit. This work would probably 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.
In April 1943, Duxford was handed over to the USAAF and became known to them as Station 357 (DX), home to the famous 78th Fighter Group, amongst others – their distinctive black and white chequerboard Thunderbolts and Mustangs would go on to become some of the most distinctive aircraft of the entire war and an enduring source of fascination for aviation enthusiasts all over the world. This Anglo-US aviation link has endured to this day, with Duxford now being home to the impressive American Air Museum, an architecturally significant building which has just been awarded Grade II listed status and the poignant ‘Counting the Cost’ engraved glass memorial wall, which includes the planforms of the 7,031 US aircraft which were lost whilst operating from British bases during WWII.
Former TFC owned P-51D Mustang ‘Twilight Tear’ in her Duxford based 83rd Fighter Squadron, 78th Fighter Group markings
The end of the Second World War brought about a significant period of contraction for the Royal Air Force, but despite the many inevitable base closures which took place at that time, Duxford was one of the stations selected to remain operational. As the RAF was now very much in the jet age, Duxford would be home to such aircraft types as Meteors, Javelins and Hunters during this period, with other front-line aircraft such as RAF Germany Canadair Sabres using it as a temporary base whilst on exercise. In August 1961, a Gloster Meteor blasted off from Duxford’s runway to mark the end of the station’s service career and the beginning of a period of great uncertainty for the site. With the airfield now abandoned, it quickly started falling into disrepair, but was to be transported back to its wartime glory once more during 1968, as it was used as a major location in the production of the now famous Guy Hamilton directed movie ‘The Battle of Britain’ and became temporary home to one of the most impressive collections of airworthy former WWII aircraft ever assembled since the end of the Second World War.
The final, extremely significant chapter in the history of the former RAF Duxford site occurred when the airfield was selected as a temporary home for the aircraft collection of the Imperial War Museum and the fact that the new custodians were also allowed to stage their first Airshow event in the Autumn of 1973. Possibly serving to prove the future viability of a museum at the Duxford site, the Imperial War Museum was given full use of the airfield and all its existing facilities in 1975 - the local council were also given a licence to administer its ongoing operation, with the airfield finally opening to the public on a daily basis the following summer. This former RFC and Battle of Britain station would enjoy a new lease of life, helping to preserve the nations aviation heritage and allowing millions of people the opportunity to experience aeroplanes at close quarters and in authentic surroundings.
The Fighter Collection know how to thrill
A Flying Legends Airshow is all about classic piston engine powered aircraft, operating just as they would have done during wartime years (just without the bombs and bullets). With displays flown by expert pilots, these shows always present enthusiasts with the opportunity to take some memorable pictures of the occasion
For anyone with even the slightest interest in the fighter aircraft which operated during the Second World War, news that The Fighter Collection had decided to base their Warbird operation at IWM Duxford was absolutely monumental. For aviation enthusiasts living in the UK, from 1984 onwards, the already impressive museum at Duxford had another major attraction, one of the finest collections of airworthy ‘Warbirds’ to be found anywhere in the world and a collection which its enigmatic owner, Stephen Grey, was happy to operate in a very open and transparent way. Any visit to Duxford now held the prospect of seeing some of the rarest and most expensive historic aeroplanes in the world either undergoing restoration/maintenance or being test flown from the airfield and the chance to get really close to them. It even held the possibility that your visit may coincide with the arrival of a new container to the TFC hangar and a new Warbird project for everyone to get excited about.
As a talented pilot and Warbird fanatic himself, Mr Grey had the means, connections and expertise to indulge his passion for classic aeroplanes, buying completed projects, or undertaking ambitious restoration projects, which would result in another rare aircraft type taking to the skies once more. For the enthusiast, this wonderful man was happy to allow us all to share in his aviation passion and following the Fighter Collection’s arrival at Duxford, their home in Hangar 2 was soon referred to amongst many enthusiasts as ‘Warbird Central’. Any visit to Duxford was always a treat, but now, Warbird enthusiasts had a huge excuse to visit Duxford on a more regular basis and it would be interesting to know how significant the increase in visitor footfall numbers were at the museum following the arrival of the Fighter Collection. For anyone who had an interest in these rare aeroplanes, the UK now had a place where you could get close to iconic Warbirds on a daily basis and we couldn’t believe our good fortune.
