Airshow Archive

JUN 27 2011
Airshows >> UK: Airshow Archive Part 5 - Biggin Hill Battle of Britain Open Days

Traditionally, this is about the time that I’d be starting to process my latest Biggin Hill International Air Fair photos, reading the stack of cheap magazines/books I’d picked up at the show (I can’t help it: I’m a hoarder!) and thinking about the weekend just gone. But, with the show’s untimely demise in 2010, I’m not. If I’m honest, it kills me, and I know I’m not the only one that feels that way. Collectively, GAR would be putting the framework of an Air Fair review together but, of course, we’re not doing that either – there isn’t one to do. The Air Fair’s already much-missed and it’s only been gone for 12 months but, even before the first show in 1963, the site already had three decades of events behind it, excluding the years between 1939 and 1945.

Pre-war, it hosted annual Empire Air Days while, after WW2, it staged yearly Battle of Britain At Home Days. Organised and implemented by the RAF itself, these were traditionally held each September, up until 1976. Following that, Air Displays International, spearheaded by Jock Maitland, reintroduced them several times in subsequent years.

The most consistent run of ADI-organised Battle of Britain shows occurred in the mid-1990s, when there were three, back-to-back. Between them, the three consecutive Battle of Britain Open Days produced a glittering array of aircraft participants and a gallery of true standout moments. They entertained and they provoked deeply solemn reflection. They all had strong warbird-related themes, allowing two of the Air Fairs staged during this period to embrace new thematic ideas and take on their own, highly original forms. And, of course, they provided another reason to go to Biggin Hill during the airshow season, just as each year’s calendar was starting to wind down a little.

Foreign participation was an element of all three but especially strong at the 1996 show, at which five display teams performed, while Battle of Britain icons – both men and machines – were also in attendance and the modern day RAF provided sterling support each time. Weather conditions ranged from consecutives servings of drizzly rain, to towering scattered cloud formations, to blinding sunshine, and that was just in 1995! The following year enjoyed deep blue skies, unbroken sunshine and very warm temperatures, while 1997 started in the same way, but clouded over in the afternoon.

The 1995 Battle of Britain Open Day marked the 50th anniversary of VE Day and – at the venue at which it had first displayed in 1975 – 20 years of B-17G Sally B as a UK airshow participant. Fittingly, Sally B opened the show, against about the darkest of cloud backdrops imaginable. The next item, the Belgian Air Force F-16, seemed determined to squeeze every drop of moisture out of the sky and appeared almost constantly wrapped in a tight-fitting vapour shell. Its pilot, Commandant Rudy Theys, returned after having won the Breitling Solo Award at the Air Fair three months earlier.

Supplementing the F-16, the Belgian Air Force also provided its solo Alpha Jet and this gave an excellent, lively performance, while the Royal Netherlands Air Force supplied its F-27M Troopship and PC-7 Turbotrainer solos and, the Dutch Navy, its Lynx search and rescue demo. The F-27M was giving its final showing in British skies and, thus, a last opportunity for the Biggin Hill audience to enjoy its superlative, colour and smoke-filled flying display of low passes, single-engined turns, steep wingovers and an eye-popping Khe Sanh approach finale.

Best of all was the Czech Air Force Mi-24 Hind – one third of the three-ship team that had dazzled spectators at the IAT a month-and-a-half earlier. The team display would certainly have been nice but, as it turned out, the solo flight was still outstanding, prowling and stalking around and demonstrating both the Hind’s immense turn of speed, through a series of low passes, and its agility in the hover – its four rotor blades slicing up the falling rain throughout.

The 1996 show was attended by the Frecce Tricolori, the Patrouille de France and the Belgian Air Force Swallows SF.260 duo, which joined the Red Arrows to create an international line-up of a kind not seen at Biggin Hill since the early 1970s. All flew spectacularly, especially the Frecce who provided possibly the best flying programme opener ever (!) and who, during the preceding week, practised their routine in the same blue sky that blessed the show itself, bringing the airfield to a complete standstill. The Patrouille de France were a little unlucky, in that London ATC intervened to restrict the first half of their performance to flat manoeuvres, but relented during the second half, while the Swallows were outstanding. Yet another team joined them – the much-missed French Air Force’s Voltige Victor Mirage F1 pair, which speared and echoed across the deep blue. Their split and subsequent crossover figures, both carried out at extremely high speed, were electrifying moments and, for sheer bravado, no one could match them.

Although more sedate, the Belgian Air Force Alpha Jet put on another extremely slick and nimble flight, while the same operator’s F-16 was on excellent form. The Belgian Air Force supplied the sole foreign military item involved in the 1997 Battle of Britain Open Day – the Fouga Magister, which gave a demonstration high on grace and flow.

RAF involvement was solid, each time. In 1995, No 56 Squadron’s specially-painted Tornado F.3 gave an awesome, rolling display, while Flt Lt Andy Cubin displayed the Jaguar in just about the day’s worst weather, but still impressed with a really punchy routine. Absent in 1996, the F.3 was back in 1997 and positively tore the sky to bits. It was joined by the RAF’s solo Tucano, Hawk and Tornado GR.1 displays, making its involvement in this Open Day its largest of these three shows.

The Royal Navy supplied a solo Gazelle display in both 1995 and 1996, while the Royal Navy Historic Flight’s Swordfish II, LS326, was present in 1995 and its sistership, W5856, the next year. W5856 teamed up with a Sea Harrier FA.2 to create a then-and-now formation which made an especially lovely sight - particularly at the point where the Swordfish broke away and climbed up into the deep blue - and it’s to ADI’s credit that the formation was repeated in 1997, too. Both occasions also witnessed separate Sea Harrier solo displays, along with those given by the RAF’s equivalent, the Harrier GR.7, while the Red Arrows took part in 1996 and 1997 (they were touring South Africa and Malaysia in September 1995).

