Beneath the Aura
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Mark Hanna – Pt.4 – The Truly Great

Mark Hanna – Pt.4 – The Truly Great

A Messerschmitt Bf 109G hammers low-level along the runway at North Weald, pulling hard into the downwind with a classic fighter break. Back on the ground, its pilot removes his leather helmet and climbs out of the cockpit. He’s wearing a vintage flying jacket, and with his blond hair swept back, he absolutely looks the part. Elated and with an “excited schoolboy smile on his face”, he motions to the ground crew.

“How did that look?”

It’s Fighter Meet 1995 and Mark Hanna has just put on a characteristically storming performance in Messerschmitt Bf 109G-10 ‘Black 2’. He’d coveted the Bf 109 from a young age, religiously studying the type and the men who flew them.

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“The initial reaction is of delight to be flying a classic aeroplane”, Hanna wrote enthusiastically in 1995, “and the next is the realisation that this is a real fighter. You feel aggressive flying it. The urge is to go looking for something to bounce and shoot down!

“The aircraft delights in being pulled into hard manouevring turns at slower speeds. As the slats pop out, you feel a slight ‘notching’ on the stick, and you can pull more until the whole airframe is buffeting quite hard… There’s no doubt that when you are flying the 109 and you see the crosses on the wings, you feel aggressive.

“To summarise, I like the aeroplane very much, and I can understand why many Luftwaffe aces had such a high regard and preference for it.”

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Leased to the Old Flying Machine Company (OFMC) by its German owner Hans Dittes, ‘Black 2’ was a hybrid ‘109 comprising parts from Dittes’ Spanish-built Buchón and a genuine Bf 109G-10 fuselage, undercarriage units and engine cowlings obtained from Czechoslovakia. Dittes’ Buchón had been grounded following the shooting of Memphis Belle in 1989, and its wings were eventually married to the G-10 fuselage and the other components sourced from eastern Europe.

After a complex amalgamation of parts from both aircraft, the Bf 109 flew in its new configuration – and with a Daimler-Benz DB605 up front – for the first time at Mannheim-Neuostheim on 23 March 1995 with Mark Hanna at the controls. Following completion of the ‘109’s flight testing schedule, Mark flew the aircraft to the UK and débuted it at the end of Duxford’s VE Day Airshow on 8 May 1995.

The aeroplane remained under OFMC’s care for the following year and participated in a small number of events, most notably the aforementioned Fighter Meet at North Weald, where it formated with Bf 109 ‘Black 6’ and the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight’s Lancaster, Spitfire and Hurricane for an historic flypast, and the April 1996 Warbirds Over Wanaka airshow in New Zealand.

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“I like it as an aeroplane and with familiarity I think it will give most of the allied fighters I have flown a hard time”, Hanna wrote for Warbirds Worldwide with his customary enthusiasm and sharp-eyed insight, “particularly in a close, hard turning, slow speed dog-fight. It will definitely out-manoeuvre a P-51 in this type of flight, the roll rate and slow speed characteristics being much better.”

“The roll rate is very good and very positive below about 400 km/h, and the amount of effort needed to produce the relevant nose movement seems exactly right. As the stall is reached, the leading-edge slats deploy-together, if the ball is in the middle; slightly asymmetrically, if you have any slip on. The aircraft delights in being pulled into hard manoeuvring turns at these slower speeds. As the slats pop out, you feel a slight “notching” on the stick, and you can pull more until the whole airframe is buffeting quite hard. A little more and you will drop a wing, but you have to be crass to do it unintentionally.

“The Spitfire on the other hand is more of a problem for the ‘109 and I feel it is a superior close-in fighter. Having said that, the aircraft are sufficiently closely matched that pilot ability would probably be the deciding factor. At higher speeds the P-51 is definitely superior, and provided the Mustang kept his energy up and refused to dogfight he would be relatively safe against the ‘109.”

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“The Bf 109 was unbelievable!” says Nigel Lamb. “I flew alongside Mark when he was in the ‘109 a number of times, and there were several occasions where he had a problem to deal with in-flight, whether it was a cracked oil tank or other niggles. He told me that in 40 hours of flying, he had four or five reasonably significant technical issues. You just didn’t get that in the other warbirds. I wouldn’t have wanted to fly around in such a temperamental aeroplane. Now, Mark was absolutely not a risk taker – but, driven by his passion, he would take on a challenge like the Bf 109 with a level of acceptable quantifiable risk.” It was, Mark wrote, “without a doubt, the most satisfying and challenging aircraft” he had ever flown. There was something about the harmonious pairing of man and machine that just worked.

