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‘Old Warden is a distinctively British experience, harkening back to a time when the RAF was regarded as "the best flying club in the world" and the skies above the British Isles were almost entirely free of regulation’

In the heart the English countryside, near the Bedfordshire town of Biggleswade, lies the airfield known as Old Warden, home to the Shuttleworth Collection of vintage airplanes and vehicles. It’s a magnet for true believers, enthusiasts who come to savor the sight and sound of wonderful old machines in an atmosphere that makes few concessions to the age of the microchip.

The collection was started before World War II by Richard Ormonde Shuttleworth, a wealthy Old Etonian pilot and auto racer who died on a training flight in a Royal Air Force Fairey Battle in August 1940. After the war Dorothy Shuttleworth, Richard’s mother, set up the Shuttleworth Trust in memory of her son. The collection opened its doors to the public in 1963, with the first public air display taking place a year later.

To visit Old Warden, especially on a flying day, is to step several paces back in time, an illusion that begins when you drive through the local village of the same name, with its idyllic thatched cottages and a pub called The Hare and Hounds. As you drive on, a biplane crackles low overhead, the pilot’s helmeted head clearly visible in the open cockpit as he turns in to land on the nearby grass runway.

The intoxicating whiff of yesteryear continues as, after rattling across cattle-grids and past the old Shuttleworth manor house, you enter a grass aerodrome that has been carefully preserved in the style of a 1930s flying club, complete with vintage hangars, control tower and, on themed pageant days, reenactors dressed in period costumes. The setting is determinedly rural, with farm buildings overlooking the opposite side of the main runway. The collection owns 39 aircraft, and 16 privately owned historic machines are also based at Old Warden. That number is set to increase once a new hangar is completed on the airfield’s eastern side.

Even the British weather tends to suspend its customary bad habits on flying days at Old Warden. The sun shines more often than not, and for camera buffs there are typically backdrops of blue sky with fluffy cumulus and perhaps the occasional patch of brooding nimbostratus to pose the airplanes against.

The biplane that passed overhead a few moments ago has taxied across the grass to join a colorful lineup of other interwar airplanes with evocative names like Cygnet, Cirrus Moth, Hornet Moth, Hermes Moth, Swift, Tomtit, Elf, Anec, Humming Bird and Southern Martlet. Many of these aircraft are the only example of their type still flying, and in some instances the only one in existence. Nearby, from the same era, are a glistening silver Hawker Hind light bomber that once belonged to the Royal Afghan Air Force (and was brought back from Kabul overland, in a perilous 6,000-mile odyssey, for an 11-year restoration), an Avro Tutor and an impossibly elegant 1936 Miles Falcon with a raked forward windscreen and trousered undercarriage. More recently, a meticulously restored 1937 Hawker Demon two-seat fighter took up residence at Old Warden.

In a class of its own is the 1924 D.H.51 Miss Kenya, the oldest flying de Havilland aircraft in the world, which once belonged to Lord John Carberry, a member of Kenya’s notorious “White Mischief” set. Transported back to England in June 1965 aboard an RAF Blackburn Beverly freighter, Miss Kenya underwent a lengthy restoration before flying again in March 1973.

Round the corner, rare original survivors of World War I are on parade: a Sopwith Pup, an Avro 504K trainer, a Bristol F.2b Fighter and an S.E.5a scout of the type flown with such devastating success by Royal Flying Corps aces Edward “Mick” Mannock and James McCudden. S.E.5a G-EBIA, a veteran of the Western Front with No. 84 Squadron, was one of 50 that came onto the civil market in 1920. Subsequently used by Major Jack Savage’s Skywriting Company, it was later found hanging from the roof of a flight shed. In 1955 G-EBIA became the subject of a major restoration project by apprentices of the Royal Aircraft Establishment at Farnborough on behalf of the Shuttleworth Collection. It took to the air again in 1957, and later was completely rebuilt at Old Warden.

Standing with these veterans is an exact replica of a Royal Naval Air Service Sopwith Triplane, Dixie II. Completed in 1991 by the North­ern Airplane Workshops (NAW) in Yorkshire, it was built to such exacting standards that Sopwith founder Sir Thomas Sopwith declared it “a late production model,” granting the Triplane the Sopwith serial number 153. This is the machine I once overheard a bewildered teenager describe, not inaptly, as looking like “a large venetian blind on wheels.” Also built by NAW to original drawings was the Bristol M.1C, a replica of Britain’s first monoplane fighter, which only flew operationally in the Middle East and Salonika. A replica Sopwith Camel is currently under construction at NAW.

