The Shuttleworth Collection is home to a unique assortment of aircraft from the dawn of aviation, all painstakingly preserved and many still in flying condition. For Shuttleworth, “vintage” doesn’t just mean Spitfires or Tiger Moths – it means Bleriots, Triplanes, even those Da Vinci-esque wing-like constructions that braver souls than I used to strap to their bodies in an attempt to unlock the secrets of flight. It would be impossible to put a price on the value of this incredible collection, which is based at Old Warden Airfield in Bedfordshire. We’ve been meaning to visit all summer (and all last summer), and the Edwardian Picnic and Airshow afforded the perfect opportunity to do so. We decided to fly in with Wilhelm, so Lee phoned up earlier in the week and booked us a landing slot for between 3 – 3.30pm. I finished work early, which made it even more of a treat!
Apparently they were offering free programmes to those in Edwardian costume. I didn’t think that an Edwardian dress would be very practical in Wilhelm, but I did wear my aviator boots, which I consider to be a tribute to the intrepid female pilots from that era! Not having flown for a while, I took the co-pilot’s seat for the day’s flying, giving myself some navigation practice by following our route on the chart (something I love doing).
As we were climbing out of Wellesbourne, we realised that we’d forgotten our DSLR camera. We were so annoyed at ourselves for forgetting it, because the iPhone camera just doesn’t do justice to aircraft in flight! But with a half-hour landing slot not to be missed at Old Warden, we didn’t have time to land again and pick it up, so we had to make do with our phones (so apologies in advance for the quality of the photos in this post!). If we’d had a bigger camera, I would have been able to get a much better photograph of these colossal airship hangars at RAF Cardington. This is where airships were built up to 1930, of a size that would dwarf a modern airliner; the hangars are several times the height of the average house and visible for many miles around.
Here’s our view as we approached Old Warden. It took me a while to spot it from the air, as it’s a grass runway, which blends in with the surrounding fields.
When we landed we were directed to park in a line of visiting aircraft, right next to the Victorian funfair. As soon as we turned the engine off, we were greeted by the classic sound of carousel music, playing (anachronistically) Sinatra tunes.
Here’s a photo taken later on (once several more aircraft had arrived) of dear Wilhelm amongst all the other aircraft. I commented to Lee that it’s amazing how much affection one can develop for an aeroplane – Wilhelm is like a member of our little family.
We went to the control tower to book in, and we were both given these rather fetching “visiting pilot” stickers, modelled here by Lee, so that we’d be able to get airside again to retrieve our sandwiches from Wilhelm.
We walked from the control tower towards the shop to see the various aircraft – mostly biplanes – parked up outside.
The middle aircraft in this shot was, with the exception of the Apache helicopter, the most sinister, menacing-looking aircraft I have ever laid eyes on. It’s a Westland Lysander (don’t old planes have such fantastic names?), used during the war to ferry spies about and suchlike.
Here’s a closer shot of the Lysander. It resembles a gargantuan moth, with a dummy bomb hanging beneath it. I shouldn’t like to see that coming towards me.
We were intrigued by this collection of early gliders. Of particular interest is the one in the middle, which is essentially just a flying wing. It was the stubbiest glider – or aircraft of any sort, for that matter – I’d ever seen!
Fitting in with the Edwardian vibe were these old vehicles. I think old vehicles are so much more attractive than modern ones, don’t you?
Spot me! Inside this carriage was a log burner, bed and seating, which was quite cosy.
After the above photo was taken, we had a good look around the excellent shop and I bought a few things (photo at the end of this post). It would have been the perfect place to do Christmas shopping for Lee, had he not been with me!
Then we started exploring the hangars. We were impressed by this 1934 Comet, which looked far more modern than the date given.
Hangar after hangar was full of incredible old planes, which just got more and more interesting.
The best bit is that they’re all still flyable! You can see the tray on the ground in the photo above, which is catching oil dripping from a working engine. In the photo below you can see a “remove before flight” tag of the type we have on Wilhelm.
You definitely wouldn’t get me flying this very early glider – it’s not for the faint-hearted! Lee says he’s seen them winch-launched, which sounds a frankly terrifying experience.
