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How the Royal Air Force display improved year by year until its discontinuation in 1937

MESSAGES BEING PICKED UP by aircraft of No. 4 Army Co-operation Squadron at the Hendon air display

MESSAGES BEING PICKED UP by aircraft of No. 4 Army Co-operation Squadron. The messages are attached to lines strung between uprights on the ground, and the lines are picked up by hooks on the ends of struts lowered from the aircraft. The struts can be pulled up and the messages retrieved by the observers while the aircraft are in flight.

ONE of the most famous of the world’s flying grounds is that at Hendon. It was first used for flying in 1910. On a spring afternoon in that year a few people were to be seen standing near a hedge bordering the flying ground. A single small shed was all that indicated that the field was associated in any way with the new adventure of flying. Outside the shed stood an aeroplane of a type which would seem strange and primitive to-day. It was a pioneer box-kite biplane of the Farman type, driven by a 50 horsepower Gnome engine, and its pilot was Louis Paulhan.

Paulhan had hastened over from France to take part in the London-Manchester race. When he took off on April 27, 1910, on his way to Manchester, he made the first flight from what was afterwards to be a flying ground of world-wide fame.

In December of the same year Grahame-White, home from an American tour, looked down from a point near Hendon Church over the wide valley below and decided that here, at Hendon, he would establish an aerodrome.

Plans went ahead quickly. But people in those days scorned the idea that the public would throng to see a flying display. There were sceptics, also, in later years, as to the drawing power of a Royal Air Force display. But Grahame-White first, and the Royal Air Force later, proved conclusively that a briskly operated, well-organized flying pageant would attract crowds equalling, if not exceeding, those attracted by any other form of outdoor spectacle.

Hendon had its own spectacles in the years immediately before the war of 1914-18. Here early type biplanes and monoplanes flew wing-tip to wingtip round its pylons. Daring pilots gave exhibitions of aerobatics, which included looping, then regarded as marvellous.

Shortly before the outbreak of the war no fewer than 60,000 spectators went to Hendon to see the start and finish of the Aerial Derby of 1914. The size of the crowd was remarkable for those days, and invalidated, once and for all, the views of pessimists who had said that flying would never attract large crowds.

One fact that facilitated the assembly of large crowds at Hendon was the excellence of the local transport services. It was the existence of these transport facilities that influenced the Air Ministry when, immediately after the war, the idea was discussed for holding a Royal Air Force Pageant at Hendon. Such a pageant was to be a demonstration of aerial power which might be likened to the annual Naval and Military Tournament, as the Royal Tournament was formerly called.

The idea for a Royal Air Force Pageant first took shape in 1920. Numerous aerodromes were busy with rehearsals for this inaugural pageant. In those days the old Bristol Fighter still reigned supreme. One of the events of the first pageant was an exhibition of formation flying by “Brisfits”. This demonstration was thought wonderful then, but it would seem tame to-day.

Another event which would seem tame nowadays was an aerial combat between a Bristol Fighter and two Snipes. At that inaugural pageant there was introduced an inanimate character which was afterwards to become famous at a whole succession of further pageants. This was the dummy figure which descended by parachute from a kite balloon as soon as this balloon had been set on fire by attacking aeroplanes. That dummy human figure, making its descent by parachute on the aerodrome, was given the nickname of “Major Sandbags”. The results of the first pageant were extremely encouraging. There was a public attendance far exceeding expectations, and the whole programme went through successfully in spite of the fact that there were many lessons to be learned.

It is a fascinating experience, now, to examine a complete set of programmes for the years from 1920 to 1937, and to have the memory awakened by one event after another which had been forgotten. It is an experience which has an additional poignancy today, when we remember that 1937 saw the last of the displays as we have known them so far, and that the official decision to discontinue this famous annual fixture will now leave us with nothing but recollections of those brilliant summer afternoons with engines droning and wings flashing high in the blue of the sky.

Lessons were quickly learned in the preparation of the early air pageants. The programme of 1921, for example, was better timed than had been that of the opening year. A greater attempt was made to secure novelties in the shape of special items.

In 1922 the Royal Air Force had its first day of really bad weather. Yet, though conditions were extremely unfavourable, with heavy and almost continuous rain, the organizers of the pageant had the satisfaction of carrying through a fine programme without having to abandon a single item. The skill and courage of the pilots, in adhering to prearranged time-schedules in such adverse conditions, won unstinted praise from everyone.

The display of 1923 included the spectacular destruction of a bridge, cleverly carried out by a number of attacking aircraft. By now the general idea of a special set piece as a sort of crowning feature of the pageant was taking definite and successful shape.

Traffic Problem

The sheer popularity of the pageant soon began to create a special problem for its organizers. Arrangements had to be made to handle the immense volume of motor traffic which flowed to and from the aerodrome each year. This traffic had not only to be dealt with as it arrived, but it had also to be dispersed, somehow, when the pageant was over. In connexion with some of the early pageants the newspapers made almost as much of a feature of the traffic problem as they did of the pageant itself.

