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Big bangs at Biggin

Sqn Ldr Andy Pawsey reflects on the first 'big' public airing of the Royal Air Force's role demonstration at Biggin Hill's Air Fair on the weekend of 2/3 June, 2007. Pictures by Gary Parsons, Mike Kerr, Bob Franklin and Damien Burke

It's one thing to be an RAF engineer officer and airshow commentator who is forever on his soapbox trying to encourage the UK airshow world to move forward with new ideas, displays and approaches - it's a different thing entirely to suddenly find yourself at the helm of the most novel RAF display item for many years, a display that is going to be scrutinised by the public and press alike for the very first time tomorrow in front of 50,000 or so spectators, together with the Chief of the Air Staff. That was me in the Croydon Park Hotel on the night of 1 June 2007 - a sleepless night lay ahead, full of anxiety and excitement. The previous few days had been bad enough - swapping concerns and reassurances with the Organiser on subjects ranging from the weather forecast and arrival times to the precise duration of the display items and risk of fire damage to the airfield! But now we had reached the point of no return - tomorrow would see the real debut of the RAF Role Demonstration at the Biggin Hill International Air Fair 2007 to the public (we'll ignore the ill-fated 'Spirit of Adventure' at Abingdon). Although my concerns were many, at least the weather forecast was good and the hotel was very comfortable, ensuring I would get a good rest before doing it all again on Sunday. Time to reflect on how we got to this position and the look forward to what tomorrow would hold.

Best of Biggin
Spirit of Kent
Biggin Hill marked the debut of Spitfire IX TA805/G-PMNF, nicknamed 'Spirit of Kent' by its owner Peter Monk. Now based at Hawkinge, John Romain flew TA805 in the finale tribute to Ray Hanna after his own aircraft, BM597, developed a technical gremlin.

The RAF has always been very supportive to the UK airshow circuit providing shows, personnel and displays for almost its entire eighty-nine year history. True, things have been getting more difficult. By the dawn of the twenty-first century the air force was down to organising just three of its own shows - a far cry from the dozen or so 'At Home Days' of previous decades. Dwindling numbers of squadrons and personnel, coupled with an increasing number of operation commitments was affecting the number of display items and appearances by the RAF. Perversely, this is exactly why the RAF still needs to be on display - to demonstrate the role and importance of the nation's air force to a less aware taxpaying public. The solo and display teams would continue to promote the RAF to the public but more needed to be done at all levels to get the message through. This requirement was articulated in the RAF's Engagement Strategy and two particular threads in this document were to have a profound impact on my life. The first, the formation of the RAF Event Team to lead on how the RAF is displayed to the public; the second, the need to show the RAF to the public in an operational context. So, in the summer of 2006 I was posted as the Creative Designer for the RAF Event Team with specific responsibility to demonstrate what your air force does in novel and exciting ways. Be careful what you wish for...

I have always been a fan of the airshow set-piece. From the colonial fort-bombing of the Hendon Air Pageants, through the assaults at Mildenhall, Middle Wallop and Yeovilton and on to the big anniversaries such as the 'battle' that commemorated the Luftwaffe's fiftieth anniversary last year - the set-piece can provide a memorable highlight to a show that is both exciting and different. However, it does require resources - lots of resources. The Luftwaffe used twenty-nine aircraft at Rostock-Laage; the fifteen helicopters used at Yeovilton are impressive, but pales against the fifty or so that Middle Wallop used to fly! Also, these were one-off events that could be practised a few times at the event venue. Still, it should be possible to create an effective set-piece with a reasonable number of airframes. The inclusion of ground troops would be great but you need lot of them to really make it work. How many people were already going to loose a good number of their hard-worked-for weekends this summer already because of my big ideas?

The RAF's Typhoon wasn't the only weather phenomenon at Biggin Hill - on Saturday the high temperatures caused a mini-tornado in the public area, sending brollies, tents and other paraphernalia skywards. If you find an RAC brolly somewhere in South London, they may want it back...

There is one aspect of a set-piece that, in my opinion, cannot be skimped on - pyrotechnics. If you are simulating offensive aircraft doing offensive things then you have to demonstrate impact, and that means lots of pyro! I had no hesitation in inviting Charlie Adcock and his great team at Event Horizon to join the Role Demonstration team. Not only is Charlie the UK leader in this sort of thing, he is the only man I have ever met who is as enthusiastic in this area of entertainment as I am! I had no doubt that the effects would be big, impressive and safe.

