Biggin Hill 'Festival of Flight'
Saturday 17th - Sunday 18th August 2019
Since its inception in 2014, the Biggin Hill Festival of Flight has established an identity of its own, no longer merely the event that fills the gap left by the legendary International Air Fairs. The show is packed with variety, with a wide array of aircraft booked for the event each year. The airfield's history is always proudly represented (as well as its role as one of the current warbird hubs in the UK), mixed in with a number of aerobatic acts and display teams from the UK and the occasional international visitor.
returned to London Biggin Hill Airport and reports on the Sunday of the Festival of Flight for UK Airshow Review.
One of the main talking points of Augusts airshows has been how various display organisers have dealt with the absence of the Red Arrows during their tour of North America. In Biggin Hills case it is with display teams. Lots of display teams. Ten of them in fact. Ranging from international visitors like the Breitling Jet Team and Royal Jordanian Falcons; barnstorming acts such as the Tiger Club's Turbulent Team and the Aerosuperbatics Wingwalkers; to more historically orientated acts, such as the new Ultimate Fighters Display Team and the Tiger 9 team. The Festival of Flight does seem to go in cycles with a strong inclination towards a particular type of display each year, whether warbird heavy such as in 2015 for the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Britain, 2017's great contribution of foreign air arms to celebrate the airfield's centenary…this year it is the turn of the display teams to take centre stage.
On paper, the line-up appeared rather weak to the eye before the show. Many of the lighter aerobatic items would have been dismissed as 'filler' acts at other shows, but in reality, it worked well. There wasn't a point in the show where one became disengaged with what was going on. Sure, it was a little repetitive, especially having the two Extra 4-ship teams on the billing, one of those being sacrificed for a classic jet or even some of the exquisite Biggin based Shipping and Airlines fleet for example would have added some more variety. But, all the other teams had something different to offer, and what it did offer was great spectacle. More than one aircraft always filling the sky at a time. Often with aircraft taxiing out underneath for the next display too. Indeed, this was one of the highlights of this year's show, with the display aircraft using the taxiway that cuts through the centre of the crowdline in order to get to the runway. Thus, offering great views of the aircraft close up on the ground and increasing the range of activity at a single moment. Whilst the new arrangement also provided a humorous moment when one of the CAP 232 pair was taxiing past during the Turbulent Team's display and became in danger of the flour bombing runs of the Turbulent's barnstorming japes.
Many of the acts performing at Biggin Hill would be familiar to those regularly attending airshows in the UK. The CAP 232 pair offered something a little different though. In the familiar livery of the Global Stars team, Tom Cassels and Michael Pickin performed a delightful routine with many innovative takes on familiar manoeuvres, such as the mirror pass being performed at angles to create a V as they flew along the a-axis. Little and subtle changes like this were highly effective and presented a fresh and engaging routine. Another act adorning the Global Stars livery was the Little and Large display of Chris Burkett and Mike Williams. It doesn't seem to matter how many times the display is seen, the wonderment of the model and full size Extra 300s in combination is thrilling to watch. The duo looked stunning pulling up and performing their synchronised aerobatic routine against the blue sky that emerged for the start of the flying display from the morning's rain.
The Royal Jordanian Falcons' appearance at the Shuttleworth Collection's Military Airshow was lauded earlier in the season, the team certainly benefit from a shorter display line than the one at the Royal International Air Tattoo, which, they are often judged on. Once again at a smaller venue, they were one of the highlights of the day with a polished routine and some very impressive close formation work. A contrastingly new team for the 2019 season are the Baders Bus Company, comprised of pilots with disabilities, the team made its debut at the Duxford Air Festival in May and has since gone from strength to strength, presenting an impressive and professionally flown formation routine. The team's Piper PA-28 mounts may never be the most exciting display aircraft, but the standard of flying cannot be faulted from this team in its infancy.
