Every air show has a character all of its own and the Battle of Britain weekend, organised and run by ‘Aero Legends’ over the weekend of 24-26 June 2022, was no exception. In a corner of south-eastern England, in the county of Kent, sits Headcorn aerodrome; surely the epitome of (as the song goes) “England’s green and pleasant land”. This was not the event for pyros, fireworks, or death-defying stunts; instead, entertaining crowds with a choreographed collection of aircraft, re-enactments and attractions.
Even before the flying gets underway, it’s clear the historical significance of this place is profound. Headcorn (Lashenden) aerodrome was first requisitioned by the Airfields Board in 1942 and became a prototype for the temporary Advanced Landing Ground airfields built in France after D-Day. In 1943, Johnnie Johnson – highest scoring Western Allied fighter ace – commanded the 127 Wing of the Royal Canadian Air Force stationed there, flying Spitfire IXbs. It’s now the last grass wartime airfield left in Kent (and only a quick hop from the iconic White Cliffs of Dover). Show organisers Aero Legends have been operating flight experiences with aircraft ‘of the era’ since 2014, including three Spitfires of their own. Now in its seventh year, the air show attracts more than its fair share of warbirds: this year’s programme promised a B-17, C47 Skytrain, Me 109 and Yak-3 alongside several Spitfires and Hurricanes.
The weekend’s flying displays started on Friday as the Royal Air Force Red Arrows wowed the crowd with their trademark combinations of formation manoeuvres and iconic smoke. The T.1 Hawk may not have been around during the Battle of Britain, but nevertheless, the seven-ship display firmly ‘flew the flag’ for the ongoing role the contemporary RAF embodies. As the Reds departed, it was time to turn the clock back to a time of pistons and propellers (the only other jet item on the flying programme, the two-ship Strikemaster team, having cancelled due to sickness) and enjoy a ‘quintessentially British’ weekend.
Even I – vintage jet obsessive that I am – didn’t mind the complete lack of fast jet fun on subsequent days. A biplane balbo (consisting of a Stampe, Tiger Moth and Jungman) was a slightly more sedentary second act, followed by a B17 and C47 pair. A Beechcraft Staggerwing made an unusual addition on Saturday, with no less than five North American T.6 Harvards lined up along the flight line awaiting their display slot.
Accompanied by the whine of an air raid siren over the PA, the Duxford-based Me 109 Bouchon raced aloft to be followed shortly afterward by two Spitfires. A tailchase ensued, reminiscent of scenes in the sky over Kent in the 1940s. Thankfully, the Supermarine attackers proved victorious with the stricken Bouchon trailing smoke – although all three survived to ‘fight again’ the next day.
The penultimate act on the flying programme was the Yak-3 (its red stars hidden by Ukrainian markings), which came tearing into its display slot with a speed unsurpassed by any other piston-powered airplane on the programme. As the commentator noted, Herman Goering had forbidden his fighter pilots from engaging with the Yak below 16,000ft, and we were left with little doubt that this Yak meant business. Finally, the flying concluded with a Battle of Britain spectacular – a very tidy nine-ship Hurricane / Spitfire combination summoning the spirit and sounds of some 80 years ago.
Arguably the best seats in the house went to the wing-walking girls atop the Boeing Stearman pair, but back on the ground, families spread out picnic blankets while photographers crowded the fence line. For a premium, guaranteed space around tables on the flight line could be guaranteed, while others opted to make the most of the ‘Spitfire enclosure’ and its hospitality tent. Several WW2-era jeeps, accompanied by their appropriately-attired drivers, were on hand to offer rides along the flight line before and after the flying programme. For a select few photographers, a Cessna Caravan offered an unparalleled opportunity for some air-to-air adventures with both the Hurricane and Yak-3.
Despite the wind picking up over the weekend – the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight Lancaster had to cancel Sunday’s appearance due to high winds at its home base of Conningsby – the remainder of the acts continued unabated, albeit with the Yak-3 having to depart off slot. It’s something of a joke here in the UK that it will rain the weekend of Glastonbury music festival, although thankfully, this weekend proved the exception to that rule. Perhaps more inconvenient was the train strike which disrupted travel plans for many – although as far as I’m concerned, hitching a ride home in a Harvard was a welcome alternative to waiting six hours for an Uber!