Biggin's bumpy weekend
Damien Burke looks back at Biggin Hill's September Battle of Britain airshow
The annual 'Air Fair' was gone in 2004, replaced with a Battle of Britain weekend put on as close to Battle of Britain Day in mid-September as possible. In practice, about the only difference this made to Joe Public was that there were rather more Spitfires and Hurricanes in evidence than usual, and putting up with September's weather rather than June's sunnier climes. Biggin, therefore, caught a bit of a pasting in 2004, with Saturday's show blighted by low cloud in the early afternoon followed by total abandonment in the face of heavy rain which made safe flying impossible. Sunday, thankfully, was much brighter and while cloud arrived in fairly short order, it was broken and never hid the sun for too long.
Glossing over Saturday then, we'll shift to the far more pleasant day out that was Sunday. I've long been a fan of the Biggin shows, which invariably pull something special out of the hat - this year it was the one and only UK mainland appearance of the Dornier Do-24 amphibian, and not on its own - in formation with the 'Rasta Cat' no less! An ex-Spanish example, the Dornier was re-engined with turbo-props in the early 1980s before retirement to a museum but has now been returned to the air by South East Asian Airlines. It was on a world tour to promote the Philippines and raise awareness of children's issue on behalf of UNICEF, raising over $61,000 so far. The tour continues in the first half of this year throughout the USA, South America and Southeast Asia.
A pair of flying boats wasn't the only surprise that Biggin laid on, however - we also had a rare appearance from a trio of Lakenheath-based F-15Es, albeit as a fairly pedestrian selection of flypasts. Less noisy, but more impressively displayed, were two much-hoped-for returnees - the RNHF's Sea Hawk and Sea Fury, each making their first displays away from home base at Yeovilton, where they had carried out their first public displays only the day before. The Sea Hawk is a particular favourite of mine and it was a delight to be able to see it again after its long lay-up due to jet pipe damage.
More classic jet action was to be had from Golden Apple's T-33 plus Red Bull's popular Sea Vixen, and the Breitling formation L-39 team also displayed on Saturday only, which was a shame as their dark blue schemes turned them into silhouettes in front of grey rain clouds.
Faster and noisier jet action was to be had from a pair of the usual suspects from the RAF - Tornado F3 and Harrier GR7, plus a splash of international colour from a French Alpha Jet and two F-16s - one from Belgium, one from Holland. The Belgian example actually operated from Biggin, believed to be the first occasion on which this nimble fighter has done so (other than as a visitor to the static display). The pair that turned up (one as spare) celebrated this in impressive fashion with a succession of noisy go-arounds before finally landing and taxiing to their parking spots.
Some excellent aerobatics from an RAF Tucano and a locally based Sukhoi were outdone by a Fox glider, which put on a display that started even before it had been released from the Cub towing it into the air - great stuff! Some other 'quiet' types were HAC's Storch and the Great War Display Team, plus a parachute team which was rudely if amusingly described as the 'Flying Pigs' by a fellow member of the press pack - it was the Metropolitan Police parachutists. Quite why they need parachutes to arrest protesters or install speed cameras is, as yet, a mystery!
Classic pistons were also highly in evidence, with big radials turning up bolted to the wings of B-17 'Sally B', B-25 'Grumpy' and an Air Atlantique DC-6, and the noses of a Skyraider and Avenger - plus of course the Utterly Butterly Stearmans. Another radial was the AACHF's Beaver; the rest of the Flight turned up too - and even formated with the Blue Eagles, which made for quite a sight - and sound! More helicopter formation antics were had from the FAA's Black Cats Lynx duo.
On Sunday a presentation of a poniard (short dagger) was made by Jock Maitland (organiser of the Biggin displays) to the 2004 leader of the Red Arrows (Spike Jepson - who has since become Spike Jepson MBE) to mark their 40th display season. Their first public display in the UK was at Biggin Hill back in 1965; their leader that year was Ray Hanna, who was also present at the presentation. In response, Spike presented Jock with a model Red Arrows Hawk.
Highlight of the day for many was the central theme - a Battle of Britain commemoration, involving a recreation of a 1940s dispersal and a set-piece scramble. With no fewer than eight Spitfires and two Hurricanes getting airborne in quick succession, the sound of Merlins reverberated across this historic aerodrome for all too short a period before they all returned to land. However Biggin simply wouldn't be Biggin if it the show wasn't closed by a Spitfire, so later in the day Ray Hanna pulled his usual trick of silencing several thousand people with the finest Spitfire display possible.
All in all another cracking display from Air Displays International - despite the worst the weather could manage and some high-profile cancellations it was another memorable year. The static display was also especially good this year I thought - as well as the usual display participants and 'spares', there was an excellent selection of vintage types, which contrasted with some much more modern GA aircraft. Here's hoping they can keep the momentum up for 2005!