The Messerschmitt had a starring role in ITV’s comedy-drama Over Here, a two-part TV production chronicling a US Army Air Force B-17 squadron at an RAF Spitfire base. Filming of the airfield attack sequence took place at Sculthorpe in Norfolk, with Mark in ‘Black 2’ flying alongside Dave Southwood in ‘Black 6’.

“There were two specific shots they wanted”, remembers Southwood. “One was a head-on strafing run down the runway in close echelon, shot from a camera mounted on a car roof. We were so low, we were pulling up to avoid the camera – after the first few passes they asked us to fly a bit higher! Another was flying between a hangar and Nissen hut. It was great fun, beating up the place in a couple of Daimler-Benz ‘109s!”

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The arrival of two stunning examples of early jet aircraft in the mid-1990s was indicative of a shift towards OFMC’s expanded jet operations as ex-military aircraft began to come onto the market. First of these jets to arrive at Duxford in March 1994 was the F-86A Sabre, the sole surviving airworthy ‘A’ variant brought to the UK and owned by Golden Apple, followed in November by the SBLim-2A, a Czechoslovakian licence-built 1955-vintage MiG-15.

Former Harrier pilot Mark Linney flew many of OFMC’s classic jets from 1996. “I was the RAF’s Hawk display pilot in 1990 and didn’t know Mark before that. I turned up at Duxford for an airshow and this chap marshalled me in, put the chocks under the wheels, shook my hand and then took me to his portacabin to make me a cup of tea – he was very unassuming and instantly likeable. By that evening I was having dinner in his parents’ house in Parham and immediately made to feel like one of the family.

“It was the start of a long friendship with the Hannas and one which continues to this day with Sarah and Eunice. I left the air force in 1996 and I didn’t have a job to start with. The phone rang at around 10 o’clock one morning and it was Mark, asking me what I was up to. He said he’d be grateful if I could help him out, as he was filming a TV documentary on the Korean War. They had a Jet Provost with cameras in the tip tanks and they wanted to fly the Sabre and the MiG for the cameras, and he wanted me to fly the MiG. I dug my flying suit out of the attic and headed to Duxford.

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“Now I’d never even seen the MiG-15 in-person before! I was a little apprehensive as I sat in the aeroplane and Mark sat on the wing where he delivered a briefing on the aeroplane and its many idiosyncrasies. It was really full on – we spent a couple of hours going through everything. Though it was an unfamiliar aeroplane, he gave me such a comprehensive briefing that there was no question in my mind that I was comfortable flying it.”

Together, the pair would enact a Korean War air combat demo at many an airshow. “We used to fly the MiG and Sabre and would often toss a coin to decide who was going to be in which aeroplane. Mark used to prefer to fly the Sabre, principally because he would invariably end up shooting me down!

“There were a couple of occasions where we found ourselves away from controlled airspace in good weather with a bit of fuel in hand, and we’d do a bit of medium level practice that was to all intents and purposes a one-v-one air combat scenario, using RAF standard calls and procedures.

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“In the MiG, you tended to use the lightness and power in the vertical plane whilst the Sabre pilot’s job was to use its better aerodynamics to get into a turning fight. That was the sort of thing that I certainly never expected to be doing after I’d left the air force. It was great fun to explore the envelope of the aeroplanes – who would’ve thought you’d have two blokes in their 30s flying over Norfolk in 1996 recreating what the guys did over Korea in 1952, at a time before either of us even were born!”

The mid-1990s retirement of the Swiss Air Force’s Hawker Hunter fleet offered another watershed moment for OFMC. As Sarah Hanna points out, “It was a no brainer for Mark and Father to explore the Hunter market. Mark had done his tactical weapons training on the Hunter, and both he and Father loved them. Jets were then cheaper to operate than piston fighters, and it was about testing the classic jet market in the UK. That’s why there was a real boom in the 1990s as the ex-military jets came onto the civilian market. It was very much of its time”.

