DUXFORD & BATTLE OF BRITAIN AIRSHOW
|Up early after a late night at the office tying up the
loss ends. Expresso hissing on the stove as I finalise packing before heading in to
the office for an afternoons work, prior to the evenings departure to London. All this
effort to actually get away. Thanks to my patient wife packing was kept to a minimum, just
trimmed the actual range of clothes taken down to something I felt like hauling around!
Take the kids to school and then with a good-bye hug - and a quick "and dont
forget a present", I am off.
I quite like the idea of evening departures from Australia to Europe. You can usually have a good meal, sleep through to Singapore, ( which fits into the normal time you would go to bed) then arrive into Europe late afternoon/evening, which means you dont have to try and stay up all day, but head to bed at a normal time. Our group was flying with LAUDA AIR a well known boutique airline that was soon to show us their style. The captain was made aware there was a group of aircraft enthusiasts on board and we soon organised a roster by where 2 group members at a time could be present at each take off and landing - a real bonus for the trip! My privilege was to experience a night landing into Singapore - yes woke up early for that one! We descended to the top of the cloud base where upon the landing lights were turned off on to enhance the ethereal effect of skimming in and out of cloud at over 800km/hr, the powerful lights illuminating the cloud as they speed past the windows. When we reached 4,000m the captain said, "take a deep breath". I did so and was amazed that the cockpit smelt like a garden rubbish fire, a result of the fires from Indonesia.
The remainder of the flight was comfortable, as comfortable as a non stop 12 hour run to Vienna could be! There is no doubt they have great food in the economy section of Lauda, but we all concluded that Austria poses no threat to the Australian wine industry! During the transit at Vienna airport a few members experienced using foreign currency for the first time and were amazed to find the waitress would accept any hard currency, convert it to the local currency and give back change - try that at an Australian airport!
We soon heard - with that tired feeling anyone experiences with a complete time switch - the cabin announcement that we were now descending into London Gatwick airport. Suddenly the body picks up as the relaxing green of English dales appear beneath us - as well as the crammed M25 orbital motorway on which we were soon to be found making our slow way to Cambridge! I must introduce here that we were arriving into London early evening the day before the funeral for Princess Diana and traffic was exceptional. Gatwick caters for a lot of the English package holiday market and it was an interesting sociological experience to watch those that choose such exotic and stimulating destinations as Majorca and Torremolinos for their "hols".
Our transfer people were waiting and we were all soon experiencing excessive traffic on the M25 as we made our way around greater London and north to the historical city of Cambridge which was to be our base for the next 3 nights. I had not been to Cambridge for a number of years, but was pleased to see that my subconscious suddenly recognised parts of the city as we moved through the centre to our hotel. We had a character hotel situated opposite the river Cam and overlooking one of Cambridges famous greens, the tops of the ancient colleges reaching up above the tree lined skyline. The hotel consisted of a row of converted Victorian houses, with the whole building being a listed building, so modern development was limited - thank goodness! I shared a room and we were given a turret room. This meant we faced a series of stairs culminating in our own final steep stair approach and we entered this wonderful room the slopping ceiling off which was indeed the main roof line. The best was yet to befall us, so following a call to nature Andrew entered the bathroom. Now I thought the "Australian country style expletive that emanated from the bathroom was purely an expression of released pressure. However, further comments induced me to wander into the bathroom and behold one of the worlds best loos with a view. A regular architectural feature of Victorian houses was a corner turret at the roof level. The owners had converted this turret to a bathroom and the view was out over the river and greens to the city skyline itself. One could stand - assuming male patronage - and ponder the daily goings on of the local populace. Andrew being 63" tendered to do this with a slightly bent shape at knee level lest he become the spectacle being viewed!
Those that still managed to stay awake, after reviving showers, meet in the lounge area to satisfy a desire to taste some pommy beer. Here I must declare a hand, for I am an affectianardo of Real Ale having resided in the UK for 10 years. To my annoyance our hotel did not have worthy ale that matched the quality of its architecture. Due to the jetlag factor no one wanted to venture far so suffer we must. Ray - first trip overseas - insisted on buying the opening round as he wanted to spend his first quid. After glasses were settled and pallets began sampling the amber nectar a resounding exclamation of disgust reverberated around the table. From that moment I had to work much harder to introduce this lot to the art of real ale!