Nearby are some of the collection’s iconic big beasts from World War II, their names familiar to most visitors and already the stuff of aviation legend: Supermarine Spitfire Vc, Hawker Sea Hurricane Ib, Gloster Gladiator and Westland Lysander IIIa. The last is currently painted in an all-black color scheme to represent the type’s perilous clandestine service with the Special Operations Executive, dropping agents into German-occupied Europe.

WWII trainers include a D.H.82a Tiger Moth in wartime camouflage, a rare Blackburn B-2 and a Miles Hawk and Magister. They are displayed side by side with a German Bücker Bü-131 Jungmann, Bü-181 Bestmann, Klemm 35D and Focke-Wulf Fw-44J Stieglitz (“a Tiger Moth on steroids”), all decked out in Luftwaffe insignia. A Fieseler Fi-156 Storch awaits final refurbishment before joining this mini-Luftwaffe (or “Shuttlewaffe”), all owned by Shuttleworth pilot Peter Holloway. Representing the United States is a pair of Ryan PT-22 Recruits (one formerly based at the U.S. Army Air Corps’ Hemet Field, Calif.), their attention-grabbing Kinner R56 engines sounding like badly tuned lawnmowers.

There is even a small postwar section comprising a pristine-looking 1946 Avro 19 (civilian Anson), a de Havilland Chipmunk in Royal Canadian Air Force markings and, from Percival, a 1947 Prentice and a 1955 Provost trainer.

Other priceless machines lurk in the hangars, including a 1931 Desoutter 1, a Polikarpov Po-2 and, guaranteed to delight fans of aero­nautical exotica, a 1930 Granger Archaeopteryx, a Dixon Ornithopter and the 1870 Ahrbecker steam engine from the Frost Ornithopter.

In the utterly bewildering category is the 1921 English Electric Wren. Propelled by a 3-hp motorcycle engine, with a two-bladed mahogany airscrew and a fuel tank for just one gallon, this powered sailplane has a top speed of 50 mph, but can cope at just over 20 mph. It once flew 87.5 miles on a single gallon. On the rare occasions when it becomes airborne, the Wren is launched by a team of brawny volunteers heaving on bungee cords!

Also in the very rare group—of which more later—are a 1909 Blériot XI, a 1910 Deperdussin and a 1912 Blackburn Type D monoplane, all still airworthy and a great credit to the dedicated engineers and volunteer helpers of the Shuttleworth Veteran Airplane Society. Recognized as the oldest original British airplane still flying, the Blackburn D was bought by Richard Shuttleworth after being discovered in 1938 under the hayrick where it had reposed since 1914; the aircraft’s 50-hp Gnome rotary engine was in a barrel nearby. Grouped with these genuine originals are flying replicas of a 1910 Bristol Boxkite and a 1911 Avro Triplane IV, both purpose-built for the 1965 comedy movie Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines.

This is certainly no hands-off museum or static exhibition. Most of these aircraft fly regularly in the hands of highly experienced aviators, many of whom are former test pilots, and including former RAF Air Chief Marshal Sir John Allison. All have undergone a period of “un­teaching” modern techniques and reteaching the skills of yesteryear. The 13 Shuttleworth pilots are unpaid volunteers who moonlight at Old Warden simply for the joy of “real flying,” though only a few are checked out on all the types in the collection. These men and women demonstrate their precious charges like deferential nephews and nieces taking rheumatic but still sprightly old aunts out for a spin. That is, without inflicting negative G on aged airframes.

Interviewed about whether rare and historic aircraft should be flown or preserved in museums, former chief display pilot Andy Shepton, who retired in 2009 after 12 years in that role, neatly summed up the Shuttleworth philosophy: “…the fully operating exhibit presents the sight, sound and smell of the working machine, and when in flight, all aspects of its whole—the underside, topside, front, back and both sides. It can be seen in its living environment, and even when returned to the hangar at the end of the day it still radiates life. The engine ticks as it cools, liquids drip from the various drains, there is an odor of life that only a working machine can exude.” Shepton’s successor Trevor Roche, a former RAF fast jet pilot and current British Airways captain, has flown for the collection since 1995.

