The Great War Display Team

At the risk of sounding like a recovering alcoholic, my name is Ernie Hoblyn and I’m a member of the Great War Display Team.

The Great War Display Team evolved out of an ad hoc group of friends who flew WWI replicas together, most of which they had built themselves, and were sometimes known as The Wombats. They started out in 1988 when five SE5s, two Fokker Dr1s and even a Fokker D7 flew together at Biggin Hill. Last year was thus our chance to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Team’s formation.

Two of the original members, Des Biggs and Doug Gregory, were still flying with the Team until 2012. Indeed Doug flew his SE5a in January 2013 to celebrate his 90th birthday, just prior to selling it. At this moment I have the dubious honour of being the longest-serving member, having joined ? flying my Sopwith Triplane ? in 1997. At that time the Team was sometimes called the World War One Display Team, but that was too much of a mouthful!

Over the years the aircraft and pilots changed many times. Robin Bowes, who was my mentor and great friend and who initially suggested my building the Sopwith, flew his red Fokker Dr1 from the very start. Nick O’Brien flew the black Fokker Dr1 for many years, famously looping it between 100 and 300 feet! Since 2010 my Sopwith Triplane has been flying in the ownership of Gordon Brander.

MORE GERMAN TYPES

John Day joined in 1998, flying first the Nieuport 17 he had built and subsequently ? when we needed more German aircraft ? the Junkers CL1 he had converted from a Bowers Fly Baby. John later converted another Fly Baby and they both still fly with the Team. John’s old one is now owned by Andrew Berry and usually flown by Alex Truman, and the second one is owned and flown by Richie Piper. John extended the types in 2006 when he finished building his Fokker Dr1. Following John’s death, the aircraft was bought by Bruce Dickinson and still flies with the Team, and now we have Peter Bond’s beautiful self-built Dr1 as well; there aren’t many places in the world you can see three triplanes flying together.

The SE5s and their pilots have changed frequently, the current pilots ? Dave Linney and Vic Lockwood ? having joined in 2007. This year we also have Mike Waldron’s SE5a as well ? the one I have been dragged kicking and screaming out of retirement to fly. Matthew Boddington’s majestic BE2c joined in 2013, adding to the spectacle.

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Over the years we have been seen regularly at many large and small airshows in the UK and abroad, at Duxford, Biggin Hill, Waddington, Farnborough, Shoreham and Fairford and as far afield as Portrush in Northern Ireland, Elvington in North Yorkshire and La Ferté-Alais in France.

This year is, of course, the centenary of the beginning of the Great War, so we have been very busy thus far and will continue to be so right through until the end of this season, and possibly for the next three years as well. Although the aircraft represented come from different eras ? from the Royal Aircraft Factory BE2c, which joined the RFC in 1914 right through to the Junkers CL1 which was delivered too late to see much service (although a CL1 was the last aircraft Mick Mannock shot down before he was himself killed by ground fire in July 1918 in his SE5a) ? and mostly they would never have met in combat, we try to give an impression of how a dogfight involving a large melée of aircraft would have looked. Of course, the subtle difference is that our guns are not real and when an aircraft goes down smoking it lives to reappear in the final flypast, as well as to fight another day.

NOT LIKE MODERN AIRCRAFT

Although we are very relieved that the guns are not real, the aircraft can be tricky to fly. Having been built before the laws of flight were formulated, they do not behave like any modern aircraft and there are times when we feel that our own aircraft are doing their best to kill us, quite apart from those of the ‘enemy’. In many cases, the only control that can be relied upon is the rudder, and certainly in the Sopwith the secondary effect of the rudder is far more powerful than the primary effect of the ailerons, despite it having three sets. They also have low wing loading, so they are all very badly affected by wind.

