Flying Legends North – “Like Duxford, Only Better”

United Fuel Cells

by Stephen Bridgewater

Following a four-year hiatus the Flying Legends Air Show took place again on July 15th and 16th, 2023, albeit at a new location, the former RAF Church Fenton airfield now known as Leeds East Airport near Tadcaster in Yorkshire, England. In the 30 years since Stephen Grey and his team at The Fighter Collection (TFC) decided to run their own warbird show, the Flying Legends brand has become one of the most powerful in the historic aviation world. Spectators, pilots, and aircraft travel the globe to soak up the atmosphere at what is, without a doubt, an event like no other.

That inaugural Flying Legends – during which TFC’s then-new Grumman FM2 Wildcat assumed center stage – took place on the May Day Bank Holiday Monday in 1993, but from the following year, the show became a two-day affair in July. Over the years, the event grew in stature to become the show for warbird aficionados, and the only place in the world that has seen displays from aircraft as diverse as a Saab B.17, FlugWerk FW 190, Grumman F3F, and Polikarpov I-16 Rata. Such is the draw of Flying Legends that operators have raced to get their latest restorations completed in time to debut at the show – and TFC has done likewise…

In 1997, the collection’s newly acquired P-51C Mustang made its first flight on the morning of the show whereas other debutants have included TFC’s Spitfire V (EP120) and XIV (SM832).

All change!

Following a highly successful airshow in 2019 which included Guy Black’s 1918 Airco DH.9 (the world’s oldest airworthy bomber), crowds went home eagerly anticipating what the 2020 Flying Legends might bring. However, as we now know, that year’s air show season fell victim to the global pandemic. On April 20th, 2020 TFC’s Nick Grey (son of Stephen) released a stirring video address, finishing with the words: “Thank you for your understanding, for your passion and commitment. Look out for one another, stay optimistic, and remember, fly safe!”

Later that year, Grey made another somber announcement, telling show fans: “I look at this and the years gone by with immense gratitude for all the wonderful moments we have lived with you our faithful and fanatical community. It is with a heavy heart that we confirm 2019 was the final Flying Legends with our friends at IWM Duxford.”

Plans to move the event to Sywell near Northampton in 2021 came to naught and in 2022 there was further disappointment when Grey announced: “Our search for a suitable alternative to Duxford has not been successful, despite our best efforts.”

Many predicted that this marked the end for the world’s foremost warbird gathering, but much to the community’s delight a surprise announcement arrived stating that the show would return for 2023…  but at a completely unexpected location.

Church Fenton:

Last weekend, on July 15th/16th, the much anticipated 30th anniversary Flying Legends airshow took place at Leeds-East Airport, the former RAF Church Fenton. Not only is it apt for this festival of aviation to relocate to a wartime airfield that once hummed to the symphony of Merlin music from Spitfires and Hurricanes, this event is also one of the few new air shows taking place in Northern England in several decades.

Church Fenton is a historically significant site, having played a crucial role in Britain’s wartime defense as a frontline fighter base and maintenance facility for battle-weary aircraft. There has been an active airfield at the site since 1937 when Church Fenton opened during the RAF’s massive pre-war expansion effort. It was designed as a fighter base from the start, charged with protecting Yorkshire and Humberside from attack by enemy bomber formations. Post-war, it became a training base for fledgling pilots until the final military aircraft left in 2013. Today it is a busy general aviation airfield.

Weather woes

Although the United Kingdom has endured high temperatures for much of the summer, the weekend of July 15th/16th dawned wet, windy, and wild. Saturday was marred by powerful thunderstorms and torrential rain, but this was interspersed with bright sunshine and spectacular cloudscapes making for atmospheric photographs. Sadly the weather closed in again ahead of the traditional ‘Balbo’ formation finale which Flying Legends is so famous for, so – with discretion being the better part of valor – the show’s organizers decided to abandon flying at around 4:00 pm.