Plans for the next day had been severely altered due to the funeral of Princess Diana. We were to enjoy a guided walk of the historical city centre, then go to the Duxford air museum to view the static display plus partake in a flight in the Domini. All was cancelled as were all events, public buildings and shops throughout Britain. The museum and some shops would open after 1pm but the guides and the Domini would not be operating. I had decided to travel down to London, meet my sister and attend the funeral. This was a major historical event and opportunities such as this are rare. The remainder of the group decided to sleep in, wander around Cambridge by foot, watch the funeral on TV and then visit the museum in the afternoon. I awoke early and caught a train to London and joined the crowds in Whitehall just near horse guards parade. The whole procedure of getting there was effortless and despite the throngs of people we were able to secure a good vantage point with no effort. Suffice it to say that this was an emotional event with an absolute electric atmosphere.
I rejoined my travelling companions early evening and made a further valiant effort to convert these heathens to the virtuous pursuit of real ale. After all we were frequenting pubs used by the many aircrew who passed though this town, and English Ale was a part of their many short lives. I suffered a serious setback at the first pub when a 62" Ray stepped up to the bar and in his best Australian accent asked the barmaid, " I want a beer and I want it to be cold and fizzy, you got any?". Well the young lass, resplendent in her gothic makeup, after regaining her composure replied in a Welsh lilt that he should try Carlsberg lager. Alas they were all turning into larger louts!
The quaintness of the pub won a few hearts that evening and we all retired early with jetlag still nibbling at the edges. An early start was planned for the morrow and the weather looked good for the airshow.
Waking early never seems to be a problem after a flight to the other side of the world. After an English Breakfast, which would sustain us for the remainder of the day we were transferred out to Duxford airfield. Our drivers delivered us right to the ticket booth from where it was only 20 meters and you were amongst the exhibits. As one participant remarked, this beats a 2km walk from a carpark across paddocks like we do in Australia. After securing our front row seating, group members set off exploring the static displays and merchandise stands. I had to make contact with the Blenheim Restoration society and ensure our group member John was reunited with his wartime aircraft.
One of our group, John McMillan served in the RAF during WW2 and flew Blenheim bombers on active service, first out of the UK and then from India against the Japanese until no serviceable aircraft remained. From there he was transferred to Darwin where he flew Mitchell B25s up to and through southern Asia on operational strikes, before using his aircraft to bring home prisoners of war. John had not seen a Blenheim for 55 years or a B25 for 54 years. I had made prior contact from Australia and the Blenheim people were keen to meet John to record some of his detail and ensure he reacquainted himself with his old companion.
From the Blenheim Restoration Societies caravan I headed off to attract the attention of the B25 crew. This meant waiting for a while behind the crowd barriers until one walked across the taxiway for some reason. I managed to attract one such man and explained our visit and the fact that we had a B25 vet with us who had flown all the way from Australia. Fortunately I did not have to use my full repertoire of convincing yarns, as this chap was most receptive. He noted our seating position and said he would return after discussing our interest with the B25 skipper. We were soon notified that a visit to the aircraft was in order and we should gather at a certain point at a certain time and we would be escorted across the apron to the aircraft. Well you should have seen grown adults facial expression change to those of children suddenly told they were to receive an unscheduled ice-cream! Several members checked their watches with the nearest atomic clock to ensure they would not be late to the meeting point, whilst others would not move more than 50 meters from the spot!
Our time soon arrived and the barrier was opened for us to move out from the masses. We noted expressions of envy from the crowd and realised many would be wondering who were these VIPs! Another B25 vet was also invited along with us - another John - who served with the RAF out of Britain flying the B25. The two Johns were soon exchanging data about their respective units and operational flying of the B25. It is hard to put into words the feeling as you walk up to such a fine aircraft and then reach out and touch a part of history. John was soon invited to climb up to the flight deck (as all of us were!). I followed with video camera as I was recording the moments for his family back home. Here I was, first time I had ever managed to get inside such an aircraft and I had ones eye on the video viewfinder and the other open to experience the real feeling for myself. John, despite his 80 years showed good agility as he found his way to his old seat of command. After my own entry to the area behind the actual flight deck I slipped up on to a small bench seat with my back against the bomb bay and feet wedged on the sides. This allowed others to squeeze in as well and listen to Johns comments. There were two eager members of the B25 crew with us as they were interested in listening to John as his memories came back and yarns were forthcoming.
