Airfield Profile: London Biggin Hill
PUBLISHED: 13:23 07 April 2014 | UPDATED: 10:46 10 April 2014
Famous for its Battle of Britain history, this Kent airfield is now primarily a base for executive jets, but still welcomes light aircraft - providing the pilots follow procedures
I only landed at Biggin Hill once, in the 1980s. My wife and I were returning from a touring holiday in France in our Skybolt and found our way blocked by weather. Biggin was scarily large and the circuit was busy with a steady stream of clipped voices on the radio. I did my best with my amateurish transmissions (made worse by the open cockpit) and landed without incident. Biggin charged a whopping landing fee, although it did give us a refuge when we needed it. They were tolerant, but brisk and formal. I could have done with a map of the taxiways and only just avoided disgracing myself by steering in the wrong direction. Frankly, I was glad to leave the place behind.
Since that visit the airport has expanded its name, not unreasonably, since trains from Bromley South Station take just sixteen minutes to reach London Victoria: it’s now London Biggin Hill Airport. This also reflects the airport’s growing role as a base for business jets.
On more recent visits − by road, rather than by air − my image of Biggin was substantially altered by the family whose businesses Falcon Flying Group and Falcon Flying Services have more or less taken over the airport’s light aircraft side. Amarjit Singh Bamrah runs a maintenance and aircraft leasing business with one son, and his other son, Anoop, runs the flying clubs and flight training operation. They are truly nice people, warm and friendly, shrewd businessmen and hard-working, with a love of aviation.
There have been two recent changes to further improve my image of Biggin. One is the return of Spitfires and Hurricanes − no fewer than eight warbirds are now based at the airport. The other is the recent appointment of Will Curtis as Airport Director. That’s the Will Curtis, known to me from my short spell as an aerobatic display pilot. Now retired from display flying, he was sponsored by Honda and flew Pitts Specials and a Sukhoi when I last met him. He is not quite the person I would have expected to find running a business airport.
So this is going to be interesting, I think, as I head around the M25 for my latest visit. And it’s Friday the Thirteenth. And the weather is distinctly iffy. Biggin isn’t the kind of airfield I can just drop in on for a profile in Pilot − my visit has to be by appointment and I have to be accompanied. As luck would have it, the only date available was this supposedly unlucky one and, this being December, it’s proving true to type with bands of rain and low cloud.
Still, it’s not too bad as I leave the M25 − from which London Biggin Hill Airport is signposted, I note − and head up through green and leafy commuter Kent. As I’m getting nearer, my thoughts stray to Biggin’s role in WWII, especially when I head up Westerham Hill, which is long and steep. The gradient is a challenge in third gear for my fourteen-year-old Honda Civic, and prompts a memory of reading that in 1940 it was notorious for bringing to grief the open-top sports cars of the Brylcreem Boys. I should think it was even worse for them going downhill.
The airport’s history actually goes back a lot further. It was established in the Great War initially for experiments with radio. It’s sometimes forgotten that the primary purpose of aircraft in those days was artillery spotting, so enabling the pilot to broadcast where the shells fell in relation to the target was a top priority. The Zeppelin scare led to a build-up of home defence and from 1917 Biggin became a base for Bristol Fighters defending London from bomb attack. It remained an RAF base throughout the inter-war period and was substantially expanded in the early 1930s. The airfield played a key role in the Battle of Britain as a fighter base and command centre and was heavily bombed, but remained operational. The hundreds of aircrew and ground personnel casualties are commemorated by a remembrance chapel on the site, still open to the public today, reached off the main road at an entrance flanked by a Spitfire and Hurricane ‘gate guardian’ pair (both replicas).
The RAF continued flying from Biggin post-war, but from the mid-1950s it was increasingly a civil airport, particularly after the closure of Croydon. The London Borough of Bromley bought it from the RAF in 1974. An RAF Officer and Aircrew Selection unit was on the site from 1958 to 1992 and, when it closed, RAF involvement finally ceased altogether. A 2001 court ruling prohibits schedule or holiday charter operations, but allows business aircraft, training, club aircraft and private charter.