Even airplanes not currently airworthy are taxied up and down, the sleek red D.H.88 Comet racer Grosvenor House in particular drawing more admiring glances than a supermodel. Piloted by Charles W.A. Scott and Tom Campbell Black, this beautiful airplane won the 1934 MacRobertson England-to-Australia race in 70 hours and 54 minutes (see related story in May 2010 Aviation History).
The main airshows at Old Warden are held the first Sunday of each month from May through October, when resident Shuttleworth airplanes are often joined by visiting aircraft, including aerobatic specialists in Russian Sukhoi Su-29s and Yakovlev Yak-52s and even a team of U.S. Cassutt Racers. Sometimes the visitors include powerful Ameri­can veterans of WWII: Grumman Avenger, Bearcat and Hellcat, North American B-25 Mitchell or a burnished silver North American P-51 Mustang. As these veteran warriors show off their paces, the Bedfordshire sky is gloriously rent by the now largely forgotten sound of big, hairy-chested piston engines operating at close to full throttle.

The flying program regularly includes vintage jets such as a de Havilland Vampire, Folland Gnat, Hawker Hunter and Sea Hawk, Percival Jet Provost, North American F-86 Sabre or Lock­heed F-80 Shooting Star, al­though airplanes sans propellers are definitely the exception here. A first for 2009 was the appearance of a Chinese Nanchang trainer (Yak-18A variant). Other intriguing visitors included two Spartan Executives, ferried over from Wilmington, Del., in July.

On certain Saturdays during summer the Sunset Displays are held. Then the flying starts at about 5 p.m., and the collection’s own airplanes can be enjoyed amid the subtle colors and lengthening shadows of evening. To see the Sopwith Triplane, the Pup or the S.E.5a transformed into a silhouette as it climbs above the trees is to be transported back to an era when flying was still a glorious achievement and the leather-helmeted aviator a genuinely heroic figure. Scarcely have you absorbed this time capsule when the Spitfire and Hurricane fly past in formation, heading west in a gentle climbing turn toward the gold of the setting sun, the throaty growl of their Rolls-Royce Merlin engines lingering in the air long after they have passed. Memorable as this is, it can be surpassed by a visit from the RAF’s renowned Battle of Britain Memorial Flight of a Hurricane, a Spitfire and an Avro Lan­caster. Then, to the concerted roar of six Merlins, men and women of a certain age gaze silently skyward—and remember.

Almost uniquely, though, Old Warden can take spectators even further back in time than this, to the very infancy of powered flight. If conditions are ideal, which means usually in the cool of the evening, when the wind has dropped to little more than a whisper, they may wheel out the wonderful old flying machines known collectively as “The Edwardians.” Cantankerous mechanisms are fussed over, spanners and oil cans applied. Wooden props are swung and final adjustments made.

One by one, after perhaps a wheeze and a splutter and a whiff of castor oil, the old engines are coaxed into life. Then, observed reverently by the crowd, the Bristol Boxkite, Avro Triplane, Blackburn D, Blériot XI and perhaps the Deperdussin trundle forward, surrounded by devoted helpers to take briefly to the air like enormous butterflies. Their pilots sit exposed amid geometric tangles of struts and bracing wires, “blipping” throttles, warping wings and doing a dozen other things that would be largely unfamiliar to most fliers today in machines that were definitely not designed to be pilot friendly.

While watching and marveling, it is sobering to reflect on the inexorable advance of aviation since those early pioneering days of really not so long ago. And maybe to ponder, as the Blériot XI putters by at its top speed of 36 mph, that on July 25, 1909, in a modified version of this frail-looking machine, French­man Louis Blériot became the first man to fly an airplane across the English Channel.

Powerful reminders to store away until the next occasion you’re at 35,000 feet on a flight out of London or New York, sipping a predinner drink and fiddling with the entertainment panel in the pressurized comfort of a modern airliner. A good time perhaps to raise a glass to Monsieur Blériot, Tom Sopwith, Geoffrey de Havilland, Amy Johnson, Jim Mollison, Alex Henshaw and all those other iconic trailblazers whose exploits still find such a triumphant echo in the skies above Bedfordshire today.

Old Warden is a distinctively British experience, harkening back to a time when the RAF was regarded as “the best flying club in the world” and the skies above the British Isles and elsewhere were almost entirely free of regulation. A time when a bold aviator could, if the spirit moved him or indeed her, climb into a small plane and, with little more than a map and a compass as a guide, plus a generous measure of self-belief, fly off to Europe or the Middle East or India, to the distant Antipodes, or even across the Pond.

A final word of warning: No matter how far you’ve come, as soon as you leave you’ll be making a mental resolution to return again as soon as possible. It’s that sort of friendly place. Thankfully there’s no cure for this sort of addiction.

Frequent contributor and RAF veteran Derek O’Connor writes from Amersham, Bucks, U.K. See for event dates and additional information.