"The pulsing, driving heart..."
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Mark Hanna – Pt.3 – A Knight of the Air

Mark Hanna – Pt.3 – A Knight of the Air

By his 30th birthday, Mark Hanna had established himself as part of the “Hanna flying legend” – his leading role in several high-profile film productions and his extraordinary airshow flying saw to that.

Where Ray was the master of very low and smooth air display flying, Mark’s displays were full of motion as he dived and pulled the piston fighters through an exciting sequence of dynamic manoeuvres – “aggressive handling with graceful, smooth edges”, as described by one of his peers.

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The arrival of F4U-4 Corsair N240CA, Grumman Avenger N6827C, a modified AT-6 “Zeke” and Hispano Buchón G-BOML in 1988 saw the company’s aeroplanes becoming ever more prolific at airshows across Europe. The following year saw an ex-German Air Force MiG-21 delivered to Duxford, where it remained as a static exhibit throughout its time with the company (paving the way for OFMC’s other static Eastern Bloc jets such as the MiG-17 and Sukhoi Su-22), and in 1990, the fabulous T-33 Shooting Star N33VC.

“Jet power!” wrote Mark for Warbirds Worldwide. “I had forgotten the excitement, noise and smell; plus the thrill of quiet effortless flight, 360 knot cruise speeds, arriving for the break at 420, powered controls and speed brakes, G suits and bonedomes. Fantastic. After a three year absence from military F-4 flying I’m re-hooked and looking forward to Hunters, F-86s and Sea Hawks!” Of the jets, Mark wrote in 1991 that “it is important to fly early jets fast and tight, pulling lots of G. This shows the full technology jump over the piston engined fighters. I pull 5 ½ to 6G on entry to most of the vertical and horizontal manoeuvres”. Whether in piston or jet, his inimitable approach shared hallmarks of his father’s flying, certainly, but with its own vivid identity.

1991 saw the ex-Royal New Zealand Air Force Goodyear FG-1D Corsair G-BXUL and former Iraqi Air Force Hawker Fury ISS G-BTTA join the fleet. A second Spitfire followed when OFMC began operating PR.XI PL965 on behalf of the Medway Aircraft Preservation Society and owner Chris Horsley. Mark made the aircraft’s post-restoration test flights in December 1992 and it joined OFMC at Duxford in early February 1993.

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“Mark had a delicacy of touch with aeroplanes that I’m sure Ray had, but he was equal to it”, says Brian Smith. “Ray had the depth of experience to get a bit more out of the aeroplanes in terms of presenting them, as that’s a learning process that never stops. Ray was renowned for looping and swooping. Mark would perhaps present the aeroplane more individually. There was so little between them, it was almost indistinguishable, yet you would know instantly which of them was flying as their styles were so subtly unique. Ray and Mark believed that historic aircraft should be displayed to the public in an exciting but safe way, and we were expected to fly the aeroplanes in a sympathetic but dynamic manner.”

Norwegian warbird pilot Lars Ness first met Mark Hanna in summer 1989.  Mark had brought Spitfire Mk IX MH434, adorned at the time in photo-reconnaissance blue, to Norway for a series of airshows.  “He was a striking character”, he remembers.  “The sort of person you’d notice when he entered the room, who you wanted to be around and wanted to be friends with.  At the same time, he had this openness to him and this enthusiasm that was very inviting, and undoubtedly infectious.  I’d always been a fan of Spitfires and Mark immediately invited me to sit in MH434 and gave me a full cockpit brief.”

Lars had recently converted to the Scandinavian Historic Flight’s A-26 Invader Sugarland Express. “On one particular occasion very soon after we met in 1989 we flew together in the Invader, with Mark as my co-pilot.  We were doing a show in north-western Norway, with me and Mark in the Invader and Rolf Meum flying P-51D Mustang Old Crow.  On the way back down south we ended up flying a dogfight between the Mustang and Invader in the Norwegian fjords.  There I was wheeling a big bomber amongst the mountains trying and failing to avoid getting a Mustang on my tail, with Mark beside me using his brilliant fighter pilot’s knowledge to call out positioning!”

