Sunday, 30 August 2015

Anatomy of an Air Display

Pitts Special Biplane

It’s a hot August afternoon and the Broadstairs Water Gala is in full swing. The photographer watches from the promenade overlooking the bay, waiting for the air display to begin. Below him a Punch and Judy stall provides entertainment on the beach; an audience of kids laughing at the antics of model husband and doting father, Mr Punch. Out on the sea a flyboarder performs tricks in front of the jetty, rising up on a column of water as if he were a human missile launched from a submarine. A light breeze brings various smells wafting by: chips and suntan lotion and cigarette smoke.

At approximately 14:45 a Pitts Special aerobatic biplane appears in the sky above Broadstairs, its brilliant red and white livery mirroring the red and white stripes of the Punch and Judy stall on the sand below. The woman in the cockpit, Lauren Richardson, is a skilled pilot, tumbling and looping and rolling her aircraft to great effect. At the end of her display she performs one final pass of the bay, waving to the crowd. Some of the spectators wave back; some don’t even bother to look up from their smartphones. It’s as if, in their minds, an event isn’t real until it’s been uploaded to the Internet, even when it’s taking place directly above their heads. In two weeks they’ll be watching a wholly different event unfold on their screens – the senseless murder of two young journalists captured from both the viewpoint of a live TV broadcast and from the viewpoint of the gunman who shot them – and if they don’t see it online they’ll see it splashed across the front pages of the newspapers the following morning. But that particular horror will have to wait its turn; another tragedy beckons first.

Only five minutes pass before the next display begins: two RV8 planes trailing plumes of white smoke. After performing a sequence of close-formation loops and rolls, the two aircraft break to opposite sides of the bay and then fly straight at each other, appearing to avoid collision by a hair's-breadth. It’s a tried and tested manoeuvre, guaranteed to draw a collective “Oooh!” from the crowd. It’s also perhaps the one manoeuvre where the implicit threatens to become explicit, highlighting the unspoken subtext that underlies every high-speed form of entertainment, from air-shows to Formula 1. No one wants anything to go wrong – of course they don’t – but the potential for disaster is ever-present, adding a tangible air of frisson to the occasion.

RV8 Display

The photographer tenses, tracking one of the planes as it flies right to left. In the back of his mind he wonders what he’d do if something did go wrong and one or both of the planes ended up in the sea – or worse. Would he keep shooting? What if he captured something truly harrowing? Would he sell the photos to the highest bidder? Would he sell them to the Daily Mail? Would he sell them to the Sun? He likes to think he wouldn’t, but of course, until we’re in that situation none of us know for sure. Not really.

The RV8 planes perform a variation on the loop-the-loop manoeuvre, using their smoke trails to draw a huge heart in the sky. Then they fly across the bay, left to right, one after the other, and the display is over. The wind is noticeably stronger now; the third scheduled display will not go ahead. The smoke trails disperse quickly and so do the spectators, kids nagging their parents for ice-cream. Already long queues are forming outside the two main parlours, Morelli’s and Chiappini’s. The tannoy crackles but – not for the first time that afternoon – the speaker’s words are inaudible to a large section of the crowd.

The photographer retreats to the shade of Ballard’s Lounge and orders a cold San Miguel. He sits by the window and reviews his photos. None of them are remarkable as aircraft photography goes, but there are enough keepers to meet his own modest expectations. He finds one from the end of the display, almost the last photo he took: it’s a close-up of one of the RV8 planes, smartly painted in shades of silver, blue and black, designation G-HILZ.


He enlarges the photo on the LCD, zooming in on the cockpit. The pilot’s left hand is raised to acknowledge the crowd, but frustratingly – from an aesthetic point of view – his face is not visible. Perhaps he’s concentrating on the smoke trail left by his colleague moments earlier. Perhaps he’s already thinking ahead to the display he’ll be attending at the weekend.

The pilot’s name is Andy Hill. In three days’ time he will take to the skies above Shoreham in a very different kind of plane – a Hawker Hunter jet. I don’t need to describe what happened next; we’ve all seen the pictures and the footage, and sometimes, when the images linger in our mind like a bright light that takes forever to fade, we might find ourselves thinking about the dividing line between life and death, and wondering if we’ve seen too much.