I’m always amused when I see the CGI combats shown on films about the Great War, with one aircraft sitting immediately behind another with his guns blazing. The very last place you would want to be is immediately behind any of the aircraft, especially the ones with big rotary engines (radials today), because the propwash would make your aircraft uncontrollable. During the routine, with so many aircraft in what amounts to a box, 800 yards long, about the same wide and 1,000 feet high, it is inevitable that we often fly through each others’ wake, and even that is enough to cause problems sometimes. It can be a bit unnerving pulling a steep-banked turn in one direction with full opposite aileron to counter the roll caused by someone else’s wake. There are even times when air disturbed by the aeroplane in front is sufficient to cause the pursuer to stall, as a few of us have discovered at different times. This can be immensely thrilling at 200 feet.

VISIBILITY PROBLEMS

I tend to forget that most people reading this will be used to ‘proper’ aircraft, so even flying a taildragger would be alien to them. All taildraggers have visibility problems, to a greater or lesser extent, which necessitate fish-tailing while taxying in order to have some idea of what is ahead. Obviously the triplanes, with their mid-wings placed right on eye level, take this lack of visibilty to a whole new level and all three of the team’s ‘tripes’ present problems, especially during landing. If the landing distance available is not a problem it is always advisable to wheel them on, this at least means you can see where you are going and keeps the rudder up in the airflow, making it more effective in keeping the aircraft tracking straight on the runway.

Having spent fourteen years displaying the Sopwith I well know the awful feeling of landing with no forward visibility on a minimal landing strip in an aircraft with no brakes! Some airshow organisers don’t seem to understand our needs when we say we need plenty of grass to land on, preferably a large square area so we can land into wind whatever the direction. Having said that, the SE5a I fly now does actually have brakes and slightly better forward visibility, which to me is unimaginable luxury.

So who in their right mind would want to fly this sort of aircraft? The obvious answer is no-one in their right mind, of course. The Team is composed of a bunch of assorted eccentrics, many of them highly respected and immensely talented pilots ? and me. The Team comprises engineers and aircraft builders, highly-experienced airline pilots who also have high-level aerobatic experience (hopefully not in their airliners!), an ex-RAF display pilot and a top ex-RAF test pilot. Oh, and a rock star (who also holds an ATPL).

As an aside, it surprises me not at all that the life of a pilot during the Great War was so short. The aircraft were difficult to fly, the training was rudimentary. If after about ten hours’ tuition you could fly a circuit in an RE8 without crashing, you were a pilot. You were then issued with an aircraft and told, “Off you go to France and shoot down some Huns”. When I first flew the Sopwith I had accrued 700 hours experience in a wide variety of aircraft and, quite frankly, it frightened the life out of me. I felt that anyone landing one for the first time without crashing ? especially in the 1914-18 era with a difficult-to-control rotary engine ? was probably doing so more by luck than judgement. The squadron records show that, of the 150 Sopwith Triplanes built, around a quarter crashed and were destroyed before they ever made it into action. Add in enemy aircraft flashing out of the clouds with guns blazing and it seems amazing sometimes that any pilots survived at all! I recall one writer of the time saying that if they made it to the end of the day they had a good chance of lasting a week; if they lasted a week they might make a month and so on as they gained experience. Sadly many didn’t make it to the end of that first day.

LOGISTICAL NIGHTMARE

I mentioned at the start the wide variety, both geographically and in size, of the shows we have done over the years. This year, because of the centenary, we have been busier than ever. Simply getting as many as nine aircraft, based all around the country from Norfolk to Worcestershire, from Northampton to Somerset and Surrey, all together and ready to display at a venue is a logistical nightmare which causes Gordon, as Team manager, sleepless nights. This is especially true when taking into account the fact that these are fairly fragile, open-cockpit aircraft, not exactly built for comfort and often with limited range, to say nothing of the weather problems. Many of us are also limited in the choice of airfields where we can land; although some have tailwheels those of us with tailskids have no choice but to operate from grass airfields which are sufficiently large for us to land into wind whatever the wind direction, so choosing a route to a venue depends on the availability of such airfields, with fuel, along the route.

