Damien Burke reports on the saviour of an old favourite
With the demise of the North Weald shows some time ago, Biggin Hill was left as London's only major airshow and thanks to skyrocketing public liability insurance rates after the September 11th terrorist attacks in the USA and a lack of big sponsors, it seemed that this show, too, was doomed. With no sign of a sponsor, the show was simply no longer economically viable.
Thankfully, however, with only a few months to go, replacement sponsors were found, notably local paper News Shopper and the Westmead Business Group and arrangements put in place to minimise the cost of insurance - such as a massive increase in crowdline security staff. Unfortunately for hard-core enthusiasts, though, the line-up was pretty similar to previous Biggin shows and some of the star acts were not able to appear, for various reasons. Saddest of all, of course, was the loss of Pierre Hollander and the Spirit of St. Louis replica at the Coventry airshow the weekend before. Also damaged at that same show had been the Sea Vixen, and while de Havilland had hoped to get it repaired in time for Biggin, they didn't quite manage it.
So, left with what some had described as a rather pedestrian line-up, Biggin's reputation hung on the quality of the display acts this year - and thankfully they were top notch. RAF participation wasn't bad considering the recent ending of the war in Iraq, with Tucano, Hawk, Jaguar and Tornado F3 solo displays as well as, of course, the Red Arrows. The Tucano and Jag were both superb, with an added bonus being the use of a Jaguar T4 on the Sunday. The Hawk display seems quite different from last year's, with more emphasis on grace than the hard precision of the previous routine. Wearing a commemorative 100 years of flight badge on the sides of the fuselage was a nice touch - but pity it couldn't have been made into a more flamboyant display scheme - pure black aircraft are a sod to take good photos of! The Tornado display seemed to be a bit on the rough side, with two appearances on Saturday (the first being a practice) and an aborted display on Sunday (reason unknown). Perhaps the increasingly gusty conditions forced the decision to stop the display which was a pity as Sunday's display looked rather smoother than those on Saturday. The wind certainly put paid to the RAF Falcons, who had to be content with a fast pass inside their Hercules dropship.
International military participation has got thinner and thinner over the years at Biggin, and this year did little to change things with the only foreign displays being from a French Falcon 10 and a Belgian Alpha Jet. The Alpha was a sprightly performer but the Falcon 10 limited itself to a few passes up and down the display line before returning to Earth. The expected Belgian F-16 was shelved when the Belgian Air Force suddenly required an outrageous insurance fee with only weeks to go before the show.
Foreign civilian participation was a different matter however, with the US-based Grumman Albatross making another appearance at Biggin (her last in the UK before the long series of hops to get back home to the USA) and a pair of old timers from Sweden - a Tummelisa (1919 biplane type) and a Bleriot replica. These were part of the celebration of 100 years of flight, aided by a ground-bound scale replica of the Wright Flyer which puttered up and down a few hundred feet of the crowdline, invisible and unheard by many. The Swedish pair, flown by Mikael Carlsson, turned out to be some of stars of the show. Saturday saw an eye-opening performance from him in the Bleriot, despite a stiff wind, followed by what has to have been the single most impressive demonstration of a biplane I have ever seen when he took the Tummelisa up for 10 minutes of the sort of aerobatics that would embarrass the average Pitts Special. Back on the ground he was greeted with a well-earned standing ovation from both crowd and jaded press corps alike - "They're built to take it, this is how you should fly them" being one modest comment from the 'crazy Swede'. He was later given the award for best solo display, but also asked to tone it down a bit for Sunday!
On the warbird front we were well provided for with the RNHF Swordfish and Firefly (the latter making one of its first re-appearances on the airshow circuit for many years), the BBMF trio of Lancaster, Spitfire and Hurricane (the Spit being AB910 resplendent in her new desert camouflage scheme), Angie Soper's Yak-11 (Sunday only), Sally B and the Breitling Fighters (of which more shortly).
Heavy prop action came courtesy of Air Atlantique, who provided a DC-6, DC-3, Rapide, Prentice, Pembroke and Twin Pioneer - pretty much their entire range of aircraft and echoing many of the displays at Coventry the weekend before - very handy for those who couldn't make it up to that show.
Family friendly flying from the Utterly Butterly pair (who I grudgingly admit are putting on a better and better display of aerobatics each year) kept the attention of the youngsters (and old pervs leering at the girls in lycra) while an Su-26 aerobatic display impressed some and bored others - once again, as at Southend, a great demo of how powerful the engine is but little else - and once you've seen one go at hanging it on the prop, you don't need to see it again and again. Brian Lecomber in his Extra 300 put on a more varied display which relied on skill as well as horsepower.
Classic jets were the F-86 and T-33, both from Duxford - the T-33 standing in for the missing Sea Vixen. Now the Sea Vixen's display has been reigned back to such a gentle low G affair, the T-33 was a more than adequate stand-in, with a routine that exhibits more power and greater volume than the Vixen can manage these days. The F-86 similarly put on a stonking little display with its signature black smoke trail making it easy to spot in the distance. A challenging piece of formation flying was the appearance of the F-86 with the RNHF Firefly, marking the two types' use in the Korean War. Saturday saw the F-86 sailing past the Firefly but on Sunday pilot Cliff Spink got it dead right and appeared welded to the Firefly's wing for the entire pass - lovely.
So on to the next surprise star act - a Virgin Airbus A340-600. With Richard Branson on the ground to talk about how he wants to wrest Concorde away from the spoilsports at BA intent on retiring her, the A340 provided a stunning display belying its huge size... and the banner on the rear fuselage said it all! At one point a tight turn low over the airfield boundary must have had drivers on the road outside reaching for their mobiles to dial 999 - very impressive indeed.
But back to the Breitlings and boy were they good. With the P-40 grounded by paperwork problems and the P-51 being repainted, two stand-ins had been required and Historic Flying at Duxford had kindly supplied a pair of Spitfires. Three Spitfires and a Corsair in a formation team? Fantastic! And so it proved to be, with Saturday's display a cracking bit of sheer entertainment, bettered on Sunday with even more roaring about both in formation and as a tailchase. Sunday even saw them disappear behind trees on the horizon and pop up one after the other climbing into a loop - just the sort of stuff that gets your heart pumping extra fast. They certainly deserved their best team display award.
Last word on both days was left to Ray Hanna, taking Spitfire MH434 up for a beautiful display backed brilliantly by an emotional piece of music. A single Spitfire joyously rolling over Biggin Hill, this most famous of Battle of Britain airfields, can bring on a shiver to the most stoic of characters and it was simply the perfect end to a damn good show. The organisers clearly agreed and gave Ray an award to mark his many years of contributions to the Biggin Hill show.
were expensive for the single person in a car on the day, a car with five
people was better value at less than a tenner a head and the
great majority of tickets were for perhaps the first time at a major UK
airshow bought in advance over the internet (at a significant discount
of course). Sales were handled by the RIAT organisers - in these days
of increasing expenses, pooling resources like this is clearly the way
forward. As to whoever appeased the weather gods and managed to pull two
days of mostly scorching sunshine out of a hat (when both mornings had
been grey and dismal) - well done that man. Get in touch, I know some
show organisers who would appreciate your services!
With thanks to Jenny Casemore, Nick Smith and the rest of the press team.