Biggin Hill Festival of Flight

Biggin Hill Festival of Flight

The Biggin Hill Festival of Flight returned for a third year in 2016. Unlike the previous two years where the Festival had reflected a major theme (50th Display Season of the Red Arrows in 2014 and 75th Anniversary of the Battle of Britain in 2015), this year saw a more general celebration of aviation for the local community and visitors from further afield.

Paul Johnson/Flightline UK reports. All photography by the author.

Biggin Hill is one of the most famous air show venues in the world being home to the acclaimed International Air Fair. (If you want to read of the Air Fair’s History, go seek out Paul Fiddian’s excellent new book – ed) The shadow of the Air Fair still looms large over Biggin Hill however, and the Festival of Flight has received of critique on various forms of Social Media comparing it to the ‘old days.’

The simple fact of the matter though is that in a short space of time since the last Air Fair in 2010, Biggin Hill has moved on massively. Business Aviation is now busier than ever, and Biggin Hill is at the forefront of that sector with some massive hanger developments around the site. The pressures that come from Business Aviation users mean that it is quite a feat to fit any sort of major airshow into Biggin’s busy summer schedule.

While it is smaller, the Festival of Flight retains something of the old Air Fair atmosphere. A similar showground layout includes the same fairground and mix of trade stalls and exhibitions. In addition, the Festival adds a music stage; classic cars, military vehicles and ‘the Roundel Run’; this is very much an event for everyone.

In the days leading up to the Festival of Flight, the South London area had really experienced some very unsettled weather with heavy slow moving thundery showers amongst periods of hot, humid weather. While it cooled down slightly in time for the Festival of Flight, the heat still set off thundery showers across the South East, some of which passed close enough to Biggin to bring some light drizzle for the first part of the flying display. Thankfully however the really big rain (which brought flooding to nearby Purley) and lightning strikes managed to skirt the Biggin Hill display area and flying continued uninterrupted once it got underway.

This year saw large static displays from three of the based historic aircraft operators. The Westland Wessex club showed off one of its classic Westland Wessex HC2 helicopters while Shipping and Airlines had their entire fleet on displaying including the Civilian Coupe, de Havilland DH87b Hornet Moth, Curtiss Wright Travelair, Miles Messenger and Rearwin Sportster.

This year was also the first time the Biggin Hill Heritage Hangar opened their new facility to visitors. On show was their burgeoning fleet of warbirds with various Supermarine Spitfires on show including their latest Spitfire Vb EP122 wearing the markings of an aircraft engaged in the defence of Malta.

Also visiting for static displays was the Gazelle Squadron who brought a pair of their Westland Gazelle HT2/HT3s alongside the Guimbal Cabri. Disabled Flying Charity Aerobility was another visitor who brought in their Yakovlev Yak-52 to highlight their work in imporving the lives for those with disabilities of any kind.

The main afternoon flying display started with the Royal Air Force Battle of Britain Memorial Flight and Red Arrows arriving fresh from their appearance over London for the Queen’s Birthday Flypast. For those with very good eyesight, the flypast had just been visible as it approached the Mall.

Opening the display properly were Biggin Hill favourites, the Breitling Wingwalkers with their pair of classic Boeing Stearman biplanes. It was something of a reunion for Biggin Hill with Kirsty Joly and Marie Killerby returning to wing having last been part of a Biggin display during days of the International Air Fair.

The Blades Aerobatic Team also returned though were unable to present their full display routine due to some airspace restrictions. However their mix of full and flat displays was just as sharp as you would expect from the team of ex-red Arrows pilots.

Colourful civilian team flying continued with the Tiger Club Turbulent Team with their eclectic mix of flour-bombing, balloon bursting and limbo flying. The ‘Turbs’ had to cope with the worst of the afternoon’s weather, but did so admirably presenting their full repertoire despite the rain.

The Bronco Demo Team made their Biggin Hill debut with Tony de Bruyn flying the North American OV-10B Bronco. Tony’s energetic display was accompanied by pyrotechnic effects simulating strafing runs highlighting the original role of the OV-10 design as a close air support and forward air control aircraft during the Vietnam War.

The first of many warbird displays came from the Bristol Blenheim 1F flown by John Romain. Organisers had hoped to host the Blenheim last year, but poor weather on show day over Cambridgeshire stopped that. Determined to make sure the Blenheim was including in this year’s show, it arrived on the Friday evening before the show. As with the Bronco, the Blenheim’s display saw liberal use of pyrotechnic effects to simulate bombing runs – it really was a very heavily armed Blenheim! The pyros were originally booked to support an Army Air Corps Apache display, but this was withdrawn in the days leading up to the show.