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Ness spent a happy decade flying alongside the Hannas at events across Europe, and noted the subtle differences that gave father and son their identities as display pilots:

Ray and Mark both flew with genuine passion. The way they flew reflected the differences in their personalities.  Ray was very smooth but at the same time, always flew very fast, big swooping figures that showed off the aircraft at the perfect angles.  Mark, being younger and slightly more aggressive, flew in a way that reflected that youth.  He manoeuvred that bit harder than Ray did, with a younger fighter pilot’s demeanour, yet he was also very smooth.  The way he briefed, the way he carried out his RT procedures and the way he led in the air had the crispness of a fighter pilot.  When he flew, he had fun but he knew it was about the crowd – he was giving them a good show, and everything he did in an air display environment was done with the crowd in mind.  I think he enjoyed that about display flying.  It was an outlet for him to share his great passion and love with people.

As a fellow pilot, Mark would expect a lot from people flying with him and you would always try to live up to that. He was utterly professional and set an incredibly high standard, demanding the same from people who flew with him.  He once told me, ‘There’s no excuse for not being there’ when flying in formation, and he’s absolutely right.  That’s very simple, good advice.  If you’re going to do this, you have to be there in the correct place – Mark expected that, and likewise, if he was flying on your wing, he would absolutely always be tucked right in there.

Mark came up to me at one of the Classic Fighter airshows, needing someone to fly the Mustang in the closing ‘Balbo’ formation. He asked me if I thought I could do that, and I said, ‘Do you think I’m ready to do it?’  He said, ‘I know you can’, and introduced me to Hoof Proudfoot who was leading in the P-38.  He took me over to the Lightning and showed me over the aircraft, pointing out the formation reference points on the airframe and discussing the airspeed and power settings needed for formation flying.  Whenever he had advice, it was spot on – it was exactly what you wanted to know and more importantly, what you needed to know.  No words wasted.

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Former Royal Norwegian Air Force fighter pilot Rolf Meum had flown alongside the Hannas in the mid-1980s, eventually becoming a regular fixture on OFMC’s pilot roster from 1989. “Mark was a very competent fighter pilot; what we call in the military an ‘aggressive pilot,’” he reveals, “which means the desire to constantly work at achieving excellence. It means you fly at the optimum and aggressively try to achieve perfection at all times, whether it’s the optimum altitude, airspeed or manoeuvres – if you want to fly at 10,000ft and 250 knots, you fly at exactly that. It’s very much the difference between an average pilot and an excellent pilot. It’s nothing like being reckless – it’s flying to those minute details and finding the absolutely clear margins close to the edge of the envelope. Mark was always trying to get to the edge of the envelope in whatever he flew.

“It’s in a dogfight situation that you see the qualities of other fighter pilots”, explains Meum. The pair flew against one another in the spirit of competition countless times – some days they would fly off in two fighters, tangle to the north of Duxford and then land to swap aircraft. A hard manoeuvring tail chase would escalate, both men jockeying for position, often in types that never fought against one another in wartime.

“Mark would always push hard to the limit, and he was a very difficult opponent to fly against. He never let his guard down and was always on the ball. You could see clearly in Mark the extraordinary ability to extract that little bit extra out of each aeroplane’s individual performance. He was so in tune with what he was doing that it was natural for him to be right on the edge of the envelope. He had that tactile feel on the controls when the aeroplane is talking to him – not all pilots have that. In combat terms, that’s the guy who’s going to win, and Mark did. He was right up there as the best I’ve flown against, ever.”

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One occasion saw them head to the ILA Berlin Air Show, Mark flying the FG-1D Corsair, Rolf the Spitfire PR.XI. Launching ten minutes before their display slot, the friends soon found themselves locked in a duel as they fought to gain the advantage over the other. “What else are you doing to do?!” laughs Rolf. “I was manoeuvring hard in a light, nimble Spitfire against a fairly heavy, not-so-nice-around-the-stall aeroplane like the Corsair. I should have held all the cards in that situation by a long shot – but I was working so hard non-stop to keep Mark off my back. He was using manoeuvring flap to greatly enhance his turning performance at low airspeed, and he did what should not be possible by getting onto my tail.

