Today the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight is a household name and a national institution but the modern BBMF was created from humble beginnings and though it paid the same mark of respect it did so under tight constraint. It has gone from being a loose collection of ‘obsolete types’ tucked away in the corner of various hangars, to a dedicated unit with its own headquarters, entrusted with caring for priceless assets of British aviation heritage.
Wing Commander Peter Thompson dfc, then Station Commander at Biggin Hill, Kent, was primarily responsible for the formation of what we now know as the BBMF. After gaining his pilot’s wings in the summer of 1940, Peter flew Hurricanes during the Battle of Britain. By the mid-1950s Hurricane IIC LF363 was the only airworthy representative of its type with the RAF and was based at Biggin Hill. This gave Peter the basis for a grander plan.
There was a strong belief among some in the RAF that the service’s greatest Battle Honour should continue to be commemorated in a fitting fashion and the best way to do that was to keep the last remaining examples of the legendary fighters which had won the Battle of Britain – the Hurricane and Spitfire – in the air. Wing Commander Thompson was an enthusiastic advocate of this notion. Peter gained the authority to form an historic flight at Biggin Hill but, with no public funding, all manpower would have to be voluntary.
By 1957, the only three remaining airworthy Spitfires available to the RAF were being flown by the Temperature and Humidity Monitoring (THUM) Flight at RAF Woodvale. With their operational careers over, the three Spitfire PR XIXs of the THUM Flight – PM631, PS853 and PS915 – were allocated to the new memorial unit. They flew to Biggin Hill on 11th July 1957, when what we now know as the BBMF was formed as the Historic Aircraft Flight (HAF).
However, the ex-wartime pilots thought that it was not fitting to form a tribute to the Battle of Britain with a variant of the Spitfire that was not designed to fire guns. An alternative came in the form of three Mk XVI Spitfires – TE330, TE476 and SL574 – brought out of store for ground display at the 1957 Royal Tournament. Recommendation was made that priority be given to bringing these up to flying condition, partly because they were fighters, but also because Mk XVI spares were more readily available.
Peter air tested TE330 at Biggin early in September 1957. On 15th September that year, the HAF carried out its first commemorative flypast over Westminster Abbey for Battle of Britain Day with Hurricane LF363 and Spitfire TE330.
Meanwhile, Spitfire XIX PS915 was not in good health when it arrived at Biggin, so it was promptly retired from flying, going to West Malling in August to become a gate guardian. Work to get the other Mk XVIs flying continued and on 10th December 1957, TE476 was air tested.
In February 1958, Peter Thompson was posted away. He had always referred to the HAF as the “BoB Flight” and on 21st February it was officially renamed as the Battle of Britain Flight. Work continued steadily and on the 23rd February SL574 took to the air. In the same month it was announced that Biggin Hill was to close and the Flight moved to North Weald, Essex, in March 1958.
That April the BofB Flight lost a second Spitfire PR XIX, as PS853 was allocated to West Raynham, Norfolk, where it was placed on display at the gate. In the following month the unit was dealt another blow when its principal Spitfire ‘flyer’, TE330, was taken away on 14th May to be prepared for presentation to the USAF Academy.
Things were going from bad to worse, in May 1958 North Weald closed, so after only a brief stay there the BofB Flight was again in need of another new home. Shortly after, it moved to Martlesham Heath in Suffolk.
It was here, during 1959, that the Flight lost its Spitfire XVIs altogether due to a series of accidents and reliability problems. On 28th May, SL574 suffered significant damage in a flying incident at Martlesham and was sent away for repair, returning on 1st July. Then on 10th September, TE476 was damaged in a wheels-up landing. As a result, it was decreed that September 1959 would be the last time that the BofB Flight fighters, including the Hurricane, would participate in the Battle of Britain flypast over London. On that very flight SL574 suffered a complete engine failure over the capital and the pilot force-landed on a cricket ground at Bromley. It was the end for the Mk XVIs as flying aircraft with the RAF. TE476 went on the gate at Neatishead, Norfolk, in January 1960. SL574 was similarly relegated to gate guard duties at Bentley Priory in November 1961.
That same month the BofB Flight undertook another move, this time to Horsham St Faith in Norfolk. By this time it comprised just Hurricane LF363 and Spitfire Mk XIX PM631, and this is how it would remain until 1964.
Continuing what could almost have been seen as a jinx, it transpired that Horsham was due to close! On 1st April 1963, the Flight moved again to nearby RAF Coltishall in Norfolk where things began to improve significantly. PS853 had been made serviceable again and put on charge of the Central Fighter Establishment on 31st October 1962. In April 1964 it was returned to the Flight. Then in September 1965 another Spitfire joined the ranks when Vickers-Armstrong donated Mk Vb AB910 to the Flight. This aircraft came with a genuine wartime history and was delivered to Coltishall by no less a Spitfire celebrity than Jeffrey Quill.
