Sywell Great War Airshow Report

Sunday 17th August 2014

Sywell has built a strong reputation as being a fine biennial air display, raising money for the Warwickshire & Northamptonshire Air Ambulance, and always promises a grand day out. A relaxed venue with a combination of old and new make the show appealing to the public and enthusiast alike, and this year was no different with a truly magnificent line-up including warbirds, vintage racers, classic jets and light entertainment. Devastatingly for the organisers and would-be spectators, and as has been said far too often throughout 2014, the forecast was anything but favourable. A week after Hurricane Bertha saw off Old Warden's display, another deep depression tracking steadily eastwards across the Atlantic would make landfall over the UK at precisely the wrong time, bringing with it forecasted gusting winds of up to 40 knots, which at one point threatened to eliminate a large portion of the flying display. Thankfully we were graced with something of a reprieve - come Sunday the winds had reduced to gusts of 25-30 knots and the conditions otherwise were gorgeous, prolonged sunny spells and varying cloud producing a pleasant backdrop.

Tom Lantaff donned the windproofs and headed to Northamptonshire for UKAR. Images as credited.

It's sad that we should begin with mention of what didn't happen, as opposed to the wonderful flying we did ultimately witness. The organisers had managed to secure one of the acts of the season, and of recent times, with the Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum's Avro Lancaster Mk. X making a gutsy transatlantic crossing to join our own example for a much-anticipated pairs display. Upon the public breaking of this news Sywell quickly sold out, the 'Lancaster effect' in full force; it was therefore with unspeakable disappointment that the aircraft were grounded on the day along with the rest of the BBMF fleet, especially since much of the pre-show media had been focused on our Canuck friends. An impressive 18ft-wingspan model of the type prior to the flying display was little by way of consolation. Another notable casualty was the Great War Display Team while the wind also scuppered the debut of the newly-restored Ebenhardt Se5a, leaving the show's 'Great War' theme rather tenuous, save for a poignant minute's silence and poppy-drop to open the flying display.

Historic aircraft were nonetheless still well represented, with Peter Teichman closing the display at just before 6pm in his unique Hawker Hurricane llb 'Pegs'. This complemented a selection of WW2-era warbirds which also comprised Carolyn Grace in her Spitfire IXT, The Fighter Collection's Gloster Gladiator making a rare UK appearance away from Duxford, and Maurice Hammond's splendid P-51D Mustangs 'Marinell' and 'Janie', the latter regarded by many as the UK's finest 'Stang. Maurice displayed the aircraft himself with some lovely arcing topside passes in the early-afternoon light before departing home, leaving Rob Davies to land on in 'Marinell' before treating us to a bonus departure later in the day.

Vintage jet power came in the form of the Gnat Display Team based at North Weald with their Folland Gnat T1 XS111, an ex-Red Arrow and painted as such, for a solo display in addition to the MidAir Squadron's gorgeous English Electric Canberra PR9, making her Sywell debut. The Gnat caught the only hint of a rain shower which briefly sent the umbrellas up (not that they were of much use in such strong winds!) and, while the Canberra enjoyed predominantly clear blue skies, it has to be said that the display remained somewhat high, distant and surprisingly muted. Whether or not this was a direct result of the blustery on-crowd wind is up for debate but it is certainly evident that following her show-stopping display at Abingdon in May her displays since, albeit graceful, have lacked the same oomph.

Despite the vintage core, modern aircraft are more than welcome at Sywell, none more so than two acts which for whom this was their home show. Most famous of these is The Blades, under their parent company 2Excel Aviation with their captivating routine, complete with some new formations for 2014. Martin Lovell in Skytech's Hughes MD500 proved that precision flying in rotary form can be equally as fun, while introducing a new role for a helicopter as a cone-removal service! This was certainly an innovative and highly enjoyable display, delicately relocating an erratically-placed traffic cone using the tip of the skids - the laughter all around the crowd said it all; top flying, especially considering the wind, and a display which really ought to attract more interest from other shows. Further family fun came in the form of the ubiquitous Breitling Wingwalkers, Guy Westgate's Swift Glider, the TRIG Team and crowd favourite the Red Arrows, interestingly making their 50th display of their 50th season - a nice touch.

A contingent of 1930s sport aircraft were in attendance, most notably Richard Seeley's Travel Air Type R “Mystery Ship” and David Beale's excellent Percival Mew Gull reproduction, another making its first public air display. The Luftwaffe was represented by a Bucker trio comprising Taff Smith's luminous Jungmann, a Jungmeister and Will Greenwood's Bucker Bestmann; indeed Will had recently gained CAA approval to include aerobatics in his display and he duly delivered. A trio of Miles Magister, Miles Messenger and Ryan PT-22 Recruit also displayed, although many, including the author who had followed the advice and taken the opportunity to “refuel”, will have missed these as the commentary had previously announced that there was to be a 50-minute lull in awaiting the Red Arrows. Annoying, and avoidable, but Ken Ellis produced an otherwise sound display behind the microphone, injecting his usual humour and most pleasingly recognising that less is more, and that Merlin engines, to quote, “make their own music” and as such need not be spoken over. His interviews with several Lancaster veterans in attendance was also a fitting addition, retaining interest during pauses in the flying; it's just a great shame they were unable to witness a display by the aircraft so dear to them!

The organisers must be given huge credit for putting together a thoroughly enjoyable show in difficult circumstances, chopping and changing the display order on the day as best they could, and had to battle some quite frankly ludicrous criticisms aimed at them on social media regarding the Lancasters and tickets selling out. That said, members of the Sywell team deliberately, and publically, trying to sabotage a ticket re-sale on eBay lacks professionalism, however strongly they feel about the morals of somebody profiting from charity. Further, the announcement that tickets would cease general sale a mere 90 minutes prior to them doing so didn't exactly endear them to those unfortunate enough not to see the warning and subsequently miss out on a ticket. All this does however serve as an indicator of the show's popularity and can mean only one thing: plenty of money raised for the Air Ambulance.

Well done to Matthew Boddington and the team - 18 months of hard graft paid off and Warwickshire & Northamptonshire Air Ambulance will be reaping the rewards. Sywell returns, hopefully just as big, in 2016.