Dunsfold Wings & Wheels

For over 50 years Dunsfold Aerodrome’s history remained top secret under the protection of the Official Secrets Act but in 1990 the government declassified records and the importance of Dunsfold was revealed to all. The airfield played a crucial role in the Second World War but once war was over, the airfield was declared as inactive in 1946. Some five years later, the airfield once again returned to the forefront of British aviation and became home to the infamous Hawker Aircraft Company, where the boundaries of modern technology were pushed to their limits in order to design, test and develop aircraft like the Harrier and Hawk. It’s fair to say that Dunsfold Aerodrome is a shadow of its former self but each year the public are welcomed on to the historical site to enjoy the wonderful Wings & Wheels show.

In recent weeks the Airshow community has been thrown into a media frenzy, with every aspect of the industry coming under extreme scrutiny following the tragic accident at the Shoreham Airshow. Strict measures were instantly put in place to help prevent a similar incident occurring; all UK-based Hawker Hunter variants were grounded, pending a full investigation by the AAIB, and all vintage jet aircraft displays were temporarily restricted to a number of flypasts, rather than their usual aerobatic sequences.

In light of this news, a number of events up and down the country announced that they had decided to cancel or postpone their event, but this wasn’t really an option for the Wings & Wheels team. The team quickly realised that now, more than ever before, the Airshow community needed to stand strong, acknowledge what had happened but at the same time, continue to demonstrate just how safe the UK Airshow circuit is and to re-confirm that this country really does have one of the safest and strictest set of Airshow regulations anywhere in the world (regulations that are the envy of many foreign nations).

Aviation at its Best

In September 2013, one of the last RAF VC-10’s touched down at Dunsfold Aerodrome for the final time. Brooklands and Dunsfold Park had worked together to acquire this example and the plan was for the aircraft to be in taxiing condition by the weekend of the show in 2014. Due to a number of technical difficulties (and perhaps an underestimation in what was required in maintaining such a complex aircraft) this didn’t happen but it was promised that the Conway engines would roar once more at Wings & Wheels this year; and boy did they roar! Brooklands delivered on their promise and much to the enthusiasts’ delight, opened the Sunday show with two fast taxis up and down the runway.

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With the VC-10 runs complete and the first round of motoring out of the way, it was time to reflect on the events at Shoreham and hold a minute’s silence. As the announcement was made over the  loud speakers, people immediately stood to show their respect; it was so silent that I’m pretty sure you could have heard a pin drop on the other side of the airfield!

The end of the 60 seconds were signalled by Peter Teichman in his P-40 Kittyhawk screaming over the tree tops and carrying out a victory roll over the aerodrome, before going to hold briefly prior to conducting his solo display. Peter is one of the best (perhaps the best) warbird display pilots going, so for him to take part in this way was an extremely fitting tribute to the events that had occurred just a week previous.

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Rich Goodwin’s ‘Muscle Biplane’ act is becoming increasingly popular on the UK circuit and for Wings & Wheels, his display had been altered slightly to include a number of ‘races’ in which he tried to match his ability with that of a Porsche 911 that was going at speed up and down the tarmac. There is no doubt about it, Rich Goodwin’s aerobatic ability is phenomenal and no two displays are exactly the same due to the nature of the free-flow routine; the Pitts Special is a great little aircraft and it was certainly pushed to its limits by Goodwin.

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A familiar sight at Dunsfold is the Aces High DC-3 Dakota. The aircraft has been a star of many Hollywood films and TV series, and has a rather unique, distressed look to it. For such a large aircraft, this display was flown with exceptional grace and was an extremely photogenic display. I’ve seen this routine on a number of occasions over the last few years and this was easily one of the most polished to date.

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Another common sight at Wings & Wheels was the Old Flying Machine Company pairing of Spitfire MH434 and P-51 Mustang Ferocious Frankie. This act has been at the event on numerous occasions over the last few years but the display always manages to impress with its tight formations and solo routines. The formation section of the display seemed especially tight this year and the pilots of OFMC really have to be applauded for their skills in flying such historic aircraft.

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Although the 2015 Chinook Display team is made up of members of 27 Squadron, the team have been displaying in the 18 (B) Squadron centenary-schemed aircraft at a number of events over the summer. The aircraft has been somewhat of a ‘problem child’ over the course of the season but finally, I was able to see the display in this special commemorative paint scheme. In my opinion, the Odiham-based team have easily won the award (again) for the most consistently impressive RAF display this year; there’s something about the gravity-defying, tandem rotor routine that just never gets boring.

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Returning to the Surrey airfield again was the Dutch B-25 Mitchell. Even though the aircraft are very different, the RAF could learn a trick or two from display routines like this; the B-25 was thrown about the dull grey sky and almost instantly brought a bit of colour to proceedings. Always a welcome sight and a thoroughly entertaining display.