In the build up to the show there was great anticipation about a possible appearance in the flying display by the Biggin Hill Heritage Hangar's resident Messerschmitt Bf109 'White 14'. The 109's presence in the hangar has been public knowledge for a couple of years now and the aircraft's first airshow appearance eagerly anticipated. It was announced in one of the show's Facebook live Q&A sessions in the build up to the event - a brilliant demonstration of engagement between airshow organisers and public - that the aircraft would be coming out of the hangar during the show even if it was not flying. However, the aircraft disappointingly remained firmly in the hangar and away from public view. Hopefully it may finally be seen at the Festival of Flight in 2020 for the Battle of Britain 80th anniversary celebrations.
Despite the absence of the Bf109 from the flying display, there were a range of warbirds present within the line-up, with the Ultimate Fighters team making their Biggin Hill debut in their quartet of Thunderbolt, Mustang, Spitfire and Buchon. The team making a great impression on the crowd with a mix of four ship formations, Spitfire and Buchon dogfights and Mustang and Thunderbolt formation work, keeping the display fresh and varied throughout the routine. The BHHH's contribution to their home show came in the form of the show's finale. The Hangar's Hurricane MkX leading a pair of Spitfires, a XVI and IX, in for a series of formation and tail chase passes, before the Spitfire IX - in the hands of Dan Griffiths - ran in for the traditional finale to airshows at Biggin Hill, a Spitfire solo, set to Jerusalem.
It feels that there could have been more made of this segment. The Spitfire solo is a wonderful and traditional end to the show and shouldn't change. However it feels like the Heritage Hangar's assets could have been used much more effectively. Flying Legends has its Balbo, Yeovilton has its Commando Assault, when Biggin Hill stages large Second World War set pieces, they are brilliant, truly brilliant. Why not make these an annual feature? Make this THE place to see a large second world war set piece. They have the warbirds needed there, add in one or two visitors and some pyrotechnics; it could be outstanding and a highlight of the annual airshow year. This year's show occurred on the anniversary of the Longest Day, whilst the show had many high points I probably lacked a certain star item this year and that could have been it.
One of the advantages of the show's move to the August slot since 2017 has been the coinciding with Eastbourne's annual airshow, which saw increased movements through the day with aircraft departing and arriving from displays there as well as their own routines at Biggin Hill. This also brought a few gaps into the programme and gave less flexibility in the day as the show had to wait for the slot time for take offs or recoveries from Eastbourne, however, these minor delays were worth the sacrifice for the extra activity. The RAF's Typhoon FGR4 a prime example of this, providing a rare opportunity to see the Typhoon take off from the airfield where it is displaying. The Typhoon display itself was a real highlight of the show, its impact perhaps strengthened by the displays that surrounded it, with the power of the Typhoon really standing out among the other performers. The RAF's Tucano T1 was also present at the show, as it ends its time in RAF service. The Tucano displaying with freshly adorned markings of squadron badges of each of those who have operated the trainer in RAF service; along with the dates 1919 and 2019 and the Royal Air Force Benevolent Fund's logo on the underside of the aircraft to mark their centenary.
Overall, the experience of the show was great, no problems getting into or out of the showground, which has been an issue at the airfield before, and therefore a very pleasant sight. Each of the individual displays were highly enjoyable. However, did it live up to the standard of previous Festival of Flights? Probably not. However not by much, add it an extra fast jet or a warbird set piece, and it would be up there. Visitor numbers appeared down on previous years from a visual inspection of the showground, with the crowd line not really filling up until just before the commencement of flying, and less cars in the car park than before. Perhaps, a trick of the eye, but it certainly appeared so. Much of that can probably be attributed to the lack of the Red Arrows, which seems to have hit other shows as well in terms of the attendance on the ground. However, as already mentioned, the additional use of a large set piece or other Biggin based assets could have been used to further draw the crowd and gain a real wow factor to the show. Whilst some may not have attended due to a perceived 'weaker' line up than in some years, the show was certainly greater than the sum of its parts and a highly enjoyable affair.