“The way he flew that day was beyond compare. The Spitfire will outturn most aeroplanes of its era, and easily the Corsair, but be it flat turns, climbing turns, diving turns – Mark was the superior. It illustrated just how damned good he was. That Corsair must have been at the absolute limits of its performance. But he could do that and had that ability to read and understand the aeroplane and how to exploit its characteristics to the very edge, whether it was a Corsair, a Spitfire, a MiG-15 or a Hunter.”

Meum remembers the fun that could be had flying alongside the Hannas – and the trouble it could get them into. “Ray led Mark and I back to Duxford on a gorgeous evening after an airshow in three of the piston fighters. We wired up Duxford after hours for a few minutes when we got back. You see today a 230-metre line at airshows. Well we were on around a 20-metre line at 30ft at high speed. I still remember Ray stood next to the aeroplanes with his parachute over his left shoulder and his helmet in his hand [after landing]. The airfield manager David Henchie came round the corner of the tower, slightly on his toes and leaning forward, and that’s when Ray said, ‘Guys, I think we’re in the shit’. And for a period there, we were in the shit a lot! To put it mildly, we had a little correction from the airfield manager.”

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“Henchie and Mark – the relationship was hilarious!” laughs John Romain. “He was always trying to rein Mark in and calm him down. He used to live in the officer’s mess across the road, so he knew full well when Mark would turn up after hours and throw something around over the field. Henchie had a radio in the mess and would call, ‘Mark! It’s 8pm! Land, now!’”

As OFMC’s collection grew exponentially, so too did its pilot roster. At the Hannas’ invitation, Romain first flew Spitfire Mk IX MH434 in summer 1991. “The weekend after flying MH434 for the first time was my birthday; it was the Alconbury show and the Spitfire was scheduled to be on static. Ray and Mark said, why not take it there for your first show away? That was very generous of them – they were always very willing to share the experience with others.”

Romain went on to fly extensively with OFMC; an early-’90s deployment to Norway was particularly memorable – ten days in Spitfire MH434 with Mark alongside in OFMC’s Buchón, taking the fighters out low-level amongst the mountains and through fjords before heading to Oslo to meet Anders Sæther and Old Crow for a ‘jolly’. He reflects:

It was always eventful, travelling with Mark. Sometimes you didn’t know what you’d be flying, where you’d be going or what you’d be doing until the eleventh hour – you never knew what was coming around the corner, and it was quite exciting as a result. Mark once called me on a Thursday and asked, ‘John, what are you doing this weekend? Do you want to fly for us?’ I met him at OFMC’s offices on Friday morning and he said, ‘Well, I was going to put you in the Spitfire, but I think I’ll fly that. Have you flown a Corsair?’ I explained it’d been a few years since I last flew Lindsay [Walton]’s machine, and he said, ‘Great, well you can fly the Corsair down to France with me and display it in the show’. Right – OK!

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On one occasion, I took the Mustang to an airshow in the south of France alongside Mark in the Corsair. I was going to fly the Corsair during the show. A friend of the Hannas had a T-28 based there, but he wasn’t a display pilot. We were sat at the briefing and Mark said, ‘John, you’ve got a couple of spare hours in the middle of the programme, you can fly the T-28’.

I said I’d never flown a Trojan before and he said, ‘Well, go off ten minutes before your slot, then come back and display it’. At the end of the weekend, I had an hour in the T-28 and had flown three displays in two aircraft!

There was lots of low-level ferrying across the sea and across the continent. There was a time when we’d been up to East Fortune as a group with the MiG, Corsair and Mustang. The aeroplanes were stuck up there in bad weather and I was called the following week. We all bumbled off on an Easyjet flight up there. Mark asked me to navigate in the Corsair. The MiG went off on its own with Al Walker, and I set off with Mark and someone else. We flew to the east coast and ended up low-level in the valleys in bad weather – and we were low.

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I remember going through these valleys low and looking over my shoulder and Mark was nailed on my wingtip. We got back to Edinburgh and Mark said, ‘That was one of the best severe weather navigations I’ve seen – well done, but you could’ve gone a bit lower and got into the weeds to put the definition of the cloud above us.’ I thought we were down in the weeds as it was!

They were exciting times. Transiting around Europe with a bunch of fighters and good mates – those memories stick with you forever. Flying around the country with guys like Mark Hanna, Hoof Proudfoot and Jack Brown, ex-air force boys who’d recently left the service and had flown Phantoms, Harriers and Jaguars low-level.