The traffic problem, like others, was taken in hand with commendable efficiency. By careful staff work, and with the aid of relief roads, the pageant grew to be an object-lesson in the efficient way in which, as soon as the last aeroplane had landed, the cars were shepherded along the various exit roads.

The official attitude towards the pageant soon began to change as one year followed another. The first few pageants were of an unmistakably “popular” type, in the sense that they were framed rather like a glorified “air circus”. The object was to use the potentialities of the Royal Air Force to give the public a good flying display, irrespective of anything else. But the immense popularity of the pageants, and the enormous attendances which they attracted, soon began to impart to them an almost national significance.

This caused the pageants to be taken much more seriously in official circles. It was not long, for example, before it was decided to drop the title “Pageant” and to refer to this great event, officially, as the “Display”. Then there came an official edict which discouraged any idea that the display was to be regarded as a purely popular spectacle, contrived merely for the annual amusement of the general public. It was stated that the display was something much more than a “circus”; that it was, in fact, the serious culmination of an annual period of training by the Royal Air Force a sort of brief and localized manoeuvre in which almost every item had a military significance.

The display now became very correct, very military in its precision. It was still a wonderful show; but, as it went on, it lost some of the pleasant spontaneity which had marked its first few years. It paid the penalty for an amazing popularity which made everyone connected with it rather self-conscious.

AEROPLANES DEMOLISHING A SET PIECE at the 1937 Hendon air display

AEROPLANES DEMOLISHING A SET PIECE at the 1937 display. Similar set pieces were a regular feature of the display, and their demolition came at the end of the programme. A captive balloon was generally included as part of the set piece, and was brought down in flames. The dummy observer descended by parachute.

Another glance at the programmes revives some interesting memories. Some of the more pretentious items fail to reawaken any particular enthusiasm, whereas many of the lesser features spring back again vividly into the memory. The year 1924 may serve as an example. There was a superb display of flight aerobatics by Snipe machines. There was some really impressive aerial drill by two squadrons.

The set piece — which still had all the aspect of novelty in those days— included an attack by air on an armed merchant cruiser. This was a dummy vessel which air mechanics had built on one edge of the aerodrome. Some of the constructional secrets of this apparently massive affair were most ingenious. The set piece was a tribute to the stage craftsmanship of the mechanical department of the Royal Air Force.

In the display ol 1925 the Gamecock fighter was prominent. Then there were some first-rate items by superbly piloted Grebes and Siskins. Particular interest was taken in a new civil transport aircraft, the D.H.54. Another striking commercial type of aeroplane which was on view was the big twin-engined Vanguard. The set piece illustrated the bombing of surface vessels by aircraft.

The outstanding attraction of 1928 was the first public appearance of the Inflexible, a huge monoplane of an experimental type. Driven by three Condor engines, and with its enormous wing-span dwarfing that of any other aircraft at this particular display, the great dark-painted machine went rumbling overhead, providing a foretaste of those giant multi-engined night bombers which were soon to dominate the aerial stage.

Another feature of the 1928 display was a breath-taking display of advanced aerobatics. Wonderful skill was shown by pilots, from year to year, in all sorts of “crazy” and eccentric flying — flying in which these aviators seemed to defy all the previously-accepted laws of aeroplane pilotage.

The display of 1929 included a successful air battle and set piece. In 1930 the spectators looked up to see the great ill-fated rigid airship R 101 flying serenely above their heads. A magnificent spectacle was provided by that huge ship as she was seen against the summer sky.

It was at about this period, too, that visitors to the displays were watching some flying by an odd-looking, tailless aircraft, the Pterodactyl — a machine which demonstrated its exceptional controllability at and below stalling speeds.

Replicas of Famous Aircraft

In 1931 crowds at the display watched in astonishment the first public aerial evolutions of that strange “windmill” type of machine known as the Cierva “Autogiro” aircraft. It was at the 1931 display, also, that the organizers had the happy idea of introducing replicas of some of the aircraft which had made early aerial history. One of these replicas was of the monoplane in which Louis Bleriot had flown across the Channel in 1909.

In 1932 another novelty was motorless gliders, which were towed through the air behind engined craft.

The weather of the 1933 display was bad. It was a wretched afternoon, with heavy rain, wind, and low cloud. A bad-weather programme was adopted in which certain items, such as synchronized aerobatics and aerial drill, had to be modified somewhat to meet the exceptional conditions prevailing. The programme as advertised was generally adhered to with remarkable precision. One of the most spectacular moments of a memorable afternoon was when a number of big R.A.F. flying boats, having arrived over the aerodrome exactly on time, loomed out of the rain and cloud and went roaring overhead. Among these craft was the great, six-engined Short Sarafand.

