Richie Piper reflects on a weekend in Kent spent with the Great War Display Team and his silent but deadly gunner, Hans.
Popham’s resident Boche is often seen out and about in the display season at various shows. As his driver (flying the Bowers Fly Baby 1A, made up to represent a Junkers CL.1), it is my responsibility to see he gets to the various rendezvous on time to meet up with his pals from the Great War Display Team. One such occasion was the Amy Johnson Memorial Airshow at Herne Bay, at which the Team were appearing.
This is an interesting venue being a Northern shore (offering good light for photographers) and the remains of the end of the pier, an incredible distance offshore, providing a good reference for turning in for our B-axis arrival. There is a breakwater to define the crowd line and a bandstand on display centre, which are a great help at off airfield displays. There were reported to be over 70,000 spectators and I am not sure this included those on the hill cliffs to the West of the display site.
The Team are dispersed all over the UK, from places as far away as Devon and Norfolk, so we generally plan to meet at an airfield close to the show venue to refuel, brief and launch for the display. The fact that our nine aircraft are all tailwheel with less than perfect ground handling does make selection of the airfield sometimes difficult. It has to be grass, as four aircraft have tailskids and no brakes, and finding into wind runways is always a challenge. The go, no-go call the night before the event is hence an important step in the process and may mean a late change of rendezvous airfield.
On this occasion the weather was kind and the plan to meet at Rochester was confirmed. In the vicinity of Rochester my radio failed (low battery even though it had been on charge for 24 hours) but I was able follow a Team SE5a in. The grass taxiways surrounded by tall grass create a veritable maze but, again, I had the luxury of following Vic Lockwood in his SE5a. There Hans and I can catch up with our friends in the Team and importantly consume that essential of flying, a bacon sarnie and cup of tea. The SOP is to agree a briefing time from which all other activities are linked. Thus you have time to prep your aircraft and yourself, which on this occasion included to try and find a charger for the radio. A suitable charger couldn’t be located but Dave Smith (who is building a Titan Mustang) very kindly loaned another handheld radio. This was a great relief not only for normal flight but also the various calls made during the display. These are important as the calls confirm one section has left a section of the display box clear for another section to dive in. There are several points where six aircraft are heading towards each other so it is rather nice to get the timing right, otherwise Hans could complain.
The main brief follows a standard format and incorporates site specific details together with the weather; especially important to know if we have an on-crowd wind so we can adjust for it. The Team are cleared down 50 feet and 50m horizontally but we don’t often fly to these limits as at larger venues not everyone can see you, and we like to leave a margin. A key element of the brief is the times for start, taxi and take-off, radio frequencies and hold details, so we can hit our slot on time. Flying as a transit formation of nine aircraft, our speed is limited to the slowest aircraft so 65 knots is the norm and at that speed, a big allowance needs to be made for the wind. A hold after a longer transit allows a margin to be factored in for that. Thus I have the information to ensure I am ready to get Hans to the display on time!
Rochester would only allow one aircraft on the runway at a time, so our take-off was rather more protracted than usual, but a large orbit overhead allowed everyone to catch up and then we were off to Herne Bay. We planned to hold to the South-West of the site near the M2 at Faversham, when the radio gremlins came out to play again. Firstly we could hear the previous display item struggling to hear the display director, although we could hear them. Then it became apparent our Team lead could not hear the display director either. Fortunately our briefing covers this and the deputy lead not only coordinated with the display director but also relayed the clearance to display to the preceding act. This did, however, delay our start time, so another time or two round the hold for the formation.
As our revised display time approached, we positioned closer to the site offshore so we could track parallel to the coast and turn in at the aforementioned marooned pier head and dive in on the B-axis. This appears to work as the sight of the Balbo tracking along in the distance seems to build the expectation, and then a sudden 90 degree turn and we are all diving towards the crowd. Hans really has not done too much up to this point except admire the view. However, from this point he needs to protect my tail when I first attack a patrolling BE2c at the front, and then defend me from the SE5a that comes in to drive me off. I think I am more worried about him shooting my tail off so I haven’t told him I have disabled the gas gun (or machine gun simulator as it is also known)!
The conditions are perfect and it is a very photogenic location for a display. As previously mentioned, there is a large crowd at the event, much larger than the 40,000 we were told to expect, and it is nice to be able to see all the locations people have found to come and see Hans. The breakwater looks crowded, so hopefully there is enough space so people are not pushed over the side as we perform our antics. As we complete the final flypast, we head along the coast Westwards and are amazed to see even more people for several miles on the steep grassed edge of the coast. Transiting back to Rochester we pass two other acts heading towards Herne Bay; Lauren Richardson in her Pitts and a three ship of RVs in the hold – people we normally see in the pilots’ tent at shows.
So back to Rochester to debrief, refuel aircraft and pilots, and get Hans home to Popham, but the most important thing for me is to return the radio loaned by Dave. Hence the first thing I do after shutting down is hop out, remove the radio and head off to Dave’s workshop, passing a lovely 1929 Rolls Royce Doctors Coupe as I go, cheekily thanking them for providing such wonderful ground transportation as I walk by! With the radio returned with my great thanks, it is back to the aircraft to ensure it is refuelled and ready to convey Hans home. However, upon my return the Rolls Royce is parked in front of the Junkers! Fortunately they fancied the photo opportunity and as we chatted, the story of the car was revealed. The owner was the youngest son of Lord Tedder and he was given the car, once owned by the family doctor, for use when he was a medical student. It was fascinating to hear about some of his father’s WWI exploits and was a fantastic conclusion to the display.
Another of the Team’s SE5as agreed to fly lead as I was back to being non-radio and escorted Hans and I back to Popham for tea and medals. This is just one of many enjoyable trips flying Hans around the country. However, if you see Hans around Popham, beware he is not very talkative and never buys his round – you have been warned!