View Full Version : The Road to Biggin Hill

8th Mar 2010, 09:25
Currently reading 'The Road to Biggin Hill' The Life of Wing Commander Johnny Checketts, :) book. Will upload a pic of Johhny shortly (ref profile).
Two aviators I've met furthered my passion - Mark and Ray Hanna. In Jan 99 at the Wairarapa airshow I saw Mark fly for the first and sadly last time, he also signed my program.
This is to say hi - I'm a new member;)

8th Mar 2010, 19:06
Welcome to PPrune. You'll find a lot of interesting stuff, especially on this forum. Don't take everything at face value, cretainly not on the Rumouirs abd News forum, but here it's generally good honest information.

9th Mar 2010, 07:04
Hey appreciate that :) nice to see there's good info here and some humour to match! All ...:ok:

Double Zero
9th Mar 2010, 10:33
Hello Tropicalbirdy,

Herod is right on the ball when he says this is probably the best section of Pprune, both for interest and accuracy ( apart from whatever I come out with ).

It's a great shame that your interest in flying was countered by such a sad occasion; in his book ' A View From The Hover 'and magazine articles, in my and a lot of people's view the greatest Test Pilot of all time, John Farley - who I was lucky enough to work with / for, states that as he ( John ) prepared to fly a Spitfire for the 1st time, Mark Hanna gave him the best briefing he'd ever experienced in his life.

Bearing in mind John's career, including testing 42 or so different highly experimental types at Bedford alone before going on to be mainly responsible for developing the Harrier involving very dangerous flying, higher praise is hard to think of.

I'm not allowed to mention other websites, but if you are at all interested in this, and were to put ' Harrier/history ' into a search engine followed by ' Harrier Testing ', a certain photographer gives his experiences of the Dunsfold days - edited to say, I am not blowing my own trumpet ( hope that phrase works in N.Z, ! ) but to illustrate how lucky I was to work in those times with such people - not just pilots but virtually everyone on the airfield, either geniuses ( genii ? ) or true ' characters ' or both.

I doubt I am the only one here who wishes he or she had a time machine, to go back and really appreciate the times we each experienced; or a touch further back, when one could buy an airworthy Spitfire for buttons !

Speaking of which, taking ' The Road to Biggin Hill ' literally ( haven't read the book, thanks for the tip ) I live about an hours drive from Biggin Hill, and used to pass it regularly as I had a girlfriend on the outskirts of London.

I had read ' Test Pilot ' by Neville Duke - also recommended, the nearest I came to meeting him was about 50' away; at 1,000' or so photographing him air-air as he demonstrated the Trago Mills light aircraft.

In his book he mentions his time at Biggin Hill, when after a hard days' flying & fighting the pilots would travel to the nearby village of Westerham, to visit a pub to let off steam ( naturally I cannot remember the name of the pub, but could find it if I visit the attic, I have rather a lot of aviation books ! ).

I determined that I would visit this pub, purely for research purposes you understand, to see if there was any memorabillia.

There is, I'm pleased to say, a large board signed by N.D. and a lot of other pilots, some to become famous, which is illuminated and protected under glass.

The place could make a better effort of explaining it's history and what the board is all about, as it is only aviation enthusiasts realise it's significance.

Incidentally, N.Z. Pilots in general are held in high esteem over here, despite what one would think to be small numbers; their part in the Battle of Britain - like the Poles,Americans, I think Canadian, & Fleet Air Arm ( well the RAF thinks they're foreign ! ) too.

At my sailing club there's a retired N.Z. ( dare I say Kiwi ? ) airliner pilot of vast experience, from hairy flights in piston engine jobs including a transit flight in a Constellation with engines failing all around, to modern 737-400's; his son is now a pilot for Monarch, and when I flew with him when just a PPL in a PA-28, he was so thorough in his checks my father ( lifelong aircraft engineer from Seafire & Hellcat to Harrier II ) commented that it was more like giving the aircraft a ' minor ' check, which was not a critiscm !

My late uncle, though not an aviation type, lived his entire adult life in Auckland, he like my dad was on Escort Carriers in WWII, at the end of which uncle George's ship called in at Auckland, George thought it looked nice so stayed; I've never really been sure how much paperwork was involved...

I'd think that everyone, having got through WWII, was just relieved and couldn't give a hoot; anyway, he ended up a citizen one way or another.