I remember a lot of twins, complex singles and other light aircraft when I landed at Biggin in the 1980s, but no jet aircraft. On my visit today, it’s mostly light-to-medium jets I see in the hangars, taxying or flying, plus some turboprops and a handful of club aircraft. There are, however, several dozen light aeroplanes parked outside Falcon Flying Services and the weather isn’t really suitable for pleasure flying, so I imagine there must be more in the hangars.
How do you feel about mixing it with jets and turboprops? I prefer affordable, scruffy little aeroplanes. However a great many Pilot readers lust after the big, fast shiny machinery, both to admire and to fly. If you fly a ‘humble’ PA-28 and are a fan of business jets, Biggin as it is today would be an ideal destination. Even for non-fans, there is a strong case for having lots of business aircraft at Biggin, because they make the airport profitable enough to afford light aviation, which is never going to earn enough to support all those acres of grass, runways and buildings. With jets, of course, come hi-viz jackets, health and safety involvement, and more rigorous procedures for radio, taxying and noise abatement. Microlights are forbidden at Biggin, as are photographs that allow executive aircraft registrations to be read.
I arrive, as directed, at the security gate outside the passenger and executive terminal. The security man has my name on his list and allows me to park and go inside. I’m twenty minutes early, and sip coffee in the entrance lounge and watch aircrew photographing each other by a Christmas tree hung with lights. A stream of delivery men with packages and taxi drivers collecting passengers arrive. The passengers include two rather glamorous tall and thin ladies in expensive hats. Then my host for the day arrives. For an airport public relations man, Simon Ames OBE is more switched on to aviation than I expected. His full title is PR and Marketing Support Executive. He learned to fly at nineteen in the Navy and at various times has been Secretary General of the Royal Aero Club, CEO of AOPA UK, Editor of Light Aviation (the title published by AOPA, not the LAA one), and a member of the Tiger Club and has flown everything from a Sea Hawk to a Turbulent. We climb into his car and he drives through automated security gates, activating them with his pass, and out onto the main road. We re-enter the airfield at the South Camp (so-named by the RAF, which divided its airfields into four camps). On the way he points out Rizon Jet’s huge blackened glass building − Rizon is one of the latest and biggest arrivals on the site. I ask about other aviation companies at Biggin. “Too many to list, but you’ll find them on our website,” says Simon. I look later and just within the airport there is an inflight catering company, Air Culinaire; and several jet charter, management and maintenance businesses, including Avbase, Avalon, AYR, Centreline Air, Global Flight Solutions; Interflight; JETS; London Executive Aviation; Perfect Aviation and Sovereign Business Jets. (JETS is one of the biggest and is also the latest to be set up on the airport; it’s an FBO and MBO for − judging by its website − just about every jet type in operation.) There is an aircraft paint specialist, RAS Completions and a TV aerial filming business called Arena, which also supplies helicopter charter. Then there are the businesses run by Falcon, including three flying clubs: Alouette, Surrey and Kent, and EFG, and Falcon’s maintenance business. Plus a business we’re going to visit later: Biggin Hill Heritage Hangar. This is without including the mainly non-aviation businesses on Biggin Hill Airport Trading Estate and in the Concorde Business Centre (including a guitar maker and a company making parking clamps).
Simon has arranged a series of appointments. The first is with Amarjit at Falcon Flying Services. His son Anoop joins us from the EFG Flying School on Amarjit’s speaker-phone, explaining that he could limp over, but he’s pulled a tendon playing football and is on crutches. (I blame Friday the Thirteenth.) Amarjit and Anoop are positive and don’t complain, but they’ve been struggling with falling demand, rising costs and increasing bureaucratic interference. This is mainly from the CAA, NATS and EASA, but not entirely. Amarjit quietly slips me a circular to read later. It’s from Will Curtis addressed to all users and tenants and headed Managing Director’s Instruction re-Security Passes and General Safety. Basically it’s a tightening up on health and safety and security procedures. To get a full airside pass applicants have to fill in a form, provide a criminal records check and undertake GSAT training. There is a lesser demarcated-zone-only pass aimed, I imagine, at visitors and students that waives these requirements. The circular is firm: failure to follow VFR noise abatement procedures and published routeings, for instance, is met with a £75 fine.
