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Duxford Battle of Britain Airshow 2023
‘..Rolls Royce engines throbbing and growling into the thundering crescendo of a stream take off will never fail to instil a feeling of wonder and awe.’
The Imperial War Museum’s Battle of Britain Airshow has become a welcome annual pilgrimage for the reviewer, the event growing into Duxford’s premier warbird offering in the absence of Flying Legends and its subsequent successful move to the former RAF Church Fenton.

This year’s show offered the full spectrum of historical military aviation from Paul Ford’s Royal Aircraft Factory SE5a and Fokker Dr1 Triplane replicas from the First World War era to a classic post war jet in the shape of the Norwegian Historical Squadron’s de Havilland Vampire FB.52, currently in the colours of the Aeronautica Militare to commemorate the Italian Air Force’s 100th year anniversary.
The meat of the sandwich, however, was made up of Second World War warbirds. The show was opened by a Battle of Britain set piece commemorating not only the events of 1940, but the famous film of the same name that saw a mini air force of Spitfires, ex-Spanish Air Force Hispano HA-1112 Buchons (license built Me109s powered by Rolls Royce Merlin engines) and CASA 2.111 bombers (license built He111s also powered by Merlins) descend on the UK for the summer of 1968 to film the aerial sequences.

As readers will most probably know, this contributed greatly to the warbird movement and it is indeed part of the film’s ongoing legacy that two of its stars, Fighter Aviation Engineering’s two seat ‘Red 11’ and the Aircraft Restoration Company’s ‘Yellow 10’ flown by Dave Puleston and Steve Jones respectively, displayed at the show, beating up Duxford’s runway to the accompaniment of suitable pyrotechnics. In response, two Spitfire MkIa scrambled, much as they would have done 83 years ago, the Imperial War Museum’s own Spitfire N3200/G-MKIA ‘Duxford’ leading Comanche Fighter’s X4650/G-CGUK to fend off the marauding Luftwaffe.
Following this dramatic opening was one of the show’s most memorable moments. We had already noticed the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight’s Avro Lancaster B1 PA474 circling in the distance behind the museum and Boeing B-17G Flying Fortress ‘Sally-B’ had taken off shortly after the Buchons, and now we were treated to a sight not seen at an airshow for 28 years.

Appearing through the haze was the unmistakable silhouette of two of the Second World War’s most famous heavy bombers in close line astern formation. Peter Kuypers led in Sally-B, steering the bombers round for two passes, with Flight Lieutenant Paul Wise at the controls of the BBMF’s Lancaster. The second pass was with bomb bay doors open allowing spectators to compare the Lancaster’s cavernous space with the smaller bomb bay of the American machine. The pair of bombers then split, with Sally-B returning to complete a welcome solo display before PA474, now joined by BBMF Spitfire Mk LFIXe MK356, took centre stage.
As the BBMF departed, the beginnings of what became a constant stream of single engine warbirds took shape as the unmistakable outline of three North American P-51D Mustangs could be seen taxiing out along the crowdline towards the tank bank where they held for power and magneto checks before taking off to hold. As World War One biplanes cavorted overhead, the Mustangs were followed by a pair of Spitfires and then three Hurricanes all positioning for their own slots.

The P-51s entered their routine in a vic formation led by Fighter Aviation Engineering Ltd’s TF-51D ‘Contrary Mary’ in the black and white checkerboard markings of the Duxford based 78th Fighter Group, flanked by Robert Tyrrell’s P-51D ‘Miss Helen,’ believed to be the last known original 352nd Fighter Group P-51D in existence, and Comanche Fighters ex-Guatemalan Air Force, 355th Fighter Group marked ‘The Hun Hunter Texas,’ the Mustangs being flown by Mark Levy, John Dodd and Pete Kynsey respectively.
The next slot was taken by father and son team Brian and Nick Smith in Spitfire IXs MH415 and MH434, Nick Smith having been checked out in MH434 in July last year. Both Spitfires have aerial victories to their name and a shared operational history with 222 (Natal) Squadron in whose markings they both fly today and it was fitting to see both Spitfires and pilots linked in this way and performing a graceful formation display.

Following the Spitfires, arguably the poster boys of the Battle of Britain, came the workhorses in the shape of a vic of three Hawker Hurricanes. Two of these were provided by Hurricane Heritage with Mike Collett leading in MkIIB BE505 ‘Pegs,’ the worlds’ only two seat Hurricane, and James Brown in Battle of Britain veteran MkI R4118. The third machine was Bygone Aviation’s MkI P3717 flown by Matt Pettit. After a series of passes in formation, the Hurricanes broke off into a more dynamic tail chase above The Fighter Collection’s Curtiss P-36C and Hawk 75 that were holding on the grass before performing their own close formation pairs display.
The pace slowed now as a series of more sedate warbirds took to the air. These included the stunningly restored ex-Sidney Cotton Lockheed 12A Electra Junior G-AFTL, Plane Sailings Consolidated PBY-5A Catalina and Navy Wings’ Fairy Swordfish MkI W5856, now cleared to carry a second crewmember for displays. The latter pair commemorated types used in the Battle of the Atlantic. The Swordfish was then joined by The Fighter Collection’s Hawker Nimrod MkI, itself a navalised version of the Fury MkI fighter, and the pair flew in formation before the Nimrod performed its own energetic routine.

