Prose & Photography: Robert Griffiths
“I was sold on flying as soon as I had a taste for it” - John Glenn
Duxford has been home to many celebrations of late and this year was no exception. Full Disc Aviation was invited to cover the prestigious 27th Flying Legends airshow organised by The Fighter Collection. Flying Legends is synonymous to all aviation enthusiasts who like the vintage era of flying and has been a regular in the past for myself. Unfortunately, it had been a number of years since I attended due to date clashes with Royal International Air Tattoo. Flying Legends is a bit of a Mecca for people all over the world, from South Africa to the US, many thousands converge on this Cambridgeshire airfield yearly to witness not just old aircraft, but to see them put through their paces in a beautifully and tightly choreographed show that is sure to wow and present amazing photographic opportunities.
Duxford itself has a rich history. Built in 1917 as a Royal Flying Corps airfield, it would become a training airfield for much of the inter-war period. In 1938, it would house the first Supermarine Spitfire Squadron, No. 19 Squadron. It would be a busy time in the Battle of Britain and their aircraft would twice scramble on 15th September 1940. RAF Duxford would become home to the United States Army Air Forces fighters of the 78th Fighter Group. After World War II, Duxford would once again become an RAF base for jet fighters until 1961, where for 15 years, it’s fate remained uncertain, until Imperial War Museums would use it to facilitate restoration work. It would also become a star in the most ambitious aerial film in the UK, being used in ‘The Battle of Britain’ film in 1968. Since IWM Duxford has been home to some super rare exhibits, spectacular commemorations and airshows, the most well known being ‘Flying Legends’.
Fast forward to 2019 and Flying Legends in its 27th iteration has gone from strength to strength. Having been to several ‘Legends’ airshows over the years, I knew this year would be pretty special, especially being the 75th anniversary of D-Day (see FDA’s coverage of Daks Over Duxford). The day started inauspiciously, with pretty damp conditions and a steady rainfall, that thankfully cleared up by the time I arrived. Arriving for registration, it wasn’t long before being helpfully whisked to the flightline by one of the volunteers who explained everything clearly, reviewing the do’s and don’ts. On entering the flightline, we made our way to the end of the fighters, and boy, what a sight: five fully restored Hispano HA.1112 Buchons, resplendent in the livery they would have carried during the 1968 filming from Duxford. It seemed most of the press were interested in these five, with a flurry of photos being taken from all angles. Making my way along the flightline, it was really special to get up close and personal with these legends of the sky. Buchons, Spitfires, a Blenheim, a Lysander, Mustangs, a Thunderbolt, a Corsair, Sea Furys, and more, the eyes were greeted with a feast of legends and history.
It wasn’t long before we came to the end of the line with the only airworthy B-17 in Europe, Sally B. She is one of Duxford’s resident aircrafts but is not part of the museum collection, relying on donations and sponsorship to keep her in the air, an incredible feat and testament to the hard work of it’s volunteers and 8000 club members who have kept this ol’ gal flying for 43 years in the UK. I was lucky enough to be given a personal tour inside by John Jefferies, who was exceptionally knowledgeable and very kind to invite FDA into the seldom seen interior. It really drives home how few amenities the crew had, and to fly it over enemy territory for hours, in inhospitable conditions, does not bear thinking about. On exiting, it was close to the flightline opening up to the public but luckily, the re-enactors had arrived just before to get ready, so I took the opportunity to get some shots before it would become too difficult in the throng of people waiting.
It would be a few hours before the display started, so it was time to peruse the many and varied stalls that are a reader’s, collector’s, and modeller’s dream (and maybe your wallet’s worst nightmare!). There are a number of them relating to the many ongoing projects and flying aircraft societies in the UK; the People's Mosquito, the Hawker Typhoon Preservation Society, Ultimate Fighter Collection etc.
I also took this opportunity to take a look around the museum itself, which is well worth looking around before the flying display. It was also a chance to catch up with friends and grab a bite at The Workshop Restaurant. After listening to a great bit of singing from the Manhattan Dolls, we were visited by no less than Laurel and Hardy themselves! A peek into the various hangars always creates an aura of awe and wonder at the different aircraft from history.