That it certainly was – few who visited Duxford at the time will forget the line-up of Hunters on the pan outside Hangars 3 and 4, amongst them ex-Swiss F58s and ex-RAF and Navy F4, T7 and T8 variants, and airshow goers will recall with fondness the terrific multi-Hunter set-pieces put together by the combined stables of OFMC and Barry Pover’s Classic Jet Aircraft Company at Duxford and Biggin Hill in 1996. At the time of Mark’s death, there were plans afoot to assemble a five or six-ship Hunter display team to tour Europe and beyond. What a spectacle that would have been.

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OFMC’s first two airworthy ex-Swiss Air Force Hunters arrived at Duxford in June 1996, just two days before the company’s Classic Jet and Fighter Airshow. Mark and Rolf Meum drove to Exeter to collect the newly signed-off and certified jets from Barry Pover, taking turns to drive and quizzing one another on the Hunter’s pilot’s notes during the four-hour journey. After check flights in each aircraft – Rolf’s first Hunter flight – the pair departed for Duxford. “We arrived in close formation at 540kts and 50ft”, Meum says. “We split and the two of us flew our respective solo displays for Rod Dean to approve, then broke to land. We were coming in on runway 24. Everyone was a little apprehensive about these Hunters landing at Duxford and Rod wanted us to do a roller just to get the feel for landing at that airfield.

“As we turn final, Rod says, ‘Remember to do a roller’. Mark answers, ‘If I get it down in the right spot the first time, I’m staying on the ground!’ I’m turning final – the world’s most inexperienced Hunter pilot with a total of one landing and an hour 40 flying time – and Rod says the same thing to me. I repeated Mark’s answer!” Mark and Rolf were back at Duxford the next morning to rehearse their display sequence a second time. With excess fuel to burn before their practice slot, the pair headed north to the fringes of Cambridge in their Hunters and, quite naturally, found themselves in another of their customary hard manouevring dogfights.

The friends went up against one another on camera the following year as they headed to the Pyrenees to shoot the explosive opening sequence of the new James Bond film, Tomorrow Never Dies, in which the Bond character would infiltrate – and quickly begin dismantling with extreme prejudice – an arms bazaar. Bond would commandeer a ‘MiG’ (L-39 Albatros) carrying nuclear torpedoes and take off from the airstrip’s short runway head-on with a second ‘MiG’ seconds before the bazaar’s destruction by a British cruise missile.

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“The brief was to simulate taking off from the airfield, which was achieved by completing a touch-and-go on a 350 metre airstrip that’s inclined at 11°, which is the climb out angle of a Boeing 737 after take-off”, Meum explains. Getting the shot, he says, was the ultimate test of his and Mark’s flying abilities. “The only way to make that work was to approach at the maximum gear speed of 146kts in level flight, fly the L-39 right down onto the runway at that airspeed and as you’re flaring for touchdown, open the throttle to full power, pin the nose wheel down and then rotate for take-off. That had to be done in four seconds, and in that time the airspeed has dropped from 146kts to 115kts.

“That’s just the perfect example of Mark flying to the margins – it had to be 146kts approach speed, it has to be a specific point that you flare and a specific point that you open the throttle. Approach above or below 146kts, flare a second too late, a foot too high or too far down the runway, open the throttle a second too late, or take more than four seconds from touching down to rotating, and you’re not getting off the mountain.

“Airspeed, positioning and timing had to be exact to the most minute details, or that aeroplane was going to go off the end of the runway, into the rocks and then into a sheer valley.

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“We approached it gradually until we could do it, and until we did it, we didn’t know if it was possible. Extreme conditions and the most extreme flying.” The second part of the aerial unit’s work saw the two L-39s dogfighting at low-level through the mountain ranges, where they had clearance from the authorities in France, Spain and Andorra to fly as low as 15ft over their national parks, whilst being filmed by a Corvette business jet equipped with an Astrovision camera system.

“We were flying very tight formation for the camera-ship and with the helicopters”, continues Meum, “rolling through small cutouts in the mountain sides. The filming is panoramic to get the scenery in and you have to be very close to the camera-ships to even see the aeroplanes. We flew some extreme low-level flying with those jets – three feet from one another, 15 feet off the side of a mountain. I alone flew about 60 hours working up to the point where we could safely fly to those margins.