Luckily, Sunday remained dry. Although the wind remained strong and gusty, it blew straight down the runway so a majority of the aircraft managed to display.


Readers familiar with air shows at Duxford will be aware that either ‘The Tank Bank’ or the far left of the runway near the M11 motorway are the preferred areas for photographers wanting to capture the display aircraft performing top-side passes. However, the proliferation of villages and ‘no fly’ zones around Duxford – as well as the motorway itself and the Stansted Airport restricted airspace overhead – mean that the flying displays at that airfield can be quite constrained…

This is where Church Fenton really came into its own! With no controlled airspace in the area, unlimited vertical display manoeuvers were permissible. Furthermore, the lack of surrounding housing estates permitted event organizers to establish a curved flight line, ensuring that aircraft could display in a dynamic and photogenic style. Aircraft were also able to fly orbits ‘around’ the audience and use areas at the extreme ends of the crowd line for innovative manoeuvers on the 45-degree line.

Merlin Symphony

Since the earliest days of Flying Legends, the air show has always started with the ‘Merlin Symphony’ featuring large numbers of Supermarine Spitfires flying in formation before they perform an aerial ballet to open the day’s proceedings. It was pleasing to see this tradition continue at Church Fenton, with eight examples of RJ Mitchell’s classic fighter taking to the skies.

Hopes for a nine-ship were dashed when Air Leasing’s Spitfire Tr.9 (ML407) suffered a brake problem during start-up on both days of the event, but the remaining eight consisted of a trio of Mk.Vs (EP120, EE602, and JG891 flown by Stu Goldspink, Jim Schofield and Brian Smith respectively), Mk.VIII MT928 flown by Martin Overall, Mk.IXs MH415 (Alex Smee) and MH434 (Paul Bonhomme), PR.XI PL983 (Lars Ness) and the recently-restored Spitfire Mk.XIV RM927 of French-based W Air Collection flown by Brice O’Hayon.

Following a series of formation flypasts, the formation split into two groups. The Mk.Vs performed orbits around the audience (constant right-hand circuits to provide top-side passes then flying behind the crowd), while the others remained in front of the spectators, roaring down the main runway.

Airshow highlights

Battling the weather, the organizers, pilots, and Flying Control Committee improvised as best as possible to keep the action going – albeit not necessarily in the intended running order. Highlights were many and varied, including a typically lyrical display from TFC’s Chief Pilot, Pete Kynsey, in the collection’s F8F-2P Bearcat – which has now been operated by the Grey’s for more than four decades! ‘PK’ was joined for part of his display by Rolf Meum flying TFC’s FG-1D Corsair and Edmond Salis in the Salis Collection’s F4U-5NL Corsair – the bent-wing pair then going on to perform a rip-roaring tail chase!

Flying Legends has always been an international affair and this year was no exception. Flying in from Austria with their highly polished B-25J Mitchell and P-38L Lightning, the Flying Bulls performed against some of the weekend’s most dramatic skies. Following an energetic pairs display, the duo split up, with Frederic Handelmann and Ludwig Reiter taking center stage to throw the B-25 around like a fighter – reminding the audience just how maneuverable this medium bomber is at low altitude!

Eskil Amdal then had an enviable opportunity to put the Lighting through its paces, using the unlimited vertical airspace to good effect, with a swooping, looping routine which showed the potent fighter’s capabilities to great effect. Taxying in after his display, the Norwegian pilot – who also flies the F-104 and F-35 – received a much-deserved spontaneous round of applause from the audience.

Unique formations

Every Flying Legends is littered with ‘Only at Legends’ formations, and this year was no exception. A highlight for many was a four-ship display by the TFC ‘Hawk’ fleet, with Stu Goldspink flying the Merlin-powered P-40F Warhawk leading the P-40B, P-36, and Hawk 75 flown by Paul Bennett, Patrice Marchasson, and Baptiste Salis respectively.