Each time, the Reds’ involvement produced something special. In 1996, they closed the flying display against the lowering sun, their smoke trails just hanging in the air, creating an ever-evolving canvas of colour and atmosphere. In 1997 they formed up with the BBMF’s Spitfire XIX, PS853, in tribute to the flight’s 40th anniversary. The combo flew a single, banked pass above Runway 21, prior to the Reds’ own display.

The BBMF celebrations weren’t just confined to the aircraft, but also included a birthday cake, which was ceremoniously cut, mid-afternoon, in front of the crowd. It’s probably safe to say there wasn’t enough for everyone to have a piece (!) but the presentation was a nice touch and mirrored the cutting of a Red Arrows 25th anniversary birthday cake at the 1989 Air Fair.

Throughout its lifetime, the Air Fair evolved from a showcase for a rapidly-expanding air travel industry to a weekend that provided a collage of entertainment for the whole family, with aviation always high on the agenda but not exclusively so. To that end, all three Battle of Britain Open Days included aspects familiar to seasoned Air Fair visitors – military vehicle parades, the public grandstand, a huge array of trade and craft stalls and, in 1996, something that wasn’t legitimately an aircraft but could, from a distance, certainly pass for one. This was the Vampire Jet Car, which had been at the Air Fair four years earlier. With a massive sheet of flame firing out from its back end, the Jet Car blasted down Runway 03 and certainly made for a spectacular sight. Another bit of traditional Air Fair fare, a large airliner, made a surprise appearance in 1997. This, a Virgin Atlantic Airbus A340, looked most impressive at close-quarters.

Classic jet involvement was a frequent feature. In 1995, Jet Heritage’s Meteor NF.11, Wallace Cubitt’s Hunter T.7 and Intrepid Aviation’s Yellowjacks-painted Gnat performed sequentially and all gave very good displays. Flown by Bob Thompson, the Gnat was especially enjoyable, just squeezing in a full routine below the medium-height cloud in a lyrical, winding performance. In 1996, the Vintage Aircraft Team’s Venom FB.54 displayed, in reference to the 40th anniversary of the Suez Crisis, in which Jock had been involved. 1997 featured the Old Flying Machine Company’s L-39 Albatros which, flown by Mark Hanna, was one element of a James Bond-themed Tomorrow Never Dies sequence. Involving a low-level chase, a hotly-driven vehicle and a very realistic Pierce Brosnan lookalike, this added a welcome bit of cinematic drama to proceedings.

Finally, the warbirds – the real stars of each show. Not surprisingly, Spitfire involvement was prominent each time. 1995 and 1997 both featured extensive Battle of Britain scenarios but while, at the later event, the Imperial War Museum’s gorgeous Me109G-2, Black 6, acted as the opposition, Hans Dittes’ Buchon conversion, Black 2, appeared in this role in 1995. Modified to represent an Me109G-10, the aircraft had been spending the summer at Duxford and proceeded to carry out a series of low-level attack passes, prompting the speedy launch of four Spitfires to counter it. Their target having been successfully engaged and ‘shot down’, one of the Spitfire quartet, Carolyn Grace’s ML407, landed, leaving the remaining examples to perform a three-ship aerobatic display. Led by Ray Hanna, this made for a magnificent sight and sound, and culminated in a run and rippling break of the type that the Breitling Fighters would go on to make their own. The whole sequence took place during a break in the weather and, thus, against a backdrop of enormous clouds and simulated airfield explosions. Incidentally, there should have been a Spitfire trio in 1996, too, but one member of the planned group went tech, leaving P-51D Mustang Big Beautiful Doll to fill in the gap.

Perhaps surprisingly, there were no Hurricanes in 1995 or 1996 but 1997 seemingly tried to redress this – newly-restored, ex-Canadian Mk. XII opened the flying display with a very effective solo performance. The BBMF’s Mk IIC, PZ865, also took part this year, while a really interesting static feature at the 1995 and 1996 shows were the remains of an FW189, shot down over the USSR in 1943. At the time, I remember being quite excited at the prospect of a flying ‘Eagle Owl’ but, over the last 16 years, seem to have heard less and less about the project to get her back to airworthiness. I gather the airframe’s now in the US, though, while it’s worth adding that the Biggin Hill exhibitions included a range of smart-looking FW189 merchandise, including a sweatshirt that I still own!

Another twin-engined WW2-era aircraft, the British Aerospace Mosquito, was programmed to fly in 1995, but its efforts were beaten by the weather. However, the Aircraft Restoration Company’s Bristol Blenheim took part in 1995 and 1997. On the first occasion, it flew a solo display and participated in the grand finale – a Duxford-style mass flyover also featuring the BBMF’s Lancaster, Sally B and seven Spitfires, producing a glorious and nostalgic drone as the aircraft passed over Runway 03 and off, into the distance.

1996’s finale has already been covered but 1997’s involved the BBMF’s founding-member Spitfires – PM631, PS915 and PS853 – in a final salute to the organisation’s birth, in 1957, at what was then RAF Biggin Hill. Preceded by an awe-inspiring Ray Hanna solo in MH434 – as a last blast of Spitfire action with which to end the show, this was unbeatable and created a truly evocative image.

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