Shuttleworth Fly Navy Airshow Report

Sunday 5th June 2016

Shuttleworth's Fly Navy show was an event circled on many of the UKAR team's calendars, primarily due to the strength of the line-up it offered: the chance to see some of the UK's most exquisite naval warbirds making rare appearances at one of the finest venues in the country. As the June 5th approached, there were surprisingly few cancellations, which, combined with the good weather on the day, surely meant a cracker of a show was in order. However, the huge disappointment of May's Season Premiere threw a spanner in the works as Shuttleworth had lost its unique charm in this new era of heavily-restricted airshows - could it redeem itself in June?

Joe Malkin reports for UKAR on what was a warm day at Old Warden with great company. Photography by the UKAR staff team.

The organisers must be commended for taking the show's theme and running with it - virtually every single act that flew over the course of the afternoon had a connection to naval aviation, which was a welcome change from the norm. Such strong devotion to a theme is certainly something that many other shows could learn from, proving that despite hard times for the industry there are plenty of acts still out there from which to sculpt interesting and varied flying programmes.

It was pleasing to see a high level of support from the Royal Navy, with the Historic Flight providing their Swordfish I and rarely-seen Chipmunk T10. Both these machines were skilfully flown, with the Swordfish's climbing wingovers and the Chipmunk's stall turns being the highlights of their respective displays. In addition, a Lynx HMA8 and a Merlin HM2 were in attendance on the ground, the Lynx arriving mid-morning and joining the flight line whilst the imposing shape of the Merlin provided a centrepiece to a range of surrounding naval displays, including a Boeing ScanEagle replica. Whilst it was disappointing not to see the Merlin arrive or depart on the day (as had been promised pre-show), the decision was in some ways understandable - particularly given the immense amount of cut grass thrown into the air by smaller rotary participants!

One of the undoubted stars of the show was the Fly Navy Heritage Trust's distinctive Sea Vixen FAW2, making its first public appearance of 2016. The show was opened with the Vixen flying alongside the Collection's Sea Hurricane Ib, before both aircraft flew solo. Despite CAA restrictions at the time of the event prohibiting a complete exhibition of the aircraft's performance, it was pleasing to see this 1960s-vintage fighter performing over Old Warden at last; with the aircraft's topside pass in particular one that is bound to live in the memory. Given the Sea Vixen's thirsty appetite for fuel, it is reportedly a costly acquisition for shows - top marks to the Collection, then, for sticking rigidly to their theme and attracting this brute to Shuttleworth; we very much appreciated it.

Another group on the participation list which caused many to do a double take was a quintet of attendees from the Duxford-based Fighter Collection (TFC) - rarely seen in the UK outside Duxford, let alone in such great numbers. Whilst their Gladiator was ultimately unable to attend, TFC's Nimrod joined a trio of the Collection's most potent fighters - the FG1D Corsair, FM2 Wildcat and F8F Bearcat. This trio gave solo displays, each of which epitomised the power offered by US naval fighters; particularly the Bearcat which appeared to be on a par with many high-performance contemporary light aircraft. As commentator Ben Dunnell stated, this is something made even more remarkable by the fact that the display was being flown at a conservative cruise power setting! The merits of this 'boom and zoom' type of display have been debated at length and seem to generate a 'Marmite' response among enthusiasts. Whilst there are clear arguments for both sides, the most important thing was to see TFC en-masse at Shuttleworth, a welcome sight and hopefully the start of something more regular.

TFC's aircraft were joined by HAC's Nimrod and the Shuttleworth Collection's Sea Hurricane to close the show in a mini naval Balbo. Whilst attendees of Flying Legends could perhaps have been left wanting more, the formation performed a number of lower-level passes, with some lovely opportunities for shots. In hindsight, it would perhaps have been nice for the Balbo to have been dedicated to the great Naval aviator Captain Eric 'Winkle' Brown who passed away this year. Perhaps unsurprisingly, 'Winkle' flew all five types of aircraft included in the formation during his career so it would have been a fitting dedication, especially given members of his family were in attendance.