Not content with being the custodians of Europe’s finest collection of airworthy Warbird aircraft, The Fighter Collection developed the exciting habit of regularly freshening up their aircraft collection, operating some of their aircraft for several years, before selling them on so they could secure another rare type for the collection. This was clearly a direction from the top and would allow ‘the boss’ to add another significant historic aircraft type to his log book, but from the enthusiasts point of view, things just couldn’t get any better and over the years, there really have been so many pinch me moments, that we now have to say that we were fortunate to live through these exciting times. Also regularly embarking on ambitious restoration projects both in their own hangars at Duxford and placing aircraft with specialist restoration companies around the world, it really did seem as if the TFC operation was the centre of the Warbird universe at this time, and didn’t we love it!
Fully aware that Britain and the rest of Europe simply could not get enough of this fascinating link to the piston engined aircraft which fought during the Second World War, Mr Grey and his team had an idea that they could create something really special on the UK Airshow circuit, a unique event dedicated to the magnificent piston engined aircraft of years past. A much more focussed event than a general air display, the show would not only give TFC an opportunity to showcase their own aircraft collection, but also to use their influence and connections to invite Warbird operators from all over the world to take part in this very special event, one which from the very beginning became a ‘must attend’ event for many thousands of enthusiasts. Initially teaming up with other Warbird operators based at Duxford, the format proved to be an instant success and convinced them to unleash their first TFC organised Flying Legends Airshow in 1992 - neither TFC nor the Warbird enthusiast ever looked back!
One aspect of the Flying Legends Airshow phenomenon which the TFC team were fully aware of, but which only became apparent to attendees once they had become ‘hooked’ was the show venue itself. This museum site had Warbird heritage of its own and it somehow seemed fitting that Europe’s greatest warbird extravaganza should take place at a former WWII airfield which had launched RAF fighters in defence of the country during the Battle of Britain and would also become familiar to thousands of American service personnel as the Allies went on the aerial offensive. This heady mix of history and nostalgia made Flying Legends more of an experience than an enjoyable weekend of aerial entertainment and your first visit only served to ensure you were in this arrangement for the long haul - you never forget your first Flying Legends, but definitely can’t wait to go back for your next one.
There can be absolutely no doubt that the reason why countless thousands of enthusiasts have flocked to each and every Flying Legends Airshow is because of the impressive collection of historic Warbirds the TFC team managed to gather on the same airfield for one glorious weekend each July. Whilst accepting this is the main attraction, we also have to acknowledge that Flying Legends is much more than that - it’s a feeling and that feeling is infectious. It’s about people. It’s about the team who go to extraordinary lengths to make sure that as many rare aeroplanes as they can get their hands on are available for the show every year, many travelling great distances to be at the show and some even being dismantled and shipped to Duxford for their debut appearances. It’s about the talented pilots who have worked hard to gain the necessary experience to fly these machines of conflicts past, making themselves available for Legends weekend, not only so they could say they were part of the Legends story, but also to make it a memorable occasion for the gathered masses. It‘s also about the engineers who possess specialist skills which are now so rare and have probably worked incredibly long hours to ensure as many aircraft as possible are serviceable for show weekend.
The list continues with the army of volunteer helpers who do everything from keeping the hangar floor tidy, to cleaning and polishing aircraft, before pushing them onto the crowd line prior to their display performance. Its about the hundreds of people who selflessly fund raise for societies and organisations who all rely on the public to continue the valuable work they do and it’s about the re-enactors who add so much to the weekend’s events, helping to produce the unique atmosphere at a Flying Legends show in their expensively assembled period attire. It’s also clearly about Duxford itself, as for one glorious weekend in July each year, you have the opportunity to forget the pressures of the modern world and transport yourself back to the 1940’s, with all the sights and sounds of a busy wartime airfield, thankfully without the bombs and bullets.
The other people who play a significant role in the Flying Legends phenomenon are us, the enthusiasts and spectators who keep going back to the show year after year and who have helped to create the unequalled reputation of this event. It’s about friends with a shared interest meeting at the same place on the same weekend in July ever year to catch up and to get their latest fix of Warbird action, unaware that in their own small way, they are contributing to the Flying Legends story. It’s about making new friends and acquaintances with people from all over the world, faces that have become familiar because of this show, with everyone speaking the common language of aviation. Perhaps of even greater importance, it is an opportunity for families to allow our younger generations to experience the sights and sounds of a WWII era airfield and see the Spitfires and Mustangs they have learnt about in their history lessons, taking off from this famous grass runway right before their very eyes, helping to bring the history books to life.
Is it any wonder that Flying Legends holds such a special place in the hearts of so many people?
