Warbirds at West Melling
ALTHOUGH Britain has several fine collections of historic aircraft, nowhere in the world are fighting aeroplan. of World War Two preserved in such numbers, and with such devoted care, as they are in the USA. What is more, their owners fly them regularly, and who can blame them for adding showmanship and razzamatau to their flying displays if it all helps to keep fine aircraft flying, and before the public eye?
The displays of the Confederate Air Force, for instance, have an amazing theatrical accompaniment, but the pilots and their aircraft provide a spectacle of truly astounding proportions.
Such huge gatherings are unknown in Britain, but in September the group of people dedicated to the airworthy preservation of “Sally B”, the only 1317 Flying Fortress left flying in Europe, organised a display at West Mailing airfield in Kent and succeeded in bringing together a most respectable array of historic aircraft.
The idea of the display, and of holding it at the former RAF Station, was that of Ted White, a vintage aircraft enthusiast of worldwide reputation who flew his own AT-6 Harvard and was largely responsible for the acquisition of “Sally B” from France in 1975. Tragically, he and his good friend Mark Campbell were killed in Matta in July when the Harvard — he preferred the some Texan — mysteriously crashed after winning the Concours d’Elegance of the Malta Air Rally.
The display of Great Warbirds at West Mailing was dedicated to their memory, and proceeds went partly to the Sally B Preservation Fund — her fuel and spare parts bills are huge — partly to the Duxford Hangar Appeal of the Imperial War Museum, and partly to charities nominated by Kent County Council.
Despite atrocious weather, spectators turned up in many thousands, braving downpour after downpour to be rewarded by an excellent flying display by pilots who themselves braved some pretty heavy murk. Star of the show was Sally B herself, actually the aircraft which featured in the television series We’ll Meet Again which was filmed largely at West Mailing. It is powered by four turbocharged Wright Cyclone 9-cylinder radial engines, each
giving 1,200 b.h.p. for take-off. It is kept normally at Duxford, maintenance being undertaken by volunteer members of the Duxford Aviation Society.
Another aircraft not unknown to TV viewers was the Douglas DC3 Dakota, built in 1942, which was rescued from the Catterick bonfires by the company Aces High. It icon permanent loan to the !WM at Duxford, but appears at displays and in films, including the series Aldo:, and still bears the paintwork of “Ruskin Air Services”. A North American TB-25N Michell, front the same stable as the Harvard, is also a flying lihn star, and carries the name “Big Bad Bonnie”.
Robs Lamplough’s Beechcraft Staggerwing was there, painted in RAF colours to represent the Traveller used in the UK during the war by Prince Bernhardt of the Netherlands, Adrian Swire’s Booker-based Spitfire flown by Ray Hanna, and Lindsey Walter’s Me 108 Taifun, although this is actually a Nord 1002 Pinguine 2, built in France in 1945.
The powerful Pilatus P2 owned jointly by Ray and Alarit Hanna, John Watts and Arthur Gibson, was demonstrated most effectively by John Watts. This Swiss-made aircraft, based at RAF Cranwell, has an Argun I2-cylinder inverted-vee engine and is capable of 450 m.p.h.
Another powerful aircraft was the Chance Vought F4U Corsair in the colours of the French Aironavale which Lindsey Walton also has in his collection. Built from 1940 to 1952, the Corsair was America’s last piston-engined fighter, and the first to exceed 400 m.p.h. Agile, and with excellent forward vision, it was flown most dramatically at Wont Mailing by Op. Capt. John Allison, formerly of the RAF Battle of Britain Memorial Flight and soon to be Station Commander at RAF Wildenrath.
In complete contrast was the 1945-built Storch bought by Graham Warner in 1980 and now in Luftwaffe colours. A tine air observation post, it can fly as slowly as 32 m.p.h. and can operate from very shore strips indeed. It currently has a Jacobs 7-cylinder radial engine, as of the MS505 model, but Warner hopes to replace it with the original in-line Argus engine of the MS500. There were numerous other well-kept aircraft flying during the day, and we can only trust that the occasion will not be allowed to go unrepeated.