Display pilots who are both old and bold are rare — and thrilling to watch
Ray Hanna was ‘the display pilot’s display pilot’ — a safe daredevil
These days — and particularly following the 2015 Shoreham tragedy — there is little chance of an airshow audience enjoying the visceral thrill of a truly low level flypast. There are good reasons for this: those with lesser skills were too often tempted to emulate the true experts, sometimes with fatal consequences. In addition, with display lines ever further from the spectators, there is little sense in flying so low that only those in the front row can see what’s going on.
It was a chance comment from airshow veteran Barry Tempest (himself no stranger to low-level aerial antics) that set this particular thought running. He made reference to the legendary Ray Hanna. If ever there was a ‘display pilot’s display pilot,’ it was Ray.
There were of course plenty who flew just as low and fast, particularly in the largely ungoverned airshows of the 1960s and 1970s. The late Neil Williams combined a test pilot’s discipline with a flair for challenging the boundaries of everything from Shuttleworth’s Edwardians to fast jets. And then there was Ormond Haydon-baillie. Search the internet for photographs of his beating-up the camera in his T-33 Shooting Star The Black Knight and you’ll see how low you can really go.
I can personally testify to being on the receiving end of a Haydon-baillie beat-up. I was among a group of teenage reggie spotters next to the threshold of RAF Greenham Common in a mid-1970s air tattoo arrival day, when we were given the full benefit of his Hawker Sea Fury at full chat, seemingly a mere handspan above our ducking heads. “Yeah, I saw you,” later came Ormond’s distinctive Canadian chuckle. “Scatterin’ like a bunch of rabbits.”
Ray Hanna could fly just as low, but his approach was subtly different. It is probably the reason why, unlike many of his era, he passed away from natural causes in December 2005 at the age of 77. Even then, just six weeks before his death he had been practicing formation aerobatics in his beloved Spitfire, MH434.
For many, that pilot and aircraft bond, which extended for 35 years, is one of the most iconic in air display history, but there was much more than that in the life of Raynham George Hanna. Born in Takapuna, New Zealand, he took his first flying lessons on the Tiger Moth before, in 1949, working his passage on a ship to England to join the Royal Air Force.
Ray got his first opportunity to indulge in authorised low flying when operating Gloster Meteors in the fighter reconnaissance role with the 2nd Tactical Air Force in Germany. He was later posted to the Overseas Ferry Squadron, providing him with the opportunity to fly a wider variety of fighters and to fulfil his spirit of adventure.
One such adventure came when returning a Vampire fighter to Britain from India, when he suffered engine failure and made his forced landing amongst a series of giant anthills close to a railway line. He waited for a passing train, which stopped for him but the Indian guard refused to let him board since he was unable to pay the fare. Hanna finally offered his watch as payment, and only then did the guard scribble out an IOU and allow him to travel.
In 1965, after instructing at the College of Air Warfare, he was selected to join the newly-formed Red Arrows display team. The following year he became the team leader — Red 1 — a post which he held for a record four years. During this time, Hanna oversaw the enlargement of the team to nine Gnat aircraft, creating the diamondnine formation which remains the iconic feature of Red Arrows displays to this day. In 1971, Ray left the RAF for a commercial flying career, interspersed with displaying MH434 on behalf of its owner, Sir Adrian Swire. At that time, there were only a handful of airworthy Spitfires in the world and Hanna’s smooth, flowing displays made it an instant airshow favourite. In 1981, he and his son Mark acquired the Spitfire outright and established the Old Flying Machine Company at Duxford, to fly a fleet of warbirds for displays and the film industry.
In addition to breathtaking film flying in Empire of the Sun, Memphis Belle and Saving Private Ryan, Ray also featured in the 1988 television series Piece of Cake, a drama about an RAF fighter squadron. It was this which prompted Barry Tempest’s memories of his time as an operations safety regulator at the CAA — an inspired change of career from poacher to gamekeeper.
“Hanna approached us about a scene in the story which involved flying a Spitfire under a bridge. The producer had already found a suitable location at the Winston Bridge in County Durham. They would require an exemption under Rule 5(1)(e), the 500-foot rule, if they were to be legal…!” Barry had originally trained as a building surveyor, so he visited the bridge armed with a long measuring tape and a plumb bob complete with some nylon string for vertical measurements. On this basis, and after some overhanging tree branches were lopped, permission was given. The filming went ahead without a hitch. Said Barry, “Ray had flown much lower than he needed to, but it made a spectacular piece of film!”
That flying — filmed thirty years ago this year — plus an equally spectacular beat-up of TV presenter Alain de Cadanet at Goodwood, remains the stuff of low-flying legend. A quick Youtube search will reveal them both; memories of the maestro in action.
If ever there was a ‘display pilot’s display pilot’, it was Ray A scene in the story involved flying a Spitfire under a bridge
Regulars | Open Cockpit STEPHEN SLATER Stephen is CEO of the Light Aircraft Association, Vice-chair of the General Aviation Awareness Council, flies a Piper Cub and spent seven years helping restore the ‘Biggles Biplane’ 1914 BE2C replica