Biggin Hill Jubilee Air Fair, 2/3 June
Albatros and Cranes, it was all there at Biggin. Damien Burke reports on London's other big event
Moved to the Jubilee weekend this year, it was no surprise that the Jubilee was Biggin's major theme in this, its 40th year. Opened by the Duke of Gloucester, the day dawned bright and sunny despite mixed weather forecasts. As traffic poured into the airfield, some of the display and static aircraft were still arriving, including a rare Dutch Spitfire (on the strength of the Royal Netherlands Air Force Historic Flight) and a collection of aircraft holding up the Royal theme - a Chipmunk (Princes Philip and Charles both learned to fly in a Chippie), an Avro 504 (George VI's first mount), a Moth Minor (Edward VIII's favourite), de Havilland Dove (a type once operated by the Royal Flight) being among this collection.
Also appearing on static display were a varied collection of visitors and Biggin residents, including a Strikemaster, Jet Provost, a rare Beaver (another from the RNethAF Historic Flight), Hornet Moth, Dakota, Tri-Racer, a brace of Bulldogs, Soko P-2 Kraguj, Yak-52, Piper Cub, Soko G-2 Galeb and a few more that would turn out to be display participants.
Kicking off the show was a procession of military vehicles, mostly decked out with jubilee bunting, and giving us all time to get cameras 'locked and loaded'. The RNHF Firefly sadly hadn't made it (and neither had the much-publicised Constellation, still stuck in the USA even as this report is written), so the Swordfish displayed on its own.
Next up was something that probably hasn't been seen at a UK show before - one Christian Moullec, in a microlight...in a formation display. Now as you may know, flexwing microlights aren't allowed to perform aerobatics (they tend to come apart if you try loops and rolls in them), but it was a fascinating bit of flying anyway - because he was in formation with three cranes! That's cranes as in birds, not as in dockyard ornaments. Christian is a French environmentalist is leading a campaign to save an endangered species of goose - the Lesser White-Fronted Goose to be precise. Mauled along their migratory route by intensive hunting over the years, Christian and his wife Paola have found out that young geese can be 'imprinted' on a human 'parent' and will follow when 'Dad' is flying in his microlight! With so few being left, teaching them the route like this is proving very successful - more details at the project's web site.
After that the Blue Eagles took to the air. Sadly this year they've lost their Lynx, and so now the only 'magic' to be had is from the Queen soundtrack to their display! Still, they tried hard - and I don't remember the Gazelles being thrown around quite so much when the Lynx was part of the team. Doesn't make up for the lack of the Lynx - bring it back please!
Bringing a bit of noise to the proceedings was the ever-enjoyable Nimrod, powering through its routine in its usual graceful manner. One wonders how the display looked to the passengers in the airliners that pass overhead Biggin every few minutes...
Another unusual act arrived next - well, not so much arrived as drifted into view. Four American Blimp Corporation A-60+ airships - known as Lightships - bedecked in a red Lotto advertising scheme, performed an unusual display of co-ordinated wandering. The American commentator (who was incredibly irritating or rather entertaining according to your viewpoint - I'll plump for the former) was most impressed by these, and I'm sure Camelot appreciated the advertising opportunity in front of such a big crowd. Nice to see our lottery money being blown on adverts rather than on putting, say, a Vulcan (to pick an entirely random example) back in the air!
Rather more precise flying was to be demonstrated by a couple of RAF acts - the Tucano (ably demonstrated by Flt Lt Steve Simpson) followed by the Jaguar (a somewhat sedate display from Flt Lt Mike Hayes). The latter in particular was quite some distance from the crowdline, lessening the impact of its display considerably. So it was with some surprise that we found the Utterly Butterly team's three Stearmans stealing the crowd's attention shortly afterwards - it's not often they have all three airborne at once, and to mark the jubilee a 'human flag' was put on show with one of the wingwalkers assuming a precarious position which involved holding onto one of the pilot's hands!
More big pistons were up next with the Yakovlev team showing off their silver Yaks again - all four this time instead of the two at Old Warden. Noisy as they were, though, nothing can compete with the Harrier. Flt Lt Tony Cann, an instructor at RAF Wittering, is this year's display pilot and this year's display ship sports a nicely-painted blue tail - with a different design to last year, so if you hadn't noticed and weren't bothering with photos, shame on you!
A somewhat less sustained burst of jet noise was produced by a firmly ground-bound act next - the Vampire jet car! Powered by a Rolls-Royce Orpheus taken from a Folland Gnat, Vampire's creators have added a home-grown afterburner - "Real race cars have afterburners" as they sticker on the side said... well, admits much theatrical white smoke and a brief burst of flame, the jet car shot off down the runway out of sight. Very impressive, but I doubt it'd be much good for getting to work in. Second display team of the day (third if you count the Utterly Butterlies!) were the Red Arrows, putting on a flat display to keep out of the way of the constant airliner traffic high overhead. Following them was a precise display from the Royal Jordanian Falcons, but then the Lightships were back for a brief second appearance - well, as brief as you can manage when you can only get away at walking pace!