We were allowed to explore further and against Johns advice I attempted to crawl through the small gap between the wings, over the bomb bay to the rear crew compartments. I soon realised why John advised against this, soon gave up and climbed out the forward hatch and re-entered through the rear hatch. 54 years ago John said they would not bother with trying to get through this crew tunnel it being too difficult and he would have been younger than me now and was of a smaller build. They just made sure they had gone to the toilet before they took off and if all else failed they just hung on! The only time a visit was made aft was if there had been injury to the rear gunners. One profound comparison made by John to earlier service with the Blenheim, was that with the Mitchell you could sustain an engine failure on take off and keep going! Another was the relief offered by an auto-pilot. John recalled the long flights required to relocate his Blenheim from England to India (two 24 hour sections), all flown without auto pilot!
Now, another introduction of significance was made on the flight deck! the B25 co-pilot was also a member of the Sally B crew! We were soon invited to view the B17 Sally B alias Memphis Belle. Have you ever seen grown people whimper with excitement! More on this later.
Sadly our close encounter with the B25 kind had to end and we wandered back to our seats to watch the remainder of the flight displays. It is hard to express in words the feeling that you experience when you first see aircraft that you have read about, seen in magazines and on video, only to now see and smell them in the flesh. Our seats were prime position and we could observe start up and taxiing, plus take offs and landings. Wildcat, Hellcat, Bearcat, Hurricane, Mustang P51 and Razorback! Spitfires - note plural - Thunderbolt, Airacobra, ME109, Lysander, Blenheim, B25, B17, Canberra, Sabre, Harrier, what else
The flying displays were of the highest level and photo opportunities abounded. We were advised - and who were we to dispute the fact - by the commentators that we were about to witness a unique photo opportunity. this was the first time the B17, P47, B25 and Mustang would perform a formation flypast. Seems incredible but they had never managed to get all these aircraft together at the one airshow at the same time.
Of further significance was the display flight of the BF109 Black Six. This show was supposed to be its last flight, but as all know they showed it one more time at the last airshow of the season at which this historical plane crashed on landing. We also viewed an emergency landing by the Lysander. This aircraft took off in company with the Blenheim and rather than continue off into the distance to await its show time we noted it heading back to base leg as the emergency fire engines screamed out to position. The aircraft landed and came in to meet the fire crews as its engine quickly shut down. It transpired that an oil warning light came on and we were then informed that the pilot had hot oil in his eye. John informed us (his brother flew Lysanders during the war) that the oil pressure warning gauge in a Lysander was a direct feed off the oil pump and had a habit of bursting in the cockpit thus ensuring the pilot received a good dosing of hot oil and a good chance of engine failure!
Although the predominate aircraft flying were prop jobs we cannot fail to mention the exciting displays by the classic Sabre and Canberra, along with the modern Harrier. I personally had not seen a Harrier in the flesh since Farnborough in the late 70s.
When a Canberra performs you can see why its agility allowed it to be in service for so long. With regard to the Harrier I dont think anyone is not awed by its seemingly effortless movements which seem to defy the known principles of flight. The displays of vertical, sideways and backwards flight are ended with a cute stage bow as the nose dips to the audience, whilst hovering.
A tap on the shoulder and the B17 visit is on. Our escort leads his eager pack of enthusiasts to the far end of the flight line where this famous aircraft is serenely parked. As we move from the public enclosure and walk towards Memphis Belle there is an audible silence amongst the group, who are soon arching their necks backward to look up at the massive engines. Our guide gives us an extensive history of the aircraft and a detailed explanation of the technical side as we move around its exterior. Finally, our excitement is complete as we climb up through the rear hatch into the craft and we all cannot help but feel the history that envelopes us. Without doubt we all commented on the fact that the interior was far smaller than we imagined, a fact firmly demonstrated when two of us took up the waist gunners position and whilst holding the 50cal guns began trying to swing around with these hefty beasts in hand. Our backs crashed together and this was without all the gear actual crew members had to wear and the panic of real combat. Although we have all heard before the fact the the Americans sacrificed bomb load for defensive armaments, you again cant really appreciate this fact until you walk through the small area which served as the bomb bay. In relation to the overall aircraft one can see the enormous mechanical and manpower effort involved in delivering bombs in WW2.
We exited this magnificent aircraft to meet the instigator and driving force behind the restored Blenheim. Now, this aircraft was parked at the opposite end of the field to where we were and rather than walk back along the public areas we were lead down the flight line! Suddenly we were face to face with the best of the best. Hurricane, Spitfire, Black 6, Wild, Hell and Bearcat etc. By the time we got to the Blenheim we only had 2 of the group with our guide. The rest had dropped by the wayside at various aircraft on route!