“It was amongst the most demanding flying that Mark and I had ever done. The funny thing is that we had a health and safety guy who was there to raise his voice and say, ‘Hang on, guys’ if he saw something that looked dodgy. Mark’s doing these touch and goes – one foot wrong and it’s a disaster – and he thinks nothing of it. But Mark flies over at 1,000 feet and flies an aileron roll and this guy explodes about stunt flying and risk taking. We cracked up!”

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Mark’s last big film project was Steven Spielberg’s D-Day epic, Saving Private Ryan. He and Ray were tasked with flying the two Mustangs – Old Crow and Big Beautiful Doll– in the climactic bridge battle. “You need to have people who you trust, who will fly professionally with some style without causing any danger”, says Private Ryan aerial coordinator Marc Wolff. “There’s a difference between being a showman and being a show off. We hired the Hannas because we knew that they were very professional but had a flair in the way they flew without it becoming dangerous. There are a lot of skilled pilots around, but only a few who have the mental capacity to fly with some panache but be able to control that within such a controlled and rigid environment. The Hannas had the mental capacity to respect their own limits and the limits of the day.”

Spielberg hired the Mustangs for a single day’s filming at the sprawling Hatfield set depicting the fictional French town of Ramelle. They were scripted to appear in eight individual shots, carrying out low-level ground attack and strafing runs on German tanks and infantry. Says Wolff, “We talked Ray and Mark through the storyboards so they could see where the aeroplanes needed to be in relation to the set, from the camera’s perspective. There’s not a lot of depth from top to bottom of the frame, so we had a very small window for the Mustangs to fly through to capture them in the frame. That meant the aeroplanes had to fly in as low as possible above the rooftops and had to be very precisely positioned on each pass.

“It takes a lot of time to set up the pyrotechnics and rehearse the vehicles and actors on the ground”, Wolff continues. “You might get one take in an hour, then it will be several hours whilst the pyrotechnics are reset – so it’s important to get those big shots right the first time. We rehearsed the Mustang passes without explosives to ensure the aeroplanes hit their mark at the right time and the right height to place them in the correct position within frame. After each pass, we would radio Ray and Mark to give them feedback and explain how to adjust their lines of approach. You’re working to such tight parameters, both in terms of altitude and the degrees of approach to the set, and the pilots were working off visual cues and timing on their run in.

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“Mark was great to collaborate with”, Wolff laments. “He was always willing to put aside any ego to cooperate with the aerial unit to achieve what the director wanted without putting anybody else at risk. A pilot’s personality is almost more important than their skills, in aerial photography – we can find plenty of skilled pilots, but the hard thing is find a pilot who can work as a team and not be an individual, whilst delivering extraordinary flying. Mark had exactly the right approach to flying and to the projects we worked on. He always put the job first.”

Mark’s attitude paid dividends. He fostered enduring relationships with other warbird operators, inspiring confidence in his custodianship from the owners of the many aeroplanes flown under the OFMC banner. “He was able to reach out to people like Robert Horne at Golden Apple and become a custodian of their aeroplanes”, says Mark Linney. “Robert wouldn’t have given custody of his F-86 to Mark unless he understood that Mark had an empathy for the aeroplanes and the story behind them.”

Often he was invited to fly another owner’s aircraft, including Charles Church’s Buchón, the Historic Aircraft Collection’s Spitfire Mk IX TE566, Doug Arnold’s Mk IX NH238, Mustangs Moose, Old Crow, Susy and Sunny VIII, the Salis family’s Dewoitine D.27, Eddie Coventry’s Yak-11, The Fighter Collection’s P-47 Thunderbolt No Guts, No Glory and Spitfires Mk IX and XIV, and the Scandinavian Historic Flight’s de Havilland Vampire. He welcomed the opportunity to compare contemporary fighters, his knowledge of the history and technology and his own fighter pilot’s perspective giving him a balanced appreciation of their respective characteristics.

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He regularly displayed the native aeroplanes at airshows in New Zealand, amongst them P-51D Mustang, Spitfires Mk XIV and XVI, Grumman Avenger, P-40K Kittyhawk and Yak-3. In 1998, Mark flew the Hawker Hurricane for the first time – disappointing, he appraised, from a performance perspective, but lovely to fly an aircraft with such historical provenance – followed by the Polikarpov I-16 Rata.