They were amazing to just watch – studying maps and working out low-level routes we could fly across the UK and Europe to avoid general aviation traffic. Then we’d strap in and head off with a gaggle of fighters, routing low-level over the countryside at 200 knots using only hand signals and using visual points of reference to navigate. That was an incredible learning experience for a young pilot.

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Nick Grey first met Mark Hanna in 1981. Their fathers were flying alongside one another regularly at the time and indeed, Ray was flying some of Stephen’s aeroplanes at airshows. “Any time we’d shoot the breeze and stand a beer, we’d be talking about our dreams of flying piston fighters”, Nick recalls. The sons soon began flying warbirds in the mid-1980s. “Marky left the air force in 1988 and at around the same time, I moved to the UK for five years or so. I’d be up at Duxford quite regularly and really got to know him well. We’d crash at each other’s pads, and he became my best mate in that respect, certainly in aviation circles.”

They went on to fly together at around 20 airshows. A simulated dogfight act with Buchón and Spitfire Mk IX ML417 proffered some particularly exciting flying. “We’d talk about tactics and he’d impart his knowledge from the air force – unsurprisingly, he’d often win! He was all about fighter aircraft and fighter pilots, that was his big thing – knights with wings.”

The air-to-air combat became a staple of Messrs Grey and Hanna’s flights. “I don’t think we’d go to or from an airshow without a bit of air combat before landing, and we got pretty good at it. That’s where we started testing some of the stories about which aircraft were better and why – you read it in the books, then you go and do it.

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“We flew plenty of those comparative dogfights – Hellcat versus Spitfire; Hellcat and Bf 109G; Corsair and Messerschmitt, and so on. I remember feeling very vulnerable in some duels and king of the hill in others. You come to realise that, for example, the Spitfire is absolutely unsinkable against a Messerschmitt unless you fly it badly. The Mustang can dictate the fight if it has the advantage of high airspeed and altitude, but it was hopeless at lower speed. The Hellcat’s huge wing enables it to hang with the Spitfire in the turn. Those kinds of insights were fascinating, and it was pretty amazing to be able to do it as a couple of mates in our 20s and 30s.

“We flew one display at Bentwaters, him in the modified T-6 ‘Zero’ and me in the Hellcat. The Hellcat was good at slow speeds and we were really going for it. I have vivid memories of us at about 2,500 feet, way under the stall speed and ballistic, with the two aeroplanes drifting towards each other and missing one another by what felt like inches. ‘Knock it off, knock it off!’ Bl-oo-dy hell!

“One chilly day, he checked me out in the replica Nieuport they operated. I took it up and started flying some loops, barrel rolls and what not and thinking, this is so weird, why are the ailerons drifting up so much as I accelerate? I thought, freaking hell, this is nuts! I landed and Marky came bounding over and said, ‘What were you doing there?’ ‘What do you mean?’ ‘You shouldn’t loop it!’ ‘No?’ ‘No way, it’s not cleared for aerobatics!’”

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Renowned test pilot John Farley flew with the Hannas for the 1991 airshow season. He recounted some of his OFMC experiences to this author a few years before his death in 2018. “I can say with no exaggeration that the pre-flight brief Mark gave me before I flew MH434 for the first time was the finest I’ve ever received. Mark had candour few possessed. He was able to effortlessly combine immense technical knowledge and prowess with an ability to offer practical advice and put one immediately at ease. He was to the point, no words wasted, but he wasn’t curt. He had time for people, and that was important. On one occasion I had the misfortune of tipping MH434 on its nose at Biggin Hill and damaged the propeller. Naturally, I was mortified. The professionalism and warmth with which Mark handled that situation showed great integrity – a virtue lacking in all too many.”

Cliff Spink reconvened with Mark in 1992, joining OFMC after concluding his posting to the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight. “Young Mark was a natural aviator, much like his father”, he says. “He just wanted to fly, and he was built for that. His love for old aeroplanes was tangible. [Mark] was never one for book work, but when it came to the vintage aeroplanes, his knowledge was unsurpassed. Every spare moment was spent reading aviation books. He lived the vintage aviation scene like no one I’ve ever met.

