Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-split clouds, — and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of — wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there,
I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air… .
Up, up the long, delirious burning blue
I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace
Where never lark, or ever eagle flew —
And, while with silent, lifting mind I’ve trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.
John Gillespie Magee, Jr
Bertie: Last week I told you that Bobby’s favourite month was September. Nowadays that love is exemplified by the season and the love of the natural world. The countryside, the sea, the flora and the fauna. Well before that passion developed another had already taken root. Well before my time this is Bobby’s story.
Bobby: I had a favourite uncle. George. Hardly ever saw him, but he bought me a Gunn and Moore cricket bat. Posh one. Still got it. He told me he played for the MCC. It was only later that I discovered it was Merrow Cricket Club rather than its illustrious namesake. He was a policeman and parked anywhere he liked by waving his police pass. Despite his rare appearances I loved him because, in my family, he was different. Loved life and never showed his disappointment that his already tall 10 year old nephew showed no interest in becoming a policeman. In writing this I realise that he was the closest of my small family that I am now closest to in character.
Uncle George took me to the 1954 Farnborough Airshow and sparked off a passion that is just as prevalent today. My dad followed suit a year later by taking me to Biggin Hill RAF airshow. I was totally in awe of what I experienced. So wonderful because, in those days, they were the only two airshows available. Both in September, just two weeks apart. When other children viewed this month as the end… of the summer holidays, fun, freedom and the beginning of school, autumn, winter, I just couldn’t wait for the airshows.
So, to put you in the mood and me 62 years back, please play this … all of it. And dream of far off
September days when the sun always shone……
I still have those first two programmes. A bit battered but treasured possessions.
They were very different back then. Farnborough was every year as opposed to two yearly now. It was cheap to get in. It was a time when the British aero industry ruled, or thought it ruled, the world. All those famous manufacturers. Hawker, Supermarine, Avro, Handley Page, Vickers, Fairey, English Electric, Gloster, Blackburn, Bristol, De Havilland, Folland, Hunting Percival, Saunders Roe, Short, Westland. All turning out new and innovative aircraft at a bewildering rate. The RAF had a massive influence. With big displays, formation teams. Incredible noise that made the ground shake. The ground is shaking here from the memory of it. None more so than the diminutive Saunders Roe SR51 that had ROCKET assisted take off and a diamond flame roaring out of the back.
It was a time of supreme optimism that soon started to evaporate.
A time when test pilots were national heros.
Neville Duke. War hero. Hawkers. Broke the world speed record in the red Hunter off the beach at Worthing. That plane is still at Tangmere museum.
Mike Lithgow. War hero. Supermarine. Broke the world speed record in a Swift over the Libyan desert.
Peter Twiss. War hero. Fairey. Broke the world speed record in the Fairey Delta built solely for testing speed and breaking records.
John Cunningham. War hero. De Havilland. famous for the Comet airliner.
Roland Beaumont. War hero. English Electric Lightning.
There was gay abandon. Planes flew very low, very fast and pushed the limits. Times had changed following the tragic crash in 1952 when John Derry, another war hero, flew his DH 110 to the limit and the plane broke up and fell in pieces into the crowd. A terrible disaster but stiff upper lip Neville Duke still took off in his Hunter to do his show. Can you imagine that nowadays?
False optimism was exemplified by the giant Saunders Roe Princess flying boat which flew over the show. Just…. Designed when flying boats had passed their time. It had six engines that were never powerful enough.
And so the prototypes were cocooned by Southampton water until such engines were developed. And faded away. I remember holidays to the Isle of Wight passing these cocooned hulks at Calshot Spit in Southampton water. That small firm was later immortalised for developing the first hovercraft. Shown at Farnborough as the lowest flying object ever!
Biggin Hill was quite different. It was the Battle of Britain Airshow. One of a number of famous wartime bases that opened on the same day. Many of the exhibiting aircraft flying from one to the other. Celebrating the Battle of Britain with a heavy emphasis on glorifying the Spitfire and Hurricane.
It was free and attracted enormous crowds. Many on the long line of London Country special buses laid on from Bromley to the airbase. It was rough and ready. Not really commercial and incredible primitive toilets that for men consisted of sacking screening, a drain pipe and a big hole….. The flying had fly bys, but also mock attacks. Lots of wartime vintage aircraft. It also had the Americans. None more so than the Thunderbirds that in typical US style electrified the crowd with their noise and razzmatazz.
Both Airshows incredibly, from memory, had those aces breaking the sound barrier. Can you imagine it! All those busted windows and greenhouses. But this was Rule Britannia. We ruled the world. Our aircraft were the best, the fastest and destined to be sold to every nation on earth…….
In reality, they were crazy days that lifted a tired grey nation out of its post war slumber and gave it hope. Excitement. Optimism.
Nowadays I still love Airshows. The catering is a world different, the toilets a massive improvement. There are far more Airshows nowadays. We have the ubiquitous Red Arrows to wave our union jacks at. And feel proud.
We need big wallets now. But never again will we experience the shattering climax of the Vulcan taking off from Biggin Hill’s short runway at the limit and going straight up with the ground shaking.
I play this most days from my desktop!
If you can’t manage 10 minutes of excitement go forward to 8 minutes 41 seconds and at least experience the final fly past with the Red Arrows, the emotional words of Doctor Seuss about a bomber and an Airshow memory and as a bonus here is the forbidden barrel roll of a Vulcan in 1955. I was there…
This piece is intentionally almost entirely from memory and not tarted up in any way apart from checking accuracy. This is how I remember how much I loved September.
So here’s a final March to summon up the mood….. The Dambusters. God save the Queen.
Phew…. If I was offered a time machine anytime, anywhere, it would be September 1954.
Lighting a Candle for Diddley.
Just over a year ago I witnessed the Shoreham Airshow disaster. Just a few hundred yards away. Later that day I saw Diddley for the last time. Her funeral was in September. My son gave me this painting. It commemorates the wooden bridge of flowers and the eleven souls who lost their lives that day while people like me settled down on the river bank to enjoy yet another airshow. I doubt that I will ever quite view airshows the same way again. It’s fitting that I am lighting the candle at Laurel Cottage in their memory.