15 years prior, Mark wrote, “I remember talking with Robs Lamplough soon after one of his warbird recovery coups of the late 1970s and early ‘80s, and him telling me about a Rata which had reputedly been belly landed on a remote hillside in Spain and which was still lying there in dilapidated but complete condition. I felt almost desperate with excitement to attempt to retrieve and rebuild this aircraft”.

Aeroplanes of the 1930s had a special appeal to Mark; particularly so those of the Spanish Civil War. “I am intrigued by tales of violent, dangerous close-in dogfights between early Me 109s, Fiat CR42s and the Polikarpov series fighters, Ratas, Chatos and Chaikas”, he wrote for Warbirds Worldwide. “Nearly 15 reasonably maturing years later, how incredible then to arrive at a high, dusty, mountainous airfield to see a flight of Ratas sitting outside, cockpit doors opened and straps set as if they were ready to take off for one last duel.”

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It was April 1998, and Mark was about to fly ‘Red 4’, one of the Alpine Fighter Collection’s restored I-16s. He continued in his write-up, “The Rata looks extremely racy. It is very small and overpowered for its time. Russian pilots more used to biplanes looked with horror at the tiny wings and lack of flaps (in later variants). Modern day pilots also look at the same features with raised eyebrows and a certain amount of trepidation.” With full span ailerons, no trimmers, “an undercarriage retraction system looking like a winch from a boat”, and appalling forward visibility on the ground and with instrumentation all in Russian, the Rata “promised a fairly exciting ride ahead”.

A number of sorties followed, the pinnacle of which was flying the Rata in a five I-16 sequence at Wanaka 1998, wheeling the racy fighter around the crisp autumn sky, scarf blowing in the wind. As with the Bf 109G, Mark relished the challenge of flying such an historic aircraft. “It is a real classic in its own right”, he recounted enthusiastically, “and with a European connection and history beyond its combat on the Russian front.”

“Tim wanted them all built as they were in the 1930s, rough as guts rather than perfectly painted and polished”, explains Keith Skilling, another of the Alpine Fighter Collection’s I-16 pilots. “Because of that, they all had little quirks and characteristics individual to each aircraft. They had slightly different flying characteristics, and some had different vibrations or different brake sensitivities. Each aircraft’s seat and rudder pedals were adjusted to the height of its pilot, so the same pilots flew the same I-16s.

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“Mark created something that was a really spectacular 15-20-minute display with formation aerobatics and tail chasing with the five I-16s that was different to anything we’d done before in New Zealand. I learned a lot from him in terms of putting together dynamic multi-aircraft display sequences.” The Rata display was a triumph. The five flew together in close formation, and split into two entwining routines – four making low-level formation passes while Mark flew his ‘Red 4′ solo, darting and weaving under and around the formation. Wanaka commentator Jerry Mead’s sentiments were shared by many: “To see a Hanna in a Poli’ has just made my weekend!”

Though a private man, Mark came alive when sharing his insatiable zeal for historic aeroplanes. He never lost sight of the fact that he was a custodian of the aeroplanes OFMC operated and was devoutly committed to the preservation of history – generously engaging with the public was part and parcel of running OFMC, and his disarming charisma won him many adoring fans. He could be a playful character, never shying away from a good-natured wind-up – whether it was conjuring rumours to subtly feed to the Duxford regulars, or depositing mock paint schemes for OFMC aircraft on MH434’s elevator in Hangar 3, in full view of the public side of the barrier. In one of his popular Warbirds Worldwide articles he teased the publication’s specialist readership with hints of a Stephen Grey-led project to assemble a “complete squadron of Typhoons” for the next Hollywood Normandy epic; “I hope he lets me fly one!”

“My father was the most reticent man imaginable”, Sarah Hanna continues. “He didn’t talk to many people other than the guys at the bar with a beer after a hard day’s flying because he was a man of few words and actually, the only company he really wanted to keep were other aviators and his family, and that was the company he kept. Both my father and my brother would happily talk to enthusiasts in the crowd, and they would take time to speak to people – particularly Mark, because Mark was better at it. My father had charm, but it was a very quiet charm. Mark had oodles of charisma and charm, and if people were interested, he would gladly share that at any given opportunity.”