Almost 30 years of Flying Legends highlights
The awesome Grumman F7F Tigercat was one of the most impressive aircraft to come under TFC ownership and regularly led the massed Warbird formation ‘Balbo’ at the end of each day’s display
For the many thousands of enthusiasts who have ever been lucky enough to attend one, several or all of the Flying Legends Airshows over the years, they will each have their own personal highlights, but as organisers always went to great lengths to ensure each show had several aircraft or new schemes which were making their Legends debuts, they might have a few. Calling in favours from other Warbird operators and inviting classic aeroplanes from around the world to take part, Flying Legends could always be relied upon to secure the aircraft everyone wanted to see and whether that was an only recently air tested Focke Wulf Fw190 new build, or a B-17 Flying Fortress whose home airfield was over 4,000 miles away, across the Atlantic, this show never disappointed.
I have put together just a small selection of my own personal Flying Legends highlights, which certainly cannot come close to doing justice to my love for this event and if I was given a little more time, I would probably have selected completely different aircraft. With that being said, it would be interesting to see what everyone else thinks about this subject and if you would all be good enough to let us have a small selection of your own Flying Legends highlights. Please send your pictures and any supporting copy to us at email@example.com and if we receive enough entries, we may use them to produce a readers tribute edition of the blog, prior to the next instalment of the Flying Legends show taking place. Your pictures may feature aircraft you particularly enjoyed seeing, or just the fact that you are pleased with how a picture turned out, but whatever the reason, please do get involved and let’s create our own lasting blog tribute to Flying Legend’s Duxford years.
A Flying Fortress comes home
The 2008 show proved to be particularly memorable because it could boast the attendance of no less than three airworthy examples of the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress, the Duxford based ‘Sally B’, Pink Lady, which was based in France and an aircraft the vast majority of people in the crowd would be seeing for the very first time. An ambitious restoration project which had been started during 1992 in the US, aviation enthusiast Don Brooks wanted to return a B-17 to flight, in honour of his father who flew with the 390th Bomb Group out of Framlingham, Suffolk during WWII. The project used the major components from two separate non-combat Flying Fortresses and as it neared completion, the aircraft was given the name ‘Liberty Belle’, after the bomber the owner’s father had flown in combat.
It is interesting to note that the name ‘Liberty Belle’ proved to be quite a popular one with US bomber crews during WWII and it is thought that around thirty different bombers went to war with this name emblazoned across its front fuselage, with some also sporting nose artwork. The B-17 flown by Mr Brooks Senior during WWII managed to complete an impressive 64 missions, before it sustained so much damage during one mission that it was classified as unrepairable and cannibalised for spare parts. The culmination of a thirty year dream for its owner, ‘Liberty Belle’ took to the air following a lengthy and extremely costly restoration on 8th December 2004 and embarked on an Airshow tour of North America the following Airshow season.
Aware of the worldwide reputation the Flying Legends Airshow had secured and desperate to complete his tribute to his father’s wartime service in Europe, the owner accepted an invitation for his aircraft to be a star attraction at the 2008 show and immediately started making arrangements for a potentially hazardous transatlantic crossing. Following a similar route to the North Atlantic Ferry Routes operated by the Allies during WWII, when they flew aircraft manufactured in America and Canada to fight in the European Theatre, the route would see the B-17 making stops in Bangor (Maine), Goose Bay (Labrador), Narsarsuaq (Greenland), Reykjavik (Iceland), before arriving in the British Isles at Prestwick in Scotland. The crew reported that the aircraft flew without a hitch and possibly better than it had ever flown before. It was as if it knew it was going home - all they did was just point it in the right direction and keep it topped up with fuel.
During their time in the UK, the crew flew the bomber over the site of the former Framlingham airfield, the place from where the owner’s father had flown his ‘Liberty Belle’ B-17 on so many operations into enemy territory during WWII. It wasn’t possible for them to actually land at the site, but they did put the bomber down at an airfield close by and treated museum volunteers to a tour of the bomber and a quick flight above the area which became so familiar to US aircrews during WWII. The undoubted highlight of her trip was her starring role at the Flying Legends Airshow, where thousands of visitors had the opportunity to marvel at this stunning overseas visitor and see her perform with the French B-17 ‘Pink Lady’ and a pair of Mustang ‘Little Friends’. Performing above Duxford’s American Air Museum and at an airfield which was home to so many US service personnel during WWII, this must have been an emotional weekend for the crew of this beautiful bomber.