Amarjit thinks prices and over-regulation are driving Group A pilots to microlights on grass airstrips. I say, “Yes, but many microlight pilots still think anything less than a PA-28 isn’t a proper aircraft. Some switch to a Group A licence later. Plus microlights aren’t actually much cheaper, because so many are new and still being paid for, unlike Pipers and Cessnas, which were paid off decades ago.” He seems to agree, but he’s far too nice to argue, so maybe not.
Anoop is worried about plans to build a hotel where his flying school is currently sited. He’s been promised relocation to a better building, but it will be further from the road and there will probably be a security gate. “People see the gates now and get put off,” he says. Simon says he thinks people will get used to them once they find that they’re automatic and no barrier if you have a pass.
“We can see the viewpoint of Management,” Anoop and his father tell me. “It’s not realistic to yearn for yesteryear, when hiring and flying aircraft were cheap and people flew hundreds of hours. We understand that the revenue from one jet landing equates to fifty Cessna 152 circuits. We believe that the airport’s management is doing its best to support us.”
Until recently they say that they benefitted from customers left stranded by the collapse of Cabair and Class Air. EFG has actually added another aircraft to its fleet recently − it now has eight, 100 flying members and eight instructors. The Surrey and Kent flying club (also run by Falcon) has five aircraft and seventy members and the Alouette club has forty pilots on its books and aircraft averaging 600 hours a year. Surrey and Kent has 4,500 movements a year.
All this sounds quite healthy, I tell them. “Well,” Anoop says, his voice tinny over the speaker-phone, “I have to fight for my business. We work on low margins and invest in advertising in the local papers and the aviation media and trade shows. Don’t get me wrong − Biggin is in a great place for attracting people and that really helps, but we have to charge £155 an hour solo for a 152 and there’s a £22.10 landing fee on top, £8.50 for a touch-and-go, and a £35 plus VAT charge for an ILS approach.”
This prompts me to ask about handling charges. £22.10 for a landing sounds quite reasonable, should I want to fly in here, but not if I’m going to be hit with a handling charge. The handling fees on the airport’s website are daunting. Simon hastens to explain that handling is optional for non-commercial flights and £22.10 is all I would have to pay, unless I chose to park overnight, and even that would only add £9.30 to my bill. “And we have very attractive Avgas prices, since we order it in bulk,” he adds.
“What about a restaurant?” I ask. “Could I fly here and get lunch?” Simon says, “You might get a coffee in one of the flying clubs, but there’s no restaurant as such. There will be once the hotel is built, though.”
Our next meeting is with Biggin Hill Heritage Hangar Ltd. This is amazing−a building stuffed with Spitfires and Hurricanes and Spitfire parts. (There are also a Harvard and an L4 Cub.) Most are ready to be wheeled out and flown, while others are undergoing restoration or maintenance. (The maintenance company is The Spitfire Company Biggin Hill Ltd.) There to meet us is the manager, Joe Hirst, and Paul Campbell, a graphic designer who works for the business part-time. The business has five employees and several sub-contractors and holds open days for the public once a fortnight. Joe says, “We started here because one of the Spitfire owners lives nearby, plus the airfield is open all year round − having no grass runways − and has all the facilities we need. Then of course there’s the history, Biggin being 11 Group Sector’s HQ in WWII. I grew up near here, both grandads flew warplanes and I used to see warbirds thundering over my house as a kid. I wanted a job here from the start−my first was cleaning Learjets. I progressed to engineering.” I ask him what were the most ambitious things he’s done, and he tells me an engine change on a Learjet, and a ground-up rebuild of a Spitfire, RW382. He continues, “Biggin is a great place to be based. I can be downwind in the L4 with a Gulfstream in the circuit ahead of me. It prepares you for the larger airports. If you learn at Biggin, you can fly anywhere.” Paul takes bookings for airshows, events and open days. In 2008 he got chatting with a Spitfire owner who asked him what Paul thought of his display. “I suggested a few things from my marketing and design background and my involvement grew from there,” says Paul. The company has been at Biggin since June 2011.
