I HAVE just been flying at the perfect air show. And to round off a perfect day, this curvaceous little blonde cheerleader has just cornered me in the Pilots Tent and suggested we…
Well, I don’t know what she suggested, to be honest. Because at this point, exhibiting quite lamentable timing, I woke up. Ah well – the perfect air show has always been only a dream, anyway. Gather round, and I’ll tell you about my dream air show. First thing, of course, is the weather. So at this air show the sky is blue and the temperature just right in warm sunshine. Not all air shows are like this, but this is my dream show. So I get to dream up the weather, okay?
In this perfect air show the briefing has been just that – brief. No last-minute changes to the published programme. (Unless of course I happen to want one, which is naturally a different matter). The briefer ends up saying; “You will all fly to your display authorised minima.
Have a good day.” Not like some in real life. I have been told – many times, and sometimes with threats – that we cannot use our displayauthorised base height of 30 feet because this show knows better and wishes us to operate to a higher base. Which is particularly infuriating because the show does NOT know bloody better, and is simply b*****ing up all our top-height and speed cues, thus making the display more dangerous. But this is my dream air show. All else, too, is perfect.
The aircraft parking has been so arranged that the military jets – and above all the big helicopters – have no realistic chance of either barbecuing the crowd or blasting the lighter aircraft into an embarrassing heap somewhere behind the crowd line, having briefly passed inverted over East Cheam en route. It is a two-day show, and I have no other bookings this weekend. Businesswise this should worry me – but in my dream air show I don’t have to worry about anything. We can just fly our slot and then maybe go watch the cheerleader girls.
And this perfect air show has no “silly slots”. Well, actually it has – all air shows have them, and I mustn’t call them “silly slots”’ because they are in fact very far indeed from silly – but they are slots which can fairly easily over-run their stated time-span, and thus leave temporal confusion in their wake. Favourites are parachute teams and civilian airliners. My perfect air show has dealt with this by dialling-in short “ice cream intervals” after each such slot in order to take up the slack. So my perfect show runs on time. Er – well, no. Even my dream is not in that much of a dream-world.
Mostly the best air shows do run on time. But air shows use machines made and operated by Man in weather made and operated by – I was about to say the Good Lord, but sometimes it seems more like some evil Genie intent on urinating on the best efforts of mere mortals. So even my dream air show can have glitches.
But this show is run by a very, very experienced team, who over the years has acquired an almost supernatural ability to make a couple of apparently very minor tweaks – and Lo, the juggernaut is suddenly back on time again.
Even I don’t know how they do that. Oh, and there are many other wonders in my perfect air show. Fuel and smoke oil arrives bang on time, exactly when you’ve asked for it. Which is nothing short of miraculous. The pilots’ tent is on the front of the crowd-line on display centre-point, signifying that the pilots are actually accorded slightly more importance than the corporate hospitality marquees to the left and right.
This is a mark of respect and a significant safety factor. Pilots flood out of pilots’ tents for two reasons. One, to watch a display they expect to be really outstanding. Two, with a horrible fascination to witness something they think in their heart of hearts is going to be bloody dangerous. A great indicator, is the pilots’ tent. And what else in my dream show? Well, the content, naturally.
Which should ideally be a pleasing confluence of the old, the new, the known, the novel and the spectacular – with the whole, if possible, seasoned by a dash of something from somewhere else in the world, cunningly enticed by the organisers to make their debut in the UK at this show. Ha! Well, my perfect air show certainly doesn’t lack for content.
There are present all the usual suspects – the Arrows, the Spitfires and Hurricanes and Mustangs and the rest of the gamut of fighter and bomber warbirds. Jets from Hawk to Hunter to Typhoon; and quite amazing helicopter displays topped off by the almost unbelievable performance of the RAF Chinook, like an elephant dancing rock ‘n roll.
There are the high-performance civilian formation aerobatic slots including the Blades, the Rothmans Team, and others. There are solo slots by Neil Williams, Xavier de Lapparent, Ray Hanna – and others.
And for especial foreign spice there are the Russian Knights team of Sukhoi Su27 Flankers, a pair of USAF F111s (which actually managed to find the place) and at the other end of the scale a wonderful Swede, Mikael Carlson, flying his original rotary-powered Bleriot X1 and also, with astonishing gusto, the similarly rotary-powered Tummelisa biplane.