The first of two contributions from the Royal Navy came from the Royal Navy Historic Flight’s Fairey Swordfish flown by Lt Cdr Chris Gotke. It was great to see the Swordfish back in the skies over Biggin Hill marking the incredible contribution the Fleet Air Arm made during the Second World War, not least the famous Swordfish attacks at Taranto and on the German Battleship Bismarck.

The American contribution to the Second World War was recognised in the flying by three very different warbirds. Boeing B-17G Flying Fortress Sally-B maintains strong links with Biggin Hill. Not only has she been a regular item at many Biggin Hill airshows, but the Kent airfield was her first base upon arrival in the UK over 40 years ago before moving on to Duxford. Also from Duxford came the Consolidated PBY-5A Catalina from Plane Sailing. Flown at Biggin by Rod Brooking and Matt Dearden, the Catalina is always an impressive sight at low level.

Perhaps the star turn in the flying for enthusiast was Peter Teichman’s North American P-51D Mustang. Peter’s Hangar 11 Collection have spent the winter not only working on the mechanicals of the Mustang, but also preparing her for some new colours. Just a week before Biggin she appears in the markings of the 332nd Fighter Group otherwise known as “The Tuskegee Airmen” or “The Red Tails.”  The 332nd Fighter Group was the USAAF’s first unit manned by African Americans. There is no better aircraft to wear markings as this particular Mustang was operated by the 332nd over Italy, Austria and Czechoslovakia during the latter stages of the Second World War and still bears some repairs resulting from battle damage. Specifically, the aircraft wears the markings of an aircraft called “Tall In The Saddle” flown by Capt. Wendell Lucas and Lt. George Hardy.

The mid-point of the flying display saw involvement from modern day Royal Air Force personnel. The Battle of Britain Memorial Flight are always special visitors to Biggin Hill. The unit was formed as the Historic Aircraft Flight at Biggin Hill when Hurricane LF363 was joined by three Spitfire PRXIXs from the Meteorological Flight. For the Festival of Flight, the BBMF presented Supermarine Spitfire XVI TE311 flown by Group Captain Jez Attridge and Hawker Hurricane IIc PZ865 flown by Flt Lt Andy Preece.

Very much the highlight for the crowd though were the Red Arrows flying their nine scarlet BAE Systems Hawk T1s. 1965 saw the UK debut of the Red Arrows at the original Air Fair and they flown countless displays at the venue since. It is there a special venue for the team, but particularly so for Red 10, Squadron Leader Mike Ling who grew up in Biggin Hill and was a member of the town’s Air Training Corps squadron based on the airfield. Mike’s commentaries for the Red Arrows displays are always enthusiasts, but it was not hard to detect his particular affection for being part of their display over his home turf – his critique of the landings was particularly entertaining for the crowd!

Rich Goodwin added to the patriotic vibes with his heavily modified Pitts S-2S Special. Rich’s displays are always exciting, always dramatic as he spins, tumbles and flicks his way around the skies laying thick smoke trails. His aircraft wears a very eye-catching union flag inspired scheme.

Something completely different came from Chris Burkett who flew an Extra 330LT alongside a model Extra 300S flown by Mike Williams. The pair has won plaudits wherever they have displayed and at Biggin it really was not hard to see why with some really beautifully synchronised flying in the early evening light.

The penultimate display came from the Royal Navy Raiders Parachute Display Team. The team appeared at the inaugural Festival of Flight in 2014. This time the team jumped from Britten Norman Islander from nearby Headcorn Aerodrome.

A Biggin Hill Air Display would not be complete without a merlin powered finale. To close this year’s show, the Biggin Hill Heritage Hangar provided a pairing of their Hawker Hurricane I AE997 flown by Clive Denny and Supermarine Spitfire IX TA805 “Spirit of Kent” flown by Steve Jones. After some formation passes the two fighter split into short solo routines with Steve closing the display with some sweeping passes in the Spitfire.

Despite some less than ideal weather, the Festival of Flight was another hugely enjoyable affair. While it is entirely new event, it is good to see the spirit of the original Air Fair live on is many aspects of the show, not least the very varied flying programme which presents some very different displays. Next year sees London Biggin Hill Airport celebrate its centenary so the Festival of Flight will be an event to keep your eye on!