A meeting of marvellous Mustangs
One aircraft type which has always been a firm favourite with the crowds at Flying Legends Airshows over the years is the North American P-51 Mustang and a great many restored examples of these magnificent machines have made their UK Airshow debuts at Duxford. Thrilling us with high-energy tail-chase routines, gaggles of Mustangs have allowed enthusiasts to experience something of what it must have been like back during wartime years, when these piston engined beasts returned from their latest bomber escort mission. A true flying classic, the Mustang is not only one of the most successful fighting aeroplanes in aviation history, but also an aeronautical thing of beauty, one of the most aesthetically appealing aircraft ever to take to the skies. It seems fitting that this airfield which was once home to the operational Mustangs of the 78th Fighter Group should now be linked with the some of the most exciting displays performed by restored examples of the type, something that makes this aircraft rival the popularity of the Spitfire amongst Legends crowds. Where else could you see several examples of airworthy Mustangs displaying at an airfield which launched these aircraft into combat during WWII?
Flying Legends shows have always been a happy hunting ground for Mustang enthusiasts over the years, as not only British and European based aircraft have regularly taken part in the show, but also aircraft normally based in the US have made headlining guest appearances at the show, some having flown the famous North Atlantic air ferry route, whilst others have arrived crated and ready for assembly. However they turn up, Mustangs have always been a big part of Flying Legends history and will hopefully play a major role in many shows to come.
Over recent years, the number of Mustangs on the UK register appears to have fallen to its lowest level for some time, as several of the most popular Airshow performers of years past have been sold on to new owners. For the first time in many a year, their respective owners have chosen not to replace them with new Warbird projects, which I suppose is a sign of the current times and something we may have to get used to in the future. With famous Mustangs sporting names like ‘Princess Elizabeth’, ‘Twilight Tear’ and ‘Ferocious Frankie’ all lighting up many a Flying Legends Airshow in previous years, it’s no wonder that we have come to love this Anglicized American aviation import, one which almost rivals the Spitfire in the Duxford popularity stakes.
Amongst the many fascinating aviation delights assembled for the 2017 edition of Flying Legends, there was one aircraft which went to great lengths to ensure it could take its place in the display line up for that year’s show. With the show just a few short weeks away, North American P-51B Mustang ‘Berlin Express’ was still sitting outside a hangar at its Comanche Fighters home airfield in Texas and if this stunning Warbird was to take part in the latest instalment of the Flying Legends phenomenon, she would have to quickly and safely negotiate a daunting 5,470 transatlantic journey in just a handful of days. Attempting this incredible flight in a WWII era fighter aircraft would be famed Warbird pilot Lee Lauderback and whilst there was clearly little room for error or delays if he and his aircraft were going to star in that year’s Legends show, the operation was actually in extremely good hands - he happens to be one of the world’s most experienced Mustang pilots in the world.
On leaving its home airfield in Texas, Berlin Express headed for the east coast of America and following the famous transatlantic ‘North Atlantic northern ferry route’ (used by so many US and Canadian built aircraft during WWII) to make her way from America to the UK. Operation Bolero was the codename given to the build-up of forces in preparation for the D-Day landings, which required tens of thousands of troops and hundreds of aircraft to transit from North America to the UK. It was thought that the most efficient way to transport aircraft to Britain was for them to fly a route via Canada, Greenland and Iceland, with fighter aircraft grouped together during flights and usually relying on a single bomber or transport aircraft for navigation and communications. Attempting this wartime crossing in a restored WWII fighter was recreating this historic feat of transatlantic logistics and marking the endeavours of hundreds of US airmen who undertook the same dangerous flight. Although Mr Lauderback could rely on modern navigation and communications equipment, as well as a support aircraft for back up, he was still flying a restored single-engined Mustang fighter and was relying on the quality of the restoration work carried out by Pacific Fighters.
One of very few airworthy razorback Mustangs flying in the world, the work to return this beautiful machine back to airworthy condition was started in 2009 by renowned Warbird restorers Pacific Fighters, at their impressive Idaho Falls facility. The project was based around the remaining components of North American P-51B Mustang 43-24837, which was assigned to the 363rd Fighter Group of the US 9th Air Force, flying out of Staplehurst airfield in Kent. The aircraft crashed on 10th June 1944 near the village of Beckley, as the pilot was forced to abandon his Mustang after getting into difficulties during a training sortie, but seventy years later, parts recovered from the crash site would be used in this high-profile restoration project.
