Aero Legends Airshow
Neither Covid nor the weather could stop the Headcorn Airshow
Buchón creating prop-tip vapour trails on take-off.
Towards the end of a season of airshow cancellations, there was a breath of fresh air at Headcorn for the extended three-day Aero Legends Battle of Britain airshow.
The downside was that the 'fresh air' came in the form of winds that were rather too strong for many of the aircraft. Massive credit, though, to the pilots who did get aloft, especially Michael Pickin in his CAP232 and the biplane pilots of the Stampe Team, all of whom were able to show the wind who was boss.
Everyone who came had some less-than-ideal conditions to deal with, too. Wind most of the time; gusts much of the time, low temperatures all of the time and rain from time to time. Many must have wondered how different the show would have been just one week earlier. Credit to the crowd who stayed with it for the most part, glad to be part of a rare UK 2020 walk-in airshow.
Huge credit, too, to the organisers who were able to overcome the myriad of obstacles that have defeated best efforts at other airshow venues. Despite a date change, the weather and the introduction of fresh Covid-19 regulations just days beforehand; the show did go on. Arrangements had clearly been thoroughly thought out and implemented with great care, and ample stewards were on hand to ensure the reasonable rules were followed.
Dakota 'Pegasus' escorted by Spitfire 'St. George'
The arrangements for 2020 included a significant limitation in the number of people able to attend. The event was extended from two to three days in mitigation but on each of the days a maximum of 4,000 could be on site on any one day - down to 1,000 on Friday. It is difficult to imagine how that was controlled in practice. Normally, organisers would be able to keep to capacity by limiting the number of tickets issued. However, for this show, anyone who bought a ticket for the original June date could choose to go to this September show or to the proposed June 2021 event. It was not necessary to advise in advance the date on which the tickets would be used, so some guesswork must have been involved. Perhaps the poor weather reduced the chance that a greater proportion than estimated would attend this September show. Whatever system was used it seemed to work, with no crowding on any of the days.
The entry configuration was changed, too. Instead of the tandem desks of previous years, which made it inevitable that people would walk past, or close to, others, the entry gates were more widely spread, with a greater number of one-at-a-time entry points and easier control of social distancing.
Within the show ground the premium enclosures were stretched to the entire length of the crowdline. This may have upset those who bought a standard ticket and had no opportunity to reach the fence but it also meant that there was no 'rush for the front' or consequent crowding either on the way to, or at, the fence line. Very clever. Within those premium areas there was plenty of space, again reducing the crowing risk, with tables spaced at the appropriate distance and stewards making sure that the gaps were maintained.
Squares were marked out in the main grassed area beyond the premium enclosures. These couldn't guarantee that distancing would be respected - it is always possible for two groups to stand on the neighbouring edges, leaving no social distancing at all - but by and large groups tended to keep around the middle of the marked areas and consequently the recommended distance from 'strangers'. All in all, a simple but effective regime which surely ensured the minimum risk to visitors and may well be the model for future shows if restrictions remain necessary into the next season.
Michael Pickin in CAP232
The Cap 232 is just one of around fifty types flown by Michael Pickin. He is a commercial pilot flying Boeings and a vintage aircraft pilot as well as an aerobatic pilot. He won his first aerobatic competition at 14; was the youngest person to be awarded a CAA Display Authorisation; at 23 was the youngest ever British Advanced National Aerobatic Champion and is the youngest Unlimited Level aerobatic pilot in Europe.
Source of information: Aero Legends
No BBMF: No Dowding
Possibly the greatest disappointment for most was the cancellation of all displays by the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight. The BBMF display was the first item to be announced. Everyone anticipated not simply the standard BBMF trio but the Dowding Display, comprising 5 aircraft including the Avro Lancaster, three Spitfires and a Hurricane, specially designed to commemorate the 80th anniversary of the Battle of Britain.
A display by the Lancaster in particular was eagerly awaited but even in advance of the show it was feared that its appearance might be prevented by an hydraulic problem. Just before the show, that problem was overcome but as it happened the weather was the greater issue: a problem that no-one at Headcorn or Coningsby could defeat. In the event, the wind won and the Dowding display - the main draw to the show for many - was not seen on any of the three show days.
Understandable, of course, and safety of the aircraft and personnel are priority one, but disappointing nevertheless.
The flying list had been announced over a period in the weeks before the show. The intention was that six displays would take to the air: mostly combinations and ending with a balbo of the Aero Legends aircraft that had gone before. The full list at its most optimistic is in the table. The weather inevitably affected both the number and order of the displays, which varied each day according to the conditions. Friday's displays had to be curtailed and Sunday's were squeezed up then had to end a little early but, apart form the BBMF and some of the light aircraft, Saturday's flying was virtually as planned.
Michael Pickin is no stranger to Headcorn, where he is normally based, nor to aerobatics (see the aero-bio in the box). Nevertheless, his display of unlimited aerobatics in the Mudry CAP232 on each of the days demonstrated rare skill as he coped with wind conditions sufficient to test even the most experienced of pilots.