The venues were decided early on. Some, such as the RAF shows, were givens. Others were discussed, recommended and approved. The Role Demonstration flying element had to also support the 'Spirit of Adventure' events. This proved to be a big constraint since this event had its own story line and was supported by large video walls, dedicated hi-fi sound systems and production facilities that would not be available at other events. In all, the Role Demonstration would be performed twelve times at seven different venues, the first big public event being Biggin Hill. A tall order, but then what is the point of going at something half-hearted? All we needed now was a plan and some aircraft!

Planning for the Role Demonstration was both iterative and fun! Who wouldn't like to sit down with a blank sheet of paper and build a new display? Some policy points were agreed on early. The need for the display to be safe was the first priority. Role Demonstrations are very different from solo and normal team displays with different aircraft types coming from different points of the compass at different times. 'Deconfliction' was the most important aspect of all.

The Role Demonstration had to be representative of what the RAF was doing operationally around the world and not "just another display". You could completely ignore this point and certainly come up with an exciting display, but that would be missing the point. The need for the Role Demonstration to contain non-stop action raised some interesting and opposing points - fast and low attack runs create great spectacle, but basically mean those airframes are out of the action for a couple of minutes before and a couple of minutes after the attack as they transit to and from the various holds. You need lots of airframes to keep that up for twenty-five minutes. In consultation with some 'Subject Matter Experts' (i.e. pilots!) at Air Command, we decided on a layered approach. Each aircraft would have its time in the limelight but then would be stacked vertically, leaving space underneath for the next element. This would be totally representative of modern layered operations but condensed down from 40,000 ft of height to 3,500 ft, although that might be too much for the average cloudbase throughout the English summer! At one stage, aircraft would be operating simultaneously at four different levels! That counts as non-stop action by anyone's definition but also means that ambient noise levels would be consistently high - good for crowd impact, but not so good for story telling. The finale was also important - it needed an appropriate curtain-call but we didn't want to loose five minutes creating a single immaculate formation. We have a team in red that are pretty good at that sort of thing! We were in favour of a fly-through of all the aircraft in as short a time as possible at different speeds and altitudes. A kind of "same airspace, same day" formation!

The involvement of all the right people in the planning process ensured that the flying plan was up to the job, but so much more need to be considered. Logistics, costs, approvals, regulations, ground safety, public information, PR, etc. - the list seemed endless. Also, everything we did needed to be in step with the Engagement Strategy and the new approaches we were advocating for the RAF 'on show' this season. We did sometimes wonder why we had started all this…

The most challenging aspect was getting the aircraft and crews allocated. Air Command rightly had more important things to deal with and so we continued to plan and watch the days go by. However, once the assets were approved, things moved very fast. The aircraft package was as good as I could have hoped for and included an aircraft type never really displayed before and three other types that the public would not have seen on display during this year if it wasn't for the Role Demonstration. More helicopters would have been great, as you can have them working a mini-scenario within the main scenario. Still, a single Chinook was much better than nothing, especially for such a hard-pressed force.

All RAF displays go through a formal approvals process culminating in the granting of a Public Display Authority (PDA) by a high ranking officer. PDA ensures that the display is both safe and appropriate for displaying to the public and is a significant hurdle. Rehearsal time prior to the PDA was largely lost due to poor weather, but the role demo PDA, held at Waddington, was achieved on time.

More rehearsals would have been great, especially the opportunity to have a venue rehearsal prior to each show, but that wasn't going to happen. Watching the entire Role Demonstration for the first time was genuinely a moving experience - we were delighted with what we had put together and convinced it was going to be a winner. I was also sure that the enthusiast community wouldn't like it and was prepared for some backlash; the Role Demonstration was never aimed at the enthusiast. I had received lots of good "advice" from a vocal minority, ranging from helpful aircraft choreography tips to grief about the loss of the solo Harrier display. I doubt that any solo display pilots or team leaders in recent years had been told to "put this manoeuvre in after this one" and "don't forget to do this so we can get good photos". Suddenly, everyone was an expert.

Roll the Role Demo...

So, on to Biggin Hill. In some ways, not an ideal first venue - a barely long enough runway for fast-jet operations and limited air and pyro space. In other ways, a perfect first venue - a mature, well attended show with an enviable reputation, a great backdrop courtesy of the 'bump' and a tight, motivated organising team. Above all, in Colin Hitchins, Biggin Hill has an organiser from the new generation who is constantly pushing forward and ready, willing and able to support us in what we are trying to do. I cannot over-stress the importance of this aspect. For better or worse, the RAF has, and will, continue to change how it supports airshows and those that embrace this change will prosper. Also, this is Biggin Hill! Probably the most iconic airfield in the world and one that will be forever linked with the RAF's 'Finest Hour'. Along with the Role Demonstration, Biggin Hill would be getting the full complement of RAF displays along with a couple of specials, namely a display by the BBMF's 'First Four' fighters in their fiftieth season and an opening formation of Typhoon and Spitfire.

