Canada Day at the Airfield

On July 1, I found myself in Duxford, Cambridgeshire, at an air show. For anyone reading who doesn’t know, July 1 is Canada Day, the day we Canucks celebrate the birth of our nation in 1867. For me, being at this particular air show on Canada Day was poignant.This is the Queen’s 60th Jubilee year and the air show was a tribute to the fighters of World War II.

This airshow had the largest flight of Spitfires seen in recent years, there were nine of them. Spitfires figured prominently in the Battle of Britain, the major air battle of World War II, and Duxford Air Base was the main air base from which English planes flew during that battle. Hundreds of planes, English and German, fighting over England and the Channel. I’ve heard the stories my entire life, and have a dear friend who lived on the Channel coast at the time. Listening to the battle, the bombs, the planes, Spitfires, Messerschmitts, Hurricanes, Junkers, night after night … I can only try to imagine what it must have been like. Watch the movie, “The Battle of Britain” some time and you’ll at least get a feel for what it was like for the flyers. For the people living on the ground … well, after July 1, I have a small idea; small, in that there were no guns, no bombs, but the sound of the planes going overhead in number, especially during the Balbo at the end was awesome.

Not all of the shots I’ve chosen for today’s post are of English planes, they’re just a few of my favorite shots. I was still learning the trick of photographing planes in flight when the Spitfires went up, so I missed catching them. Still, I love this shot.

Spitfires lined up and ready for take-off.

The Corsair F4U was an American plane used primarily in the Pacific War, its first major use being during Guadalcanal.

Corsair F4U – American Fighter Plane

The air show featured the Breitling Wing Walkers, who were very good. Of course, wing walking has come a long way since the first days of aviation and these two were harnessed and quite safe during stunts such as this one, done at speeds up to 150mph. The planes are Boeing Stearman Biplanes, developed in the US during the 1930s. I call this shot ‘Near Miss’ – although, really, it wasn’t at all.

Breitling Wing Walkers

I call the next shot ‘Dogfight’ for obvious reasons. The interesting thing is that these planes could well have met in the battle for skies of World War I. The grey plane at the top is a Fokker Triplane, the plane flown by Baron von Richthofen, better known as the Red Baron. He last 19 victories were in a Fokker and he was flying one when he was shot down in April 1918. The plane just below is a Sopwith Triplane, which saw duty until 1917. It was a much superior plane to anything else flying, and a squadron of Canadians, known as the Black Flight, shot down 87 German planes in about three months. The Sopwith Triplane was replaced by the Sopwith Camel (the biplane in this photo) throughout the summer of 1917, the Camel being better armed and much more maneuverable. The Red Baron’s death was attributed by the RAF to Canadian Ace, Captain Arthur Brown (known as Roy), who was flying a Sopwith Camel at the time.

Fokker Triplane, Sopwith Triplane and Sopwith Camel

The next plane is a Douglas DC-3. It was first used as a passenger plane starting in 1936, but was invaluable as a transport plane for the Americans throughout World War II.  It may seem an obvious choice, but I call this one ‘Wild Blue Yonder’.

Douglas DC-3

The B17 – the Flying Fortress – was developed by the US Air Corp in 1938 and was invaluable in World War II, being used against German military and industrial targets during daylight raids.

B17 – The Flying Fortress

The Lockheed P-38 Lightning was used by the Americans in the Pacific War. Extremely versatile, it was used for photo reconnaissance, night fighting, dive bombing, and ground attack, among other things.

Lockheed P-38 Lightning

The Catalina Flying Boat was used as anti-submarine craft, bombing, convoy escorts and search and rescue craft throughout World War II, but are still in use today as water bombers. While this one is American, planes of this type were also developed by Boeing for use by the Royal Canadian Air Force and by the Royal Air Force. While the RAF maintained the name Catalina for theirs, the RCAF called theirs Cansos, after a town in Nova Scotia. I call this ‘Stormy Skies’.

Catalina Flying Boat

Ital Balbo was made Italy’s Air Marshall during World War II. He had no aviation experience, but apparently acquitted himself extremely well. In 1933, he led a formation of 25 flying boats on a flight across Europe and over to the United States, then back to Rome – an incredible feat at the time. Since then, any large group of planes flying in formation as been called a Balbo. The Balbo at Duxford on July 1 was impressive. One by one, dozens of planes took off, disappeared into the distance, then reappeared to circle the airfield. As they passed overhead during the flyover, I realized I had tears in my eyes. It was then that I thought back on my friend who’d lived on the south coast of England during the Battle of Britain; a teen-aged girl, probably terrified, listening to the drone of fighter planes, to the sound of gunfire far above, the sound of bombs being dropped, feeling the earth beneath her shudder as the bombs landed – the south coast of England was the dumping ground for German bombers who didn’t have enough fuel to make it to London, you see.

My Dad was in the Canadian Army during World War II, and my great-uncle was killed at Vimy Ridge during World War I. Canadians were on the front lines of both World Wars from start to finish, enlisting in massive numbers and representing some 10% of the Canadian population, but we in Canada were far from the battles, far from the immediate horrors of war. I wasn’t born until long after it ended, but this Balbo brought this Canuck a little closer to understanding.

The Balbo

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