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Biggin's best #1

All about Ray

Gary Parsons reports on a friend's day at Biggin Hill

Arriving early, Chas joins the growing entrance queue at about eight-thirty. For the last twenty years or so he has been a regular visitor to the Biggin Hill Air Fair and its various guises, and knows that it can get busy.

Born and bred in the East of London, Chas has seen it all at Biggin - the glory days of the eighties and nineties, the tragedies of 2001 and he knows about the show's struggle to continue against rising costs, environmental pressures and the Nimbys moving in to the new development across the road. He knows that it may not last forever, and is determined to make the most of it while he can. It's not just that he loves aeroplanes - the speed, colour and dynamism - but this is hallowed turf, a piece of greenery within the M25 where you can still touch history, of Spitfires scrambling to meet the hordes of Heinkels. He is too young to have witnessed those seismic events, but living near the old aerodrome at Hornchurch has heard and read of the historic times of the early 1940s and wants to feel and touch what it may have been like.

Someone following in Ray's footsteps is this year's Harrier GR7 display pilot, Flt Lt Pete Keenlyside, new to the display circuit. Known as 'PK' on 20(R) Squadron, Pete was posted to the Harrier Conversion Unit in July 2005 after three busy but enjoyable years on IV(AC) Squadron, during which time he flew on exercises in the USA, Canada, Oman and Norway and operationally over Iraq and Afghanistan.

One person who did that for Chas nearly every year at Biggin Hill was Ray Hanna, who would close the airshow with a sunset display in his favourite Spitfire MH434, diving across the airfield as if a Me-109 was on his tail, disappearing into the valley on the other side. Only Ray is no more, of course, having passed away just seven months ago - Chas was here to salute the master, and hoped the Air Fair would deliver an appropriate tribute. He had never met Ray, but had read so much about him and his son Mark that he felt that he knew something of his talent and skill, not least his personality. Modern-day heroes are hard to find, but Ray filled a niche in these fly-by-wire times. For Chas, today was all about Ray, a chance to pay homage to the man one last time.

Biggin's best #2

Chas knew the Red Arrows wouldn't be here - still away on an overseas sales tour, they'd miss their first Biggin Hill show for quite a while, and the one that would salute Ray. Quite how a tribute could be flown without the Reds was bothering Chas, as Ray had been one of the founder members back in the mid-sixties and a team leader for several seasons. Chas would only have been a toddler, but is sure that he must have witnessed a Hanna-led display as his father used to take him to airshows in the Home Counties - back then they were every weekend, but aviation has polarised around Heathrow and Gatwick these days to the detriment of the military enthusiast.

Contrasting fortunes for two old girls
While it was only good news for Sally B, in that the insurance wrangles of last year have been overcome, it was another problem for the BBMF's Lancaster as a brake bag burst on arrival, meaning she had to sit out Saturday's display awaiting a replacement. This came just after her tailwheel problems at Southend, where she sat out the weekend there too. Let's hope these are just early-season niggles and the rest of the year is incident-free.

Biggin Hill has restrictions on its airspace, but it hasn't yet stopped the RAF supporting the event with many of its display acts - Chas is pleased to see two Typhoons on the flightine, accompanied by a singleton Harrier GR7. He had been very disappointed to hear of the cutbacks this season by the RAF - no Tornado F3 or Jaguar displays, but took some consolation from the continuation of the Chinook and Merlin routines, both of which would feature today.

By now he had been guided to his parking slot and thought about what to do - as the flying didn't start for another three hours, maybe this is the time to wander the trade stands. As usual, the static park is a bit thin, with only a Belgian Air Force F-16B to really grab his attention. He's keen on warbirds and fast jets, but the smaller civilian stuff leaves him a bit cold, especially when they're parked away on the other side of the fence. Anyway, the weather is glorious, another inducement to do the trade stalls before it gets hot and the queues form for the beer tent.

Later, Chas searches out a suitable spot from where to watch the flying display. The crowd is healthy, but he's seen better at Biggin - maybe it's the hefty £25 entrance fee, or the lack of Red Arrows that is keeping the crowd modest. But, he reflects, this is the only opportunity the population of London will get to see a proper airshow so close to the capital, so maybe the cost isn't that unreasonable. Of course, there are many lining the road under the approach lights watching for free, but Chas takes some solace in the fact he's helping support the show. How many of the roadside watchers will be the first to complain when the airshow becomes unviable?

A quick look at the flying programme is a little dispiriting at first - where are the warbirds? Chas was hoping for a good number of Spitfires here at one of its spiritual homes in its 70th year, but only a Battle of Britain Flight example and MH434 are on the bill. B-17G 'Sally B' arrives overhead, so that's one old favourite to look forward to at least. Air Atlantique's fleet fills a significant portion of the afternoon, which is certainly different, but Chas is a bit unsure of its ultimate entertainment potential. Lots of Extras and Su-26s fill the bulk of the flying, something that Chas could really do without - they're usually too small and too far away to hold his attention for very long. Still, he'll give this new team called the Blades a chance as it's crewed by mostly ex-Red Arrow pilots. Aha - there it is, right at the end of the day, the Ray Hanna tribute - Nigel Lamb will fly MH434 alongside a Gnat, piloted by ex-Red Arrow Andy Cubin.

A Wilga potters by towing a banner with the words "Trilby, will you marry me?" Chas tuts, thinking prospective husband Melvin has more money than sense, but maybe it's the two failed marriages that colours his opinion. By now the sun is strong, summer having finally taken hold, and the Utterly Butterly girls will soon be glad of the breeze.

The next five hours or so go remarkably quickly - Chas rattles off several hundred images as the light remains perfect with not a cloud in the sky. A remarkable display of agility is given by the RAF Chinook, the 'handbrake turn' being particularly jaw-dropping, even for a seasoned airshow veteran as Chas. He's surprised by the Breitling Team, as their performance is polished and, set to music, quite captivating. It was only a couple of years ago they first wobbled onto the airshow circuit and were, quite frankly, very dull, so Chas hadn't been expecting much. One of the solos took a leaf out of Ray's book and dived into the valley after a split, much to the consternation of the crowd, who see the smoking L-39 disappear behind the trees.

Air Atlantique's formation is a disparate affair, with different types seemingly roaming about the sky, only forming up for one loose pass towards the end of the half-hour slot. While it's good to see these classic machines in the air, Chas thought it has been a bit drawn-out. What isn't a classic machine, in his opinion, is the Lear Jet that displays shortly after - if he wanted to see bizjets, he'd simply spend the afternoon under the approach to London City Airport.

But now the Gnat is speeding down the runway, so the end of the show is in sight. Nigel Lamb guns the Merlin in MH434 and joins with Andy Cubin, the two aircraft from different times beating up the airfield as one. Then it is left to Nigel to close the show, just as Ray would have done. As the Last Post plays on the loudspeaker and Nigel dives into the valley for the last time, Chas knows that Ray will be applauding. He wipes a tear from his eye. He'll be back next year, God willing.


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