“Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few” Winston Churchill
Flying Legends Airshow at Duxford, near Cambridge in the United Kingdom was held this year on 10 & 11 July. The annual event draws thousands of enthusiasts and spectators to this unique sort of airshow. Duxford is perhaps one the few airshows in the world where original, restored warbirds can be seen gracing the air.
This year’s theme was the remembrance of 70 years since the Battle of Britain. There could not have been a more fitting way to remember it than watching the pilots dressed in their Sidcot suits, Mae Wests and leather helmets, climbing into their Spitfires, firing up the somewhat 1600hp Merlins and taking to the skies in what can only be described as majestic.
The Battle of Britain
The greatest air battle in the history of mankind was fought over the skies of Southern England between the Royal Air Force and Luftwaffe in the summer of 1940.
After the French had surrendered in June 1940, Churchill delivered a speech in which his famous words were spoken: ‘I expect the Battle of Britain is about to begin…let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties and so bear ourselves that, if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will say “This was their finest hour’’’
And it was!
By June that year, the Nazi forces were ready to invade England and in air battle after air battle, the RAF succeeded in defeating the Luftwaffe, who had at that stage outnumbered the British airman considerably. The victory of the Battle of Britain can be accredited to the bravery of ‘The Few’ pilots that partook in those vigorous air battles.
So who were ‘the few”? First of all, let’s look at what the RAF had and required initially. During the battles of May and June 1940, Great Britain had lost 959 aircraft, of which 477 were fighters. Churchill started the Ministry of Aircraft Production and together with Lord Beaverbrook, a Canadian businessman who had started a massive industry in aircraft production, starting producing fighters. By 9 July 1940 Fighter Command, under the control of Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding, consisted of 54 squadrons, mostly equipped with Spitfires and Hurricanes.
Pilots, in the beginning of the war, were chosen because of excellent health, a school certificate and had to be physically fit with good eyesight and hearing. Fighter pilots were selected on their ability to handle aircraft above 23 000ft while on oxygen. They were regarding by the general public as ‘remarkable’.
However by the end, only 6% of these pilots were educated at top schools.
‘The Few’ were not just a handful of Spitfire pilots; in fact 2927 pilots received the Battle of Britain Clasp ( an additional medal bar for the 1939-1945 campaign medal or ribbon bar). Only 80% of these pilots were Britons, the rest came from New Zealand, Canada, South Africa, Australia, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Belgium, France , Ireland and the USA. Ten of these pilots became aces during the Battle of Britain, each claiming between 11 and 17 kills.
Imagine yourself as an 18 year old boy, in a Spitfire or Hurricane cockpit , unpressurized, at 30 000ft, with only 16 seconds of ammunition. It’s cold, and you’re scared…it’s no wonder the public called them ‘remarkable’.
The climax of the Battle of Britain came on 15 September 1940, where several air battles claimed 59 enemy fighters, with 22 badly damaged and the RAF lost only 26, with most of the pilots saved.
The younger generations who live in freedom owe an immense debt of gratitude to ‘The Few’.
Duxford itself started life in 1918 as an airfield where new pilots were trained for the Royal Flying Corps. It became a fighter base in the 1920’s and the became famous as the first RAF station to operate the legendary Spitfire. Today Duxford is home to the Imperial War Museum and the Fighter Collection. I personally found the museums to have the most astounding exhibits, an aviation enthusiasts dream.
So what did Flying Legends have to offer this year? Being my first time ever at a British Airshow, let alone Flying Legends, I had no idea what to expect. In the morning, the media were allowed, under escort, to walk among the warbirds, to photograph them and to stand and stare in awe at the size of some these single seater fighters. Kind of puts your C152 in perspective! The size of the Douglas Skyraiders really blew me away…they’re big, really big.
There is time for a bite and a walk around and then at 14h00 sharp there is a mass Spitfire take-off, followed by an Me109, a Hurricane and then it looks like the Battle of Britain taking place in the skies above. You don’t where to look. Words cannot describe what it feels like to hear the roar of 10 or 12 Merlin engines tearing up the sky and just letting your eyes feast on what can only look like a scene from 1940.
This was followed by a dogfight between an Me109 and a Hurricane. The naval display was up next with a display of 3 x Skyraiders, a Seafire, a Sea Fury, a Fury, a Bearcat and an F-4 Corsair. Then out came the Germans with a Ju-52, Me-108, 2 x Jungmeisters and a Jungmann. The USAAF then displayed Ryans, TF-51’s, P-51D’s, a P-40, the B-17 and 2 x L-4 (basically just a military version of the Cub). The Russians came to the floor with Yak-3’s ,a Yak -9 and the I-16. The French brought a Morane 406 and a classic Norwegian DC-3 strutted it’s stuff.
Once again Stephen Grey, owner of the Fighter Collection pulled out all the stops to get his small Air-Force into the air.
This year we got to see ‘Sally B’, the B-17G-105 Flying Fortress get off the ground and just thrill the crowds as a Lancaster B, joined the display. The Lancaster arrived flanked by a Spitfire and a Hurricane, in a Battle of Britain tribute flypast. Sally B has just celebrated 60 years since her maiden flight. She was used for the movie, Memphis Belle and today it costs almost 5 million Rand a year to keep her in the air. This money comes purely from a 6500 strong person support base and donations as she does not belong to the museum.
Another treat was to see G-AEXF, The Percival E2 Mew Gull, the replica of Alex Henshaw’s aircraft that he claimed the record flight from England to Cape Town and back with, the very same one that our very own Chalkie Stobbart broke last year. She’s fast, but don’t ask me how anybody manages to see anything ahead of him in that cockpit. Henshaw must have been one heck of an instrument pilot.
Another interesting visitor was the Polikarpov I-16 Rata that made her debut and seen for the first time ever in the UK. A full story of this small little Russian fighter will appear in a later issue of African Pilot.
The aircraft, owned and flown by German entrepreneur, Thomas Jülch, is a rare survivor of what was a very advanced machine for its day. Built in 1933, being the world’s first single seater fighter with low wings and retractable landing gear, she was designed for speeds of up to 270 mph. The roar from its 700hp Curtiss-Wright R-1820 radial engine, just made heads look skywards to see this unique little aircraft shooting through the skies above Duxford.
The Classic British displays by some pre-war bi-plane light bombers made for a beautiful picture, The Hawker Hind, Demon and Nimrods and the Gloster Gladiator were truly a sight to see. There was also a Lysander, Magister and an Arrow Active.
The Breitling Wingwalkers (ex Guinot) thrilled the crowds as Stella and Sarah did their acrobatics on top of the Stearmans, interestingly enough, they now use baby oil to create their smoke. More about these girls will follow soon.
A solo display by the Bearcat, which is arguably the most potent aircraft in the Fighter Collections stable of piston engined machines was super impressive and kept the crowds looking upward as 26 Warbirds lined up on the grass and asphalt runways for the grand finale of the Balbo.
The Balbo is basically a flypast of all the warbirds and it brings tears to your eyes as you watch a cathedral of power pass overhead. The flyby is done twice, just in case you don’t actually believe what you saw the first time.
The breakaways are done and all land safely and another great Flying Legends comes to an end.
I did happen to have a chat to one of the Spitfire pilots, Dave ‘Rats’ Ratcliffe. Dave, an ex RAF Chipmunk, Harvard, Jet Provost, Hawk, Gazelle, Wessex, Chinook pilot who now flies for Virgin Atlantic, spends his spare time at the Aircraft Restoration Company, flying Spitfires in displays all over Europe. When I asked him what is it like to fly a Spitfire, he simply answered:” It’s everything it says on the tin!”