Our next meeting is to be with the airport management in the board room in the passenger and executive terminal. But first Simon wants to show me the £6 million Terminal Hangar, which opened in 2011. As we head towards it, he fills me in on one of the major tenants, Formula One Management. Bernie Ecclestone acquired the West Camp, built a new hangar and refurbished another for the company’s aircraft. The West Camp includes the buildings left empty when the RAF departed. The airport freehold is owned by the London Borough of Bromley, while a private company, Biggin Hill Airport Ltd, owns a 125-year lease (begun in 1996). Biggin Hill Airport Ltd is owned by Regional Airports Ltd, which also owned Southend until its recent sale.
The Terminal Hangar is vast, spotlessly clean and as impressive as you might expect. Mostly empty this morning, it is actually fully occupied, as most of the tenant aircraft are outside on the equally generous apron or away. The building incorporates a substantial suite of offices and the hangar doors have a tail dock to accommodate aircraft with a high fin such as an Airbus Corporate Jet or Boeing Business Jet. Business Aircraft Europe had its third show at London Biggin Hill Airport this year, with record attendance, Simon tells me. On the other hand, it’s unlikely that the old annual air show will return − it ran from 1963 to 2010.
We’ve a minute or two to spare before our meeting in the board room, so Simon gives me a quick tour of the passenger terminal, which takes private charter passengers such as the French rugby team, who came through here recently on an Air France charter.
Waiting in the board room I meet one of the directors, Robert Walters, whose father is the company chairman. He tells me he enjoys flying in light aircraft and intends to learn, “If I ever get the time”. He says, “Biggin Hill has long been an important site for light aviation, and the recent decline in activity hasn’t deterred us from investing in the light GA side, for example with a self-refuel facility, a light aircraft ramp and new premises. We think strategically about light aviation and want to consolidate our light aviation assets to secure them for the long term. However, what will change, inevitably, is the regulatory environment, airfield security, access and egress and airspace control. And while we are sensitive to the need to keep club flying competitively priced, we do have to take into account our cost base, which is different from other airfields.
“On the corporate aircraft side, we have benefitted from considerable technical improvements in aircraft. Corporate aircraft are getting bigger, and bigger aeroplanes seem to be more recession-proof. Certainly the medium-to-long range business aircraft market is healthier than ever. A Gulfstream Five can carry up to fifteen people for a twelve-hour flight endurance. These new generation jets are quieter, fly higher and burn less fuel. We had one come here direct from São Paulo and a Global Express departure from here to Beijing. Another departure from here recently went to Melbourne, with a single stop-off at Mali. The growth of world trade is changing business travel patterns. Where once a business airport like London Biggin Hill saw mostly flights to Europe with a few to the U.S., nowadays it’s more global.
“However I should stress that we do still see a role for light aircraft and flight training. They provide income and keep everything operating between the executive aircraft arriving and departing.”
Will Curtis arrives, apologising because he’s been held up. I recognise him straight away − a likeable, charismatic man with a personality that is quiet and determined. The mystery of how the dare-devil airshow pilot I used to know is now MD of a place like this is quickly solved. Will explains, “I learned to fly at 25 and flew business jets for twenty years. In 1998 I sold a business and had some spare cash and some time. I had recently sampled a Pitts Special and fallen in love with aerobatics so I bought a Pitts and started learning. I chose the display route over competition aerobatics and brought to it my management expertise and knowledge of how corporate multi-nationals think... which is how I got Honda to sign up as my sponsor.
“Anyway, I got display flying out of my system eventually: I stopped in 2008. When Jenny Munro, the then airport director moved abroad after getting married, they offered the job to me. I could see lots of untapped potential here so I took it − that was in late October.”
