Propwash Festival of the Air, Stow Maries Great War Aerodrome - Sunday 23rd July 2023
Set in gently rolling Essex farmland, Stow Maries Great War Aerodrome is a unique time capsule of World War One history now preserved and managed for the nation since its purchase for the Stow Maries Great War Aerodrome Ltd (SMGWA) charity in 2012. The aerodrome was first opened in 1916 with B Flight of 37 (Home Defence) Squadron Royal Flying Corps based there to combat raids by Zeppelin and Gotha bombers. In April 1918, 37 Squadron transferred to the newly formed Royal Air Force and continued to fly from Stow Maries until moving to Biggin Hill in early 1919. Stow Maries then closed in May of that year and reverted back to farmland with the existing buildings being used for residential and agricultural purposes while the aerodrome itself was turned over to pasture.
The old airfield lay quietly holding onto its secrets for the next ninety years until rediscovery by a private concern in 2009. This led to the site being designated a conservation area and in 2012 the 24 surviving buildings were given Grade II* listed status by Historic England, the whole area being placed on the At-Risk Register. In late 2012, the site came up for sale and a campaign led by Essex County Council and Maldon District Council led to the acquisition of the site by the SMGWA.
Over a decade, and lots of hard work later, the Aerodrome has become a real gem and an absolute must visit attraction which boasts an excellent museum, shop and cafe. It is an active airfield as well, with the World War One Aviation Heritage Trust being based there. Events are held throughout the year ranging from Escape Room experiences and family fun sessions to traditional blacksmith experiences and large model air shows. Star attractions are of course the flying events themselves and Propwash was first of its type totally dedicated to aviation, building on the success of the Wings and Wheels event which is traditionally held in May.
Visitors to Propwash were treated to two guest speakers, the first being aviation author and historian Ian Castle who presented ‘Stow Maries bombing double act,’ describing the history represented by two of the museum’s most recent acquisitions. These are Sopwith Tabloid reproduction ‘168’/G-BFDE, acquired earlier this year from the RAF Museum, and Avro 504K G-ABAA which is on loan from the RAF Museum. The airframe had been on display at the Science and Industry Museum’s Air and Space Hall in Manchester but moved to Stow Maries after the former sites closure in 2021. Examples of both types were employed in long range strikes against Zeppelin targets in 1914.
The second speaker was Propwash’s guest of honour, namely 102 year old veteran Jim Dearlove who flew Mosquitos on bombing raids to Berlin up to April 1945. Jim undertook two full-house Q&A sessions covering topics from his training in Canada to describing the vice-less flying properties of the Mosquito.
With the talks and guided flight line tours concluded, it was time for the flying display itself. Stow Maries has a lovely garden party atmosphere and the compactness of the site means that all the aircraft action is right in front of you. It is quite possible to see and talk to the pilots as they walk to and from the flight line and the farmland provides a scenic backdrop to proceedings.
Unfortunately, poor weather on the previous day and a strong, blustery crosswind did impact the planned flying. This included preventing the World War One Aviation Heritage Trust’s Albatros Dva from opening the display although pilot Jonathan Marten-Hale was able to coax the aircraft’s faithfully reproduced 180hp Mercedes Benz engine into life, much to the appreciation of the assembled crowd! John Gilbert’s 1988 built SE-5A replica G-BMDB was similarly grounded and also performed an engine run later in the display.
It was left to Bob Grimstead to open the flying proper in his 55 year old RedHawk RF-4 motor glider G-AWGN complete with wingtip mounted smoke generators. Bob showcased the aerobatic qualities of the aircraft, although while inverted, suffered an engine cut out. Normally if this happens, the engine restarts during the subsequent dive due to the airflow turning the prop but with the motor reluctant to start, Bob had to cut short his routine and perform a short circuit to land into wind. Unfortunately, once stopped, one of the smoke generators then caught fire, dealt with by the onsite fire crew, luckily with no damage to the aircraft or Bob!
Next to display was the Tiger Club’s irrepressible Turbulent Team of Alex Reynier, Dave Hall, Richard Vary and David Brothers performing their entertaining routine of formation flypasts, limbo action, flour bombing and balloon busting ably supported by their fearless ground crew.
Heavier metal was next to display with David Bramwell showcasing his Old Warden based Miles Magister G-AKPF in a tight routine that ably demonstrated the classic lines of the open cockpit monoplane trainer. As David finished his routine, the Tiger 9 Team were readying their collection of de Havilland biplane classics, the team’s start up and taxi routine an integral part of the display’s attraction. Led by Jeff Milsom, eight aircraft performed including DH-82B Queen Bee LF858/G-BLUZ and DH-60G III Moth Major G-ACGZ.
Final act in the flying program was Robert Brinkley in his stunning all-red DHC-1 Chipmunk T.10 G-BCGC/WP903. Fresh from his display debut at the Shuttleworth King & Country Season Premiere Air Show in May, Bob flew a great routine showing the agility of the Chipmunk and providing the chance to compare the design with the earlier Miles Magister, nine years separating the first flight of their respective prototypes. G-BCGC is also known as the ‘Royal Chipmunk’ and is the very machine in which King Charles III soloed in January 1969.
As the Chipmunk’s de Havilland Gipsy Major 8 shut down and the sound of applause died away, it was time to reflect on what was a very entertaining, relaxed and informative event held in a timeless location.