For this reason we have had to turn down some shows, which we would have loved to have done, simply because the journey would have been too difficult for us. Gordon Brander, our Team manager, is from Aberdeen and when he was asked to arrange a couple of shows north of the border he tried every way to make them happen, but the lack of suitable fields en route made them just too much of a risk. Also, despite its many beauties Scotland is noted for its sometimes less than perfect weather and while we would have loved to have gone up there to display, the possibility of a) not making it to the show and b) then being stuck for a week, miles from home and possibly missing another event down south, meant that good sense had to prevail. Requests for visits to France, of which we had a few, were also vetoed for similar reasons.

So what do we do? Well, for anyone who hasn’t seen one of our shows, what we attempt to do is to put on a rolling series of dogfights, with aircraft supposedly patrolling the area getting bounced by the enemy and trying to shake them off, before being rescued by some compatriots who just happen to be patrolling nearby. The display is choreographed with aircraft on three different levels so that the rescuers can come diving down from above before being bounced in their turn by a different enemy machine. In one version of our display I am at the top of the stack, mixing it with the two Fokkers. Seeing those two looming up on you is an amazing sight, and it’s sobering to think that it was probably the last one seen by several British pilots. I am very lucky to be able to enjoy it in safety, knowing both the Fokker pilots are friends.

Our aim is to keep as many and varied aircraft as possible in front of the crowd at any time so as to give the impression of a sky full of aeroplanes, all narrowly missing crashing into each other. The choreography ensures that there is always plenty of room between the aircraft whilst making it look as if there isn’t! Add in judicious use of smoke to simulate the results of an attack and hopefully it looks fairly realistic, very much like what was going on in the skies over the Somme in 1916. Of course we never see the results ourselves so we have to rely on videos and comments to know whether or not we are achieving our aim.

For a normal display on an airfield we do a stream takeoff then climb to our allotted heights and begin. We then finish off with a flypast in formation followed by a stream landing. Hopefully the sight of nine aircraft landing in quick succession, something rarely seen apart from the Red Arrows, adds to the spectacle. We do try not to make it too spectacular, although as I’ve said before the view from many of these aircraft on landing leaves a great deal to be desired so landing them all quickly on a single runway can be quite thrilling!

Some shows are either off-airfield, such as Highclere and Knebworth, while others are on airfields which are not suitable for us, such as Farnborough or Fairford. Then we have to do an airborne join, but ? apart from missing us taking off and landing ? the show is basically the same.

We have to operate from grass airfields, as I have said, and I would like to say a big thank you to some of the places we have operated from, especially when doing off-airfield shows. For Knebworth we used Henlow, for Basildon we used the wonderful Stow Maries (which is, of course, a genuine First World War aerodrome) and for Farnborough we used White Waltham (home to two of the Triplanes, so I suppose they are used to our kind of operations). Also at the start of the season we need to do a work-up and practice our routines in order to get our Display Authorisations renewed, and for that we have to thank Sywell who are always friendly and helpful. The welcome we have received at all these places could not have been better, and they could not have been more helpful to us. Without lovely places like this it would be impossible for us to do some of the shows. (And Stow Maries’ home-made lemonade and bacon baps will remain in our memories for a long time.)

Having mentioned Knebworth; that was a first for us. Not many airshow acts can claim to have displayed at a music festival! Of course, having a rock star on the team does help. Not only was it at a music festival, it was also in Class A controlled airspace about six miles to the West of Luton Airport, so ? as I’m sure you can imagine ? it took an enormous amount of organisation, but on the day Luton ATC were very helpful and it all went off very well. We even got some very good comments from a crowd which was, perhaps, not too familiar with airshows.

WHEN AND WHERE TO SEE US

So, this is us; the Great War Display Team. We can be seen at several airshows as well as many other events where you might not expect to find us most weekends between now and the end of the season. To find out where we will be, have a look at our website, www.greatwardisplayteam.com from which you can also contact us (and we are already taking bookings for next year), as well as getting information about the Team and looking at some of the photographs taken of our machines and kindly donated for our use by their owners. We hope that you enjoy seeing our display as much as we enjoy doing it and look forward to meeting you somewhere in the future.