So, Tropicalbird, it's a small world...welcome.

DZ - BTW I chose my callsign after Dick Dastardly & Muttley's car in ' Wacky Races ', no 007 pretensions, though of course Bond is not quite as good looking as me...

11th Mar 2010, 09:49
Hi Double Zero very much enjoyed your reply and am sure you'd rival any 007! I'd be keen to see Wacky Races as I enjoy those characters.

What wonderful memorabilia at the pub close to Biggin Hill how marvellous to have something to remember all the pilots, I'm guessing the beer's good too:ok:

My Aviation education expanded slightly with a Flying Scholarship Competition which included 3 trial flights. At the presentation I was awarded 3rd place in a field of 60 contestants and ponder if it was my enthusiasm, above aptitude that gained me some recognition.

It would be good to read the book you mention here I'll see if I can source if from a local library. I have the 'A Spitfire's Story' dvd and some other dvd's with the Hanna's flying.

In my teen years I enjoyed watching the Skyhawkes perform manoeuvres from Ohakea Airbase and felt in '7th heaven' my Aviation education was also furthered via flatting with two pilots, one now flys Airbuses Internationally. I had the chance to go night flying doing the 'mail drop off's' with him but declined the offer due to hearing one port of call was in a tin shed waiting while freezing your buns off before flying home!

I had composed a more entire reply however this somehow got 'lost'

11th Mar 2010, 12:09
The pub near Westerham is The White Hart at Brasted. I doubt it's quite the pub that Bader et al would remember as I think it's a now owned by a pub management company which tends to stifle the character, but perfectly adequate for beer and food when I visited several years ago. The signed blackout board is a replica, the original was donated to a museum some years ago - RAF at Hendon?

Worth doing a search for "Hanna" on PPRuNe as Ray certainly is remembered with great fondness on this site and I expect Mark is as well; I wasn't a member when he died and PPRuNe was still very much in its infancy.

Copy of "The Road to Biggin Hill" has just arrived on my desk. There is a recommendation for good aviation literature almost every other week on these pages - can get expensive!

Double Zero
11th Mar 2010, 18:17

Thanks for your reply.

Try entering ' low Spitfire ' or similar on youtube -Ray Hanna doing his bit, but please be warned there are some naughty words from his victim; most people have the speakers turned UP not down !

Will reply more fully when I get a moment,

Thanks also to Treadigraph, I didn't want to say it but yes the pub at Westerham has indeed been taken over by a chain, who are clueless as to what they've got.

Better in my biased opinion to concentrate on Dunsfold, which is largely as it was built by the Canadians in 1942 ( the nearby village, Cranleigh, has Maple trees lining the high street to this day ) - now used by the TV programme ' Top Gear ' and also Mercedes trying to train rich idiots to drive their McLaren supercar - I've been back several times recently - I left voluntarily in 1992/3 - for modern archaelogical purposes.

All the best,

And I'm sure I could get you some simulator / flying time should you ever venture this end of the world, though it's a long held plan of mine to sail down your way...


11th Mar 2010, 19:19
Double Zero
It must have been wonderful to work with/for John Farley he sounds like a key piece in the puzzle. Harriers seem quite advanced with their 'hovering' capabilities. It amazes me how some pilots can fly so many different types of aircraft as they all have their own characteristics - you'd have to be 'switched on'. Nice Mark was complemented on his brief before flying the Spitfire and heartening to know we Kiwis are well regarded with flying. I'm sure you'd enjoy NZ if you made it down this way - we're a hospitable bunch. I'll check the Ray Hanna 'low flight' out with my sound on:)

Sounds a shame about the 'chain' aspect of the pub, that sort of memorabilia should be held preciously.

The flight simulator is something I shouted my Dad recently and more subdued than the unveiling for his 60th - in which he thought he was going for a gentle cruise on the harbour beyond Kapiti.

I knew how much he loved his computer 'flight simulator' programs so organised an aerobatic flight. A friend enquired as to 'how the ole boys ticker' was when I mentioned my plans. I was a little worried when Kapiti Aeroclub cancelled the session that morning due to engine problems, but offered a flight in a training plane instead. As we arrived they said they'd 'fixed' the problem (eek again) so off he went with a look of delight mixed with a dose of terror. Sounded like the loops with the Gss were a bit much, however the excitement lasted for a very long time. Mission accomplished!