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“Young, good looking, charismatic, fighter pilot, flies warbirds – come on! He ticked every box, surely!” laughs one of his colleagues. Times with Mark were often spent in mirth, the tall tales still raising a smile amongst friends and colleagues. “There’s a saying about pilots – when they’re flying, all they’re talking about is women, and when they’re with women, all they can talk about is flying!” laughs Marc Wolff. “Mark quite fancied the hairdresser on the Tomorrow Never Dies set. He was keen to go on a date with her and as a bit of a compromise, she offered to give him a haircut. So he goes into the trailer and he asks her to trim around the edges.

“Well, she cuts straight down the middle of his head with these electric clippers, like a reverse Mohican! He comes out of the trailer five minutes later with no hair. Everyone says, Mark, what have you done?! He said, ‘Oh, I was fed up with this hair, it was too hot in the helmet – but look, if anyone wants a haircut, she can cut it in any style you wish’. Within a half hour, the entire aerial unit had been shorn!” The crew cut, another friend attests, earned him the affectionate nickname ‘MC Mark’.

A few years earlier, OFMC had supported the airshow at Ambri, at the heart of the Swiss Alps. Mark’s “inevitably beautiful” girlfriend had flown out with Plane Sailing’s Catalina the weekend prior, spending the intervening days moored off Ascona on Lake Maggiore. Come the eve of the airshow, Mark had run into a spot of bother ferrying the Baghdad Fury to Switzerland when the speed tape covering the aeroplane’s sensitive Iraqi Air Force markings had detached in-flight. Briefly detained during a fuel stop in France, his arrival in Switzerland – and to dinner with his girlfriend – was delayed. How better to apologise than to take her on a flight through the Alps in the back seat of Mustang Old Crow, graciously ‘borrowed’ from the Scandinavian Historic Flight?

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He was certainly popular with the ladies – one of his friends remembers standing at the bar in the restaurant at La Ferté-Alais and seeing a French woman “coming up to Mark and handing over her telephone number without saying a word”. Yet, his peers stress, “he wasn’t a playboy by any stretch of the imagination – he had respect and discretion for his personal affairs”.

Beneath the impish smile and Hollywood film star looks was a true gentleman. Time and time again his friends describe him as “old school”, whilst John Farley cited Mark as “coming from a different era”; a man who valued old fashioned courtesies. “The opinions of his peers mattered to him”, remembers an acquaintance, “but for me, and those I worked with at ground level, his flying with OFMC, infectious enthusiasm and warm personality made him shine brighter than all of them”.

Former wing-walker Helen Tempest first met Mark when she was 19. She and her father Barry had flown out to an airshow in Sweden in Lindsay Walton’s ‘Me 108’, where they were due to be picked up and driven to a nearby hotel by Mark. “The first time I met him, I thought he was a pompous twit! We were tired, hungry and cold, and this vision of gorgeousness eventually turned up – I just thought, God, of course he’s this glamorous guy in his mid-20s who thinks he’s an aviation playboy! Far too gorgeous for his own good! It took quite a while to discover the person behind the myth.”

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The two spent many happy years participating at the same airshows – Mark with OFMC, Helen with Aerosuperbatics – and an enduring friendship blossomed. “Beneath the aura was a shy, charming, funny, nice bloke. The person underneath ‘Mark Hanna’ the myth was lovely. That’s what makes him so special. He used to come and stay with us. He’d turn up having done some amazing film thing and we’d say, ‘Ah, great, you’re here! Can you go into town to pick up a Chinese for us?’ He was just one of the gang, there was no ego or grandness there.

“He was allowed to just relax, have fun and be silly with a group of people who didn’t care who he was – we just cared that he was nice.”

As OFMC’s Managing Director, Mark earned great respect from his peers for the way he managed the company’s affairs. He looked out for his staff unequivocally, says Simon Werry: “It didn’t matter who they were – receptionist, engineer or pilot, Mark would go out of his way for them if they were struggling personally. He was incredibly generous with his time. That was the man.”

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Brian Smith remembers him as a true gent whose “ethos towards OFMC’s pilots and staff never changed despite the commercial pressures he was under”. He would, Smith comments, “smooth the waters” and “go to great length to ensure a disagreement didn’t turn into a potential conflict – he didn’t like upsetting people, which isn’t easy when running a business where commercial decisions won’t always sit well”.

