Biggin Hill is an historic airfield which requires no introduction for most aviation enthusiasts having formerly been RAF Biggin Hill. During the airfield’s time in RAF service, based squadrons took a lead role in the air defence of London when it was used by the Royal Flying Corps in the First World War and famously by RAF fighter command squadrons during the Battle of Britain and throughout the Second World War. It is therefore fitting that the airfield retains an active presence of historic fighter aircraft courtesy of the Biggin Hill Heritage Hangar, including examples of celebrated Battle of Britain fighters the Hawker Hurricane and Supermarine Spitfire.
The Biggin Hill Heritage Hangar (BHHH) is home to a collection of seven Spitfires (including those under restoration), an airworthy Hurricane MK I, the oldest flying North American Harvard and an ex-USAAC Piper Grasshopper (Cub). As part of a wider programme of public engagement and fund raising which includes hangar tours and opportunities to sit in a Spitfire, BHHH has in the last couple of years opened its doors in November for a nightshoot for supporters and enthusiasts wishing to photograph the aircraft.
After a warm welcome to the hangar by the host Paul Campbell and being directed to the free (and continuously flowing) hot tea, the guests were able to take a look around the restoration and maintenance area towards the back of the hangar. There were three complete Spitfire airframes in the hangar – a MkXVI (RW382) the former gate guard at RAF Uxbridge which was recently restored after a tragic accident in the United States, a MkIa (X4650) which was restored in the hangar in 2012 and a MkXIV (TE184) which is currently in 312 (Czech) Squadron markings. There were also three spitfire fuselages, MkIX MK912, MkIX LZ842 and MkIXe TE517, which are somewhat further away from flight at present.
Outside the hangar ready for the nightshoot were the stars of the evening – Spitfire MkIX TA805 ‘Spirit of Kent’, Hurricane MkI AE977, Harvard II FE788 and Piper Grasshopper (Cub) 43-29854. The Piper Grasshopper was parked next to a WWII style US Army Jeep which made for a great photo as the Cub wears a great period USAAC scheme depicting an aircraft from the 381st Bomb Group based at Ridgewell, Essex. At first the aircraft were arranged around the apron with the Spitfire taking pride of place in the centre. Just after sunset the sky indulged photographers by turning a deep indigo blue, which was very much welcomed by all present.
Once the assembled crowd had built up to approximately fifty spectators and photographers, the ground runs were commenced. The Grasshopper was the first aircraft to start up and gave a short run in the dusk light. After this the Spitfire was ran for what seemed like the maximum possible time before engine heating problems could be expected! This Spitfire is named ‘Spirit of Kent’ in memory of No.131 (County of Kent) Fighter Squadron which flew a squadron of Spitfires purchased with donations sent in by the people of Kent. During this run the navigation lights were turned on and the outside hangar lights were turned off briefly to vary the lighting effect and increase the chances of catching the desirable, but sometimes illusive exhaust flame. When the beautiful sound of the Roll Royce Merlin finally ceased there was a spontaneous round of applause from the crowd.
The Spitfire was moved away to the side of the apron and the Harvard was manoeuvred into position for its run. The WWII vintage advanced trainer is a veteran of the Royal Canadian Air Force and it treated us to a long run of its Wasp radial engine, which in common with most radials sounded fantastic. The last aircraft of the evening to be run was the immaculate Hurricane MK I. The Hurricane’s dark green and tan day fighter camouflage looked great under the lights and it seemed as if the Merlin engine was ran to within an inch of its life! This Hurricane is also a Canadian built example, but was converted to a Sea Hurricane and operated by the Royal Navy during the war. When the engine was finally shut down there was another round of applause which reflected the excitement that can be produced by enthusiasts being in close proximity to these iconic machines while they are running.
The evening ended with the Hurricane being moved around by the hangar staff who were very open to taking feedback from the visitors, one of whom suggested placing the Hurricane nose to nose with the Spitfire which was appreciated by everybody. The staff had also asked the crowd where to place some of the aircraft for the ground runs earlier in the night and this illustrates the willingness of the hangar staff to make the night as perfect as possible for everyone.
At £50 per person this event is not cheap in comparison to other aviation nightshoots but the appeal of hearing, seeing and photographing these incredible machines and the knowledge that the money is being used to restore and maintain these important pieces of our military and engineering heritage makes this price seem very reasonable indeed. Due to the successful efforts at engaging with the public and building a loyal fan-base, the event is attended by friends and supporters of the hangar as well as aviation photographers who are fans of nightshoots. The atmosphere at the shoot is therefore very relaxed and friendly, but do be aware that some less experienced photographers are present who may do things that are not always welcomed at other nightshoots, such as using on-camera flash. The nightshoot has become a yearly event so look out for it in November 2015 as, if you attend, you won’t be disappointed.