Flywheel Festival

During the Second World War, RAF Bicester was home to many different frontline types including the Spitfire, Halifax, Anson and Blenheim, and was instrumental in the training of operational bomber squadrons. Today though, the ex-MoD site is owned by Bicester Heritage Ltd and remains largely intact with a number of listed buildings still in place. Bicester Heritage bought the facility with the intent of creating the UK’s first ‘business park’ dedicated to preserving historic motoring and aviation, whilst using the existing infrastructure to run their operation. Having formed a small events team in 2014, ‘Flywheel Festival’ was born and the gates to Bicester Heritage were opened for the inaugural show of all things vintage.

It’s very rare these days for new shows to arrive on the UK circuit but Flywheel Festival slotted into the calendar nicely and brought something refreshingly new to the table; a vintage style ‘wings and wheels’ show that gorged on themes from a bygone era.

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Almost the moment that you stepped foot inside the venue, you could tell that this event was going to be something special; the smell of oil and fuel was incredible! The day promised both on-track action and displays in the air, and I have to be honest that even with the horrendous weather on the Saturday (sadly the only day I could make it), the show was incredibly enjoyable.

Start Your Engines!

I have been following the story of Bicester Heritage for a number of months now and it has been somewhere that I’ve been wanting to visit for a while. There is something so incredibly enticing about the world of historical motoring so I was really looking forward to getting up close and personal with some of the most influential cars from the past 70 years.

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The paddock was located just behind the old Air Traffic Control tower and was designed almost perfectly for the visiting public. The cars were lined up and parked (mostly) in their running order to make the process of getting to the track as fluid as possible. There were no big metal barriers preventing you from getting up close to the vehicles, just a small line of rope that spent most of the day on the floor.

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I found that the owners were more than happy to openly discuss the highs and lows of owning such temperamental historic motors, and most were actually keen to get you as close to the cars as you wanted to be. The atmosphere in the paddock area was fantastic and there was a real buzz about the place; it seemed that everyone was completely aware of their surroundings and knew exactly when they needed to get out of the way without even being asked to move.

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With my pass collected and the sound of engines starting up, it was time to head around to the far side of the track and start capturing the action.

The circuit was a simple figure of eight controlled by a team of marshals and was lined with hay bales in case anything took a turn for the worse. The persistent rain pretty much all day meant that the ground was wet and slippery but it didn’t seem to stop some drivers from pushing the limits of their ability! It took some time to work out where to get the best shots but the beauty of it was that it was so easy to move about the outside of the track.

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Austin 7 Ulster Special, 1930

The track acted as the arena of the complex and was surrounded by vintage vehicles that were dotted all over the showground. This included a number of WWII tanks, a Dakota that was flown in on the Friday as well as plenty of other vintage cars and trucks.

The on-track driving started shortly after the gates opened and ran for most of the day. Each driver would have at least two runs before the session ended and the idea was that when the track sessions were complete and the drivers were prepping for the next round, something would take to the skies to entertain the crowds. Due to the weather this didn’t exactly go as planned but we’ll get to that later.

Being so close to the action offered something that many ‘wings and wheels’ style events don’t because the motoring aspect normally only occurs on the runway but with the all-grass runway at Bicester, that wasn’t an option.

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Sprite Sebring, 1960

As I said earlier, the on-track driving was split up into a number of sessions that ran throughout the day so you could quite easily experiment with your locations and photography techniques; if you missed the shot that you wanted the first time around, you were pretty much guaranteed that you’d get another chance to get it right! In the constant drizzle this proved almost invaluable.

The driving was incredibly entertaining and was narrated fantastically by a very knowledgeable team. For motoring novices like myself, this was a much needed part of the day and I think without it, the event would have been very different (and not necessarily in a good way).

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Allard J2, 1950
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Lotus Mk X, 1955

Towards mid-afternoon I have to admit that I was starting to lose interest in seeing the same cars go around again but I think that’s because I was photographing them for most of the day up until that point. I felt that the motoring side of the event could have been improved slightly by changing the track layout midday, it would have been fairly simple to reconfigure the figure of eight into an oval and by doing so, would have allowed the drivers to get up a little more speed on the straights to demonstrate the true power of their engines.

Preparing For Take-Off

The persistent rain, low cloud base and exceptionally poor visibility had a massive effect on the air displays that took place on the Saturday.

The display programme was delayed by approximately 90 minutes but the afternoon’s flying finally got going when the beautiful Dragon Rapide started its engine and gracefully took to the sky. It may have been raining still (quite heavily actually) but what followed was ten minutes of exceptionally majestic display flying by David Finnegan. This was the first time that I had seen this particular Rapide in the sky but the shape and sound of the aircraft never ceases to impress. This was possibly some of the most challenging weather I’ve shot in recently but I just about came away with some usable images.

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As the weather continued to deteriorate, the Great War Display Team were forced to delay their display by almost an hour but it was well worth the wait. I’ve seen these guys perform a number of times over recent years and have found their routine a little confusing if you can’t quite hear the commentary that goes with the display. However, at Flywheel the commentary was more than audible which meant that the display flowed incredibly well and for the first time (that I’ve ever seen anyway) small pyrotechnics were used on the ground to add another dimension to the display. The team put on a brilliant demonstration of WWI dogfighting tactics and should be applauded.