Following a painstaking five-year restoration, this stunning P-51B Mustang made its first flight from the Pacific Fighters facility in Idaho on 27th November 2014, further increasing the number of airworthy Mustang fighters in the world and presenting enthusiasts with one of the most distinctive WWII era aircraft in the world. In recognition of the outstanding workmanship and attention to detail throughout this project, the Mustang was awarded the prestigious ‘Most Authentic Restoration’ of a Warbird at the 2015 EAA Air Venture show at Oshkosh, along with the coveted ‘Golden Wrench’ for engineering excellence. The aircraft is now owned by long-time supporters of the Flying Legends Airshow, Comanche Warbirds.
There will be few people who dispute the opinion that the Mustang was one of the most attractive fighters of the Second World War, but it has to be said that the distinctive scheme chosen to adorn for this magnificent restoration is an absolute crackerjack. Wearing the red and yellow markings of the 363rd Fighter Squadron, 357th Fighter Group USAAF, who were flying from Leiston airfield in Suffolk during 1944, the scheme represents the personal mount of 1st Lt. William ‘Bill’ Overstreet, which he named ‘Berlin Express’. Carrying a large flying horse motif on the port side of the front fuselage and the words ‘Berlin Express’ on the starboard side, this must have been one of the most attractive looking Mustangs in Britain during the latter stages of WWII and an unusual sight for any Luftwaffe pilots engaging it in combat.
Overstreet and his Mustang were reputedly involved in a dramatic incident in the days leading up to the D-Day invasion. Flying as protection for a formation of bombers targeting sites in northern France, the 357the Fighter Group saw a large number of Luftwaffe fighters approaching the bombers and immediately broke into the attack. In the ensuing savage dogfight, Overstreet manoeuvred his aircraft behind a Messerschmitt Bf 109G and scored hits on the aircraft, but the combat had taken the pair well away from the main group. Unable to shake off the Mustang, the German pilot headed for Paris at extremely low level, hoping that the attention of German anti-aircraft defences would encourage the American pilot to disengage – unfortunately for him, he was made of sterner stuff. As the pursuit continued, the Luftwaffe pilot became more frantic as his aircraft continued to take hits.
In a final act of desperation, he flew his Messerschmitt under the Eiffel Tower, between the supporting legs of the lower span, but Overstreet and ‘Berlin Express’ continued their pursuit. Moments after this amazing display of airmanship by both pilots, a final well-placed burst of gunfire sent the Messerschmitt crashing into the Parisian suburbs and Berlin Express headed for home at speed, with the German anti-aircraft batteries now giving the Mustang their full attention.
Overstreet apparently named his Mustang ‘Berlin Express’ because he was convinced the Allies would eventually win the war and he would one day land his Mustang at an airfield near to the German capital. The already distinctive Mustangs of the 357th Fighter Group had nothing on his Berlin Express and the story of his exploits over Paris gave this particular aircraft almost mythical status amongst anyone lucky enough to hear of this story. Although not the actual Mustang flown by Lt. Overstreet on his dramatic Parisian encounter, this beautiful aircraft was an unexpected bonus at the 2017 Flying Legends Airshow and for many, the latest star attraction.
The year of the Butcher Bird
Looking back at the 2009 Flying Legends Airshow, there is absolutely no doubt as to which aircraft type had enthusiasts flocking to Duxford, despite all the other embarrassment of aviation riches which were on show. Rumours in the weeks leading up to the show saw remaining tickets disappearing like water down a drain and had enthusiasts glued to the TFC website and aviation forums, hoping to hear news about the potential attendance of a very special aeroplane. What I and many other enthusiasts were hoping to hear was that a Focke Wulf FW 190A-8/N was heading for Duxford from its home airfield in France, an aircraft type most of us had though we would never see at a UK Airshow. Even though this particular aircraft did not have the historic provenance which many of the other aircraft destined for Duxford that weekend possessed, it was a representation of one of the most famous Luftwaffe aircraft of WWII and if there was any chance of seeing it perform, we wanted to be there to witness it. In the day prior to the show, everyone had been reading reports that the Fw190 remained firmly on the ground in France, with engine issues continuing to plague this aircraft which had only recently made its first flight. Still, without official confirmation to the contrary, there was hope that the Focke Wulf might yet make it to Duxford.
