Biggin Hill 'Festival of Flight' Report

Saturday 14th June 2014

After a four year absence Biggin Hill, one of the country's most renowned airfields, returned to the airshow circuit. This was not a return of the International Air Fair, or an event on that scale, but with the new format of the "Festival of Flight".

Scott Perry travelled to 'the bump' for UK Airshow Review.

The flying display was made up of three segments, the first two lasting an hour each with the final one lasting an hour and twenty minutes; with hour breaks scheduled between the display slots. This allowed the usual activities of contemporary Biggin Hill to continue as uninterrupted as possible. Contrasting with the private jet operations of the airfield, the history of the airfield was represented well during the flying displays.

The first section of the flying displays were dominated by a number of the civilian display teams present. In comparison with the Air Fairs that used to be hosted at the airfield the crowd line was a lot shorter, which suited the majority of the displays in this first section. The solo Lynx Mk8 from the Royal Navy Black Cat being a prime example of this, having much more presence to its display than at a show with a much larger crowd line where the pair displays are needed to fill the crowd line. The Matadors, Breitling Wingwalkers and Glider FX all performed during this opening section which left the display feeling a bit too centred on these similar type of displays all being scheduled together. However, the organisers were not totally at fault for this with a couple of the teams having to depart to display elsewhere and the Royal Navy Historic Flight aircraft that were due to display in this period pulling out.

The Battle of Britain Memorial Flight, which began life as the Historic Aircraft Flight at Biggin Hill, provided their DC-3 Dakota and a pair of Spitires for the show, in addition the flight's Lancaster departed early in the day to take part in the Queen's Birthday Flypast. The Spitfires (Mk IXe and Mk XVIe, both sporting D-Day stripes) displayed as a pair, arriving straight into their display from Northolt, flying a tight formation routine, before breaking into a series of opposition passes. This format of display from the BBMF had much more impact from their fighters, which have often been criticised for distant and sedate manor of the their display in comparison with civilian warbird displays. Perhaps this format should be looked at as the possible future for the BBMF.

Boeing B-17G 'Sally B' is an aircraft with a strong connection to Biggin Hill within its history. In March 1975 'Sally B' was first brought into the country by Ted White, who flew the Flying Fortress into Biggin Hill, before taking the aircraft up to its Duxford base. Biggin Hill was also the venue for the aircraft's public display debut, later that year at the International Air Fair. Sally B returned to Biggin at the hands of Peter Kuypers, displaying the bomber in the usual gentle style that would be expected of a large aircraft of the vintage. It was not only the return of Sally B to Biggin Hill, with the first officer on the day, Daryl Taplin having learnt to fly at the airfield in 1984.

The Battle of Britain history of Biggin Hill was represented in a display from the Hispano Buchon of the Aircraft Restoration Company in the hands of Lee Proudfoot, with the defence coming in the form of Dan Griffith in Spitfire MkIX and Clive Denney in Hurricane MkI from the Biggin Hill Heritage Hangar. The Buchon started the display, before the Hurricane was quickly 'scrambled' to meet the invader before giving way to the 'The Spirit of Kent', which recovered from a recent landing incident, performing a tail chase sequence with the Buchon.

There were two scheduled slots in the display for sections of model flying, the first of these was cancelled due to time constraints. However, the second led to a couple of rare sights, albeit on a smaller scale than some may like. The Canadian Snowbirds were represented with one of their CT-114 Tutors, a formation of Avro bombers (Lancaster and Vulcan) and one of the models on display was a model of the Sukhoi Su-26m in the Honda livery that used to be displayed be Will Curtis. Curtis, the current Managing Director of Biggin Hill Airport, was interviewed by the commentary team (Andy Pawsey and Brendan O'Brien) during the display giving a moment of airshow nostalgia during the model display.

The penultimate display item was the return of the Red Arrows to Biggin Hill, this was especially memorable given the celebrations of their fiftieth display season this year. It was on 15th May 1965 that the Red Arrows made their public debut at Biggin Hill. Following their display, a very poignant tribute took place in memory of the late Ray Hanna, one of the founder members of the Red Arrows, who flew in formation with Hanna's former Spitfire MkIX MH434, which he first displayed at Biggin Hill just five years after his first display with the Red Arrows. As is tradition at Biggin Hill, the solo Spitfire closed the display in the hands of Paul Bonhomme putting the aircraft through a series of gentle aerobatics against the setting sun, set to Jerusalem. During the display Bonhomme addressed the crowd speaking of the privilege of displaying MH434 over Biggin Hill and it was a privilege to see Hanna's old mount back over Biggin again.

However, away from the flying display it is more than fair to say that there were a few teething issues with the new event. The poor organization of the car parking was a major issue, initially cars arriving early were taken into a holding car park. When the second holding car park opened many left the first car park thinking this was the opening of the main car park, the steward was left clueless having not been informed himself the procedure for getting the cars out of the holding car park. When going into the main car park, many that had arrived early in the first holding car park were parked at the back of the main parking field while other cars were being directed to the front.

The lack of organization after the show was also in issue causing long delays leaving the show, much longer than experienced at many shows around the country. This could have possibly been helped by the scheduling of the flying programme by not having the Red Arrows, the highlight for many, displaying so late in the programme causing much of the 15,000 crowd to leave en masse rather than more staggered. The catering was also seen as an issue at the show, with not enough food outlets being on the airfield, with reports of having to queue for around forty minutes.

Overall, the flying display was good, not to the standards of the old Air Fairs, but that was not expected from the inaugural Festival of Flight. With the Red Arrows providing the sole jet display for the day the programme could have done with an extra jet or two to add a bit of variety to the display, a Hunter or Jet Provost display for example would have added something slightly different into the flying programme. However, away from the flying there were certainly issues such as the parking and catering that need to be addressed if the event returns in the future.