Unfortunately, the much-hoped-for formation of the weekend never happened as – despite the best efforts of the entire Air Leasing team – the restoration of Anglia Aircraft Restorations’ Hawker Tempest II MW763 was not quite finished in time to make its planned debut at Flying Legends. While this was disappointing, it did provide an opportunity for former Red Bull Air Race world champion Paul Bonhomme to give a sublime solo aerobatic display in Anglia Aircraft Restorations’ former Iraqi Air Force Hawker ISS Fury.

A Tempest II has not been displayed at a UK air show since the 1950s, so MW763 is one of the most eagerly-anticipated restorations in recent times. Doug Arnold’s famous Warbirds of Great Britain organization imported seven ex-Indian Air Force Tempest Mk.IIs to the UK in 1979 but not one has returned to the skies as of yet.

Arnold sold MW763 to Nick Grace and Chris Horsley’s Tangmere Flight in 1980 and the pair had plans to restore it – and a Tempest Mk.V – to airworthy condition. But when Grace was tragically killed in a car crash, the project was sold to Brian Angliss’ Autokraft organization and registered G-TEMT. It later passed to Tempest Two Ltd and restoration work was undertaken at Gamston, Sandtoft, and Wickenby airfields before it was eventually sold to Graham Peacock’s Anglia Aircraft Restorations in 2014. In an odd twist of fate, MW763’s restoration was entrusted to Air Leasing Ltd – owned by Richard Grace – who remembers playing in the fighter’s fuselage as a child when it was owned by his late father, Nick.

Another hoped-for debutant at the event was the P-51D Mustang 45-11518, which is also under restoration at Air Leasing on behalf of Graham Peacock. The former RNZAF Mustang will be familiar to many readers as G-MSTG, owned, restored, and flown by Maurice Hammond as Janie until it was badly damaged in an accident in 2016. Now registered as G-CLNV, it is being restored to two-seat TF-51 configuration and reportedly destined to appear in the black-tailed markings of the 23rd Fighter Group during their time in the China-Burma-India Theatre – similar to those worn by the Dakota Territory Air Museum’s  Lope’s Hope 3rd and Kitty IV. While it too was not completed in time to appear at Flying Legends 2023, G-CLNV was interestingly listed in the commemorative program as belonging to the Salis Collection.

John Tyrrell’s P-51D Mustang Miss Helen (G-BIXL) was another no-show and although the Comanche Fighters P-51B Berlin Express and P-51D Hun Hunter made their way to Church Fenton for use by the Horsemen, they remained grounded all weekend due to the strong winds.

Mustang fans were not to be disappointed though as Anglia Aircraft Restorations’ TF-51D Contrary Mary took to the skies on both days in the hands of Australia’s Cameron Rolph-Smith for a very spirited routine. The Mustang was joined by the same operator’s P-47D Thunderbolt Nellie B, which was flown with verve by RAF F-35B pilot Nick Smith (son of famous display pilot Brian Smith).

Maximum effort

While all the crews made a tremendous effort to reach and display at Flying Legends this year – with rain, wind, hail, and thunderstorms hampering many efforts – special mention must go to Andrew Davis who flew the open-cockpit Fairey Swordfish torpedo bomber (W5056) the 200+ miles from RNAS Yeovilton to Church Fenton. It seems highly apt that Navy Wings’ Swordfish – currently the only airworthy ‘Stringbag’ anywhere – should make the journey to Church Fenton, as Blackburn Aircraft built it under license nearby at Sherburn-in-Elmet. Still in operation now as a private airfield, the circuit at Sherburn-in-Elmet is visible from Church Fenton, and when – as the rain began to intensify on Saturday – the unmistakable shape of a Swordfish was seen climbing slowly into the wind towards Flying Legends a cheer went up around the site!

Battling blustery conditions, Davis performed a memorable solo display; TFC’s Grumman Wildcat, which was scheduled to join W5056 as a tribute to the Fleet Air Arm, was unable to fly due to the inclement conditions.