The business he sold in 1998 was Hawk Air, an air taxi company he started at Cambridge Airport in his late twenties as a newly qualified commercial pilot. He laughs when he says this: “No one would employ me”.
After selling the business, he went into partnership with David and Ralph Gold in GoldAir, which was moving from King Airs to the new generation of business jets. It was his background in GoldAir’s management that made him the ideal candidate for the CEO role at Biggin.
“Light aircraft are part of the DNA of this airport,” he says. “We’ll do whatever we can to see that side of things grow. However, pilots who are based here or who come here to fly must realise that you can’t run an airport of this scale without business aircraft and that means full attention to safety, security, noise abatement and risk assessment. You have to follow the rules, which I accept won’t suit everyone. On the plus side, a lot of pilots actually prefer a more formal setup even though they’re flying a light aircraft.”
I tell him about my recent visit to Jersey airport, which in addition to being a business airport like Biggin, also has scheduled passenger flights, yet manages to maintain a thriving flying club for light aircraft. “I know exactly what you mean about Jersey,” he says. “The club’s away from the passenger terminal, but it overlooks the runway threshold, so the public can eat in the club restaurant and watch jets landing. Once we get the hotel built, I’m hoping for something a bit like that at Biggin.”
I have one more thing to do before calling it a day: fly a circuit with an instructor and take some overhead photographs. Simon drops me off at EFG where Anoop is waiting to introduce me to Ray Watson, the school CFI, previously at Cabair and before that, flying 27 years with the RAF. He also worked at British Aerospace and has 19,500 flying hours. Most remarkable of all, Ray ran the OTUs for the Victor and the Valiant and has photographs of both on his office wall to prove it. You can get a Commercial rating at EFG, and Ray is one of the instructors who will help you gain it. He also trains and examines the flying school’s other instructors.
We go out to the line of parked aircraft and strap into a PA-28, but while we are running through the start-up checklist, some ominous rain drops appear on the windscreen. Ray gallantly does what he can, but there are delays with getting the engine to start, the handbrake to release and with the Controller, who perhaps understandably wants to know exactly what ‘taking overhead photographs’ will entail. “I phoned him earlier and told him all about it,” says Ray. I’m getting that Friday the Thirteenth feeling again. “Not much going on at the club,” I say to him once we finally get taxying. “No,” says Ray, sadly. “We told a couple of students and a trial lesson not to come this morning, but the weather’s actually been better than forecast.” ‘Until now,’ I say to myself, because the light’s definitely starting to go. We arrive at the runway threshold eventually, are cleared to take off and are soon climbing away. Unfortunately, it’s a right-hand circuit and I need to take my photograph through the tiny window on the left. We had hoped to get clearance for a left orbit from downwind, or even a left-hand circuit, but there is other traffic about, and it doesn’t happen, at least not on our first circuit. Now the weather is really clamping in and we’re having difficulty in maintaining circuit height without entering cloud. “Want to try a second circuit?” asks Ray, but I can see it’s hopeless and say better not, probably to his relief. By the time we’re on final, the rain has started in earnest and mist is closing in.
We taxi back to the clubhouse and I dash out to take a final photograph while Ray ties down the PA-28. Then I discover that I can’t get from the aircraft parking line to shelter, because I don’t have a pass that will unlock the gate. So I keep dry under the wing of a Cessna 152 until Ray’s ready to let me in.
After thanking Ray and saying goodbye to Anoop, I head back towards the M25. A half-mile down the road the traffic stops. Five minutes later, the police car in front of me makes a one-eighty and heads back the way we came. He must know what he’s doing, I think and follow him. It’s a disastrous decision. This is the hour when mums collect the kids from school and traffic is heavy. I find another route, but end up in the dark in rain and fog on a narrow country road. The satnav sorts me out, but I lose an hour getting to the M25. However, that appears to be it as regards bad luck: the rest of the journey is straightforward.
I hope Biggin’s luck remains good, and I think it will. The airport looks more than viable financially and set to become even more profitable. Hopefully the pressure on the flying clubs and light aircraft maintenance business will ease soon and the good times return.