Gary Parsons was at Biggin Hill for this year's International Air Fair on 3 & 4 September
It had been a long time since I had been to an airshow at Biggin Hill - 1996, I think it was, and that was a whistle-stop visit en-route to Hampshire for a family holiday. Why hadn't I been since? Well, it was the thought of being stuck in the incessant traffic jams that always seemed to be a feature of a visit to the infamous 'bump' just inside the M25 - if you didn't get there early, it was a long crawl in, and if you didn't leave early, it was a veritable rugby scrum to get to the narrow exits from the car park buried deep within the airfield. But it was about time I returned, especially as the airshow seems to be under constant threat of extinction from various outside pressures.
The International Air Fair is the largest privately run Air Show in Europe and has been an annual occurrence since 1963. This year's event was the forty-third in an unbroken run - an amazing achievement, especially in such challenging times with insurance costs going 'through the roof'. More than 70,000 spectators enjoyed sunshine and fine weather throughout this year's event, marking the sixtieth anniversary of Victory in Europe & Japan and the sixty-fifth anniversary of the Battle of Britain.
It's no secret that the airshow has struggled financially over the last few years, with the real possibility of cancellation until News Shopper stepped in a couple of years ago. This year the show was further sponsored by The History Channel, underlining the prestige that the Biggin Hill Air Fair has within the aviation world and the recognition of the venue's historical importance. But finance is not the only issue facing Air Displays International, headed by the irrepressible Jock Maitland, as development encroaches the airfield with the pressure to find land within the M25 corridor. Already the former married quarters have been demolished and a new estate laid down - next year will see the first residents move in to an area that is currently under the display axis. How long before the first complaints arrive at Bromley Council's offices?
The London Borough of Bromley owns the airport and leases it to Biggin Hill Airport Ltd (BHAL), a subsidiary of Regional Airports Ltd., through a 125 year lease that commenced in May 1994 - this suggests the future of the airport itself is safe, but a contracting airspace around it and encroaching development may mean that airshows will soon become so restricted to be unviable - already the Red Arrows and other fast jets are limited in their display routines. BHAL has plans to develop the airport for paying passengers, but is currently locked in a dispute with Bromley Council who claim it had not been its intention to permit the operation of aircraft carrying individual fare paying passengers in 1994, but that it would consider applications on a 'case by case' basis. As part of BHAL's plans, planning permission for up to five new hangars has been obtained, including a four-bay hangar adjacent to the main terminal, with over 95,000 square feet of space, which could accommodate a Boeing Business Jet. Four more hangars, on the south side of the airfield totalling 45,200 square feet, will form part of a new business centre and hotel development and could each house aircraft of Dassault Falcon 900 or Gulfstream IV size. The south side hangars will form part of a larger planned development, which will include a new business centre and a 75-room hotel. The proposals could ultimately lead to Biggin Hill airport handling up to 500,000 passengers a year on around twenty-six daily scheduled services to key European routes and UK cities. Such a development will impact on the space the airshow has to operate, and if fare-paying passenger services do start pressure will be on the airshow to fit in with arrival and departure times. More worrying is the airport's draft master plan released in early 2005, which makes no reference to continuing to support the International Air Fair.
It brings back a memory evergreenů
So here I was once more, early Saturday morning - no traffic delays and the promise of good weather to come. Biggin is a special place, there's no doubting that - in sight of central London, the now empty technical area beyond the modern-day terminal oozes history and should be preserved in some way. One can imagine the pilots of 74 and 92 Squadrons sleeping uneasily in the barrack blocks that summer of 1940, and the scream of Merlins as they charged up the 'bump' returning from a sortie. Although badly damaged from Luftwaffe attacks on 30 August, the station remained open during the Battle of Britain and would cement its place in history, symbolising London's part in the campaign.
Spitfires and Hurricanes are, of course, a highlight of any Biggin Hill airshow. A good selection was present, and we were treated to the sight of the BBMF's Spitfire II P7350 in formation with Peter Vacher's recently restored Hurricane R4118, both genuine veterans of the Battle. Okay, so the Hurricane doesn't contain many original bits, but the BBMF's Spit still sports patches over bullet holes sustained those sixty-five years ago - true history in the air. Peter's Hurricane is a testament to the modern-day craftsman, being a faithful restoration after being discovered some ten years ago decaying on the campus of a University in India. It was reunited with its wartime pilot, Wing Commander Bob Foster, who flew the aircraft from Croydon in the summer of 1940. "When I sat in the cockpit again for the first time in sixty-five years, it all came back to me immediately" said Wing Commander Foster, who scored several enemy kills in the aircraft.
Of course the International Air Fair is about more than Spitfires and Hurricanes, providing perhaps the most varied line-up to be seen anywhere in the UK. A solid six-hour flying programme was well bolstered by the Royal Air Force, with two Typhoons present on the ground, as well as Tornado F3, Hawk, Tucano, Chinook and Falcons. Being a civilian-organised airshow, the static is thin, most items brought in being involved in the flying programme, but that's not to say there were no surprises - the presence of two French Air Force Mirage F1CRs being the biggest, although they were pushed about a bit due to their incessant fuel leaks! An Italian Air Force Piaggio completed the 'international' content.
Commentators Brendan O'Brien and Ron David were entertaining, one or two comments being particularly close to the knuckle! But even they missed the arrival of the Red Arrows on Saturday morning, complete with three Delta Jets fighters tucked in close behind. Much cursing and swearing could be heard as the two jet teams soon split, not repeating the run now everyone was ready. Ex-Red Arrow Andy Cubin led the Delta Jets team in the Gnat, Andy being in the Reds alongside present team leader Dicky Patounas in the late nineties. It does seem that Dicky is keen on these mixed formation flypasts - long may that continue!
Organiser Jock Maitland said that the flying display this year was one of the most comprehensive that Air Displays International had presented at an Air Fair. "The show this year had all the components of a world class aviation event with the Red Arrows, the introduction of the awesome Typhoon, excellent teams from the Royal Navy and Army Air Corps, top class aerobatic acts and a collection of the finest warbirds to be seen anywhere", he said. Significant sums of money were raised for charity with a 'First Day Cover', flown in a Spitfire, signed by Lord Tebbit and Randolph Churchill, great grandson of the wartime leader. "In particular I wish to thank out two main sponsors, The History Channel and the News Shopper for their enthusiasm and sustaining support for the show this year, without which it would not have been possible to stage such a high value enterprise for our paying spectators to enjoy", Jock concluded. And it was no problem getting out, too...
With apologies to Cole Porter