As the Swordfish set off for Sherburn-in-Elmet at the end of its display on Saturday, the skies began to blacken, the wind picked up and it began to hail! Midway through a display by a pair of Cessna Bird Dogs (themselves a welcome first for Flying Legends), the Flying Display Director took the wise decision to cancel the rest of the day’s flying and the audience scampered for cover in the hangars or made their way to their cars.

Day Two

Sunday dawned much brighter and dryer, but with a persistent high wind, which meant that flying would undoubtedly be affected. Nevertheless, the show went on, and – to everybody’s delight – most of the aircraft took to the air!

Church Fenton’s first resident squadrons flew Gloster Gladiator biplane fighters, including the first of that type to be delivered into RAF service. It had been hoped that TFC’s Gladiator II (G-GLAD) – which flies in the No.72 Squadron markings of a Church Fenton-based airframe – would display at Flying Legends. Sadly the wind prevented this but, having been unable to fly on Saturday, it was a delight to see the Church Fenton ‘tribute’ take place with three Hawker Hurricanes and three Supermarine Spitfire Mk.Is on Sunday.

Many squadrons and aircraft types operated from Church Fenton, including the first ‘Eagle’ Squadron of American volunteers who came to Britain to fight before the US formally entered the war. The airfield was home to No.71 ‘Eagle’ Squadron from September 19th, 1940, with US pilots flying the Spitfire and Hurricane – so seeing the six aforementioned warbirds take off from the airfield was a dream to behold!

First into the skies was James Brown in his Battle of Britain veteran Hurricane Mk.I R4118, quickly followed by Gabrielle Barton in the Anglia Aircraft Restorations’ Dunkirk veteran Hurricane Mk.I P2902. Bringing up the rear was Mark Levy flying the Biggin Hill Heritage Hangar’s Hurricane Mk.X AE977.

Following a formation routine, the hapless Hurricanes were ‘bounced’ by Steve Jones and Dave Puleston in Hispano HA-1112 Buchons (representing Bf109s) from the Aircraft Restoration Company and Biggin Hill Heritage Hangar. Luckily, the cavalry soon arrived in the form of a trio of Spitfire Mk.Is! Jon Gowdy led the formation in the Imperial War Museum’s Dunkirk veteran N3200, being joined by Brian Smith in Comanche Fighters’ X4650 and Pete Kynsey in the same organization’s AR213. The latter has operated as a warbird in the UK since its initial acquisition by Group Captain Allen Wheeler in 1947! It now wears the markings of P7308, as flown by No.71 (Eagle) Squadron pilot P/O William Dunn.

The Heavies

While familiar Flying Legends favorites such as the Bristol Blenheim and Boeing B-17G Sally B were both notably absent from this year’s event – and the planned attendance of the Swiss-based Classic Formation’s Douglas C-47 and a trio of Beech C-45s were marooned on the continent by bad weather – fans of multi-engined warbirds were not disappointed.

French-based Chalair’s C-47 Skytrain (F-AZOX) was on static display all weekend and departed during the Sunday afternoon show and the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight’s Avro Lancaster amazed many doubtful attendees by braving the weather on Sunday. Flown by Paul ‘Ernie’ Wise, the Lancaster cruised serenely over Church Fenton on its way home to RAF Coningsby from its only appearance at RIAT 2023 – the weather keeping it grounded over the rest of the weekend. Normally, the Lancaster would be the star of most shows, but at this year’s Flying Legends that honour fell to the newly-restored 1936 Lockheed 12 belonging to Fighter Aviation Engineering. This aircraft was imported into the UK by Sydney Cotton in 1939 and registered as G-AFTL to British Airways as a cover for its real purpose. Tango Lima was fitted with two 70-gallon tanks to improve its range, while fuselage hatches were installed to hide a series of F.24 cameras fitted in the aircraft’s belly. G-AFTL is said to be one of the world’s most historic photo-reconnaissance aircraft still in existence; Cotton used it to photograph military installations across the German Reich shortly before the outbreak of World War Two in 1939. Having arrived back in the UK in May 2022, after an absence of more than 75 years, G-AFTL completed its first post-restoration flight from Sywell Aerodrome less than a year later on March 27th, 2023, with Pete Kynsey at the helm. The aircraft performed its Flying Legends debut on Sunday, flown by vintage airliner expert pilot Jon Corley – who was previously Chief Pilot at Air Atlantique.