“Flying with OFMC was a bit of a cat’s cradle – you had to be on your toes with Mark, as you never knew what was coming up! Mark had phoned me up one afternoon and said, ‘I know you’ve been flying ‘Black 6′ – would you like to fly the Buchón?’ I said yes, I’d love to, thinking it would be at Duxford on a nice sunny day. He said, ‘Oh, excellent. Could you go to Sion [in Switzerland] on Tuesday, collect the Buchón and take it to Warsaw for me, please?’ I should’ve said no, really, but that isn’t me! I duly arrived at Sion on Tuesday and headed north alongside John Lamont in MH434 to Warsaw via Augsberg and Belsen, arriving in Poland on Wednesday.

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“Mark was there, delighted to see us. We were ultimately going to the airshow at Deblin, south of Warsaw, on the Saturday and Sunday, and I was looking forward to 48 hours of enjoying Warsaw. Mark grabbed me as I was getting out of the Buchón and said, ‘Would you mind just popping back to the UK and picking up the Fury from Cranfield?’ I ummed and ahhed, and he duly added that I was due to get on a flight back to the UK in an hour!

“I eventually left Cranfield in the Fury, but had a hydraulic failure en route at an airfield in Holland. I made it back to Warsaw by the Friday via a city hopper flight out of Amsterdam, and off we went immediately to Deblin!”

Another occasion saw Spink tasked with collecting Old Crow from Sweden. “Mark asked me to take the Mustang from Sweden to Locarno [Switzerland] for a weekend display there, then head north to Pontoise in France on the bank holiday Monday for a show there before bringing it to the UK. The way Mark said it was so casual, as though he was asking me to make a little flight from Sywell to Duxford! It was quite incredible to see how he kept those plates spinning.”

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It took six years for former aerobatic champion Nigel Lamb’s schedule to allow him to accept the Hannas’ invitation to fly for OFMC; that he finally did in 1993, flying MH434 in the first instance:

OFMC was massive when I joined them. As an air display pilot, when you went to Duxford you got the sense that you were at the heart of the warbird scene, and to be there under the OFMC umbrella was pretty special. There was real momentum there; it was very exciting. They were the A-team of warbird operators, as far as I was concerned. Father and son had a shared, deep-rooted passion for the same thing. You felt that when you were invited into the family. Mark’s depth of passion for fighter pilot history and memorabilia was extraordinary.  He wasn’t ever pedantic about the way he went about his business – you brief for as long as you need to, then you go and do it.

It was just a fantastic time. Sometimes we’d take a whole bunch of aeroplanes onto the continent. You’d get the call – ‘Hey, are you free next week to take something to La Ferté?’ Going with Ray and Mark to Italy across the Alps with four or five aeroplanes was very memorable. We went to Switzerland quite a lot. All over Scandinavia. Germany, Poland, Czech Republic. [Ray and Mark] would sometimes say, ‘You lead this one’, and you’d lead the flight back from somewhere in Europe. It was very relaxed, yet professional. A bunch of likeminded aviators operating in a team on amazing historic aeroplanes.

Mark came into it as a jet guy. That’s a completely different discipline to the pistons, which are much more ‘stick and rudder’. To come out of the RAF having flown Phantoms and to transfer his natural talent to fly a wide variety of older generation piston fighters, from American radials to liquid cooled V12s, whilst also being able to fly the classic jets so dynamically, demonstrated the depth of his talent.

Ray and Mark had different styles. Ray’s forte was extreme, smooth low-level flying – he’d honed that craft flying at 50ft around Europe in jets. He was an exceptional leader. Mark flew with just as much passion as his father, but it translated differently, perhaps because of his youth. He displayed each aircraft to its strengths and adjusted his profile for that machine. The depth of knowledge was also amazing. Mark was a walking encyclopedia of knowledge about the aeroplanes that he was in love with, which was mostly Second World War fighters. ‘Passion’ doesn’t do it justice.

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“Mark went off on these tangents”, notes Brian Smith. “He had a thing for First World War aeroplanes for a time, and we had the likes of the SE5a and Fokker D.VII replicas under the OFMC umbrella. It was just something he fell in love with and worked out a deal to get the aeroplanes in; sadly, it wasn’t commercially viable. Odd aeroplanes would occasionally turn up. That blasted Dewoitine [D.27] was one of them, loaned to the company [by Jean Salis in 1997]. I seemed to fly it more than anyone else, perhaps because others had been quick to volunteer themselves for the other aeroplanes, and the engine failed on me more than once!

