Shuttleworth Collection May Evening Airshow

Saturday 19th May 2018

After the much-praised Season Premiere event a fortnight earlier, Old Warden again struck lucky with perfect weather conditions for the Shuttleworth Collection's first Evening Airshow of the year. A solid participation list was added to in the days prior to the show with their newly-restored Spitfire which had unfortunately missed the curtain-raiser due to not having completed the necessary flight-testing.

Guest reviewer Dan O'Hagan reports for UKAR. Photography by the author and the UKAR staff team.

It was on Friday before this show that I noticed my all-time favourite band James had put out a couple of new tracks from their upcoming album. When a band's been around for that long, and their back catalogue is so beloved and intertwined with your life, your first reaction is "please don't be terrible". And, with James, it never is. The same goes for another thing very dear to me - airshows at The Shuttleworth Collection. Bad weather aside, one day they might put on a poor airshow, after all, they've been doing it so well and for so long, the law of averages says they must get it wrong at least once, but this first Evening Airshow of the 2018 season at Old Warden certainly wasn't it.

These days what does eighteen pounds buy you? Download a couple of James albums? Poncey gastropub fish and chips served on a slab of wood? Three watery pints in a London boozer? Eighteen quid for a full airshow, full of true star items represents fabulous value, at a venue where even the in-house catering doesn't feel as though it's there to pick you up, turn you upside down and shake you until the very last coin is out of your pocket.

As for those star items, both were of World War II vintage, and both appeared early in the programme. The Battle of Britain Memorial Flight's Avro Lancaster PA474 kicked off proceedings with a series of three flypasts, as opposed to the usual full routine. For years, some people have felt that the BBMF have been almost airshow "elevator music" so unspectacular their displays were. But not this time. Perhaps the penny has dropped because, after a similarly stirring appearance at the Season Premiere show at Shuttleworth, once again the mighty Lancaster delivered. Three topside passes, bending around the famous crowd line, bathed in perfect sunlight. Beautiful. Praise too must go to the Aircraft Restoration Company's spruce up of the old girl last year. Her new paint is absolutely perfect. Mini-display or not, this was the finest Lancaster performance that can be recalled anywhere in years.

A major disappointment at the Season Premiere had been the withdrawal of the Collection's Spitfire Vc AR501 due to incomplete paperwork. With this now in place, the stage was hers, in the capable hands of the man responsible for her testing programme, Stu Goldspink. Twelve years on from her last public display, AR501 was back, and she milked every second of her display slot. Initial pairs flypasts with Shuttleworth's Sea Hurricane gave way to gentle aerobatics, before descending to low level for a series of trademark Old Warden flypasts. An excellent return for a much-loved aeroplane, which looks incredibly diminutive both on the ground and in the air by virtue of the relatively rare clipped wingtips. Spectators were able to get up-close to her before the show in the "Shuttleworth Uncovered" paddock area, to admire just how good, thorough and exacting this latest rebuild of the machine has been. One of the finest examples of the Spitfire airworthy anywhere in the world, without question.

After such a stellar start, if we're being hyper-critical, the energy levels were hard to maintain. "Aerial Carriages" like the Desoutter and Southern Martlet are beautiful historic machines, but lack serious airshow punch, and while the traditional barnstorming went down very well with the children around us, it's one of those sequences where familiarity does breed a little contempt.

With the show's 6pm start, the sun was setting fast as the show neared its climax. A real shame that some of the remaining "good light" was wasted on a 15 minute hiatus while visiting "spam" departed, and for a smoke-on typically-brash Pitts Special display, which always feels contrary to what people go to Old Warden for.

The show closed with aeroplanes that needed the calmest conditions, with the First World War element opening this section. The Collection's Sopwith Camel replica is a welcome new addition to the flying fleet, displaying here with the now-repaired Sopwith Triplane replica. In terms of photography, while there were still a few golden rays left, drab-painted aeroplanes in an ever-darkening sky meant we were fast-approaching the point where the cameras were packed away.

The light had all-but gone completely by the time the historic racing pair of de Havilland Comet and Percival Mew Gull took to the skies, two more gems that live at Shuttleworth, though Paul Stone's displays in the beautiful Comet lack the grace and fluidity of those flown by Chief Pilot Roger "Dodge" Bailey. In the hands of Chief Engineer Jean Munn, the Mew Gull was truly "raced", with some blistering high speed passes in the twilight skies.

At the very end, and despite issues getting their venerable old engines started, several of the Collection's "Edwardians" put in an appearance, including the Deperdussin making a pair of hops down the runway and Blackburn Monoplane - always the icing on the cake at this airfield, and a sure sign of another successful show, though given the fading light and by now quite cold temperatures, one does wonder whether future evening airshows might consider a slightly earlier start, say 5pm, just to keep the best of the light for a little longer.

It's a measure of just how good Shuttleworth shows are that this one probably won't go down as a true "classic", even though it had some elements which were unforgettable and were Old Warden at its very best. This was a show which was a little top-heavy in terms of the star items, with the pacing suffering as a result, but remained hugely enjoyable nonetheless. A mark of the venue's success and growing popularity is seeing people in the crowds now who were hardened fast jet and modern military enthusiasts, with no obvious close affinity to warbirds or vintage aviation, but who now clearly recognise that for the overall airshow experience, closeness to the action, photographic possibilities and friendly atmosphere, in a market of ever-diminishing returns, Shuttleworth is one of few venues left standing which never fail to deliver.