Flying With The Few – And The Many

19th January 2008

The ‘Few’ were the airmen in their Hurricanes and Spitfires who repelled the German bombers in 1940 in the Battle of Britain. The ‘many’ are the thousands who come to see the aerobatics of these famous planes at Duxford.

Alan Jamieson was one of the them. One of the many, that is…

Did you know that Squadron Leader Douglas Bader flew from Duxford? In May 1940 he led the RAF’s ‘Big Wing’ of 60 planes in battles with the Luftwaffe over London and East Anglia. The exploits of Bader and his pilots have passed into history – and Duxford is a major part of that history. However, its origins as a fighter station began earlier: it was an RAF flying school in 1918 and six years later became a fighting station with three squadrons of cumbersome Gloster biplanes. For over 90 years, then, this famous airfield has been the scene of dramatic events and now, in the 21st century, it attracts thousands of visitors to its airshows.

What are the highlights? Well, the Red Arrows provide some of the drama – and a lot of the noise. Nine Hawk aircraft whirl in spectacular curves above your head, apparently only wing-tips apart, breaking off into swoops and vertical dives, their red, white and blue vapour trails marking the dazzling manoeuvres. They deliver speed; next in line for slower, more dignified flypasts are veterans from the First World War – a three-winged Sopwith Triplane (only 140 were built so the one at Duxford is unique), and an enemy Fokker, which machine-gunned Allied trenches in France in 1918. One of the German aces, Manfred von Richthofen (‘The Red Baron’), who shot down over 20 British aircraft, flew a Fokker until he perished in a dogfight over the Australian lines in the Western Front.

As these old planes pass over the audience’s heads, expert commentators tell stories about their exploits. Their voices fall silent as the tunes of Glenn Miller and Tommy Dorsey come over the loudspeakers. The Americans take over and one of the stars in the Duxford collection, a 60-year old flying lady, appears in the sky. This is a Flying Fortress B-17, SallyB, a memorial to the tens of thousands of Allied airmen who lost their lives in bombing raids over Germany. Propellers whirring, piston-engines blasting, SallyB takes to the sky for its stately crossing of the airfield. The announcer reminds us that the SallyB was the very same Flying Fortress that was featured in the film The Memphis Belle, the dramatic story of an actual B-17 based at Bassingbourn, just down the road from Duxford. The Belle was the first B-17 to complete a tour of 25 missions over Germany, limping home, badly damaged, after its last bombing raid.

An announcer isn’t needed to tell us the identity of the next flight… There’s a roar, and three Spitfires and one of its Battle of Britain compatriots, a Hurricane, hurtle in front of us. Perhaps the biggest cheer of the afternoon greets these old warriors. The RAF experts provide the running commentary on how Air Marshal Hugh Dowding – from his headquarters at Bentley Priory near Stanmore – directed Fighter Command in its battles with the Junkers and Dorniers of 1940.

The audience at Duxford sit on grassy banks or on garden chairs, picnicking as planes fly overhead. There is plenty of neck-craning to see the fighters come and go, and for the next flight, heads have to turn very swiftly. An F86 Sabre, its jet engines roaring, rips through Cambridgeshire’s blue skies. It is followed in a stunning aerobatic display by a machine called the ‘Redstarz’: as its name might suggest, it’s a Russian jet fighter and it’s pursued across the sky by an American Lightning. It’s all action at Duxford.

The ‘Airshow’ is just one of a series of special events in Duxford’s extensive programme which runs from March to October each year. Other ‘days out’ feature a Battle of Britain Day, a Land Warfare display (tanks and artillery guns as well as the flypasts), a Flying Legends Day, a Concorde Day and a Classic Car Show. The airshows are ‘specials’, but Duxford, part of the Imperial War Museum, is open throughout the year, January to December. Huge hangers house First and Second World War aircraft, Concorde, a Stratofortress, the SallyB, plus modern jet fighters and tableaux such as The Battle of Britain, The Normandy Experience and, of course, Monty – perhaps the most celebrated British military commander of the twentieth century. In the American Air Museum there are combat aircraft spanning 60 years including the B-17, a Liberator and Mustang and Sabre fighters.

It’s tempting to say that this is a wonderful ‘boys day out’. After all, it’s about modern warfare, battles, heroics, aeroplanes. Tempting, but wrong. It was clear that girls loved it too. Most of the audience are families: young and old, girls and boys. And as for veterans like me, it was pure heaven to see – and to touch – aircraft that have featured in so many war films on television on wet Sunday afternoons. At any moment you’d expect to see the leather-helmeted head of Kenneth More, Richard Todd or John Wayne stare at you from the cockpit…

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