“There’s a photo of Ray and I stood by its tail at an airshow. Ray has a real glare on, which was because the engine had quit and I’d landed in the stubble field beside the runway and we’d had to push the aeroplane back to the flight line! I recall at one point [during the Breitling years] Mark was excited about brokering a deal with an American theme park to fly a dogfight sequence over the park every day. Stuff like that was pretty commonplace with Mark. He’d fall in love with something, and he’d try his damndest to make it happen.”

“One summer, I was sitting in his office with him when he answered the ‘phone to a German guy who lived near Hamburg”, laughs aerial filming specialist Simon Werry. “He explained to Mark that he had an Fw 190 in his garage – that was it. That was all Mark needed to hear. He’d been obsessing over getting an Fw 190 project and I think he’d convinced himself this might be the one. That afternoon, we were off on the hunt in the T-33, flying out to Hamburg then jumping in a taxi to this guy’s place. Sadly, he didn’t have an Fw 190 – he didn’t really have anything of substance!” The Fw 190 eluded Mark, but not for want of trying. In the early 1990s, OFMC and Sir Tim Wallis’ Alpine Fighter Collection commissioned an exciting joint venture for the manufacture of three replica Fw 190s – two A-8s, powered by R-2000 radials, and a Dora – incorporating original parts. The aircraft made it as far as Wigram before the project collapsed; the individual engaged to manufacture the replicas not only misappropriated the funds to restore another type in secret, but built the fuselages to the incorrect specifications and to subpar standards. It was a long, costly and ultimately deflating endeavour for all involved.

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Then there were the foundations of many an aviation film project; Mark flirted briefly with the concept of co-producing an adaptation of Cecil Lewis’ Sagittarius Rising, at one stage was co-authoring a script based on Brian Lecomber’s aviation adventure novel Talk Down, and played an integral role in the pre-production of Dark Blue World, the Czech Battle of Britain film shot after his death.

An earlier collaborative project that did get off the ground with the support of Simon Werry and Jerry Grayson was the OFMC-led Showscan cinema that occupied a corner of Duxford’s Super Hangar from May 1993. The contract was to provide a form of video entertainment to an audience sat on a moving base that simulated aerial movement. The Showscan format was the defining feature; shot on 65mm film and projected at 60 frames per second, it was one of the clearest high-definition systems at the time.

“Mark and I drew up the storyboards,” says Werry, “worked out what we could do with the budget, went out to the USA to pitch it and then eventually shot it in 1992. The FAA-certified camera system was installed on the T-33’s nose as the CAA wouldn’t approve it. John Crocker came over for that, and within a week we had a certified nose for the T-33 with a fixed 65mm camera.

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“The storyline was that two Buchóns would fly in towards Beachy Head at low-level, where they would be bounced by two Spitfires, one of which would be shot down. The Buchóns would then in turn be bounced by the second Spitfire, which would shoot down the leader. To achieve this, the T-33 camera-ship played the part of the second Buchón. 65mm cameras go through 1,000ft of film in 90 seconds at a cost of £10,000 for the roll of film and another £10,000 to process it –so we had to get the whole shot in one take”.

Ray would first bounce the two Spitfires at 50ft over the English Channel off the familiar coastline at Beachy Head. The T-33, Buchón and Spitfires would then fly a very close climbing and turning tail chase, one Spitfire diving away with appropriate black smoke effects to simulate being shot down. The second Spitfire would then peel away and fly astern the camera-ship, whilst Ray held formation on the T-33 in echelon, slotting into the frame ahead of the jet a few seconds before the Spitfire vigorously manouevred in front of the camera-ship to shoot down the lead Buchón. With a single opportunity to capture the sequence once the camera was rolling, timing and positioning were essential.

