16 Spitfires flying over Duxford airfield - 70th Anniversary Battle of Britain Airshow

A passing comment from my niece in Scotland about “Spitfires on Radio 4″ – I recalled standing in London for the 50th Anniversary of the Battle of Britain while Spitfires and Hurricanes flew up the Mall and over Buckingham Palace. Now it was the 70th anniversay – I’m planning on learning to fly – starting next week. I couldn’t resist and flipped over to the UK for the weekend of 4/5 Sept.

I was able to get two lessons at the airshow. One in a 1941 Tiger Moth primary trainer and a second aerobatics in a AJ6 Harvard advanced trainer. Hopefully these will whet my appetite for the haul through flying school that is coming up.

Here are some of my photosets from the Airshow at Duxford.

Duxford 1940

A composite of shots to illustrate my Saturday lesson in the 1941 Tiger Moth

A composite of shots to illustrate the Sunday aerobatic lesson in the Harvard

The RAF Battle of Britain Memorial Flight

The Red Arrows!

The Aerostars!

The Scottish Aviation DeHavilland Dragon Rapide

P51-D Mustangs

B-17 Sally B / Memphis Belle

The Messerschmitt 109

The Hurricanes!

The reason for coming…. SPITFIRES!

To open the show the Red Arrows roared in from behind the crowd and did a near flawless display. The spare pilot on the ground giving the commentary and he patched in the radio at times so you could hear the calls the lead pilots were making “Roll left – NOW”, “Smoke on – NOW!”; “Formation Spitfire – NOW!” (A special formation for the day to represent the planform of a Spitfire), “BREAK!” Only the “Now’s” and “Break’s” were very short staccato squawks to get everybody moving at the same moment.

A Hawker Sea Fury and Grumman Bearcat represented the last of the propeller age. Two P51-D Mustangs flew a tight formation all over the sky – Then the B-17G bomber painted as “Sally B” on her port side and “Memphis Belle” on her starboard side (she is really the first but played the role of the second in the movie) flew a display and at one point the Mustangs joined to offer protection against marauding Germans – if there were any about. As the Mustangs stayed to finish the element the B-17 disappeared over the horizon. Just as the Mustangs were landing he reappeared – left wing low and both port engines trailing smoke – shot up and “Coming in on a wing and a prayer”. He made a slow pass across the crowd – “In memory of the Eighth Air Force” from the commentator. The 8th was based at Duxford from 1943 and their Memorial is also at Duxford. The B17 lifted his wing – turned off the smoke generators and landed.

From behind the crowd the Battle of Britain Memorial flight roared in low over the control tower – The Lancaster, Hurricane and Spitfire racing cross field in a tight formation before displaying the Lancaster and fighters separately – The Spitfire landed to join in later and the other two left.

Then from out of nowhere the flight line of Spitfires was attacked by a lone “Messerschmitt 109” (A post-war Spanish Hispano Buchon) which made three strafing runs before a section of four Hurricanes scrambled off the flight line to go after him. I have to say that at the end of the wheeling dogfight over the airfield I have an enhanced and enormous respect for the Hurricane pilots who in 1940 were told to “leave the fighters and attack the bombers” and who hoped that someone had remembered to send some Spitfires along to cover them from the German fighters. As they wheeled in a mock dogfight over the field they had to break to get the Me109 off their tails as he could zoom climb away out of trouble compared to them. It was a stunning display and when you counted them up – we had seen 5 of the 6 remaining airworthy Hurricanes in the UK in the past few minutes. The “Me109” disappeared and as three of the Hurricanes landed the fourth flew a series of victory rolls over the field. The number of movie buffs in the crowd who could be heard quietly chanting “Never fly a Victory Roll over my airfield again! Do you hear me?” was an amusing testament to one of Christopher Plummer’s lines in the Battle of Britain movie.

Some lovely classic “filler aircraft”, the “Scottish Airways” Dragon Rapide, more Harvards, A desperately slow but agile Gloucester Gladiator which was Britain’s front line defense till 1938 gracefully tumbled around showing how inadequate a defense it would have been if still in the front line in 1940. A DeHaviland Wasp, the “Aerostars” civilian display team of YAK-6′s bought from the Soviets, painted up and flown by airline pilots for fun; a PBY/Catalina amphibian. A Belgian F-16 pulling stall turns on reheat to represent the 32 Belgians who fought in the Battle of Britain – then the line of Spitfires all started firing up and the crowd was on its feet.

They all taxied off down to the end of the field. The Mk1a starting up last and cutting the corner on the others – its small oil cooler not being up to an extended period of ground running. Then “Squadron Scramble” – and all 16 roared off down the field till they flew off to the east – filling the sky with roaring Merlin and Griffon engines – and off over the horizon out of sight.

Then like the support act to a more popular band – an aerobatic tumble from a small Bucker Jungmeister and Jungmann for a few minutes while the commentator rambled on about it being built by the Germans for the Swiss Airforce in 1938 and blah blah blah…… It was a nice routine – but I don’t think anyone was really watching it. Everyone waited in anticipation. Churchill’s “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few” speech was rebroadcast across the field. As it finished we were asked to rise for a minute’s silence for the fallen and as we did and with impeccable timing – four modern Hawk trainers from RAF 19 squadron – the first to be equipped with Spitfires in 1938 – flew slowly down the line in diamond formation – the lead broke for the heavens to represent the “missing man”.

Then the 16 Spitfires gently came in – split into four sections of four. As they flew off the end of the field the minutes was up and they pushed their throttles forward and hauled around to do it again – only this time roaring low and close and positively thrilling the crowd with their supercharger whines and growls and a serious beat up of the airfield.

Splitting into two teams of eight they then started wheeling around the field from opposite ends passing just in front of the crowd at 50ft and then wheeling around to do it again.

A pair split off and started to fly Cuban Eights on the line while the rest kept wheeling through – for over 10 minutes. Then as oil temperatures started to rise one by one they would break for the ground and fly the curved approach back down to the field. Finally there was one left – my Mk IX friend from the morning lesson – who flew a positively awesome aerobatic display over the crowd while those who had landed lined up on the taxiway on the flight line.

As the aerobatic came into land – the Spitfires taxied along the taxiway in line ahead – snaking along as the pilots kicked their rudders back and forth to see around their noses and not run into the guy ahead. The crowd was on its feet – clapping loudly in a typically British way (no whoops and cheers – but very enthusiastic). Good Weekend – aerobatics with the Spitfire being the completely unexpected, unplanned bonus.

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