Open Cock­pit

Dis­play pi­lots who are both old and bold are rare — and thrilling to watch

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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

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