A person’s word meant everything to Mark; deals were done honestly with a handshake and a look in the eye – a mantra that could be cruelly exploited by those who lacked the Hannas’ decency. “His word was his bond”, says Mark Linney, “and that’s how he was brought up. He had a lot of trust in people and on one or two occasions, that trust was misplaced. I think he may have been a little bit naïve, actually; he had good character and he sometimes thought everyone else had as good a character.

“If he wasn’t happy with something that was going down, be it in a flying sense or otherwise, he would tell you in no uncertain terms that it wasn’t acceptable to him”, he laughs. “Mark used to give quite good bollockings, but he gave them in an oddly nice way, which made them even more effective! You didn’t feel like you’d been told off, but you knew you had – it was quite humbling, really. It was delivered in a constructive but unequivocal way. You absolutely knew you’d crossed a line with him. I never saw him raise his voice, ever. He’d drop his chin, look up at you, tilt his head and make intense eye contact with you, then tell you exactly what was on his mind. No grudges were held, words were had and that was that. Mostly you felt bad for letting him down.”

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His demeanour, Linney adds, inspired loyalty. “Mark was obviously a very competent pilot and had that all sewn up. In his dealings with people, he wanted to do the right thing and please people. He was quite a serious chap at times and had quite a focused approach to life. He cared a lot. I think people appreciated that about Mark.

“He wasn’t into that kind of leg pulling and wasn’t the joker his father sometimes was. Ray was the complete opposite and his humour was bone-dry. When Ray teased you, you thought, ‘Yes!’ If you were the object of his joke, then he’d accepted you and that felt quite nice.

“I was at Duxford once and Mark said to me, ‘Come on, let’s go for a drive’. We got in the car and went to Saffron Walden and sat there chatting away as he had his hair cut! He was Mark Hanna, this big name in warbird aviation, inviting this guy he didn’t know particularly well to come with him for a chat while he was having his hair cut. He had no greatness about him in that respect; he was very down to earth.”

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Lee Proudfoot had known Mark since the 1980s. Though he didn’t join OFMC full-time until after Mark’s death, the two flew alongside one another – Mark with OFMC, Lee with The Fighter Collection – during the intervening years. “When Mark spoke, everyone would listen. He had boundless time and energy for people. I remember when I was getting into the scene, I used to think Ray and Mark would never want to talk to me! But they’d stop and ask me how my flying was going and how I was getting on. They were both very courteous and polite; they found time for you in an environment where there wasn’t always time. For Mark in particular, that must have added to the stress of his position, but he took it in his stride and made that part of who he was.”

“Like many, Mark and Ray were my idols of the warbird world”, says professional photographer Gavin Conroy, “and fortunately they both came out to New Zealand several times to fly at Warbirds Over Wanaka. In 1994, I had a modest interest in warbirds – never even had a camera back then – and at Easter time that year I attended Wanaka as there was one aircraft making its debut that I had always wanted to see due to reading about them tipping V1 buzz bombs on their way to England. This aircraft was the Mk XIV Spitfire NH799 that had just been imported to New Zealand by Sir Tim Wallis.

“I saw Mark display it several times during the show; how his skill and finesse blew me away, even more so when Ray and Mark flew together. Ray flew the Mk XVI TB863 also owned by Sir Tim and both wore striking D-Day stripes. I don’t think I have ever seen quite as good a show by these two that year. However, the first time I saw the Mk XIV was a couple of weeks before that show as the aircraft flew into Omaka for gas and flying it was Mark! I had no idea it would be turning up and was even more amazed to see who was flying it. I walked over to have a look at this awesome piece of machinery as Mark was putting the fuel in it. Mark headed for the main hangar so while he was away I wandered around the aircraft. A few minutes later, Mark came back. I didn’t see him at first as I was gazing into the canopy, and this voice behind me said, ‘Well, what do you think of it?’

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“For a start I was a bit lost for words, but Mark put me at ease by explaining a few things about the aircraft. He asked if I had any questions and I said, ‘It must be really difficult to see over that long nose from the cockpit’. He said, ‘It is – so why don’t you have a seat in it and see for yourself’, and I was in like a shot! He then went around the instrument panel and even showed me the process of starting the aircraft. We must have discussed the machine for more than 20 minutes. Eventually I got out of the aircraft, and with a smile and a wave Mark took off and headed south to Wanaka. It was right there and then I caught the bug; Mark had shown me how accessible warbirds and their pilots can be.”

