REPORT: Biggin Hill Festival of Flight 2017

In 1917, Biggin Hill airfield was opened by the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) – soon becoming home to 141 Squadron’s Bristol F.2 Fighters, which were responsible for defending nearby London against attacks from Zeppelins and Gothas. A hundred years later, the airfield is now a burgeoning hub for commercial and private aviation. Biggin Hill is perhaps best known for its International Air Fairs, which first commenced in 1963. The event soon grew with popularity, quickly becoming one of the largest civilian-organised airshows in Europe. Sadly, the last Air Fair took place in 2010; however, since 2014 the aerodrome has held a smaller-scaled airshow entitled the Festival of Flight.

Whilst last year’s event was a more general celebration of aviation, the 2017 Festival of Flight celebrated the centenary of Biggin Hill Airport, therefore it was unsurprising to see the flying display focusing heavily on this anniversary. Arriving onto the showground early on the Sunday morning gave me time to photograph various aircraft movements including the departure of a rare Dornier Do28 – an aircraft that is not often seen in the UK. This year’s static park mostly consisted of Biggin Hill-based aircraft from the Heritage Hangar as well as various examples from the Shipping and Airlines’ Historic Aircraft collection.

Biggin Hill was instrumental during the Battle of Britain, with both Spitfires and Hurricanes from various squadrons operating out of Biggin Hill, destroying over 1,400 enemy aircraft in total. Sunday’s flying programme was opened in appropriate fashion by the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight’s Supermarine Spitfire Mk.PRXIX PS915. Two days prior to the start of the event, the BBMF announced that they would be suspending all operations with their Merlin-powered aircraft as a safety precaution, including the Lancaster and Hurricane which had also been scheduled to appear. The Flight later released a statement which revealed that an issue with a pinion gear in one of the Merlin engines was the cause of the problem, and as a precaution each pinion was subsequently being inspected. Fortunately, PS915 is powered by a Griffon engine and continued to operate during the busy Biggin Hill weekend.

Despite clashing with various other events including Herne Bay and Eastbourne, the event organisers were still able to secure the RAF Red Arrows, who gave an energetic performance despite being limited to a flat display due to airspace restrictions. For Squadron Leader Mike Ling, it was an emotional farewell to Biggin Hill having grown up close to the airfield, where he was inspired to join the Royal Air Force after attending an Air Fair at a young age. The Royal Air Force also contributed to the static display with a pair of Shorts Tucano T.1s from 72 Squadron, in addition to a BAE Systems Hawk T.2 from RAF Valley. Flt. Lt. Ryan Lawton gave a rather distant and underwhelming dispaly in the RAF Typhoon FGR4, which was overshadowed by the CzAF JAS-39C Gripen and BAF F-16AM Fighting Falcon. The Royal Air Force’s Boeing Chinook HC.4, sadly an increasingly rare sight on the UK airshow scene these days due to operational commitments, also participated in Saturday’s flying programme.

In July 2016, one of the last surviving Czech pilots to have served in the Royal Air Force during World War Two took to the skies in Biggin Hill Heritage Hangar’s Supermarine Spitfire T.9 MJ627. General Emil Bocek, who once flew with the 310th Fighter Squadron, took to the controls of the Spitfire for the first time in 70 years. In return for this kind gesture, the Czech Air Force confirmed that they would be contributing to this year’s Festival of Flight flying display with the aforementioned Saab JAS-39C Gripen and a very appearance from the Mil Mi-171Sh Hip and Mi-24V Hind. Undoubtedly a major coup for the organisers, the two helicopters provided a Combat Search and Rescue (CSAR) demonstration, with the Hind providing close air support whilst the Hip recovered a downed airman. Although many of us will recall a more recent appearance of a static example from the Croatian Air Force at RIAT 2016, a military example of the Hip had never previously been seen in a UK flying display. Resplendent in its ‘Alien Tiger’ scheme, the Hind also provided a solo display later in the day, replacing the slot of the absent Spitfire Mk. IX from the Royal Netherlands Air Force Historical Flight.

Perhaps one of the most bizarre routines on the UK airshow scene, G-Force Aerobatics provide an unusual but unique spectacle with their ‘Little and Large Extra Duo’. The pair comprises Mike Williams’ 40% scale radio-controlled model Extra 300S and Chris Burkett’s full-scale Extra 300S, both of which now sport the Global Stars scheme. The pair impressed the spectators with their dynamic display – presenting a change of tempo to the afternoon’s flying programme. The Breitling Wingwalkers and TRIG Team also provided further two-ship formation aerobatics.

Making their only UK appearance of 2017 at this year’s Festival of Flight, were the eight colourfully schemed Dassault/Dornier Alpha Jet Es of the Patrouille de France. Unfortunately, the team were only able to participate on the second day, due to their attendance at Perros-Guirec in Northern France on the Saturday. For many, the highlight of the morning was the surprise appearance from a rare French Air Force Lockheed C-130H Hercules, which arrived in support of the Patrouille de France.

The Belgian Air Force also contributed to the flying display with their Lockheed Martin F-16AM Fighting Falcon from the 10th Tactical Wing, based at Kleine Brogel Air Base. Cdt. Tom ‘Gizmo’ de Moortel gave a tight and agile routine, before departing off to display at Eastbourne later in the afternoon. Another Belgian-based participant came in the unique shape of Tony de Bruyn’s North American OV-10B Bronco. The Bronco was conceived in the 1960s as a dual-turboprop light attack and observation aircraft for counter insurgency (COIN) combat; the OV-10B variant was later produced for the Luftwaffe as a target tug, with 18 examples being delivered in total. The Bronco Demo Team are based at Kortrijk-Wevelgem – situated just twelve miles east of Ypres, therefore ‘99+13’ is rather appropriately adorned in a new poppy livery for 2017, with the words ‘Lest We Forget’ written across the aircraft’s topside.

In March 1975, businessman Ted White successfully undertook the onerous task of bringing Boeing B-17G Flying Fortress F-BGSR over to the UK with the purpose of showcasing her at the Biggin Hill International Air Fair. The aircraft, now nicknamed ‘Sally B’ after Ted’s lifelong companion Elly Sallingboe, remained in the UK for various unforeseen reasons. Ted was tragically killed on June 22nd 1982, when his T-6 Harvard ‘G-ELLY’ crashed during an air rally in Malta. In memory of Ted, Sally B’s starboard inner engine cowling has worn the same black and yellow markings as G-ELLY ever since. Those who were in attendance on the Saturday were treated to the unusual sight of Sally B arriving in formation with Tony de Bruyn’s Bronco.

Performing on the Sunday in rather benign weather conditions in comparison to Saturday, the Great War Display Team entertained the crowd with their dogfighting antics. The team were forced to operate out of nearby Redhill airfield, due to the requirement for a grass runway. A trio of warbirds from the Biggin Hill Heritage Hangar comprised of Spitfire XI TA805, Spitfire T.9 MJ627 and Hurricane X AE997 closed the show in traditional Festival of Flight fashion. Overall, the 2017 edition of the Biggin Hill Festival of Flight was an enjoyable affair, with the organisers securing a varied and interesting flying programme which included some unique rarities. Although the Festival of Flight does not quite live up to the flavour of the sorely missed Air Fairs, the event does retain the same relaxed atmosphere.

James Connolly is a student and aviation enthusiast whose future ambitions lie in journalism. He is based in the UK and attends several airshows each year.