As the displays went on, they exemplified the growing importance of wireless communication between aircraft in flight and ground receiving and transmitting stations. This essential feature of military aviation was illustrated at some of the early displays by an exchange of messages between squadrons of fighters manoeuvring high above and a ground control-point situated on the aerodrome. A dramatic culmination was reached one afternoon when King George the Fifth, seated at a table in the Royal Enclosure at the display, spoke into a microphone an order which was carried out instantly by a number of fighters thousands of feet above. Loudspeakers all over the aerodrome conveyed these wireless messages to the ears of the spectators.


AEROPLANES WHICH WERE USED IN THE 1936 DISPLAY being lined up in the aircraft park at one end of the aerodrome. Apart from these aircraft, which performed the various demonstrations of the work of the Royal Air Force, there were many aeroplanes in the experimental-type park which were taken up during the programme for a fly-past.

The display of 1934 showed the wonderful precision attained in air drill. Air drill that year was demonstrated by regular and auxiliary squadrons. The sight of these squadrons overhead, manoeuvring with the precision of a regiment of Guards, was one of the most impressive spectacles that could be imagined. A formation of flying boats passed over the aerodrome during that afternoon. These machines included marine aircraft of the Southampton and Singapore types. It was during that 1934 display, also, that the public had its first glimpse, among the experimental aircraft, of the Heyford night bomber.

A particularly brilliant feature of the display of 1935 was a demonstration of aerobatics by R.A.F. pilots. The aerobatics included upward rolls, climbing rolls, rocket loops, figure-of-eight loops and some amazing slow rolling. All these manoeuvres were performed with wonderful skill and the spectators were greatly impressed. Moreover, each display illustrated the progress achieved from year to year in the design and construction of military aircraft, and the increasing speed, manoeuvrability and range of fighters and bombers.

In the same year people were able to obtain an impressive view of the D.H. Comet aircraft, winner of the England-Australia race.

A novel feature of 1936 was the appearance of many historical aircraft of early days, reconstructed ingeniously so that they could play their part in the display. There was also an impressive demonstration of modern radiotelephony in its application to military aviation. In addition, the public were able to secure a glimpse of a fast new fighter of the Spitfire type.

The admirable display of 1937 was one of the most successful of the whole series. The display included — among many other striking items — some dive-bombing and a mock-combat between a Demon and an Overstrand.

With the end of the 1937 display the curtain descended on a phase of British aviation which will always linger in the memories of those who have seen flying emerge from its crude pioneer days into all the wonders of the present time.

Empire Displays Proposed

One striking fact is that the speed and performance of the modern flying machine have made it increasingly difficult to stage any aerial display which can be seen effectually by any great gathering of people assembled on any particular spot. Anyone, for example, trying to stage with Hurricane fighters an item to be seen by people surrounding an aerodrome is confronted by the fact that these machines move through the air at so great a speed that they may be over the flying ground one minute and several miles away the next. It is much the same with the latest high-speed bombers. They, too, are here one moment and gone the next.

Preoccupation with rearmament programme was one of the reasons which made the authorities consider it advisable to suspend the Royal Air Force Displays — at any rate for the time being. But it is certain that, with a return to normal conditions, the British public will demand to see again some annual event which demonstrates the progress which is being made in the air.

New conditions will call for new methods. The displays as we have seen them are things of the past. Some entirely fresh technique will have to be devised for overcoming the problems caused by the speed and manoeuvring power of present-day aircraft. Moreover, future displays may illustrate Britain’s progress in commercial aviation, and more particularly in Empire air transport. Those who make a special study of the subject consider that in future a demonstration of flying may well be combined with a carefully organized ground exhibition illustrating, in maps, models and different types of aircraft, the whole progress of aviation from its earliest days to the present time.

Another suggestion is that a great British air pageant, combining a fine historical section, should after it has fulfilled a series of engagements at an aerodrome near London be sent out to repeat these performances at many of the great provincial centres. Yet another suggestion is that the pageant, after it has completed a tour of the British Isles, should then set off on a flying tour of the Empire. Officially sponsored, and rendered complete in every detail — historical and modern —such a great “flying circus” would, it is argued, do incalculable good in still further developing the air-mindedness on which, without a doubt, the future prosperity of the British Empire now depends.

Five Tiger Moths practising formation flying

MUCH PRACTICE WAS REQUIRED to perfect the various demonstrations. Five Tiger Moths from the Central Flying School, Upavon, Wiltshire, where R.A.F instructors are trained, are shown practising formation flying in this illustration. The manoeuvre being performed by the pilots is particularly difficult because the leader of the formation is flying his aeroplane in an inverted position.

You can read more on “The Art of Aerobatics”, “Formation Flying” and “Training RAF Pilots” on this website.

The Hendon Royal Air Force Pageant