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A tragic weekend

Damien Burke reflects on a black weekend for the UK airshow scene.

The 2001 Biggin Hill Airshow was, it seemed, jinxed from the start. The week's sunny weather had disappeared, replaced by low cloud and intermittent rain. One of the star attractions, the Su-27, hadn't been able to make up because of a bureaucratic mix-up in Russia. Then De Havilland Aviation's Venom made a wheels-up landing, fortunately without injury or major damage to the airframe.

It took a while for the runway to be cleared, necessitating re-arrangement of the flying programme. The De
Havilland team's display was moved to the end of the day and so it was that the show was to be closed by them...but for all the wrong reasons.

The Late Sir Ken Hayr with the aircraft he introduced into service, the Harrier GR1. Picture by Gary Parsons, Wittering 2000.Forming up into a pair, the two De Havilland aircraft came round for two passes in formation, and while they were curving round for a third pass, disaster struck. With the Vixen accelerating down the display line, and with most eyes on this incredible aircraft, the Vampire was suddenly, shockingly, out of place. With the nose well down, and rolling constantly, the gorgeous little silver jet plunged sickeningly out of sight into woods by the end of runway 21. For a couple of seconds with no further movement I hoped against hope that the pilot had managed to pull out, or that I had imagined the whole thing. But with a rising black and orange cloud of fire, that hope was dashed. Despite scanning the sky no parachutes materialised, and it was clear there was little hope for the Vampire's crew - Jonathan Kerr and Sir Ken Hayr (ex-RAF, responsible among other things for introducing the Harrier into service when he was CO of 1 Squadron).

The Sea Vixen immediately cancelled the rest of its display, and dumped fuel before landing on runway 03. Taxiing at a snails pace back to its parking spot, it was clear the pilot was as shocked as the rest of us, and my heart goes out to the De Havilland team and the family and friends of the deceased. The odds against two incidents on the same day - to the same operator - must be astronomical.

But fate had even more in store for Biggin. On the second day of the show, the TFC's Kingcobra crashed on the airfield during its display, fireballing and killing the pilot (Guy Bancroft-Wilson, a captain with British Airways and ex-Red Arrows team member) in a horrifying repeat of Saturday's Vampire crash. There cannot have been a darker weekend in UK airshow history for many, many years. Biggin's 2001 show certainly did not deserve to be remembered for these reasons because despite the organisational problems of dealing with only half a runway for much of Saturday, the show was a good one, and slickly organised.

We often complain about airshow prices - sadly sometimes the actual price is far, far too high.

Later we heard of the loss of Martin Sargeant and his Spitfire PRXI PL983 at an airshow in Rouen, France. Never has there been such a weekend of disaster for the airshow circuit in the UK. We pay tribute to all four pilots lost - may they rest in peace. - Ed

Click here for a report of the rest of Biggin's weekend. There are not any pictures of the fatal crashes out of respect.


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