Biggin Hill Festival of Flight

Biggin Hill Festival of Flight

There are few more famous air display venues in the UK than Biggin Hill. The Festival of Flight revived airshows at the famous Battle of Britain sector station in 2014 and is part of the airport’s wider community engagement programme. The 2019 edition beat the British summer weather and brought together quite a different selection of display acts from previous Festivals celebrating aviation in all its various forms.

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

London Biggin Hill Airport is at the forefront of business aviation with its close links of the City of London. Flights into Biggin Hill come in from all over the world with several operators based out of the airfield. Meeting that demand had led to rapid development of airport with new hangars appearing on the skyline and renewal of the airports aging taxiways. There are also plans for further hangar space plus a hotel to be built at the airfield. Coping that demand also means finding the right people and earlier this year the airport announced a new aviation and engineering college would be built at the airport.

While the exciting future for Biggin Hill is important, so is the airfield’s heritage. The RAF Camp is listed and remains an important backdrop to the airport. The sound of Merlin engines racing into the sky is now back at Biggin constantly thanks to the Spitfires of the Biggin Hill Heritage Hangar. However, most significantly the Biggin Hill Memorial Museum has recently opened at the site of St George’s RAF Chapel of Remembrance. The museum tells of the story of the airfield through many of the personal stories of the men and women who served at the airfield.

The annual Festival of Flight is the centrepiece of the airport’s community engagement programme allowing the public in to see the airport, celebrate its history and see it in action. On the ground amongst the usual mix of traders, military displays and airport companies there was a very unique ‘Vintage Village’ celebrating some London history with a recreation of a Fire Station plus military re-enactors. The Biggin Hill Car Show has been a feature of recent Festivals and also returned with the support of a number of different clubs.

As in 2017 and 2018, the Festival of Flight shared its show weekend with the Eastbourne International Airshow. Biggin has often hosted some of the military and civilian displays for Eastbourne in the past so in many ways sharing the same weekend is logical. However, Biggin’s flying display at times did lack a bit of flow as it had to accommodate both arrivals and departures.

Biggin like many other shows was missing one of its usual star attractions, the Red Arrows. The team are touring North American through to early October missing out nearly half the display season and forcing organisers to look at alternative headline acts. Eastbourne and Biggin Hill managed to attract the Breitling Jet Team for their final UK displays in the Swiss Watchmaker’s colours. Led by airshow legend Jacques Bothelin and flying six Aero Vodochody L-39 Albatross jet trainers, the French based team never disappoint with their smooth flowing presentation full of slick formation work and some beautiful synchronised manoeuvres. Jacques has a long association with Biggin Hill air displays having led the Martini Team, Patrouille Ecco and the Breitling Jet Team at several Air Fairs.

Another international team returning to Biggin’s skies after a long absence were the Royal Jordanian Falcons. Like Jacques’ previous teams, the Falcons have supported many Biggin Hill events first with their Pitts Specials and latterly with the Extra. Their 2019 return was therefore most welcome and they entertained the crowd with their unique formation display in their new Extra 330LXs.

The Extra family of aircraft seemed to be theme of this year’s Festival with two more displays utilising the famous German aerobatic aircraft. The Blades appearance at Biggin Hill was a very special one. Their latest team member Mike Ling grew up in Biggin Hill and was a member of the local Air Training Corps before joining the Royal Air Force. As the longest serving member of the Red Arrows he returned to Biggin on numerous occasions as a display pilot and in the role of Red 10 becoming the local hero. For his team leader, Andy Evans, the team’s appearance on Saturday’s marked his 1000th display as a member of the Blades which is a remarkable achievement and makes Andy one of the most experienced Extra 300 pilots.

Completing the line-up of Extra displays was the remarkable Little and Large duo. This display has become a Biggin favourite with Chris Burkett flying a full size Extra 300S alongside champion model pilot Mike Williams flying a large scale model of the aerobatic aircraft. As always, their display was beautifully synchronised which was quite outstanding considering the breezy conditions that prevailed throughout the weekend.

