BIGGIN HILL International Air Fair, 3/4 June
Andrew Bates reports that although occupying its traditional slot in the air display calendar, this years Biggin Hill International Air Fair was fortunate to escape the seemingly never ending spell of unsettled weather so prevalent during the first few days of flaming June. This enabled both days to remain warm and dry, though the Sunday received more than its fair share of cloud cover during the early afternoon. Organised, as usual, by Air Displays International, this well established show provided visitors with a varied flying programme of around six hours duration each day, which, together with all the trade stands and other attractions, ensured a full day of entertainment for the assembled crowds.
Unofficially dubbed the Millennium Air Fair, the theme for this year was Celebrating A Century of Flight, which set out to re-create some of the important milestones in the development of aviation during the last 100 years. To achieve this, a number of special set pieces had been organised, which when combined with some of the usual display acts, including modern jets and warbirds, enabled the crowds to experience the sights and sounds of virtually the entire aviation spectrum.
A last minute addition to the flying programme saw the Air Fair commence with the sinister black shape of a USAF F-117A Nighthawk gracing the skies over Biggin. Representing something of a coup for the organisers, the stealth fighter was making its first Air Fair appearance, and was a welcome addition to the event, although it was only available during the Saturday display.
Following a short freestyle aerobatic competition, the Air Fair was really kicked into action by RAF Tornado GR1 ZA321/TAB from 15(R) Squadron, which certainly held the attention of the majority of spectators. With copious amounts of reheat accentuating the noise and speed, final completion of the display no doubt left the audience with a lasting impression of power, as well as a ringing in the ears!
As a complete contrast to the Tornado, the next display item took the crowds back in time, almost back to the birth of powered flight. This was the tribute to the pioneers of flight, which saw a Bleriot XI take to the air with an impossibly short take off run. Operating from the grass, this frail looking machine was unusually a rebuilt example, rather than a replica, and was flown by its Swedish owner/pilot with much enthusiasm. Just to demonstrate its stable handling qualities, he took great delight in waving to the crowds as he flew by. Normally, this may not sound like an unusual task during a flypast in an open cockpit, however, this guy was waving with both hands! With this era normally being the preserve of the Shuttleworth Collection at Old Warden, this made for a rare and interesting participant.
Continuing with the theme of sticks, string and canvas, the performance continued with the re-creation of a World War One dogfight. This time all the aircraft were indeed replicas, and comprised of Sopwith Triplane, Nieuport 17, and three SE5as, with a Fokker DR1 being the sole representative German. The aircraft then all proceeded to wheel about the skies over Biggin, with the characteristic phut-phut of the rotary engined craft reverberating around the airfield. Inevitably, given the odds, it was only a matter of time before the Dreidecker took a hit, and was then seen to disappear behind the trees trailing smoke, although it obviously managed to make a miraculous recovery to enable a safe landing back at Biggin a short while later.
Next display item was billed as the Golden Age Flypast, which demonstrated the development of recreational aviation between the wars, though the biplane continued to dominate proceedings. Apart from two Bucker Jungmanns, the flypast was not surprisingly, a De Havilland affair, with a Dragon, a Dragon Rapide, and nine Tiger Moths in diamond formation. The Moths, known as the Diamond Nine, flew a number of formation passes, before an impressive break at the end of their display. Regrettably, this was their last show at Biggin, as they have decided that 2000 will be their final display season after fifteen years on the show circuit.
Following on from the Tiger Moths, came something a little more potent by way of the warbird review. This proceeded with the Breitling Fighters team, who performed an unusual but highly original display, which saw four high performance piston warbirds being flown around the airfield in tight formation. Led by Ray Hanna, the four OFMC machines comprised of P-40E Kittyhawk NZ3009/ZK-RMH, FG-1D Corsair NZ5648/G-BXUL, P-51D Mustang 463221/44-73149/G-BTCD, and Spitfire IX MH434/G-ASJV. After a number of formation passes, the aircraft then continued with a tail chase across the airfield.
The OFMC quartet were closely followed by another trio of warbirds, with a distinct USN influence. From the Fighter Collection came F7F-3P Tigercat 80425/G-RUMT and F8F-2P Bearcat 121714/G-RUMM, along with North Weald based TBM-3E Avenger 53319/G-BTDP.