The aircraft which was causing so much excitement was the product of a small engineering company in Germany called Flug Werk GmbH, who overcame the problem of there being no original Fw190 fighters available for restoration in a most ingenious manner – they set up to build several completely new Focke Wulf Fw 190 fighters. The project centred around the use of information they had managed to secure regarding the actual wartime production of the Butcher Bird, which included original plans, production dies and surviving jigs used during the war. Armed with this information, the Flug Werk team intended to produce a number of FW 190A-8/N ‘new build’ kits, where the ‘N’ in the type description stood for ‘Nachbau’, or replica. Although these aircraft would obviously not possess any wartime combat provenance, they would be constructed using very similar methods to the wartime aircraft and would basically be faithful 1:1 scale replicas of the aircraft which ruled the skies over occupied Europe from the summer of 1941.
The actual Fw190 aircraft were powered by a single BMW 801 radial engine, but as the team would not have access to any of these original powerplants, the Nachbau fighters would be modified to accept a licence built Shvetsov Ash-82FN 14-cylinder radial engine, which is an interesting feature all on its own. Now licence built in China, the original Ash-82FN engine proved to be one of the most rugged piston engines of the Second World War and was widely used by the Soviet Air Force. In a real quirk of aviation fate, this engine actually powered the Lavochkin series of Soviet fighters, aircraft which were the main adversaries of the Focke Wulf Fw190 during combat on the Eastern Front.
The first tentative flight of the new build Focke Wulf took place in June 2004 and for this and subsequent early flights, the undercarriage remained extended, as the retraction system was an ongoing headache for the team and had not been completed in time for these early flights. By September, the aircraft was ready for its official press flight at Manching AFB in Germany, where the world saw the unmistakable profile of a Focke Wulf Fw190 in the skies once more, a spectacular achievement for everyone at Flug Werk. Over the following months, the aircraft would be exhaustively tested and every aspect of its flying characteristics evaluated, all under the gaze of a fascinated aviation world. With any number of wealthy aviation minded entrepreneurs hoping to acquire one of these magnificent aircraft, the Flug Werk team were hoping that these tests proceeded without issue, so they could begin production of the aircraft and try to recoup some of the significant outlay they had already speculated. Thankfully, their new Butcher Bird was proving to be a resounding success.
Flying Legends 2009 was most definitely the year of the Butcher Bird and would eventually boast not one, but TWO examples of Flug Werk Fw190s on the airfield for this memorable weekend, although one was purely a static example. The undoubted star of the show was Fw190A-8N ‘Black 1’ (990013 F-AZZJ), owned by the famous French Warbird collector and long-time friend of TFC, Christophe Jacquard. This particular aircraft had only made its maiden flight in early May and was actually due to make its European Airshow debut at the La Ferte Alais Airshow over the weekend of 30th/31st May. Unfortunately, the aircraft suffered a major electrical failure over that weekend and was unable to fly, although they did manage to start the mighty radial engine and allow enthusiasts to see the aircraft taxied along the crowd line.
Perfectly understandable initial teething problems did appear to be plaguing this fascinating new build and even though it was scheduled to appear at Flying Legends, the fact that it was still very new and had spent little time in the air meant that its attendance was by no means guaranteed. Even as the Focke Wulf made its historic first landing at Duxford and triumphantly took its place in the static aircraft line up, there was still a chance that the issues which had affected the aircraft in France only weeks earlier could return and prevent this magnificent machine from displaying to a huge and extremely hopeful crowd.
Looking beautifully sinister, just as a WWII Luftwaffe aircraft should, the Focke Wulf had been finished to represent ‘Black 1’, the mount of Luftwaffe ace Lieutenant Horst Hanning and the aircraft he used whilst serving as Staffelkapitan of JG.2 ‘Richthofen’ based at Tricqueville in early 1943. Hanning scored his first victory over the Eastern Front on the first day of Operation Barbarossa and had amassed 30 victories whilst still only 19 years of age. His aircraft featured a distinctive eagle design down both sides of the fuselage and whilst this is certainly a particularly appealing feature, it does have a practical purpose. In addition to allowing JG 2 pilots to quickly identify other members of the unit during combat, it also helped to mask the heavy dark staining behind the exhausts of the BMW 801 engine, which tended to discolour the sides of the fighter’s fuselage.
The Focke Wulf’s first appearance at a Flying Legends Airshow was a triumphant one and an expectant crowd were thrilled by the display of this stunning aircraft, with this new build machine ably highlighting why this was one of the premier fighting aeroplanes of the Second World War. Dominating the airspace at lower altitudes, the rugged and extremely agile Butcher Bird ruled supreme for almost twelve months during WWII and as this Flug Werk example dived from height before making a high speed pass along the length of the Duxford crowd line, everyone there to witness the spectacle knew they were seeing something very special indeed and another significant coup for the team behind the show.