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As the Tiger Nine started to prepare for their flight, the heavens opened and most were forced to take cover under one thing or another. Fortunately I was stood near the corporate hospitality tent at the time and the staff were more than happy for us to take shelter and wait the rain out. A massive thank you to all involved for allowing this to happen.

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The clouds finally started to break and allowed the nine de Havilland Tiger Moths to form up on the runway, ready for the start of their display. I’ve read a lot about this team and heard many interesting tales about them but amazingly, in the five years I’ve been interested in this hobby, I’d never actually seen them display before.

The display itself consisted of a number of formation fly-bys before breaking crowd centre and finishing the routine with a mass flypast. It sounds simple and it was, but at the same time it was a faultless demonstration of just why this particular aircraft was such a popular choice when training the RAF fighter pilots of the 1940s. The raw talent of the pilots was clear to see with such precise and graceful formation manoeuvres. This display was a superb fit for the historic surroundings.

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It was by this time that unfortunately, due to the weather, both the Spitfire and Blenheim were forced to call it a day. The storms that had recently passed over the Oxfordshire countryside had now reached further east and had got quite a lot worse. This meant that a safety call was made and that both aircraft remained on the ground at their respective airfields.

It would seem that the organisers were incredibly eager to get both these aircraft on the ground early on Sunday and true to their word, that’s exactly what happened. As the Blenheim touched down at its former base, the crowd erupted into spontaneous applause; by all accounts it was a pretty emotional moment for many of the older generation that were present. The Blenheim was followed closely by the photo-reconnaissance Spitfire of Peter Teichman and both went on to perform spectacular displays later that day.

© Chris Byrne, Flywheel Festival 2015

Back to Saturday though and it was over to the single Yak-50 of the Yakovlevs Display Team to close the show. The blanket of grey made way for some rare clear blue sky and with that, the purpose-built aerobatic aircraft quickly gained altitude to begins its full display. The Yak-50 is renowned for its aerobatic ability and is a previous winner of the World Aerobatic Championships, on two separate occasions.

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I have seen this particular display many times and it never ceases to impress. The Yak-50 is an incredible piece of Russian engineering and has an unmistakable sound that goes hand in hand with its epic aerobatic capability. The solo display was a fitting finale for the Flywheel Festival’s first day and meant that the show ended on a high note.

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As for the Sunday finale, well it was supposed to be ‘nation’s favourite aircraft’; the mighty Avro Vulcan. XH558 is sadly now in her final display season and the Flywheel Festival organisers had worked exceptionally hard to secure the flypast to sign-off their inaugural show but it wasn’t to be. Due to an unforeseen incident on the runway at Doncaster airport, the Vulcan was forced to sit running idle for longer than anticipated and this led to the aircraft being lower on fuel than had been planned for.

Unfortunately no-one at Bicester was informed of this and as a result the large crowd that had turned out to see the majestic lady, were forced to wait for something that was never going to happen. The organisers tried to contact personnel of VTTS on multiple occasions but there was no answer and no explanation of what was going on until it was too late. The news that the Bicester flypast had been scrubbed only reached the team at 1715 when they eventually managed to get hold of the PR representative. VTTS had been tweeting for the duration of their flight and regardless of whether they were in the air or on the ground somewhere, it would have been incredibly easy for them to let Flywheel know. In a time where you can say so much with just 140 characters, it seems almost unacceptable that people were left uninformed and disappointed until the very last minute. Such a shame as this could have been a superb ending to the weekend.

Due to the cancellations, the air display was left feeling a little thin but I love what they’re trying to be achieve at Bicester. If Flywheel is to continue (and I believe it will), the air display needs to feature just as heavily as the motoring and more iconic aircraft from the period should be included. It would be fantastic if the budget could stretch to a couple of vintage jets too; obviously they wouldn’t be able to operate from the airfield itself but they would fit in perfectly. At the end of the day this will all come down to budget.

So Much Promise

As the dust begins to settle, the team at Flywheel Festival can look back on their first show and be incredibly proud of what they’ve managed to achieve.

Even with the horrific weather on the Saturday, some 6000+ people attended the show over the two days. At £25 for an adult ticket (that also included a free in-depth souvenir programme worth £5) the event was good value for money, especially if you’re interested in both elements of the show.

The food and drink on offer was of a quality that many air show goers are not particularly used to; freshly made pizzas prepared and cooked while you wait, and freshly made burgers that were cooked to order. The food at each outlet was fairly priced with the most expensive pizza costing just £7 – I don’t know about everyone else but I am much happier paying that sort of money for quality rather than just a couple of pounds less for an average greasy burger.

With a little tweaking here and there, this event has the potential to be one of the highlights on the UK circuit. Bicester Heritage oozes class and prestige, and on that alone promises an awful lot of excitement for the future.

I truly believe that the 2016 show will be an absolute must!

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