Written and photographed by Tom Mercer | May 19th 2016
Old Warden Aerodrome in Bedfordshire is home to the spectacular Shuttleworth Collection. The unique collection of vintage cars, bikes and aircraft was started by Richard Ormonde Shuttleworth and was opened to the public in 1963. Since then the Collection has continued to evolve and today hosts a huge number of events over the course of the summer. Shuttleworth’s 2016 airshow season kicked off with the Season Premiere and we were there to check it out.
Shuttleworth’s 2015 season ended with a bang when the final show sold out and we said farewell to the Vulcan once and for all. Keen to kick off this year in equal amounts of style, the team booked a selection of visiting display acts which included the UK debut of the Global Stars Display Team, the recently restored Bristol Blenheim and the Royal Air Force Aerobatic Display Team, The Red Arrows.
The visiting aircraft, added to the exceptional list of based aircraft, helped sell tickets in huge numbers and just days before the show, Shuttleworth announced that the event had sold out. During the week leading up to the show, the weather forecast greatly improved and promised the hottest weekend of the year so far; for once it’d appear that the forecasters were correct!
Shortly after turning off from the final roundabout en-route to the aerodrome, you’re taken through beautiful countryside and as soon as you’re in the village of Shuttleworth, it’s as if you’ve been transported back in time. The Shuttleworth estate is simply stunning and on this occasion, getting into the event itself was a hassle-free experience with friendly staff greeting you every step along the way.
Events at Shuttleworth quite often don’t start until the early afternoon which gives you plenty of time to have a look around the grounds, museum, gift shop and of course all the aviation-related stalls that turn up for the day.
Having arrived early in the morning, there was no trouble getting a seat on the crowd line but those that arrived from 10:30 onwards started to struggle; amazingly people were still arriving as the displays started in the afternoon!
Blue Sky Aplenty
Having spoken to a number of pilots on the ground before the start of the show, it was clear that the new CAA regulations were anything but clear and even after a 60 minute pre-display briefing, there were still a number of different interpretations on the table of what exactly the regulations meant for the afternoon’s display programme. If these new regulations can’t be completely understood by a room full of some of the country’s most experienced display pilots then what exactly are we gaining in terms of safety?
Although a couple of aircraft had been out on test flights earlier in the morning, the displays didn’t officially start until 13:00 when Peter Teichman opened the show in style with a beautifully flown routine in his P-40 Kittyhawk. Peter’s routine was once again further out than what we’re used to but was flown with a little more confidence than the weekend before. Having landed safely, Peter taxied to his parking space but as the P-40 shut down, the aircraft began spewing what looked like fuel from the right side of the engine cowling; needless to say that Peter was kept busy for the remainder of the afternoon trying to fix the issue.
The beginning of the show was very much owned by World War Two era aircraft as the Harvard and Lysander took to the skies one after the other. It was fantastic to see the Harvard again, especially as it was in the hands of John Beatie! The display itself was laced with professionalism and was a great demonstration of just why the Harvard was so successful as an RAF trainer back in the day.
Likewise the Lysander, which is one of just a handful of airworthy survivors, also put on a brilliant display but it was really noticeable by this point as to how the new CAA regulations were going to affect the rest of the show. The Lysander felt distant thanks to the new increased display distances but as a result of the treeline which runs along the midsection of the runway, it also felt much higher than usual.
The star booking of the afternoon was scheduled for 15:00 and having only recently returned from Exercise Springhawk, this was to be their first public display of the 2016 season. With Flt Lt Mike Ling (RED 10) encouraging the crowd to look over their shoulders, the Red Arrows returned to Shuttleworth for the first time in 30 years, arriving in style in a brand new formation for 2016 and instantly filled the sky with their signature smoke.
Due to the restricted airspace enforced by nearby London Luton Airport, the Reds were only cleared to conduct a rolling display which meant that even in the glorious cloudless sky, we weren’t going to see the famous smokey heart. This didn’t matter too much though as the diamond nine delivered a near-faultless display and one of the cleanest that’s been seen for a number of years.
Sadly this all came to an abrupt end during the second half of the display when a rogue Gazelle strayed into the Red’s restricted airspace with little regard for what was going on around them. Luton notified the team of the intrusion as it had been picked up by Air Traffic Control and instantly the display was halted; RED 10 was left to explain to the crowd exactly what was going on and why the display couldn’t continue until their airspace was cleared. As the Gazelle headed out, the regrouped team sent a smoke filled message to the helicopter’s crew but sadly by this time it was too late for the display to carry on and instead it was closed with a final break at crowd centre. It was a gutting experience for both those on the ground and in the air. If you know anyone that flies please send them a gentle reminder and ask them to triple check their NOTAMs next time they go flying.