Another interesting formation followed with The Shuttleworth Collection’s Avro C19 Anson and Gloster Gladiator MkI joined by The Fighter Collection’s Gladiator MkII for a flypast before both types displayed on their own, the Gladiators being flown by Frank Chapman and Stu Goldspink.

Next up came the UK’s two airworthy Westland Lysander MkIIIs, the all-black Special Operations Executive equipped V9367 from The Shuttleworth Collection contrasting well with the camouflaged V9312 from the Aircraft Restoration Company. Other differences that could be seen being the long range fuel tank of V9367 used to aid the dropping of agents into occupied Europe while V9312 had bomb racks on its wheel spats for its more kinetic orientated role at the beginning of the war.

The first of the shows’ two display teams then followed, this being in the shape of The Flying Comrades and their radial engine powered Yak-18T and pair of Yak-52s. Formed at the end of the lockdown in 2021, the team consists of pilots Phil Hardisty, Alex Lewton and Tom Turner. Yak-18T G-HAHU was built in 1993 although the design dates back to the 1960s, the aircraft being used to train Aeroflot pilots. The rugged Yak-52s, G-BXJB and G-YAKF, were built in Romania in 1987 and 1991 respectively and are based at Duxford.

The team’s display was both refined and precise and offered an aperitif in terms of the next display team to take the stage. However, there was one final radial-powered interlude as Steve Jones took Fighter Aviation Engineering’s mighty 2,000hp Bristol Centaurus powered Hawker Fury FB11 G-CBEL aloft to showcase the ultimate expression of Hawker’s piston engine fighter lineage. Rebuilt by Air Leasing Ltd at Sywell, Manager and Chief Engineer Richard Grace recently described the machine on the ‘We Have Ways of Making You Talk’ podcast as being his favourite warbird to fly.
With the Fury safely on the ground, an airspace delay led to the show’s penultimate act, the Red Arrows, being pushed back half an hour from their planned 4.30pm slot, although, to be honest, this gave the reviewer a welcome chance to catch his breath after what had been three and a half hours of constant, extremely well choreographed, non-stop action. Red 10 duly took the microphone just before 5pm to introduce this season’s 8-ship of Hawk T1As and what followed was a typically polished routine. Particularly notable was the Tornado manoeuvre which is normally carried out with red and blue smoke for the rolling pair but which this time was completed with all white smoke until the turn away from the crowd which, coupled with the backlight conditions, made for a very photogenic sight.
However, it is of course, the Battle of Britain finale that sets this show apart and anticipation was mounting as the capacity crowd’s applause for the Red Arrows’ died away. The spectacle of a mass of Spitfires and Hurricanes weaving along the taxiway to position on the grass in ones, twos and threes, their powerful Rolls Royce engines throbbing and growling into the thundering crescendo of a stream take off will never fail to instil a feeling of wonder and awe.

As the last notes of the departing warbirds faded into the distance, a new sound captivated, a snarling rasp that reverberated across the airfield and preceded a flash of silver and red that dived, rolled and looped effortlessly through the arena of clouds. This was the ‘Jester,’ John Romain in the Aerial Speed Icon’s Griffon powered Supermarine Spitfire MkXIV, the evening sun dancing across its polished aluminium skin. The jester entertained us and then retreated leaving the space wide and we were transported back to 1940 and to 12 Group, Fighter Command’s controversial ‘Big Wing.’ Led by the then Squadron Leader Douglas Bader, and trumpeted by 12 Group’s Commanding Officer, Air Vice Marshal Trafford Leigh-Mallory, the Big Wing aimed to hit the Luftwaffe in force, critical of the piecemeal interceptions by individual squadrons employed by Air Vice Marshal’s Keith Park’s 11 Group.

Today, we saw 14 Spitfires and 3 Hurricanes in wing formation, filling the sky with machines and noise, although the Red Arrows later slot restricted them to only one pass in this formation. They departed to the west and then circled in the distance to make another pass, this time in vics of three, line astern, while the jester returned to entertain us. The wing approached again, sunlight glinting, and half of the fighters broke away, birds leaving the flock to return to their roost. As Spitfires and Hurricanes drifted back to the earth in ones and twos, the rest flew over us again before making their own break to land leaving just a single Spitfire still airborne.

This was Spitfire MkIXT ML407, The Grace Spitfire, its pilot Pete Kynsey with one last tribute to make. Carolyn Grace was a pioneer, owning, operating and flying her Spitfire after the untimely death of her husband Nick Grace in 1988. Carolyn was the only practising female Spitfire pilot in the world but tragically lost her life in a car accident in Australia in December 2022. Richard and Daisy Grace continue their parents’ legacy through the Air Leasing Ltd at Sywell.
As the light from the late summer sun turned to dusk, ML407 touched down to close what was an extremely well organised and evocative airshow, aided in no small part by the commentary of Aeroplane magazine editor Ben Dunnell and broadcaster and historian Colin Wilsher. There is an always an element of melancholy for the reviewer at this show with hay bales in the fields and the light hinting at the oncoming glow of autumn.

There was no chill in the air though, the Saturday show enjoying temperatures in the mid 20s, although rain and cloud did impact on the Sunday, but it still heralds the closing of another season and another year with just a few events left to look forward to before the aircraft are tucked away for winter maintenance and TLC. If you haven’t visited this particular Duxford airshow before then I strongly suggest keeping the weekend free in your diary for next year!

Review by Andrew Critchell