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Biggin bits

Spitfires and Stilettos

Karen Bambury tells of a female take on her first airshow experience as she visits the Biggin Hill International Air Fair, held over 7-8 June.

Additional material and pictures by Gary Parsons and Mike Kerr

In order for you to fully appreciate what an unusual event my attendance at the Biggin Hill airshow this year was, I must let you in on some sad, but true, facts about myself. I am what you might call a true girly nightmare - I have never been camping (either caravan or tent), hate the wind and rain as it messes with my hair, detest walking (unless it is shopping for handbags and shoes) and do not possess flat shoes or a waterproof coat, indeed nothing that could be called 'practical'. I had also never been to an airshow.

So, why the deviation from my cosseted, indoor life you may ask? Simple answer, a man - a new boyfriend, an aircraft fanatic and dedicated airshow attendee no less!

Ordinarily it would be easier to move the Great Wall of China than persuade me that a day at a show, especially an outdoor show, would be good. All I can say is that he must've trained as a hostage negotiator because I found myself agreeing to go.

I think in the week leading up to the event he was probably regretting asking me - I needed to know some very important facts, such as how good the toilet facilities would be, how far would I have to walk and on what type of surface; what would happen if, God forbid, it rained and what time would I have to get up in the morning to go?

As the week prior to the show progressed I became increasingly worried about my decision. The weather was abysmal, almost continual rain and to add to my apprehension I was told that I would have to get up at silly o'clock if I wanted a good vantage point. I can confess now that I had serious doubts whether I wanted any vantage point, let alone a good one!

The last Mirage?
Winning the silverware for best display act on the Saturday was Mirage 2000C pilot Captain Francois Rallet with a scintillating routine that possible even shaded the Typhoon for agility. With 3,000 hours on type, it's Rallet's only season as display pilot as it is rumoured that the Rafale will take over display duties from 2009.

On the Friday night I was bordering on panic, the rain had not abated all day and I couldn't think of a single thing that would be suitable in my wardrobe to wear for a day in hell. I desperately wanted him to say it was okay for me to opt out, genuinely believing that he would have his worst airshow experience ever if I went. But no, ever the optimist, he was insistent it would be fine and that despite all the predictions to the contrary, the weather would clear up.

So it was that I duly got up on the Saturday morning, dug out a very unflattering pack-a-Mac from the boot of my car, a selection of magazines and the comfiest boots I could find (yes they did have a heel) and set off. At this point I would like to point out that I am the grouchiest person alive unless I have had at least eight hours sleep (which I hadn't) and it was STILL RAINING.

I don't think I was particularly chatty during the journey - normally I can talk the hind legs off a donkey, but was cheered slightly when the rain petered out to a drizzle and then stopped completely. I was not too impressed with the ambiguous signage directing us to the airfield (organisers take note) and it appeared that we weren't the only ones doubling back through some very tight roads because of this.

Having said that, when we eventually found the entrance to the parking area we were directed efficiently to a space. First timers may want to know that a 4x4 would be the best vehicle to go in, anyone considering taking their precious sporty number would be quite mad. It felt as if we had arrived at about six in the morning, in fact I think it was a little after nine.

Sarang debut
Making its UK debut and fresh from Berlin's ILA was the Indian Air Force 'Sarang' display team, led by Wing Commander Shashauk Misra. Formed in 2002 especially for the Asian Aerospace Airshow in 2004, the team's European tour includes Berlin, Biggin, Waddington, RIAT and Farnborough, before being packed into a chartered An-124 for the journey back to India. "We had to change our routine to comply with European regulations", said Wg Cdr Misra, "but we prefer the new show and will adopt it back home!"

We found ourselves a spot (not on grass) at the front near the barrier and after several trips to the car were settled with fold-out chairs, coolbox and my pink rucksack containing essential magazines, lipstick, wet wipes, sunglasses, chocolate and a change of footwear. I had also satisfied myself that the toilet experience wasn't too horrific - in fact, the facilities were very good for public conveniences.

Amazingly the time until the show began at 11:30 passed really quickly - this was in a large part due to the fact that a wonderful array of food and drink had been packed for me in the coolbox and I was left to munch contentedly whilst reading my magazines.

I won't go through each display because I don't feel it would be of much benefit to talk about the 'pretty blue ones' or 'that fast grey one' so I shall limit my description to those that really impressed. Might I say that I was, and still am, sorely disappointed that the Red Arrows weren't at the show and may well hold that against them for quite some time! Amazingly, ONLY an interview with one of their pilots might deviate me from this!

For the airshow virgin (that I was) it was particularly useful that one of the first displays was an RAF Tutor, demonstrating various manoeuvres described by the commentator. I was quite pleased that I could recognise a barrel roll and a stall turn by the time a helicopter display began! Now I find helicopters quite dull to watch and far too scary to ever want to be flown in one, at least I did. To my complete amazement it performed a complete roll, which for a helicopter I thought was scientifically impossible. I also loved the little 'bow' from the Chinook at the end of its display.

Team Guinot appealed to me even before they took off, mainly because I recognised the brand name from my girly world of cosmetics and skincare. The team's wing-walkers were superb; I can't even begin to imagine how mad you would have to be to want to do it though.

Other highlights for me included the wonderful noise produced by the Lancaster and Spitfires, but equally the Typhoon - from completely different eras, but both very emotive. If an aircraft can be described as sexy, then the Typhoon is that aircraft.

The 'pretty' Blades display team were very impressive with their precision manoeuvres, as were the RAF Falcons parachute display team - I was especially impressed that their leader was a woman!

For me the highlight of the show came from an aircraft without an engine, the glider! I still can't believe that it (well the pilot) could perform such fabulous acrobatics without an engine, totally amazing and a complete surprise.

Although brief, my synopsis only included the ones that really grabbed my attention or completely surprised me and in no way intimates that I didn't enjoy the rest of the show, as I surely did. This, of course, was not only a great relief to me but to my boyfriend too. I am sure he will be studying future shows for their content and facilities in earnest before he invites me to another, if indeed he does.

I am in no doubt though that hot donuts and sparkling wine were contributing factors to my overall enjoyment and would highly recommend that any airshow enthusiast researches such things before taking a partner to a show for the first time. Oh and some influence over the weather would be very useful too!

So, will I be going to another show? Watch this space…


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