Thinking back to that Saturday at Biggin Hill, I can remember individual aspects, but not the full story. The early morning interviews with media partner LBC helped me get in to the groove; the huge crowd and great weather meant that I could cross two items off my mental list of things to worry about. I remember thinking, just as the Red Arrows were completing their display immediately prior to the Role Demonstration, that I really needed a bigger production team. I would have to watch for the aircraft and then cue the sound effects, cue the pyro, cue the music, all whilst commentating! Fortunately some mates were available for early-spotting of inbound aircraft and moral support. The final anxiety was based on aircraft serviceability and timing. We had some spares and a fallback plan should aircraft become unserviceable but, please, not today! The Tornado GR4s and E3-D would be arriving for the display directly from home bases so we would have no opportunity to slip the timing for whatever reason. As the Biggin-based aircraft waited to turn on to the runway, one Tornado F3 appeared to be missing. I counted and recounted the number of aircraft tails sticking up above the crowd but still seemed to be one short. Get on the radio and find out what's going on? What's the point? Huge relief as both F3s taxi onto the runway and blast off.

I admit that I didn't get off to the best start. The Mission Commander was so efficient in getting all the aircraft out to their holds that he called for the start a good two minutes earlier than I was expecting. Consequently, I was behind in the narrative scene-setting that needed to be done before the jet noise started. Oh for more rehearsals! No time for those kind of thoughts. Concentrate on the vital parts of the narrative and look out for the first aircraft movement. Two F3s in close formation grow in size in the sunlight over the crowd's right shoulder. I glance outside the commentary position and see some of the crowd searching the sky and then literally jumping with excitement when they see them coming. H-Hour.

On of my biggest disappointments of the season is that I never really got the opportunity to see the Role Demonstration! You are so busy that you see aircraft cues but watch nothing. I remember looking out to see the E3-D starting its run in from a position over the Thames Estuary for its first ever appearance at Biggin Hill. I remember seeing the GR4s in the distance moving in to position for their arrival with the buildings of Canary Wharf behind them. I remember the first GR4 appearing to leap out of the ground as it pitched in to the overhead and then that spine-tickling moment as they tip over the shoulder for the strafing runs. I remember Gareth Attridge calling out that he was visual with the two GR4s on their attack run and thinking, "This is going to be big"! I remember feeling the heat from the big explosions even through glass! I remember looking out to see a sky full of different aircraft as they ran in for the finale. I remember cueing the finale music and then looking at Trevor Graham, the sound producer and saying, "I'm out".

Feedback was overwhelming. Friendly spies in the crowd immediately called in with great reports. Cheering, clapping, tears - everything we had wanted. Even the expected enthusiast backlash was small and largely constructive. Perhaps, most heartening of all, were the comments from some of the luminaries of the airshow world. Other organisers, display pilots, representatives from the regulatory and safety authorities - all took time to chat through with me what they had seen, offered helpful advice and expressed positive feelings on what they had seen.

So, the first show over. Lots to think about and a few immediate lessons to incorporate in tomorrow's plan - overall I feel weary, but contented. I would have a whole week after Biggin Hill to look at re-examine the plan before doing it all again at Cosford! All I need is a relaxing evening and a good night's sleep in the Hotel. Oh yes, the Croydon Park Hotel. I had heard from LBC that a incident was taking place in Croydon, but took time to realise the hotel at the centre of the rescue of three men from a construction crane that had fallen onto a hotel was the aforementioned Croydon Park Hotel, which had been providing accommodation for all the RAF crews! No-one would be staying in that particular establishment for a long time! The Biggin Team came to rescue and managed to find rooms for all, but the opportunity for a relaxing evening had long gone. That was, of course, nothing compared to the suffering of the injured and the exertions of the rescuers. In a strange way, it rounded off a surreal day in a suitably surreal manner. It reminded me of the fact that the Role Demonstration was a huge team effort involving hundreds of people all around the UK who would work together many more times throughout the summer in order to deliver the RAF Role Demonstration.

Everyone involved in the Role Demonstration will remember that weekend in Kent. Hopefully that includes the spectators who turned up, cheered, enjoyed and went home with a little bit of additional knowledge and pride in their Royal Air Force.

 

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