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One of the stars of the show for me was the Norwegian Air Force Historic Squadron MiG-15. This was fortunately the only aircraft affected by the temporary display regulations and whilst the aircraft was a joy to see (and one that I’ve never actually seen in the air before), the tame routine left a lot to be desired. There didn’t appear to be much of the trademark Russian-built black smoke but I’m guessing that’s because the display wasn’t flown at any real speed. A disappointing display in my eyes but this couldn’t be helped; in terms of the aircraft though, it’s another one that I can tick off my wish-list!

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I can’t really believe that I’m saying this but the Breitling Wingwalkers have been fairly absent from the display circuit this summer with much of their work being focused on a more international scale, with trips to India, Japan and Dubai. To see them back in the air down South was a welcome sight and whilst their display is of a much slower pace to most items, the formation and opposing sections of the routine are incredibly photogenic. The sound of the radial engines is also something that I’ll never tire of!

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The RAF Hawk T2 Display Team are new to the circuit this year and their display is built around a role-demonstration, with a view to showing off the capabilities of the modern jet-trainer aircraft. The RAF Valley-based team have built a routine that shows off the aircraft’s agility nicely but at times the two-ship passes feel very distant. The pyrotechnics add another dimension to the display and I feel that this team has an awful lot of potential. In their inaugural year, they’ve done Valley proud!

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The rest of the air segment featured displays from The Blades, Turb Team, two Aerobility-backed routines (Yak-52 and Glider – both flown by Guy Westgate), Sally-B, the RAF Typhoon/Spitfire Synchro Pair, RAF Tutor and the RAF Typhoon Display Team. The solo Typhoon display was perhaps the most impressive Eurofighter Typhoon display I’ve ever seen; the combination of noise, power and reheat wrapped up the 2015 show in style.

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The Vulcan was due to attend but must to the disappointment of the crowd, XH558 couldn’t get through the bad weather front that was lingering around country for most of the day.

There were many intriguing acts this year but I can’t help but feel that the aviation element of Wings & Wheels is starting to feel a little stagnant. If you look at the above, the B-25, Blades, Turb Team, OFMC pair, DC-3 and to a degree, the Kittyhawk, are all acts that appear at Dunsfold almost every year (or at least feel like they’re far too common there). With the wealth of warbirds and display teams in this country, I find it difficult to understand why we don’t see more variety at Wings & Wheels year on year.

With the Vulcan exiting the display scene later this year, I really hope that the organisers make the most of the spare funding and book some really interesting (and new to the event) items in 2016.

Also, what happened to the large-scale model section this year?

Burning Rubber

Keeping true to the ‘Wheels’ part of the event’s name, the show also focuses heavily on motoring with two sections of running from both historic and modern-day cars and motorbikes.

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The first segment runs right at the beginning of the day and the noise that some of the vehicles produce is almost spine-tingling at times. Whether you’re interested in motoring or not, the speed at which some of these cars can go is truly fascinating and the first run is always something that I’m interested in. To see so many beautiful motors at once is a real treat.

I guess that’s where one of my main problems with the show comes from. Just two hours later, that entire run of cars and motorbikes is repeated and you end up with an almost identical 60-minute slot of driving. No one usually watches any given TV programme and then re-watches the exact same episode just two hours later that day; why would you?

It’s not the first time that I’ve said this and I have a feeling that it won’t be the last, but the motoring element of the show really could benefit from a little re-think. Why not break up the running order into two sections so that you don’t have to just run a repeat session? Many people immediately around me were making similar comments on the day and a large proportion of the crowd line took the second session as an excuse to go and get some food or have a toilet break. A few years back I remember seeing a Mercedes-Benz act at Dunsfold; what happened to that? Motoring entertainment acts do exist and I can’t understand why they’re not used more at shows like this.

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Still a Top Show

Despite the slightly familiar air displays and repetitive motoring sections, Wings & Wheels is still a very enjoyable event and always manages to provide an entertaining day at a reasonable ticket price.

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The team are always thinking on their feet and brought in a load of hay for the weekend to help out with the extremely boggy ground. The showground itself wasn’t too bad but the car park itself was incredibly muddy and slippery. The car park could have really benefitted from some metal tracking on the main paths coming in and out but as it dried out towards the end of the day, it got a little better.

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It was also great to see an even larger range of catering options available on site this year; people are definitely willing to spend a little more at the moment, as long as they’re getting a quality product in return.

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Many have moaned about the queues getting out of the car park but from what I can gather, this wasn’t really avoidable. A lot of people decided to leave once they found out that the Vulcan wasn’t attending (an hour or so before the end of the show) and at that time, by design, there weren’t as many marshals around to direct traffic so it became a free-for-all to get out first. Had some people hung around at the end of the show, grabbed a coffee and listened to the live music, they would have found that getting out of the site was in fact incredibly easy; it was then only the slow moving traffic all the way to Guildford that was a problem but that seems to be completely unavoidable.

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In my eyes, the organisers have got a little work to do for the 2016 show but I can guarantee that I’ll be there regardless of any changes. Wings & Wheels is still a great show and for atmosphere and friendliness, is still one of the best on the display calendar.

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