Werry continues, “We were chugging along at 250ft and 260kts and on cue, Ray slotted in from below and to the right of us. Without warning, the T-33 flicked upside down. All I saw was sea, then we were rolling rapidly and pulling hard. I came to with Mark calling, ‘Are you alright?’ I said I’d blacked out; he said he had too. Mark had pulled so hard upwards, he said we’d pulled 9G in the climb – and we didn’t have G suits. We flew straight back to Lydd to debrief. We’d caught Ray’s wingtip vortices, and it had flicked the T-33 inverted. Mark’s flying ability was such that he was able to read that and continue the roll and pull down to what he thought was around 50ft above sea level. In the next take, with the cameras rolling, we got it in one”.

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In August 1994, New Zealander Keith Skilling was invited to fly for the Hannas. Falaise was his first airshow, followed the next weekend by a two-week stint flying across eastern Europe with Mark:

Mark and I flew out to a show near Warsaw. I was in the Corsair and he was in ‘434. We spent several days in Poland, then flew down to Germany for a weekend of airshows there, then flew home. It was the most wonderful experience. As we flew over northern Europe and into the old Eastern Bloc, Mark gave me a running commentary on World War Two the whole way. He was a real historian and was pointing out specific locations and buildings the whole way – where the German Army had moved through during the Blitzkrieg and that sort of thing. Amazing stuff. We deliberately stopped at an airfield near Berlin with a building Goering had commissioned so that he could take us around it. Absolutely fascinating.

We had a very early GPS in those days, with a feed from two satellites. Mark was so embarrassed about using this thing – he wanted to go by compass, map and pencil, the old school way. He still wanted to do it the old way!

In Poland, we operated from a marginal helicopter strip. It was the first post-Cold War gathering of military helicopters in Europe. The first night, we were billeted in a police barracks which was this stark Eastern Bloc building. Bare concrete walls, plastic chairs screwed into the floor, queueing in line for food that was slopped onto your plate, that sort of thing. This was not to Mark’s standard – ‘I’m not putting up with this!’

After a bit of nosing around the next day to see who else was about at the airshow, we found the BAe industry trade stand. Mark got chatting to the BAe crew and eventually talked us into staying with them at the top hotel in town for the week – his charisma won the day with that one!

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By the mid-1990s, OFMC’s fleet typically comprised more than a dozen aeroplanes at any one time. Keeping the business afloat was a full-time job for Mark, and financially the company stood on unsteady ground; the big film projects often meant the difference between carrying on or potentially wrapping up the company at the end of a year, and most profit would be absorbed into aircraft maintenance. Aeroplanes and restoration projects came and went regularly, amongst them rarities like the Yak-3, P-63 and Zero, often sold on or traded to facilitate an engine change or repair work on the airworthy fleet. Even some of Mark’s “holy grails”, such as a Mark V Spitfire project that ended up with the Flying Heritage and Armor Collection in Seattle, had to be sacrificed.

“He assumed everyone would have the same enthusiasm as him,” comments John Romain, “not quite appreciating the concept that others perhaps didn’t share that level of enthusiasm and were more focused on the business side. That did get him down – he was driven by the flying, the aeroplanes and the history, and he couldn’t understand when other people needed to bring business into it. To Mark, it was like bringing business and severity to a garden party”.

The commercial pressures weighed heavily on Mark. “As OFMC became more of a business than a self-funding hobby, Mark did change”, says Brian Smith. “I saw a subtle change in his personality as the company increased in size and branched out into new projects. He had more of a business head on his shoulders, but old aeroplanes and flying were always in his heart. He was doing it all for that. I think he realised that to achieve his ambitions, he had to adopt a reasonably safe business approach to it. Yet even as the company grew, it retained that small family feel. Mark’s enthusiasm always shone through, though it had to be corralled by the business side of it, to an extent. Taking risks when you’re on a tight financial budget certainly had an impact, and you could see the ‘What if?’ at the back of Mark’s mind.”

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Mark was, Nigel Lamb says, “at his best on the trips away from Duxford” when he could leave behind the strain of managing the company. “I remember once saying to him how wonderful and special a place Duxford is. He said, it’s good to be reminded of that as when you’re running the business and you’re involved in the politics, you can lose sight of that. What was absolutely fantastic was going away from home with a bunch of aeroplanes and a group of good mates. That was when he was at his most relaxed. You’ve gone through every hurdle to get there, and the hard work has paid off.

