The history of flying displays in the United Kingdom dates back to October 1909, when the country witnessed its first ever aviation meeting. Today’s air shows are among the UK’s largest outdoor events, attracting several million spectators each year. And in this Duxford has long been exceptionally prominent.

During the airfield’s time as an active Royal Air Force station, from 1918 to 1961, it was no stranger to large-scale public displays. Most famously, on 6 July 1935 it staged the flypast element of King George V’s Jubilee Review of the RAF. On a smaller scale, RAF Duxford was among the stations around the country which played host to Empire Air Days before the war, and Battle of Britain ‘At Home’ Days after it.

Given this heritage, it was hugely apposite that, when the Imperial War Museum began using the disused airfield as a large object store in the early 1970s, the decision was taken to revive Duxford’s old air show traditions. The inaugural Duxford Air Day of a new era took place on 14 October 1973. A significant success, it paved the way for much, much more.

That’s the story told by the words and photographs inside 50 Years of Duxford Air Shows, a limited edition bookazine which charts the key aviation highlights of the past 50 years through a rich array of unseen vintage photographs and archival material from the original programmes. From the rare Spitfires of ’75 to Concorde’s ground-breaking displays and the dawn of Flying Legends, this pictorial celebration recalls Duxford’s golden moments.

We take a look back over the past five thrilling decades of Duxford's iconic Air Shows. 

The 1970s

Black and white image showing crowds and vehicles at the first Air Show in Duxford, 1973
© IWM MH 17872
A lot of work had been put in by IWM staff and East Anglian Aviation Society volunteers to make the site presentable again, though there were a few ‘rough edges’.

Beginning with a single event in 1973, Duxford’s air shows quickly became a permanent fixture in the aviation calendar.

Joining forces with the East Anglian Aviation Society (EAAS), the Shuttleworth Collection and Cambridge University Gliding Club, IWM opened Duxford airfield to the public for the first time since the museum started using it as a large object store.

The museum invited attendees to see the world’s aviation legends first-hand and immerse themselves in Duxford’s rich history. 

The 1980s

  HM Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother walking towards her Wessex helicopter, prior to departure from the July 1985 display at Duxford.
© IWM DUX/85/9/26
HM Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother walking to her Wessex helicopter prior to departure from the July 1985 display. The show marked the 50th anniversary of King George V’s Jubilee Review of the RAF.

The booming 1980s saw Duxford expand its repertoire to multiple annual air shows and commemorations.

With the help of new partners, such as the Old Flying Machine Company and The Fighter Collection, and the continued support of Duxford Aviation Society, alongside other private aircraft owners, the events gathered momentum and brought new firsts to Duxford.

Among these, the arrival of Concorde and the first ever Royal aircraft to land at the airfield.

Surprisingly, the Queen’s Flight Wessex was the first Royal aircraft ever to land at Duxford.

The 1990s

A black and white candid shot of a female attendee reading the programme for the 1990 Classic Fighter Display Air Show.
© IWM DUX 90/14/3
A candid shot of an attendee reading the programme for the 1990 Classic Fighter Display Air Show.

From the Classic Fighter Displays to the rise of Flying Legends, the 1990s was a decade of momentous moments and new beginnings.

Many will recall the legendary displays from father-and-son duo, Mark and Ray Hanna.

Founders of the Old Flying Machine Company, the Hannas were outstanding figures in the development of Duxford’s Classic Fighter Display shows and the airfield’s warbird scene. 

The Classic Fighter Display commemorated the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Britain, with dogfights of Spitfires, Hurricane and Buchóns.

The 2000s

The South African Airways Boeing 747-400 flying over Duxford at the Centenary of Flight Air Show in 2003.
© Peter R March
The South African Airways Boeing 747-400 over Duxford at the Centenary of Flight air show in 2003.

A new millennium brought new themes and many different aircraft to Duxford, as anniversaries featured high on the agenda.

In September 2003, the Centenary of Flight Air Show celebrated aviation’s greatest anniversary milestone with Duxford’s most varied line-up ever.

The agile South African Airways Boeing 747-400 display grabbed the attention of all and was complemented by a one-off ‘Duxford 100’ formation of 13 warbirds spelling out ‘100’ in the air. 

2010 – 2022

Massed Spitfires make their way out of Duxford's grass and hard runways, under a rainbow, ready for the finale of the 2022 Battle of Britain Air Show.
© IWM 2022 053 149
Under a beautiful rainbow, massed Spitfires make their way out to Duxford’s grass and hard runways, ready for the finale of the 2022 Battle of Britain Air Show.

The 2010s was a celebratory decade with wartime commemorations heavily on the agenda.

Duxford has always been the place to celebrate Britain’s rich aviation history.

From the 2013 salute to the 78th Fighter Group of the US Eighth Air Force, which had made its home at RAF Duxford 70 years earlier, to the 2019 Daks over Duxford, in honour of the D-Day 75th anniversary with 21 C-47/DC-3 variants departing Duxford in a mass flight to Normandy.

As John Romain, Pilot and co-owner of Aircraft Restoration Company, echoes, ‘There’s an atmosphere to this place – an awful lot of history… you get the feeling you’re not quite on your own. There’s something reassuring in that.’

Each chapter showcases the event’s vibrant history and traces its evolution across five decades. 

Own a piece of Duxford's rich history and buy this limited edition bookazine from the IWM Shop today



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