You, dear reader, will have spotted that some of the teams and some of the individuals are now sadly no longer functional and could never possibly have performed at the same show. Perfectly correct. But this, remember, is my dream air show. So I can dream what the hell I like. And I can also dream of a certain very special spirit. Nothing you can actually put your finger on. But the pilots’ tent of this show is an annual meeting of many old mates plus some intriguing and very amiable newcomers who settle into the atmosphere instantaneously.
And then there’s the crowd. No performer at my ideal air show ever ignores the crowd. This particular crowd, a lot of it from East London, has come back year after year after year to watch this air show. They are friends. 100 000 of them over two days. Never ignore the friends. If you walk down the flight-line to your aeroplane and get the odd spontaneous clap it is to me a more valuable accolade than all the trophies I have.
The odd spontaneous clap is to me a more valuable accolade… So is there any such thing as my dream air show? Well, yes there is. Or something very near it. I have flown at some wonderful shows. Farnborough before it caught some dread Health and Safety disease. Waddington. Finningley. Leuchars. Dubai, Kuala Lumpur, Durban, Sanicole, Southport, Southsea, Southend, Paris, Bordeaux, Lisbon. All lovely events.
WHY WAS BIGGIN SPECIAL?
But my real dream air show, along with just about every other display pilot I know was the annual Biggin Hill International Air Fair. You’ll note I said “was”. I’ll come to that. Why was Biggin special? On the face of it, no real reason. On the face of it, just another air show. It certainly didn’t always fulfil the weather side of the dream Being “Biggin on the Bump” – on a hill 500 feet above amsl – Biggin gets low cloud and high winds by first-class delivery. So not weather. Fuel? The guys certainly did their best, but no, the fuel delivery was never dream show.
But no fuel ever is or ever can be. Height limitations? Never a problem to me, because all I had to think about was base heights. It was a big problem, however, to the jet jockeys, because over the years LATCC (London Air Traffic Control Centre) became ever more grumpy about allowing upward excursions into their precious London TMA. So Biggin was never theoretically ideal.
But it was loved by the pilots and loved by the crowds. When you first flew at Biggin you felt you were on probation to join a very special club. I first flew there more than 30 years ago and since flew 28 displays at Biggin shows over the years. This doesn’t make me clever – nothing short of a highly experimental lobotomy could ever do that – but I think it does give me a right to an opinion from the inside. So okay. My opinion is – tradition. Biggin Hill became an aerodrome in 1917, launching Bristol Fighters at night to tackle Zeppelins and Gothas attacking London.
In WWII it was host to squadrons of Spitfires, Hurricanes and many others who saved our nation. Throughout WWII it is recorded that Biggin-based fighters brought down 1 400 German aircraft, losing 453 aircrew in the process. The first Biggin Hill Air Show was in 1963, run by ex-Squadron Leader Jock Maitland, DFC. More than 40 years later Jock was still running Biggin every year, although gradually handing over to Colin Hitchins, who became CEO of the company Jock had started, Air Displays International. In 2008, at the age of 84, Jock was most deservedly awarded the MBE.
Biggin ran for 47 years – the longest run I believe of any one-location air show in the world. (Farnborough and Paris have been in place longer, but their shows are, of course, biennial). In 47 years you build up a huge hill of experience, a huge amount of expertise – and a huge, huge amount of goodwill and camaraderie. And history. And now the Biggin Hill International Air Fair has been executed. The ownership of Biggin Hill has seen chameleon-like changes over the years. A few days after the 2010 show, the present Biggin Hill Airport Ltd abruptly terminated its contract with Air Displays International, the contract for which had been due to run up to 2013.
I will not comment on the reasons and justifications put forward by Biggin Hill Airport Ltd – although I most certainly will if they wish to make something of it. They ran a one-day ‘Open House Air Day’ in September ’11 which “enhanced the fellowship of companies working at the airport and provide an opportunity to project to the public”. For this they have shot down possibly the best air show in the world at what is one of the most important historical sites in recent British history. I somehow doubt that the many ghosts at Biggin Hill would entirely approve. You might as well tear down St Paul’s and replace it with a b****y great McDonald’s joint.