Soon it was time to head on over to the photo pit and get ready for the display to start. For press, there are two pits to choose from at either end of the crowd line. There are also options for a central grandstand and seating areas for different tickets. Soon, the silence on the airfield was shattered by the first splutter of a Spitfire’s Merlin on the flightline. The graceful shapes of 12 Spitfires gently swayed from side to side on their way to the end of the runway. The anticipation was building just as the first airframe bounced down the grass strip and into the air. It’s hard to describe a mass launch of this many Spitfire’s; the absolute cacophony of noise is wonderful to the ears and the iconic shapes speeding off into the distance is a sight to behold. The arrival of the mass formation appeared on the horizon and I noticed that the airfield had fallen eerily quiet as it approached. They seemed to linger in the sky in front before gracefully banking away.
This serenity would suddenly be broken by a sinister sight in the sky, as the Spitfire’s arch nemesis (or rather a distant relative of that nemesis) as not one but five Hispano Aviacion HA-1112 Buchons lifted off in quick succession, disappearing to form up as the Spitfire formation broke formation and proceeded a well choreographed tail chase in front of the crowd. They would then begin landing one after another, taxying slowly back to their original positions before shutting down.
Out front, five spaced silhouettes appeared racing down the crowd centreline. Anyone who has watched the film The Battle of Britain will equally remember the scene where the Buchons did a low level attack on the Hurricane base in the opening scene. Now, this would be playing out right before my eyes, as they broke from their attack, forming two attack groups as they beat up the airfield.
One of the most impressive things that you will notice attending Flying Legends is how well acts blend into one another. Creating an atmosphere of near constant air activity there is more than enough to get you photographic trigger finger going. Other participants on the Sunday ranged from the B-17 Sally B, the P-51D Mustangs, Curtiss aircraft P-40s and P-36, Hawk 75, and The Classic Formation - a lovely formation set from a C-47 and three Beech 18s. There are also Navy and D-Day tributes, a Battle of Britain tribute and the Ultimate Fighters team among many more.
The Battle of Britain tribute was a very nice selection of three Supermarine Spitfire MKIs, a Westland Lysander and the only airworthy Bristol Blenheim. This is where the Lysander actually put me in awe, as it deftly kept up with the Spitfires and Blenheim with seemingly no issues. A few passes before the formation split, the Blenheim and Lysander maneuvering around the skies of Duxford gracefully.
One of the most impressive things I have seen at Flying Legends was the new Ultimate Fighters Team, consisting of a P-47D Thunderbolt, TF-51D Mustang, Buchon and a Supermarine Spitfire MKV. Four amazing fighters of World War II, but four very different performance envelopes. The pilots’ ability to keep these in such a tightly formed diamond shape absolutely blew me away and showed just how proficient the pilots were in their respective aircraft. It wasn’t long before splitting into pairs, the Spitfire and Buchon breaking off and starting a mock dogfight with victory ultimately going to the former. Further two ship loops and passes by the TF-51 and P-47 finished up the awe inspiring show.
Before long the three hours of display was coming to an end, with only two acts left to finish off the day. The Balbo Finale and ‘The Joker’. Balbo was a common term in the late 1930s and early 1940s to describe any large formation of aircraft. It was named after the Italian flying ace Italo Balbo who led a series of large aircraft formations in record-breaking flights to promote Italian aviation in the 1930s. Whilst the last but one show by a solo C-47 was coming to an end, all the fighters had meandered their way to the end of the runway, waiting for the command to take off. Soon, the first fighter bobbed over the grass runway before gracefully catching the air and racing past us at the end of the field. A total of 25 fighter types would go past, with a Sea Fury and Grumman Bearcat being the Jokers. The Jokers are an important part of this scenario, ensuring that the crowd is entertained with high speed passes and aerobatics while the Balbo formation forms up in the distance. Before long the lumbering formation appears on the horizon heading toward Duxford for what is probably the largest formation of vintage aircraft in the UK, if not Europe. As the rumble on water-cooled and radial fighters passes by and circles for another pass, both Jokers zoom back to show centre from opposite sides, climbing rapidly and amazingly quick for piston powered aircraft. Before long the second pass comes through before splitting off into sections of 3 aircraft and entering the circle to land. And thus concluded Flying Legends 2019 and yet another successful year for Duxford.
*Full Disc Aviation and myself would like to extend our thanks to the Media Team at Flying Legends who were happy to help with any questions. Looking forward to next year and what will be in store!