Further aerobatic delights came from a pair of Mudry CAP232s flown by aerobatic champions Tom Cassells and Michael Pickin. Michael is another local boy who was also a member of the Air Training Corps. He was introduced into the world of aviation by his father Richard who is also a well-known display pilot and has carved out in own career in flying. Tom and Michael’s duo display was one of the surprise gems of the afternoon’s flying with some very original and eye-catching flying.

The heady days of Flying Circus and Barnstorming were recalled by both the Tiger Club’s Turbulent Display Team and the Aerosuperbatics Wingwalkers with some very entertaining flying. However, one of the most outstanding displays of the afternoon came from the Tiger9 Display Team. Flying eight de Havilland DH82a Tiger Moths and a sole DH60G Moth Major the team flew some impeccable formations in some difficult conditions.

One of the most special moments of the Festival’s flying display came from the Bader’s Bus Company Display Team. Formed by disabled flying charity Aerobility and the Douglas Bader Foundation, the team’s pilots Mike Wildeman, Barry Hobkirk and Alan Robinson all have disabilities and risen above the challenges posed to them to become the UK’s first all-disabled air display team. The team currently fly three Piper PA28 Cherokees from the Aerobility fleet which isn’t ideal for formation flying which makes their display all the more impressive and inpirational.

As well as the civilian displays, the Festival enjoyed some strong support from the Royal Air Force with solo displays from the Eurofighter Typhoon FGR4 and Shorts Tucano T1. The support from the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight was exceptional this year with the standard formation of Avro Lancaster B1, Supermarine Spitfire Vb and Hawker Hurricane IIc joined by a solo display from the flight’s Douglas Dakota III.

The addition of the BBMF Dakota was particularly apt as the Festival marked the 75th Anniversary of the D-Day Landings and Arnhem. This theme also saw a spirited display from Aces High Douglas C-47A Skytrain ‘Mayfly’ flown by Andrew Dixon. However, the highlight of the D-Day theme was the Biggin Hill debut of the ‘Ultimate Fighters’ team flying the Republic P-47D Thunderbolt, North American TF-51D Mustang, Supermarine Spitfire IXT and Hispano HA1112-M1L Buchon. Biggin saw many displays from the ‘Breitling Fighters’ during the day of the Air Fair and the new team is very reminiscent of those iconic displays led by Ray Hanna. However, pilots Jon Gowdy, Richard Grace, Dave Puleston and Andy Durston have put together their unique take on a four-ship warbird team display. The first half of their sequence saw all four aircraft in one close formation before the team split in to two pairs. The Buchon and Spitfire put on a short but spirited dogfight before the P-47D and TF-51D gave some further close formation passes. To close their display, the four aircraft formation reformed for some finale formation passes ahead of classic feather- break to join the circuit.

The Cold War Era was represented in the flying by the North American OV-10B Bronco from the Bronco Dema Team. Tony de Bruyn’s spirited displays in the former Luftwaffe target towing aircraft and the team’s colourful ground support has made the team firm favourites with audiences around Europe and particularly at Biggin Hill.

The finale to each day’s flying came from the Biggin Hill Heritage Hangar. They opened their sequence with some formation flying and tail-chase led by their Hawker Hurricane X flown by Don Sigournay. Joining the Hurricane were two Spitfires, Mk IX TA805 ‘The Spirit of Kent’ piloted by Dan Griffiths and a guest appearance by Frits van Eerd’s Mk XVI TB885 flown by Ralph Aarts. As is tradition, the flying was brought to a close with the usual dramatic solo display by Dan Griffiths accompanied by some rousing music.

The 2019 Festival of Flight was full of variety and colour in the air with some superb flying display. The event was also incredibly lucky with the weather as just a few days before the event it looked as though wind and rain may have caused some serious disruption. Fortunately, that weather passed more quickly than anticipated and the full line-up flew each day. We hope the Festival of Flight continues for many more years.