The time had come for John to be reunited with a Blenheim after 55 years, after flying the last of them from India against the Japanese in Burma. In fact as he described it flying them until there were no spares left to keep them aloft! His squadron was sent to India as the powers that be considered the Blenheim obsolete against current German fighters. So, naturally I asked him how they fared against a Zero! "Yes", he stated, "We knew what they looked like". "It was best to dive and try and fly amongst the trees".
The Blenheim restoration is superb not only when describing its physical appearance, but considering that this is in fact the second restoration of this aircraft. The aircraft crashed soon after it was first restored and the group simply started again. I guess that is the only real choice as you dont find old Blenheims in many barns!
We could all see that John was quite moved with this meeting and no doubt recalled a thousand memories most known only to him. Naturally many photographs were taken and we listened for anecdotes John was willing to share with us. We all examined this quality restoration in detail and I am sure we all joined the Blenheim society. The society was interested in recording Johns service log details, which he had prepared and which were now gratefully received for the society archives.
The day was drawing to an end, the crowds had all but gone and the beauties of the flight line were being cajoled back to their resting places in various hangers.
We bid our farewells and wandered out of this venue of dreams, back to the real world. Whilst waiting for our transport we were treated to an impromptu aerobatic display by some one who really knew how to fly his Sukhoi stunt plane. It seems that this chap was returning from a performance at some other airshow and decided to cool down over Duxford!
That evening we adjoined to a local pub of character and recalled the days events and wondered what could better the day - and I still had problems getting the party to sample more real ale!
The next day, before transferring down to London, we embarked upon a guided walking tour of this classical city. The stories, history and architecture came alive under the attentive care of the city guide. We were treated to a rare visit to Kings College Library where one was able to gaze upon the notebooks of Issac Newton!
Our return from this walk was designed to leave us at one of the great treasures of British aeronautical history - The Eagle - a pub of ancient roots and containing the memories and spirit of many airman. The Pub dates from early 1500 and has ceilings, nooks and crannies that denote a construction system that spanned centuries and changes of fashion! We walked into the back bar (20th century addition!) to the airmans bar and here witnessed its famous ceiling. Airman from surrounding airfields would come to this pub for an evenings recreation and the fashion was to write ones name and/or squadron onto the ceiling by holding their cigarette lighter or candle up and allowing the smoke to print their message for eternity. The walls were decorated with photographs and other memorabilia. We all absorbed the emotion that emanated from this room and imagined the souls that played the night before and died the day after. As John said "this room demands a few hours contemplation, a good place to sit on a pint". We came, we saw, we stayed.
Time presses on and London beckoned. We were soon settled into our London hotel in busy Tavistock Square. The next few days were dedicated to exploration of the many sites in London dedicated to aviation history. Hendon, The Imperial War Museum, The Science Museum are but a few. True to form there were not enough days in the week to absorb all London has to offer.
A day was scheduled to drive north and visit the Shuttleworth Collection, a must for any enthusiast. I arrived at the hotel entrance with the vehicle, ready to act as the driver (10 years residence in the UK) to find that a passport had been lost. So, a slight deviation was required down to the Australian Embassy and whilst the poor unfortunate endured queues and paperwork I took the balance of the crew on an impromptu sightseeing tour. We visited slightly off the beaten track sites as well as some classics. As I lived in the Eastern section of London for some time, I took the group into some interesting areas not usually frequented by the average tourist.
We were soon north bound battling our way through the traffic as comments like "glad youre driving and not me mate"! Like a pimple bursting we were released from the grip of Londons roads and heading north along a fast motorway to exit at the aptly named exit of Biggleswade" which led us (via a characterful pub for lunch) to Old Mawden and the famous Shuttleworth Collection. This collection is a MUST for all those who visit he U.K. Without doubt we are lucky that this man had the resources, interest and foresight to dedicate to preserving such an important selection of aircraft. In addition we must also pay respect to those that have followed in his footsteps and who continue this magnificent effort. The fact that this collection has focused on pre 1940 aircraft and was started early enough has ensured that the world does have some genuine WW1 aircraft in good condition. Their dedication to securing replicas of early aviations box kite aircraft is also relatively unique. The museum present regular flying days where you can actually see these ancient aircraft in the air. If you are planning a trip to the UK fit one of these days into your schedule.