The other B-17, the Swedish one!
A Flying Legends Airshow can always be relied upon to present its knowledgeable enthusiast crowd with a stunning selection of classic aeroplanes for their delectation and quite often, one or two which are extremely rare and unusual. That definitely turned out to be the case in 2005 when Duxford’s resident Flying Fortress ‘Sally B’ was looking forward to welcoming another B-17, but one which looked very different. One of the rarest and most unusual European aircraft participants at a Flying Legends show, the SAAB B-17A dive bomber was an indigenously designed and built, all metal monoplane and one which was intended to provide the Swedish Air Force with a significant capability upgrade. Making its first flight in May 1940, this Swedish aircraft could hardly look more different from the famous American bomber which shares its military classification, being a single radial engine powered and rather ungainly looking attack and reconnaissance aircraft.
The only airworthy example of its type in the world, B-17A build No.17239 was restored to commemorate SAAB’s 60th Anniversary in 1997 and made its one and only Flying Legends appearance during a memorable 2005 show. Built in three main production variants, each one only really differed from the other by virtue of the engine used to power it and although the aircraft only entered Swedish Air Force service in 1942, the type was withdrawn from military service only five years later. Relatively large numbers of former Swedish Air Force aircraft would go on to see service in the colours of the Ethiopian Air Force.
During the 2005 show, the B-17A wooed the Duxford crowd with a display of agility which not many people thought this unusual looking aircraft capable of performing, culminating with a high altitude approach and a simulated airfield dive-bombing attack, all of which was hugely impressive. Although Sweden’s B-17 bomber will never rival ‘Sally B’ in the Airshow popularity stakes, as far as I am aware, this was the only time that the SAAB B-17 has attended a UK Airshow and therefore rightly takes its place as one of the many rare and iconic aircraft which have graced this world famous Warbird spectacular.
A Thunderbolt named 'Snafu'
Within the annals of Fighter Collection history, they have gained a reputation for owning and operating a number of extremely rare American aircraft types from the Second World War, the list of which sounds like an inventory from the Janes book of combat aircraft. Over the years, aircraft such as the Curtiss P-36, P-40 Warhawk and Hawk 75, Grumman Hellcat and Tigercat have all shared the same TFC hangar space with Mustangs, Corsairs and even a P-38 Lightning, but perhaps the most impressive aircraft they have ever operated from the perspective of sheer visual stature is the mighty Republic P-47 Thunderbolt. An aircraft which was colloquially referred to as the Juggernaut by virtue of its generous size, many of the first US pilots to fly it in the European Theatre during WWII previously flew British Spitfires and Hurricanes and when they were told they would be converting to the Thunderbolt, they were initially filled with dread. They needn’t have worried, the Thunderbolt was a fighting thoroughbred and a rugged, hard-hitting combat aircraft the Luftwaffe soon learned to fear.
The Fighter Collection have famously operated two Thunderbolts from Duxford over the years, with the most recent being a rare ‘Razorback’ example of the fighter and one which made its static Legends debut in 2011 and first appearance in the air the following year. Commemorating the heritage shared between the P-47 and Duxford airfield, they finished the fighter as a USAAF 84th Fighter Squadron machine, one which proudly wore the distinctive black and white cowling checkerboard markings of the Duxford based 78th Fighter Group.
This rare Curtiss built Republic P-47G Thunderbolt was manufactured in their Buffalo factory in early 1944 and entered USAAF service in September the same year. The aircraft was almost immediately re-designated as a TP-47G, spending time with several Advanced Fighter Transition Units, where it was used to give training pilots vital experience on a front line fighter, before they were posted on to operational units. With the end of the war, the aircraft remained in a training role for a short while, but this time as more of a ground instructional airframe for engineers assessing the complex workings of a modern aircraft. She was deemed surplus soon after and sold to a former Cleveland National Air Race pilot, who would hire the aircraft out for use in several movie projects over the following few years.