A number of other displays were particularly noteworthy during the afternoon including Terry Martin's Wasp HAS1. Despite being a relative newcomer on the airshow scene, his display was highly entertaining and demonstrated the helicopter ably, considering the limited confines of the airfield available to him. We hope you'll be hearing much more about Terry on UKAR soon, so watch this space! It was also nice to be cast back to the earliest days of naval aviation with the Bremner brother's Bristol Scout replica - David Bremner performing his debut display in this endearing biplane. The story of how the aircraft got to where it is now is an inspiring and poignant one - you are much encouraged to read up about the fascinating history of this project, or you can hear it in David's own words in Episode 8 of the UKAR 'Display Frequency' Podcast. A surprising highlight was the Morane MS317, which impressed in a display alongside BAE Systems' DH-60 Cirrus Moth. Despite its rather benign appearance on the ground, the Morane gave a sprightly performance, with its parasol wing providing a unique sight over the Bedfordshire skies.

It wasn't all highlights, regrettably. Air Leasing's Seafire III was an item people have been clamouring to see at this venue since its return to flight in 2015, and they certainly got more than they bargained for - a delay in proceedings opened up a window for Dave Puleston to "fill his boots" at the request of ATC, and his display was lengthened to keep the crowd entertained in what would otherwise have been a lull. Certainly very welcome, even if a little repetitive and, thanks to an aerobatic element to the routine, fairly distant. It certainly wasn't the showing this glorious machine had at Cosby last year. This was compounded by the fact it was not present on the ground during the show, arriving direct into its slot from Air Leasing's new home at Sywell and retuning there immediately upon conclusion of its protracted display, which led to a feeling of added distance between spectators and this most gorgeous of naval warbirds.

Similarly, despite its line-up of rarely-seen machines - including the RNHF's Chipmunk making a guest appearance - the Trainer segment seemed incredibly repetitive and restrained. We have fond memories of the flour bombing and low, close passes previously performed as part of this segment - the new regulations have completely neutered these slower, lighter aircraft at Shuttleworth as they can no longer perform with the same (safe) vigour with which they were able to previously.

So, was the show back to pre-2016 Old Warden? Well, no. Shuttleworth has come a long way since May - aircraft seemed to be flying at a more spectator-friendly height and the absence of a strong on-crowd wind this time seemed to help pilots fly far nearer the minima than they were able to at the last show. However, there are still significant issues with distance from the crowd - this is not a complaint based on photography but on safety - why it is deemed more suitable for these at times temperamental vintage aircraft to be flown over trees rather than a runway is frankly astonishing. It was also a shame to see the continued absence of the dog-leg we have become so accustomed to. This is presumably due to avoiding local villages however it is sad to see this trademark feature of the venue completely neutered for no definitive reason, given that the Collection's aircraft are generally kept within gliding range of the airfield at all times and rarely flown aerobatically.

In the aftermath, the Season Premiere was regarded as 'just another' airshow. The impeccable line-up for 'Fly Navy' meant this was a far more impressive event than that seen a month earlier, however it is perhaps a distraction from the fact that - the lovely Old Warden atmosphere aside - the venue itself currently offers little advantage over other similar-sized events like East Kirkby and Little Gransden, owing to the absence of its once trademark features. Hopefully the recent exemptions from the CAA for the Breitling Wingwalkers, Calidus Autogyro and the Great War Display Team show the CAA are prepared to listen and may lead to the changes needed to return Old Warden to the impressive yet safe venue it has always been.

The Fly Navy show was one of the best shows in a long time at Old Warden as far as the line-up goes. Whilst it was by no means perfect, it is worth re-emphasising that the Collection aren't the ones to blame for the changes which have occurred. They should be commended for their attempts to keep the 'magic' at Shuttleworth shows and we look forward to seeing what they have to offer later in 2016 and beyond.