The Balbo

Having been thwarted by the weather on Saturday, hopes were high on Sunday that conditions would allow the iconic Flying Legends Balbo to take place. After much deliberation, a decision was made and Pete Kynsey fired up the Bearcat and led out 18 other aircraft for a stream take-off.

The ‘Joker’ routine traditionally keeps the audience amused as the other aircraft form up for their massed flypast. After Stephen Grey’s retirement from display flying in 2014, this role has passed to his son, Nick. A keen proponent of the biplane fighter, Nick had hoped to perform the Joker slot in his beloved Gladiator, but the wind conditions were out of limits for the Gladiator, so Grey opted to make Spitfire Mk.V EP120 as his steed for the role.

His typically punchy, and yet poetic aerobatics display was punctuated by flypasts from the Balbo. This year, the mass formation consisted of the following:

Lead Section: Bearcat (Pete Kyney), FG1D Corsair (Brian Smith) & F4U-5 Corsair (Edmond Salis)

Second Section: P-47 (Nick Smith) & TF-51D (Cameron Rolph-Smith)

Third Section: P-36 (Patrice Marchasson), Hawk 75 (Baptiste Salis) & P-40B (Paul Bennett)

Fourth Section: P-40F (Stu Goldspink) & 2 x Buchons (Dave Puleston & Steve Jones)

Fifth Section: Spitfires MT928 (Martin Overall), MH415 (Alex Smee), MH434 (Paul Bonhomme), PL983 (Lars Ness), & RM927 (Brice O’Hayon)

Sixth Section: P-38 (Eskil Amdal) & B-25 (Frederic Handelmann & Ludwig Reiter)

With the Red Bull P-38 and B-25 landing first, the remaining aircraft then split into small sections before performing run and breaks to land.

Another Flying Legends was over; the 30th edition of this world-famous event and the first at its new home.

The verdict

Much to the frustration of the organizers, the traditional ‘first weekend in July’ Flying Legends slot was unavailable at Church Fenton this year, having already been booked by a GA trade show. Other weekends were also impossible for a number of logistical reasons and the only available dates clashed with the large Royal International Air Tattoo (RIAT) air show at RAF Fairford.

While this was much to the chagrin of enthusiasts, it is worth remembering that this was not a decision to deliberately clash with RIAT. The TFC team was faced with two choices – either run the event when they did or don’t run it at all! While this did result in late confirmation of the show – by which time many loyal Flying Legends fans and traders had already paid for tickets and accommodation at RIAT – the organizers have promised a return to the usual dates from 2024 onwards.

Likewise, the decision to move the show to Church Fenton, which is close to York and Leeds but a 150mile/2.5-hour drive from Duxford,  also drew complaints from enthusiasts in the south of England. Nevertheless, committed airshow fans traveled from around the UK, Europe, Scandinavia, the USA, and the rest of the world to attend the inaugural Flying Legends North.

The author attended RIAT on Friday and then drove up to Church Fenton that evening, ready to be at Flying Legends as soon as the gates opened on Saturday morning. Could the show have been better? Yes, of course, it could. The weather didn’t help and the number of traders was much lower than normal – presumably because of the late announcement of the date. Compared to Duxford there was obviously no museum to tour, but there was nevertheless plenty to see, including locally-based aircraft and ground entertainment ranging from 1940s singers and a very realistic George Formby impersonator to Laurel & Hardy reenactors and a group depicting characters from the classic British TV comedy show about the French Resistance, ‘Allo ‘Allo.