“That’s the bit you dream about – for every hour you sit in the cockpit, you probably did four or five days of work to make that happen. From a social point of view, that was when he was golden. He wasn’t stressy, he was fun to be with. You’re aviators flying to an aviation event, so the talk was flying – you’re in Heaven, really. That was when he was golden. He was so quick witted and funny, everyone naturally gravitated towards him. A natural leader, someone people would rally around.”

Ex-OFMC engineer Tim Fane was one such follower. He remembers how the atmosphere the Hannas cultivated inspired loyalty. “‘So when are you coming to work for us full-time?’ This was Ray’s question to me as we put the aircraft back in Hangar 3, having just spent a day volunteering. Being gainfully employed by British Airways at the time it seemed a crazy idea, but after a few chats with Ange [Fane] over how it could work, the next discussion went like this… ‘I’ll pay you this much’… and with a handshake over the wing of MH434, my eight-year sojourn at OFMC began. You didn’t so much become an employee with OFMC but joined as part of the family. Long days were expected where necessary but were rewarded by generosity and fish and chips in the hangar when working late.”

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He continues:

Normal days, if there ever was such a thing at Duxford in those times, started with Mark and Sarah’s arrival. You could tell how things were by either a cheery good morning from both or the slamming of a car door with Sarah disappearing to the portacabin and Mark entering the hangar grinning like a naughty school boy – very much a typical brother-sister relationship. Like most families, within minutes of arriving on site any disagreements were quickly forgotten, and Mark would be flying suit on, feet up on his half of the desk, normally with a phone glued to his ear organising and planning airshows or film work. Always the consummate professional. Passing by the office to get a cup of tea, your name would be called out and you could get involved in the craziest notions of a certain film plot or some idea of operating a new aircraft type. Sometimes these were just ideas being floated about, but other times that rare type being discussed did actually appear in Hangar 3.

When Ray was at Duxford and flying was taking place the relationship between father and son was professional and unruffled, but on the odd occasion that a difference of opinion arose out of the office it would always be Mark that became flustered. At the same time, if you happened to catch Ray’s eye he would give a wry smile as his dry sense of humour came into play. There was never anger or animosity; just a few minutes silence and get on with the day. When flying together it seemed that Ray and Mark took delight in displaying the aircraft as only OFMC could, but this invariably brought out the wrath of Barry Tempest at airshows or David Henchie when flying after hours. I am sure they took great delight in timing how long it took for David’s blue Citroen to get from his house on the north side of Duxford to the apron as soon as he heard the whoosh of the Hunter’s avpin starter!

The early ‘90s meant trips into Europe for airshows and events were frequent. Poland, France, Czech Republic, Holland and Germany to name a few; sometimes a solitary Spitfire for a squadron commemoration, sometimes three or four aircraft flying off to a larger show. These trips were obviously tiring for both pilots and aircraft alike and I remember Mark saying that it would be good to have a base like Old Warden where people came to see the aircraft displayed, instead of flogging round the skies of Europe. This flying obviously had an effect because a few times Mark had asked for the F-86 or a Hunter to be prepped, and later in the day as we were walking out to the aircraft he would slow down and almost be embarrassed by saying he didn’t feel like flying. You’d return to the crew room for a cup of tea and more apologies from Mark for wasting a morning pre-flighting the aircraft. This is, in my opinion, the professionalism kicking in – if he didn’t feel like flying, he wouldn’t.

The last time I met Mark, I had left OFMC and was working for TFC. He came back from a trip in TFC’s Spitfire Mk XIV and I walked out to put some chocks under the wheels. He greeted me with a tired grin and proceeded to tell me they were off to Spain the next month. The rest is already known.

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“The pulsing, driving heart behind OFMC from very early on was Mark”, Sarah Hanna says resolutely. “I don’t want to take anything away from my father, but people forget that Mark was the absolute force behind this company. He had a profound depth of knowledge and an absolute love for vintage aviation. When he died, Father said, ‘I was always too hard on him.  The truth of the matter is, though I’ve always loved this, it was Mark who had the passion and the knowledge of the history’, and it’s true.  He was very much the one who drove the commercial side of OFMC.”

She smiles faintly. “It’s not the same without them here, is it?”

Read the other chapters of this five-part series at:

Part One – Dawn of a Golden Era

Part Two – Born of the Sun

Part Four – The Truly Great

Part Five – The Stars Look Down