If ever there was an iconic name – in any industry, let alone aviation – it’s De Havilland. The name has such a romance to it, and I loved the sign over this hangar, with its fine lettering over a fading sky-blue background.
This is a replica of a 1911 Avro Triplane. It’s hard to believe that this is the same manufacturer that would later produce the Vulcan bomber! Above it is a contraption that looks as though it’s come straight out of one of Leonardo Da Vinci’s sketches.
And here is a replica of the Bristol Boxkite. Apparently it was made for a film in the 1960s because there were no Boxkites extant, and I think it can fly. It looks so spindly and fragile, you’d need a nil-wind day to fly it.
Here’s the world’s oldest flying plane – the sort used in the first Channel crossing in 1909. I don’t think this is the actual one used by Bleriot for the Channel crossing, but it was impressive nonetheless (and yes, I did want to get my pen out and put an apostrophe on that sign!).
In addition to the aircraft themselves, the hangars contained a multitude of fascinating old photographs, posters and other relics from early aviation. This poster reminded me of the Shell posters exhibition we went to at Upton House!
After we’d looked around all the hangars, we wandered up to the funfair and Wilhelm.
I love the triplane design on the bag Lee’s holding!
We went back to Wilhelm to get our picnic and set up near the fence ready for the start of the airshow. We forgot a picnic blanket, so we made do with a reflective jacket from the aeroplane! The downside to flying in is that we couldn’t enjoy a glass of Champagne with our picnic, as many of those around us were.
We bought those foldaway chairs at Waddington Airshow last year, and they’ve come in useful many times since! It was nice to be at a quieter airshow after the overcrowded Royal International Air Tattoo a few weeks ago.
First up was a display team amusingly titled “The Red Sparrows”. The team normally has four Chipmunks, but one was out of action. For an aerobatic aircraft I felt that they could have done a much more impressive display than they did, which was basically a few fly-bys.
These two really went to town on the Edwardian outfits!
I loved it when they put some music on for one of the displays. I took this short video to capture a little of the atmosphere…
This is that flying wing I mentioned earlier. It was towed up to 3,000ft by a Piper Cub and then did some aerobatics for us, including a very daring low-level loop.
This one was rather intriguing. Instead of hand-swinging it, it had this clever contraption to start its engine. Its start-up was quite dramatic, with a burst of flame.
The menacing Lysander took to the skies with a Hawker Hurricane, which did some excellent low-level fly-bys. I loved the noise of its engine!
Unfortunately, we had to head back to Wilhelm at that point. We’d been given a departure slot of 6.45pm, which was a shame because the airshow hadn’t finished and we still had to pay full whack for tickets. Our original departure time was 7.15pm, but they’d brought it forward half an hour and we had no choice in the matter. We were consoled by the fact that the weather didn’t look good enough for them to get the really old aircraft out (although I found out this morning that the weather improved enough for them to get the Avro Triplane out later in the evening! Such a shame we missed that).
We had to wait for this aircraft to finish its display before we could start our engine and request taxi. We were glad to be in Wilhelm sheltering from the drizzle, which luckily soon disappeared.
This is the photo I’m most pleased with, as it looks amazing with an Instagram filter applied. I think Lee took the photo actually, so credit to him! I think it really encapsulates the “Shuttleworth experience”.
Waiting for our departure!
Lee did the take-off, as we had a big crowd watching! It looked more impressive in real life. It must be great to do air displays in front of all those people.
Bidding farewell to Old Warden. We didn’t much like the lack of engine-failure-after-take-off options!
The sky was amazing on the way home. We’d been worried by looming black clouds during the airshow, but we needn’t have been, as it was a lovely journey home, albeit with a 15kt headwind slowing our progress.
I flew the second half of the flight back, including a good landing in a 10kt crosswind. We landed as the sky was turning orange, and opened the canopy to a distinctly autumnal chill and that lovely almost frosty smell. I end with a photo of the excellent purchases I made at the Shuttleworth shop, including a 1950s game called “Air Race”.
All in all a brilliant afternoon/evening out. It’s a pity that the weather wasn’t as good as it should have been for August. I think next time we’ll probably drive, even though it’s a much longer journey, as it was a shame we weren’t allowed to stay until the end of the show to see the older stuff being brought out. Still, it was the perfect way to end the airshow season – and, by the look of things, the summer.