The site was rather disjointed, with access between the north and south sections of the crowd line hindered by the need to walk around the rear side of the hangars, but there was plenty to see and the catering facilities were plentiful, good quality, and (relatively) affordable.

Ahead of the show, many online ‘pundits’ predicted “traffic chaos” at Church Fenton – yet in reality, the traffic flowed freely with no queues getting either in or out.

Those who chose not to attend because it was “too far”, “the traffic would be chaos”, “it will never happen” or “the weather is bad” really missed out on memorable flying by rare airplanes at a location seemingly ideal for display flying. With the longstanding arrangement with Duxford terminated straight after the Covid-induced hiatus and plans to move to Sywell thwarted, many predicted the end of Flying Legends. Having been missing from the airshow calendar since 2019, it is not inconceivable that the organizers for Flying Legends could have given up on the show entirely – but to their credit, they persisted and – as a result – discovered a location which, with a couple of minor tweaks, could become the perfect airshow location.

Flying Legends is back – long may it continue!



  1. I think you nailed the review. As a Flying Legends first timer I was amazed how close the curved flight line allowed the aircraft to get, compared to RIAT for example.

    It’s the first airshow in a number of years where the flying had a wow factor because of the curved crowd line that made you feel you were in centre of the action from the north end of the field.

    The merlin symphony was a joy to watch with the sky full of them, with the exciting and close right hand top side passes and then the low and fast left hand circuits it was hard to know where to look.

    I was only there Saturday, but it has been my favourite airshow in years.

    • A really insightful and thoughtful review of the weekend. I thought the show was fantastic, and having attended several Legends shows at Duxford felt this was right up there. The views were fantastic and the curved flightline as others have pointed out made for a really incredible experience. The North suffers from a real lack of airshows – we very rarely get a chance to see many warbirds (with the exception of the BBMF), so this is a real coup, and I really hope that Church Fenton retains Legends and that Legends returns to Church Fenton for many years to come.

      • I was there on the Sunday it was nice to see that it come to Yorkshire you need to have more trad stands and maybe some flights like the one at Duxford

  2. How wonderful it was for us, living in the north, to have a top airshow “on our doorstep”. We really enjoyed the closeness of the displays and am ready to book tickets for 2024!

  3. Dear Sir,

    Many thanks for your detailed and very balanced review. It is rare to read such well crafted stuff these days, where superlatives and negative criticism seem to be the norm. Despite being a hugely loss making enterprise, Flying Legends is a privilege for us and all who love WWII Fighters flown with gusto and panache. Church Fenton is a fine place with very can do and creative owners.

    Thanks to all who braved the weather and the unknown to join join us up North. We had a wonderful time and the team at TFC and CF did a splendid job.

    Once again thank you dear Sir for this most excellent review.

    Kind regards

    Nick Grey

  4. I attended both Saturday and Sunday and enjoyed both! I very much look forward to 2024, however I wish the CAA would review their restrictions regarding the distance from the crowd line! The Swordfish display was perfect, allowing a detailed view of the aircraft in flight. It would be wonderful if other types could be displayed at a similar distance. I have been attending shows since the 1960’s and the lasting impression of those shows led me to 46 years employment in aviation. I am not suggesting a return to those days with Sally B raising dust with her wingtips, but I am sure there must be some scope for easement. My air display attendance has reduced from 20 or more shows per year to merely a handful at present.

  5. Amazing site. I’m a radio control pilot and have flown various Spitfire models. The scale warbirds were the most amazing aircraft.

  6. Hi,
    Do you have the dates for the 2024 meeting.
    And accommodation.
    Are there any guest houses , hotels , or B&B around Church Fenton that you could recommend. Thank you.

    • Dates are yet to be announced, keep an eye on our news feed, and . We cannot recommend local facilities, specifically, but there are ample specialist tourist information sites that do a much better job than we could anyway! Hope that helps.

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