Keeping one aircraft to a routine in the conditions was a triumph, but on each of the three days the Stampe Team were able to keep their four SV.4 biplanes not only to a routine but also in formation. Constantly battered by the wind and brought back into line it was clear to see how the gusts were affecting the light aircraft but the experience and deft touch of the pilots were sufficient to keep the SV4s on their intended course. There were two Stampe Team bonuses on Saturday. As well as their regular four-ship, a second display in the slot that should have been filled by the absent BBMF was taken by a second Stampe Team display, this time with a fifth SV.4. Following the main team displays each day their leader, Chris Jesson, flew an equally impressive aerobatic solo.
The main Battle of Britain fighter sequence varied a little bit each day. The constant component was a masterful aerobatic display by John Romain in Yellow 10, inevitably climaxing in the traditional fighter chase. At the end of the chase the Buchón, intercepted by Parky in TD314 'St. George', trailed smoke to indicate combat over. Before or following the victory, depending on the day, Charlie Brown took to the air in NH341 ‘Elizabeth’; Martin Overall went aloft in N3200 and David Ratcliffe joined them in Hurricane R4118.
All fighters then graced the skies in a formation comprising the three Spitfires, the Buchón and the Hurricane. Again, the order varied from day to day, in one instance the Buchón joining the Aero Legends Spitfire pair followed by N3200 but in all cases the Hurricane was a fairly distant tail.
The fighter components, battle sequence and outcome will have come as no surprise to anyone, but it was that extra bit special coming, as it did, 80 years, almost to the day, since allied and axis aircraft flew in anger in the very same skies. Not so long ago we might have expected a wealth of such exhibitions all over the country and beyond, but in the Covid-19 times Aero Legends, the organisers, the volunteers and the relevant authorities should be applauded for enabling what turned out to be a rare commemoration of these historic events.
On Saturday there was a display by the locally-based North American T-6 Texans flown by Sam Whatmough and Michael Pickin. The bright yellow markings of the California Air National Guard '49-3209' and the United States Air Force schemed 'Carly' contrasting visually but with well-matched roars from their radial engines. Unfortunately, 'Carly' developed a technical fault on Sunday, so the pairs routine was not repeated, although the 'National Guard' Texan did join the Spitfires and C-47s for the Aero Legends Balbo.
Just as the light aircraft had impressed when they opened the show, so too the 'heavy' C-47s: Douglas Sky Train ‘Drag 'em Oot’ in her D-Day 1944 USAAF markings and Aero Legends' more recently acquired ‘Pegasus’ in RAF livery, were imposing from the moment they rumbled down Headcorn's grass strip: the first time both ‘Pegasus’ and ‘Drag 'em Oot’ had flown together since the pair were used to drop over 1000 parachutists into events throughout Normandy as part of the commemoration of the 75th Anniversary of D-Day.
Flt Lt Charlie Brown
During his display on the Friday of the Battle of Britain Airshow, Charlie Brown reached 1,500 hours as the pilot of a Spitfire, six years after reaching his 1,000th hour in 2014.
Aero Legends Spitfires
Background to the show
The airshow at Headcorn is focussed on the Battle of Britain. Its displays feature representative aircraft of the Battle of Britain era and around the grounds are family friendly attractions.
The show was to have been in June but was postponed because of the Covid-19 outbreak. The organisers confirmed following a review on July 6th that the show would go ahead and that the previously 2-day show would run over three days in 2020, to include the Friday as well as the weekend days. Visitor numbers were limited to 1,000 on Friday and 4,000 on Saturday and Sunday to enable social distancing.
About Headcorn Aerodrome
Originally farmland, the site became a First World War training school in 1914 but reverted to a working farm following the war. In 1942 it was requisitioned by the Airfields Board and became Lashenden aerodrome. The Canadian Air Force moved in during August 1943, flying Spitfire 1Xb’s under the command of ‘Johnnie’ Johnson. The United States were later based here flying the North American P51D Mustang until they left in June 1945 when the airfield closed.
Flying resumed at the now-private aerodrome in 1963. Aero Legends arrived in 2014 and introduced flight experiences.
Jon Corley and Peter Kuypers took the Dakotas on circuits of the airfield, mostly in tandem configuration and often battling not only the wind but also very limited visibility. On Sunday, because of the conditions, the display by the Dakotas followed the Balbo and became the final display but on Saturday the pair held off after their circuits to await their role in the Balbo.
The Balbo itself was a pared down version of the all-Aero-Legends mass formation that had been planned, missing the light aircraft, but still demonstrated the growing strength of the Aero Legends fleet. On Saturday the formation comprised ‘Drag 'em Oot’ escorted by the Texans and ‘Pegasus’ escorted by the Spitfires whereas the slightly earlier Balbo on Sunday lost the unwell USAF Texan.
The Battle of Britain Airshow may not have been quite up to the billing. The weather was to blame for that. But it was a rare opportunity for airshow fans to enjoy a variety of aircraft flying in commemoration of a battle that took place in the same skies 80 years before. And it is the organisers and Aero Legends to thank for that. The date for the diary if you wish to enjoy next year's show at Headcorn, hopefully unaffected by the weather or Covid-19, is 25th - 27th June 2021.