A popular attraction, as ever, was the Sea Harrier FA2, ZH800/716 from 899 Squadron RN doing the honours. The Yeovilton based machine, although devoid of any squadron markings and looking a little bland, captivated the audience with all the familiar VTOL manoeuvres we have grown accustomed to over the years, although it still takes a bit of getting used to when you see a jet fighter travelling backwards. The assembled crowd were treated to a double dose of this spectacle, as RAF Harrier GR7 ZD354/21 from 20(R) Squadron also took to the air later in the day.
A return to piston power saw the BBMF take to the air, with the Lancaster being accompanied by Spitfire VB AB910 and Hurricane IIC PZ865. As the Lanc displayed its new 61 Squadron colour scheme to good effect, complete with Mickey the Moocher nose art, the Spitfire suffered the indignity of having to make a precautionary landing due to a minor fault being detected. However, after a quick check with the groundcrew, the fighter was soon airborne again, just in time to join up for the formation flyby.
The final set piece of the day saw a tribute to commercial aviation of the immediate post-war era. This saw no less than five Dakotas take to the air, followed closely by the Dutch Dakota Association DC-4 Skymaster PH-DDS. The Daks displayed a variety of colour schemes and included the South Coast Airways G-DAKK, with three Air Atlantique examples, Pollution Control configured G-AMCA & G-AMHJ, along with G-AMPZ/KN442, still resplendent in its Transport Command livery. The fifth and final participant was N47DC wearing a freshly applied USAAF paint scheme as 224319. This particular example had been accompanied into Biggin Hill by N47FK wearing an identical colour scheme as 292912. Both aircraft had acquired their new identities, complete with invasion stripes and squadron codes, for filming of a new Steven Spielberg wartime mini-series called Band of Brothers, which entailed the services of two other Dakotas, and involved some film scenes at North Weald.
The flying programme then continued with a number of mainly modern acts to keep the assembled crowds entertained. The Belgian AF provided the familiar red and white Alphajet AT05, which was immediately followed by an F-16A operating from Manston, which treated the audience to a superb demonstration of turning and burning. Then the next half-hour saw a flawless performance from the Red Arrows, who were evidently the main attraction for the majority of spectators.
The remaining acts primarily consisted of many regular favourites at Biggin, which apart from the Royal Jordanian Falcons, comprised Jaguar GR3 XX117/A from 16(R) Squadron, Nimrod MR2 XV226 from the Kinloss MRW, Klu EMVO PC-7 L-11, and the sole rotary display act, Lynx HAS3S ZD263/306 from 815 Squadron RN. It was also good to see B-17G Sally B back on the show circuit after her enforced absence during 1999.
However, there were a couple of Air Fair debutantes during the course of the afternoon. The St Ivel Shape Yoghurt Skydiving Team provided an additional parachute display to the RAF Falcons utilising Aerosuperbatics owned MH1521 Broussard G-YYYY, although they didn't jump into some black cherry...This ex-French military aircraft, (previously 208/7-JI), and ex-warbird, (previously F-GDPZ), had been painted in a brand new colour scheme, predominately red, to advertise the wares of the sponsors.
In terms of rarity value, the flypast of aircraft from home based Shuttle Air were surely the most unusual new act on the display circuit. These comprised of a trio of ex-Yugoslav AF airframes, all from the Soko stable; P-2 Kraguj 30140/G-RADA, and a pair of G-2A Galebs, 23170/YU-YAB and 23196/YU-YAC. The two Galebs maintained formation throughout their graceful display, and contrasted nicely with the civilian schemed L39 Albatross ES-ZLD which took to the air a short while later.
Apart from privately owned Wasp HAS1 XT788/G-BMIR, there was no static display as such, although many of the participating warbirds were parked on a taxiway that extended into the crowdline, allowing close scrutiny between displays. Also, the majority of the jet participants were lined up in front of the crowds and were not parked too far away for anyone with a half-decent camera and lens. This line-up also included all the spare display aircraft such as Tornado GR1 ZA355/TAA, Harrier GR7 ZD375/23, and Alphajet AT26.
As the Air Fair drew to a close, the long queues of traffic indicated that the event had proved to be a popular draw with the locals. In keeping with the theme, Celebrating a Century of Flight, the show perhaps may have benefited with the inclusion of a couple of early jets, such as Meteor or Vampire, or even an additional helicopter or two. But, the organisers had certainly provided an innovative and varied display, which had both entertained and educated the assembled crowds, which when combined with the weather, ensured an excellent day out.