Biggin has often tried for good warbird content but this year it was to be somewhat limited. The TFC hadn't returned this year, which wasn't surprising given last year's sad loss of Guy Bancroft-Wilson in the TFC P-63, so the major warbird section of the show was limited to Sally B and two 'little friends' - P-51s 'Miss Helen' and 'Big Beautiful Doll'. Once again the pleas to support Sally B were heard - it seems finances are no better than in the last couple of years when appeals were made to support the UK's only flying B-17. It would certainly be a great shame to lose her to an overseas operator or see her grounded for lack of funds.
Next up, as the BBMF Lancaster back-tracked down the runway to prepare for take-off, a Belgian F-16 could be seen on final approach. Gear down, lights blazing, he throttled up, tucked the gear in and turned hard away from the crowd, kicking his burner in and beginning the sort of display of raw power that F-16s are so good at. Once he'd departed back to Manston, the BBMF Lancaster plus a Spitfire and Hurricane took to the air for their usual gentle displays.
Firefly and Constellation missing, the next real 'star' item was a French
Super Etendard. Sadly the sun was hiding behind
clouds by this point, but his was a varied display including what should
be a mandatory
A short break in proceedings allowed the two RAF Harriers (display plus spare) to depart for Southend (also holding a show on the same day) followed by the fascinatingly ugly Wilga (it's like looking at an accident on the road - you can't tear your eyes away) towing a pair of gliders aloft. Yes, a pair! While he towed them to release height, a Dutch PC-7 displayed - beginning with a very Buccaneer-style take-off (gear up, stay level, you can pull up later!). Once he was done the Swiss gliders were released, several thousand feet lower than they'd liked (once again because of the airliner traffic above), and performed a short but sharp display of formation and opposition aerobatics, finishing off with a cracking fast pass before landing. Very nicely done indeed.
The Alpine team Pitts Special performed its usual aerial mayhem, complete with commentary from the pilot himself, who sounded not one bit ruffled by the sort of manouevres that would have had most of us passing out or losing our lunches. Particularly impressive is a dive and pull-out performed with the aircraft rolled over to 90 degrees, using the fuselage for lift rather than the wings! All too soon though he was finished, and smoke in the distance heralded a loud and fast arrival from the RAF's Tornado F3 display aircraft - Flt Lts Simon Stevens and Dave Chadderton once again showing that the much-maligned F3 can at least put on a good show with copious afterburner tofrighten children (and cranes, unfortunately!).
Totally failing to compete with that, the RAF's Hawk demo was somewhat lost in the sky over Biggin, displaying closer to Canary Wharf than the crowd it seemed. A pity, especially as it was resplendent in 208 Squadron markings - nice to see them again, though they really should be painted on a Buccaneer!
As most readers will know, Biggin had a very bad weekend last year. So it was only fitting that tribute should be paid to the Vampire crew killed on the first day of last year's show, and this was done in magnificent manner. At 16:43 - an hour before the Vampire crash last year (when the show was running an hour late because of the Venom wheels-up landing that morning), John Gillespie's poem 'High Flight' was read out and followed with a minute's silence, broken by a flypast from the BBMF. Flying directly over the spot where Sir Ken Hayr and Jonathan Kerr lost their lives, this was a magnificent gesture from the RAF and applauded by the crowd, many of whom had tears in their eyes.
Once the BBMF trio had landed, the next 'star' took off - the Grumman Albatros (Get 'em while they're hot - they're luvverly)! Not seen in the UK since its appearance at Southampton for Sea Wings 2000, this rare flying boat is based up in Scotland for this season and will be making a number of show appearances this year. An elegant display was followed up with more bad news - the Dutch Spit had gone tech, and couldn't display. So had the German Tornado (based at Southend), so the gap in the schedule was filled by Angie Soper in her Yak-11, a real beast of a machine. There was some discussion as to whether this particular example (an ex-Egyptian machine) might have been the very one that attempted to shoot down our American commentator when he was flying with the UN! Luckily for him the attempt was unsuccessful. Some members of the crowd might have disagreed by the end of the day however!
More big piston power came next courtesy of Martin Willing's T-28 Fennec, nice to see him getting some bookings after last year's pleas for more support from show organisers. Closing the show was yet another appearance from the Lightships, though by now the novelty value had disappeared and the race for the exits was well and truly on. Sadly while your tired and sun-burnt reporter made his way to the trade stands to snap up a bargain or two, the Dutch Spit managed to make it into the air after all - and me with my camera packed away in the car - aarrghh! Fantastic display anyway, and a great end to a good solid show. Nothing spectacular, but a good selection of 'minor stars' and the microlight & cranes display was a true marvel to behold. Keep 'em coming Air Displays International - Su-27s next year, please!
Monday's show was much of the same, with sadly little in the way of sunshine and slightly lower attendance as a result. Guy Bancroft-Wilson was remembered with another minute's silence, but one thing that nearly spoilt my day on Sunday was flicking through a new book - Ghosts of Biggin Hill - only to find the author had included an awful photograph showing Guy's very last moment of life, with his P-63 inches from impact. For a book sold at the very show where Guy was killed (indeed promoted in the airshow programme itself), I found this incredibly offensive, particularly when the author was proudly pointing out the photo to a prospective customer. I rather doubt Guy's family would be impressed with such a photo in a book of that title.