One of the Collection’s latest acquisitions made an appearance in the flying display but sadly it wasn’t a solo performance and as a result didn’t get the chance to shine (no pun intended) on it’s own. The beautiful Ryan ST-A was part of a formation display along with the Collection’s Miles M14A Hawk Trainer 3, Blackburn B2 and DH82a Tiger Moth. This was another display that felt extremely distant and high at times, a display that had it been flown this time last year, would have looked an awful lot different.
Another group of aircraft took off shortly afterwards but this time it was a trio of warbirds; the Gloster Gladiator, Hawker Demon and the Hawker Hurricane that was acquired by the museum towards the end of last year. All three flew in a tight formation before breaking off, each giving a short display of its own. Each aircraft was flown in a truly graceful manner, one that has become synonymous with the team at Shuttleworth but once more each felt just a little too far away. Whereas a sweeping topside pass, something that Shuttleworth has become famous for, would have made the hairs on the back of your arms stand on end last summer, this time it left a lot to be desired.
A number of displays were affected by the extremely rare on-crowd wind; the Comet was forced to stay on the ground, there was no chance of the Edwardians getting airborne and Peter Davies was forced to fly much of his routine away from the crowd. Peter’s Autogyro display is a fantastic example of how something can be flown extremely well and effectively in a tight area but the wind made the conditions less than ideal to fly in.
As the afternoon started to draw to a close, there were just a few remaining displays and one of those was the UK debut of the Global Stars Display Team. The Global Stars consist of British aerobatic champions past and present; Mark Jefferies, Tom Cassells, Mike Pickin and Chris Burkett. It has to be said that display teams of this variety aren’t to everyone’s tastes but they were simply in a league of their own and unlike any Extra-based team that’s been seen in this country before. As well as flying a brilliantly choreographed routine, the four aircraft were equipped with a fully synchronised ‘dotty’ smoke system that added a new dynamic to show. It should be interesting to see how this team develops over the coming months.
The heat was starting to dissipate as the show came to an end with a spectacular finale from the Collection-owned Avro Nineteen Anson and visiting Bristol Blenheim.The pair formed up over the lake before running on to the display line for a number of formation passes together.
As the Anson broke off to land, the Blenheim continued into it’s solo routine which was full of sweeping topsides and arching passes. It was easily the most beautiful and awe-inspiring routine I’ve seen the Blenheim team fly to date, especially in the golden light of the early even sun. The sight, the sound, the feeling; it was incredible.
Not Quite Shuttleworth
Have you ever had one of those dreams where everything feels extremely familiar but you’re incredibly aware that almost everything is out of place? The Season Premiere was a little like that.
The show had all the ingredients to make it an absolute spectacle but the new CAA regulations made sure that everything was off by a noticeable margin.
The increased display distances and height that was required to avoid the treeline as a result (which wouldn’t have even been considered to be a problem this time last year) meant that almost every single display was a little too far away for the ‘Shuttleworth effect’ to be felt. It has to be said once more that none of this is down to the pilots; they’re all extremely skilled in what they do and they’re simply doing their best to follow a new set of rules.
Old Warden is an exceptionally unique venue; not only does it have two all-grass runways and a collection of fairly slow and rare aircraft, it also has a curved display line which is usually used to great effect by 90% of aircraft that display at Shuttleworth shows; a display line that usually allows for phenomenal topsides that simply take your breath away.
The Shuttleworth Season Premiere proved more than anything else that the latest iteration of the CAA’s CAP403 regulations are incredibly confusing and widely open to interpretation. As if that isn’t enough, it also demonstrated that they simply cannot be applied as a ‘one size fits all’ solution.
If the CAA are under the impression that it’s only those close to the aviation sector that are noticing the changes then they couldn’t be more wrong. We spoke to a number of people throughout the day that regarded themselves as casual airshow goers that only attend a couple of events a year and all commented on how different the show looked and felt compared to previous years.
There’s absolutely no doubt that the Season Premiere show was a huge financial success, it had a cracking lineup, glorious weather and was a complete sell out but how much longer can shows at Shuttleworth continue to sell out without massive crowd-pullers like the Red Arrows and with such a restrictive set of display regulations in place?