11th Mar 2010, 19:38
It's fitting and a relief that the original 'black out' board resides now in a Museum.

I'm having great fun 'googling' what I can viewing videos and other news, when time allows - this is a great site too.

Nice a copy found its way to your desk - the original by Vincent Orange is now relatively scarce. I hunted to find a replacement for Dad (as Johnny was his Godfather) as he'd passed his only copy on to me.

Double Zero
12th Mar 2010, 09:50
Hello Tropicalbirdy,

I'm relieved to see 'Kiwi' hasn't become some sort of insult, it's amazing how people sometimes find a reason to get uppity !

Re. the Harrier, hovering is a sort of party piece, as the whole thing
was designed a long time ago ( the engine idea was from a French chap, Michel Wibault, then made practical by a Rolls Royce / Bristol engines top man, Sir Stanley Hooker, to meet a Cold War NATO requirement.

A byproduct of the unique - some would say vintage - engine design is that while the aircraft is not ( officially ) supersonic, you can load it with all the bombs & missiles you like, and it will still go just as fast ( but not hover ) while most ' conventional ' fighters are almost crippled when they're loaded up.

The idea was, during the Cold War, the aircraft could get back to and if necessary fly from - with a small warload - an airfield whose runways were an obvious target, especially in the then West Germany.

John Farley took great advantage of the Harrier's abilities and power -obviously you need a greater amount of thrust than the all-up weight of the aircraft to take off vertically or hover .

John's trademark at airshows was his climb display, now known universally as the ' Farley Take-Off '; he would hover about 100' up, then use the reaction controls.

These are small outlets for jet air from the engine, situated at nose, tail & wingtips, to give the pilot some control when hovering, as there's no airflow over the conventional aerodynamic surfaces - they're controlled exactly as normal, from the joystick ( control column ).

John would hover as I say, then completely by seat of the pants experience would pull gently on the stick, while adjusting the engine nozzle angle to suit - result, Harrier hovering static but pointing up 60 degrees or so !

He would then apply max power and climb away like a rocket.

I saw this many times, in practice at Dunsfold as well as airshows, and as you may imagine whenever this was happening the production line of aircraft ( all highly skilled hands on people, nothing like a car or factory production line ) would empty as everyone watched !

The Farley take-off is now an authorised practice in the Pilot's Notes set of rules/ instructions, but for anyone a tiny bit short of the skills necessary - and you have to be a top pilot to get near a Harrier in the 1st place - it is dangerous, a few service people in early days tried to copy this, with tragic results.

Even later Test Pilots I knew did not try it ( in view anyway ) but did a similar thing from a sort of ' running start ', flying at fair speed then doing the climb, not from the hover.

When age ( I think I'm right in saying J.F. got a special dispensation of BAe test flying to 55, normally it's 50 ) forced him to retire from that, he became the Airfield Manager at Dunsfold.

This was to some like being hit by a Tsunami, before that, no offence, but airfield managers had been happy to let things trundle on and not bother the status quo...Not John !

The amazing thing is he was as good at being a Manager as he was a pilot - I suspect that combination was a one-off.

He invigorated the whole place, and the only people he upset were utter pillocks anyway !

As an example, he would call on the internal phone, " Andy can you come down to my office when possible ? " ( I could be anywhere all over the airfield, a great aspect of my job ).

When I got to John's office, he would often give me a set of plans or diagrams, saying " the end result I'd like is X, what can I provide to help you achieve it ? " This included hovering Harriers, the lot.

When BAe internal politics caused John to move then leave*, the thing which replaced him would call, " I've got the head of ( then ) McDonnel here in 10 minutes, be here and get it right ".

I hadn't knowingly got anything wrong up to then, but you can guess

A, Who got the best results,

B, Who I enjoyed photographing as he walked forcefully into a door marked ' PULL ' ! Top tip, it wasn't John Farley...

I left shortly after this, I had grown up from a little boy toddling around the airfield golf course with my dad, and BAe internal politics left a very nasty taste in the mouth, it was like seeing an old friend with a bad illness.

Hope you enjoyed the ' Spitfire low pass ', and I completely agree re. the pub at Westerham and soul-less chains, I don't know if that happens in N.Z, but it really p's me off over here !

If I ever visit a pub I want it to be more like a museum, most pubs here have a lot of history to tell whether aviation or a lot further back, as the sites often go back to before the Romans.