“I never saw him turn away a punter”, nods Werry, “regardless of how busy he was”, recalling that “Mark would find any opportunity to get children and interested bystanders into the cockpit. I think he genuinely relished the chance to share his love of historic aviation. It was never a dutiful chore for him.

“Despite his position and his professionalism, Mark could poke fun at himself- he didn’t take himself too seriously”, Werry says. “When Blackadder Goes Forth came out, we watched it about five times in a row in his little rented cottage one winter, drinking quite a lot of beer and whisky. It was the episode where Blackadder meets Lord Flashheart. He said to me with this wry look, ‘Am I like that?!’ and I said, ‘Yep, that’s you’. We just fell about laughing.

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“Of course, he wasn’t really; but we had a real laugh over it. On one film shoot a couple of years later, OFMC’s Hawker Fury was painted in German markings to play the part of an Fw 190. The OFMC crew asked me how we wanted the ‘Fw 190’ painted up. I told them to paint an emblem under the cockpit – a heart with a lightning flash running through it. Mark walked out and saw it and just cracked up.”

The two were the very best of friends. Together, they worked on more than 50 film and television projects, co-authored film scripts and planned movie adaptations. “Mark would sometimes fly down to Plymouth on a Friday afternoon in the Harvard or whatever was kicking around. He’d spend the whole weekend with my wife and I, and our kids would be jumping all over him – they adored him – then we’d have a huge Sunday dinner together, and I’d drop him off on Monday morning at Plymouth so he could fly back to Duxford.

“One time when he was down for the weekend with his girlfriend, we ended up in A&E. Mark loved playing with my half-blind half-Collie half-Lab, and while we were walking in the fields he’d been playing around throwing a stick for the dog. Suddenly I hear, ‘Err, I think we might need to go to A&E…’ and turn round to find Mark clutching his bloody hand. He was holding this stick between his thumb and forefinger and the dog had accidentally bitten through his thumb!

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“That was pretty standard for him – he was always breaking something. It sounds like an odd thing to recall out of all our experiences together, but that’s the kind of fun, happy time I remember when I think of Mark. OFMC was everything to him, but, ultimately, I think he wanted a home life too. I think that’s where he saw his life going eventually; he felt he was missing out on that. I think I saw a side to him that few people did.

“An abiding memory I have is actually something very simple – an airshow day at Duxford, the two of us lying under the wing of the Harvard, watching everyone doing their thing. Just living and enjoying life. That was who Mark was. He has this mythical aura about him now, but he was just a good, honest man who lived life absolutely to the fullest.”

The combination of flying capability, warm charisma and inherent decency won OFMC the Breitling Fighters contract in 1999. “Breitling was seeking a platform of four or five fighter aircraft to represent the purity and beauty of flight at airshows and private events, and their brief really gelled with our organisation’s ethos”, Sarah explains. “Father and Mark weren’t given to many words, they were just quiet men who did what they did beautifully and I suppose for Breitling, that added up to something they were happy to identify with their watches. Breitling came to Mark, it wasn’t him going out there and looking for sponsors. Breitling were trying to identify an organisation with the right profile and Mark fitted that profile. He looked right, he flew right and OFMC had the right panache, for want of a better word.”

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“If you watched the way Mark flew, saw the warmth with which he engaged with the public, and were absorbed by his charismatic energy, you’d understand why Breitling went for him”, says Proudfoot. “It was the Hanna brand that won OFMC the Breitling contract. They wanted the passion and emotion that Mark’s character and his flying could bring. [Breitling] had a passion for aviation and needed the characters alongside the aeroplanes – Mark was integral to that and gave the Breitling Fighters the look and feel that then continued until the end of the contract.”

“Mark wasn’t just a display pilot”, says Mark Linney. “That does him an injustice. He was a visionary. He didn’t want to go into the airlines, he wanted to build a business around the vintage aeroplanes he loved – he bought and sold a lot of aeroplanes and built up the classic jet scene. The culmination of his hard work was the Breitling Fighters.”

With Breitling’s sponsorship rewarding OFMC with the financial security the Hannas had always sought, the company’s future was full of promise and possibilities. It was, Sarah Hanna says, a way for Mark to enhance everything he’d been working so diligently towards over the last 15 years.

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

Part One – Dawn of a Golden Era

Part Two – Born of the Sun

Part Three – A Knight of the Air

Part Five – The Stars Look Down