The Thunderbolt benefitted from a comprehensive period of restoration in 1981, emerging from this extended hangar time in the markings of ‘Little Demon’ of the USAAF 351st Fighter Squadron, before embarking on a busy schedule of US Airshow appearances. Later acquired by a new owner in the UK, this magnificent aircraft would inexplicably spend the next few years stuck in its shipping container, being stored in several different locations around the country, but certainly not appearing on the UK Airshow scene. The aircraft finally came into the possession of the Fighter Collection in 2006, with the aircraft still in its shipping container and still wearing its ‘Little Demon’ markings. Immediately assessed by TFC engineers, it was sent to Fighter Rebuilders at Chino to undergo specialist restoration, arriving back at Duxford during 2008, an exciting project which enthusiasts were very much looking forward to seeing in the air.
By late 2011, the aircraft was beginning to look as if she was preparing to make her latest post restoration test flight and was now looking resplendent in the markings of a Thunderbolt which served with the 84th Fighter Squadron at Duxford during late 1944. Republic P-47D Thunderbolt 42-25068 / WZ-D ‘Snafu’ was the personal mount of Lt. Severino B Calderon and carried both the distinctive checkerboard cowling markings of the 78th Fighter Group and also a pristine set of D-Day identification markings - this was such a good looking aeroplane. The aircraft was presented as a static display item at Flying Legends 2011, but her flying Legends debut would not take place until the following year, where she represented the latest Warbird coup for the Fighter Collection team and their magnificent Airshow. Unfortunately, the aircraft’s time with TFC was all too brief and she is now back flying with new owners in America, but nevertheless, she still represents one of the stunning aviation highlights in the Flying Legends story.
A Flying Legends phoenix rises
As if the past year couldn’t get any more distressing for the UK Aviation enthusiasts, the cancellation of the 2020 Flying Legends Airshow was only the precursor to the disastrous news we were given later in the year - this iconic event was no more! In an emotional official announcement which few people saw coming, the Fighter Collection announced that they had decided, in conjunction with Imperial War Museum officials, that their iconic Airshow would be ending its association with Duxford with immediate effect and that they would no longer be staging the show at their traditional home. Immediately consigning one of the world’s most famous Airshows to the history books, they did confirm at the time that their intention was to find a new home for the show, but with the current global situation and most of us still coming to terms with news of this magnitude, we knew that things would never quite be the same again for Europe’s most famous Warbird show.
Thankfully, just before a serious depression could set in, a follow up announcement from The Fighter Collection informed us all that they had managed to find a new venue for their show and the next instalment of the Flying Legends phenomenon would be taking place at Sywell aerodrome in Northamptonshire. With the pandemic emergency still having a significant impact on the country and event organisers unable to finalise their plans for this coming summer’s events, it is certainly not a forgone conclusion that Sywell will host its first Flying Legends in 2021, however, that uncertainty has not stopped thousands of people already securing their hotel accommodation over the intended show weekend, just on the off-chance.
Whenever the re-launched Flying Legends show takes place, your intrepid Aerodrome reporter will be doing his level best to record the occasion as thoroughly as possible, providing blog readers with a full review in a future edition. Here’s to the next 30 years of this magnificent Warbird spectacular and further aviation highlight and memories to be made - we wish the Fighter Collection team every success with this exciting development and the future of one of the world’s best loved Airshows.
It is always nice to end the year on a positive note and what could be finer than to reflect on an optimistic future for Flying Legends and the magnificent aircraft it allows us all to enjoy. It has certainly been a very strange year for everyone, but as this is our final edition of Aerodrome for 2020, I would like to take this opportunity to thank everyone who has taken the time to read one of our blogs for your support, particularly those of you who have been with us since the very first edition back in April 2015. Your unstinting support is both humbling and very much appreciated, but it is always comforting to know that there are people who share the same passion for aviation out there in the wider world.
On behalf of everyone here at Airfix and Corgi, may I please wish you all a very happy and above all, safe Christmas and New Year and I look forward to bringing you more aviation related entertainment throughout the coming year. Let’s hope I will have a couple of Airshows to report from next year.
I am afraid that is all we have for you in this Flying Legends edition of Aerodrome and indeed for this year, but we will be back in FOUR weeks’ time with more aviation related content for your enjoyment. If you would like to send us a selection of your own pictures, or suggest an aviation related subject you would like to see covered in a future edition, please use our firstname.lastname@example.org address, where we will be delighted to hear from you.
In between new editions of our blog, the aviation related conversation continues over on the Airfix Aerodrome Forum and we can also be contacted on either the Airfix or Corgi Facebook pages, in addition to Twitter for both Airfix and Corgi - please do get involved in the discussions and let us know what you think about Aerodrome.
The next edition of Aerodrome is due to be published on Friday 15th January, where we look forward to bringing you even more interesting aviation related features.
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