* John Farley returned to Test Flying freelance, as well as display flying various interesting aircraft, and he's tolerant enough to still be in contact with gits like me.

Happy googling,


12th Mar 2010, 16:26
The original board is not in the RAF Museum at Hendon, but is a treasured exhibit in the Shoreham Battle of Britain Museum, located in Shoreham Village in the beautiful Darenth Valley in Kent.

There are a considerable number of very well-known signatures in chalk on the board, carefully protected behind glass. From memory, three of these are Tony Bartley (who later married the film actress Deborah Kerr), 'Al' Deere, and George 'Screwball' Beurling, of Malta fame.

12th Mar 2010, 22:44
Ah, Shoreham kept springing to mind, but I was thinking "airport" and I knew it wasn't in the museum there when I visited a year or two back.

Also Bob Tuck, Johnny Kent, Sailor Malan and Brian Kingcome feature amongst many others.

17th Mar 2010, 00:16
Double Zero
That was a truly fascinating story about the Harrier's and the hovering 'Farley take off' what a shame some ended with tragic results.
Nice he invigorated Dunsfold and was a good manager with a sense of respect for his fellow workers. I think it's a shame some rule with an iron fist and forget it's all of the 'tiny cogs' that make for smooth sailing.

Pity that politics ended John's reign and that someone who sounds 'over bearing' without a sense of humour became the big boss.

Thought to share with a few here that Johnny Checketts was great friends with Burt Monro (Worlds fastest Indian) and they use to race motor cycles together and Johnny use to beat Burt!

I'll enjoy some more googling:)

17th Mar 2010, 07:47
Just recently watched "The World's Fastest Indian", great film!

Have started reading "The Road to Biggin Hill", and I see that the Old Jail and the White Hart get a mention on practically Page 1! The Old Jail is much nicer pub than the White Hart - so named as several hundered years ago it was the local prison. I haven't been there for a while, time that I did!

henry crun
17th Mar 2010, 08:59
A snippet about the origin of Biggin Hill from First Blitz by Neil Hanson.

In WW1 it was a wireless testing park where air/ground and air/air telephony systems were being developed.
In 1917 the Gotha night bombing raids on London demanded that the home defences be improved, and it became the new home of 141 squadron with Bristol Fighters.

20th Mar 2010, 10:41
Interesting that Biggin Hill was a wireless testing station in WW1; it was also used many years later as an evaluation site for three different VOR beacons, in the 1970's.

These were of the type utilising the Doppler principle (DVOR), and three suppliers built their own designs for circular planform steel decks at the airport to enable comparisons to be made of relative performance and costs.

There is now just one of these beacons remaining, which I presume to be the successful design type for this location.

21st Mar 2010, 10:07
Ah, that anwers a question 603DX, while I was on the airfield for last year's Air Fair, I was sure that there had been another VOR beyond the ATS hangar in the late 70s and I couldn't think why there might have been. I can't recall three though!

21st Mar 2010, 18:34

There were quite definitely three VOR antenna structures at that time. I was responsible for inspecting them and preparing a structural assessment report on the construction of each, and having to carry out the same rather tedious task three times has etched it in my memory! :bored:

21st Mar 2010, 23:10
No, it's my faulty memory that's all. Looking at Google Earth, there are ground marks on the other side of the taxiway to the NE of the remaining VOR - was that where they were? I'm sure I can also recall "Sally B" and Don Bullock's Invader parked near them somewhere up at that end during 1978 or 1979.

Finished "The Road to Biggin Hill" now, interesting book and a great character!

22nd Mar 2010, 06:38
Gosh you're fast, I'm still reading snippets inbetween my daily life and am quite humoured at times.
A couple of weeks ago I was lured to go to my first drag race at the Wairarapa air field. I have to say I didn't much like the drags but to my sheer delight on the other side of the runway there were two planes on display, one was a Kittyhawk, maybe not the one I saw Mark fly but very nice indeed and think the other plane was a Corsair from memory, anyway they made my day (while my friend enjoyed the drags and the blue smoke that went with it)!

22nd Mar 2010, 11:22

Yes, I think you are right about the location of the other two DVOR beacons, I recall that the trial set of three were all fairly close to each other. This evaluation procedure wasn't carried out for the Biggin Hill location alone (it would have been far too extravagant!), I believe that it was used as an aid to selection of the most appropriate installation at many other UK sites, by the CAA.