Written and photographed by Tom Mercer | 25th September 2017
London Biggin Hill Airport may be a calm general aviation airport today but during the Second World War RAF Biggin Hill was one of the most important fighter bases in South East England. The airfield played a crucial role in the RAF’s plan for protecting our shores during the Battle of Britain. Numerous Squadrons of Spitfires and Hurricanes were based at RAF Biggin Hill throughout the war and it is thought that these air assets were responsible for well over 1000 downed enemy aircraft.
2017 sees Biggin Hill celebrate its centenary and what better way to do that than with a special commemorative airshow. The airfield is no stranger to airshows, having been home to the famous Biggin Hill International Air Fair events from the early 1960s, all the way up until the abrupt cancellation of the event in 2010. Airshows returned to Biggin Hill in 2016 with the new-look Festival of Flight but it didn’t quite capture the ‘international’ element of old. That was until this year.
The organisers of the Festival of Flight managed to pull out all the stops this year and book acts not only from the UK but also from two foreign nations; Belgium and the Czech Republic.
The RAF was represented well by the Red Arrows, Typhoon, Chinook, BBMF Spitfire, Tucano and Hawk T2. The Red Arrows were around all weekend, as was the Typhoon, albeit only displaying in the air at Biggin Hill on the Sunday. Despite that, the Typhoon had a number of commitments throughout the Saturday which meant that we got to see it take off and land during the day.
The Battle of Britain Memorial Flight were only able to supply their Griffon-powered Spitfire for the display due to the (at the time) ongoing investigations with the Merlin-powered aircraft. It was great to see that even with the troubles the Flight were facing, they were still able to get an aircraft in the air for the weekend.
The Hawk T2 from RAF Valley and two Tucanos from RAF Linton-on-Ouse were on static display, joining a rather beautiful de Havilland Dragonfly, Westland Wessex, Bronco and slightly strange-looking Dornier Do-28A-1. The Tucano will be going out of service shortly so it was a treat to see both a normal scheme and the 72 Squadron special scheme together at the same time.
The flying display was bolstered by some fantastic formation flying from the Breitling Wingwalkers, Trig Aerobatic Team and a unique ‘little and large’ display, to name just a few.
The Wingwalkers have become a slightly rare sight in the UK in recent seasons as they’ve chosen to display abroad more often than not, so it was great to see them doing their thing and covering the airfield in their ‘baby oil’ smoke.
The Trig Aerobatic team joined the Stearmans on the bi-plane front and demonstrated once again just why they’re considered by many to be one of the best civilian pairs displays on the UK circuit. Their tight formations and perfectly timed manoeuvres make for an entertaining routine.
While it might be a slightly strange concept, the ‘little and large’ display was actually a very welcome addition to the programme. This act has been around for a couple of years but this was the first time we’d got to see it in person. The display was flown by an Extra 330 and a R/C scale model of the 330, painted in exactly the same scheme. Considering one of these aircraft was being flown from the ground, the timing and positioning of this routine has to be applauded. You’ve never seen spacial awareness quite like it!
Having the Festival of Flight on the same weekend as the airshow at Eastbourne meant that the two events were able to share acts to a certain extent. This worked to Biggin Hill’s advantage and helped secure the Belgian Air Component F-16 display. The display aircraft sadly had some issues early on the Friday morning and departed back to base to see if the issues could be fixed. The team then returned late in the day on Friday with a standard scheme aircraft in place of the display scheme; this actually worked out well as it is a much rarer sight in the UK than the display jet.
Forget all of that though because the stars of the show, without a doubt, were the displays from the Czech Air Force. Not only did we get a solo display from the Hind and the Gripen, we also got a combat Search and Rescue (SAR) demonstration from the Hip and Hind.
The Hind and Gripen were superb but the combat SAR demo was the real gem here. Why? Well this was the first time ever that an in-service Hip had displayed in the UK. Despite the huge number of Hips in service with Forces around the world, the UK has only ever seen manufacturer-demonstrated displays at airshows, so not only was it a major coup for Biggin Hill to get anything from the Czech Air Force, to get the Hip and Hind display was just next level stuff!
With nearly all the excitement done with, it was left to the home team to close the 2017 show and boy did they do it in style. A trio of Biggin-based warbirds took to the sky and flew some stunning formation flypasts before one of the Spitfires broke away and began to wind up into its own solo routine.
The next ten minutes were pure heaven as the Spitfire was put through its paces in what can only be described as one of the most breathtaking warbird displays we’ve ever witnessed. The display was flown with so much grace and precision that it felt like it went on forever. The pilot appeared to be having the time of his life and as the sun started to set, it seemed like the perfect way to celebrate 100 years of Biggin Hill.
The Next 100 Years
Biggin Hill is a venue that just oozes history and it’s not too difficult to imagine the organised chaos that would have unfolded as countless fighters took to the air in the 1940s. While the airfield today is just a shadow of its former self, elements of the original RAF installation still exist and access to this is about to be improved with the construction of the new Memorial Museum.
The 2017 Festival of Flight was a massive success and for the first time a small arrivals day was held on the Friday. Yes it was a fairly quiet day but it gave us the chance to shoot some of arriving aircraft that weren’t flying over the weekend. The organisers also threw in a commemorative baseball cap which was a very pleasant surprise.
What was quite nice about the event was that it somehow managed to maintain the atmosphere of a smaller show, something along the lines of Abingdon, while attracting some phenomenal international participation.
The big question though is what exactly will next year’s Festival of Flight look like? Will we see further international participation to the same extent we did this year? Perhaps, especially if it’s held over the same weekend as Eastbourne again.
One thing is for sure, we can’t wait to go back for more!