The inventory was now back up to four. With the fleet and its popularity growing, things were put on a more formal footing at Coltishall, eventually resulting in the appointment of a team of full-time engineers.
The Flight secured another major coup when, after filming for the 1969 classic Battle of Britain was completed, it was presented with Spitfire IIa P7350. This was – and still is – the world’s oldest airworthy example of its type and a genuine combat veteran of the Battle of Britain. Having popularly become known as the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight, the unit took this name officially on 1st June 1969. Then in March 1972, Hurricane IIC PZ865 was presented to the BBMF after being refurbished by Hawker Siddeley, bringing the Flight’s complement of airworthy Hurricanes up to two.
November 1973 saw the arrival of a new and significant type as, on the 20th, Lancaster PA474 was officially transferred from Waddington, Lincolnshire, where it had been refurbished and looked after by station personnel. It had been making a growing number of appearances, and station resources were struggling to keep pace with the demand. It was deemed that the best option was to place the Lancaster under the care of the BBMF, which had the necessary expertise to maintain it.
Less than two years later, it was announced that the BBMF was moving from Coltishall to Coningsby in Lincolnshire. On 1st March 1976, the Flight’s aircraft began ferrying across to their new home.
An ‘old friend’ rejoined BBMF in 1987. British Aerospace had rebuilt Spitfire XIX PS915 to airworthy condition and it was presented back to the Flight. Its first post rebuild air test was carried out at Warton on 16th December 1986, and it was delivered to Coningsby on 7th April 1987.
Sadly there was a major set-back in September 1991 when LF363 suffered an engine failure en route to Jersey and crash landed at RAF Wittering. It was virtually destroyed in the ensuing fire – which put it out of service for seven years. As the cost of LF363’s rebuild could not be met by the public purse, it was decided to sell Spitfire XIX PS853 to raise the money necessary to restore the Hurricane. ‘LF’ returned to the air on 29th September 1998.
Another new type joined the Flight on 20th July 1993 when Douglas Dakota III ZA947 arrived.
In November 1997 there was yet another major addition, when newly-restored Spitfire IX MK356 arrived. Not only was the Flight getting a variant it hadn’t previously operated, but MK356 also came with fine provenance – it had flown during the D-Day period in June 1944 supporting the Allied invasion of occupied France.
The latest aircraft to join the Flight’s ranks is Spitfire XVI TE311, which is currently undergoing rebuild to airworthy condition. Not only will the BBMF soon have six airworthy Spitfires, but it will also be operating a low-back Mk XVI – the variant that provided the backbone of the Flight’s early commemorative duties.
Records show that for many years after its formation the Flight conducted relatively low-key operations; typically making 50-60 appearances per season, a situation that continued into the mid-1960s. By the early 1990s this had trebled and demand for participation by the Flight’s aircraft was continuing to grow. In 1996 individual aircraft appearances exceeded 500 and by 2003 tasking for over 700 individual aircraft appearances during each year’s display season had become the norm. The demand for appearances by the Flight’s aircraft shows no sign of decline and indeed seems to increase every year. Last year the BBMF was tasked with 950 individual aircraft appearances at 612 separate events. These events included 118 air displays and 494 flypasts of various sizes ranging from the Queen’s Birthday Flypast over London through commemorative flypasts for World War Two veterans and for specific anniversaries, such as the D-Day 65th Anniversary commemorations, to small village fetes. The Flight’s aircraft now appear in front of an estimated total audience of 7 million people annually.
During the 2011 display season there will be a similar number of opportunities to see the BBMF aircraft flying, demonstrating the continued importance that the RAF places upon maintaining these aircraft in perfect flying condition, the desire to maintain a tangible link with our roots and our heritage and, above all, to remember the national debt owed to those who have paid the ultimate sacrifice in the service of their country.
Header Image: ( Larger size) BBMF 50th at Duxford on 5 May 2007
Image 1: ( Larger size) Wg Cdr Peter Thompson DFC
Image 2: ( Larger size) Hurricane LF363 at Tangmere in 1957
Image 3: ( Larger size) The Three Spitfire XIXs En route to Biggin Hill
Image 4: ( Larger size) Wg Cdr Thompson in Spitfire MkXVI TE330
Image 5: ( Larger size) Martlesham Heath 1959
Image 6: ( Larger size) SL574 Forced Landing September 1959
Image 7: ( Larger size) Hurricane PZ865 and Spitfire P7350 (1985)
Image 8: ( Larger size) Lancaster PA474 (early 1970s)
Image 9: ( Larger size) Dakota ZA947
Image 10: ( Larger size) BBMF Lancaster and crowd at an Airshow