Legacy
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Mark Hanna – Pt.5 – The Stars Look Down

Mark Hanna – Pt.5 – The Stars Look Down

John Romain remembers his final conversation with Mark Hanna. It was 23 September 1999 and Mark was about to make for Spain in the Buchón. “Our birthdays are only ten days apart, and we’d both turned 40 in August”, Romain recalls. “He came into my office in Building 66 and said, ‘Right, I’m off, but I can’t find any flying gloves – do you have any going spare?’ I’d just bought two sets, so I gave him a new pair of flying gloves. He said, ‘Great! I’ll give them back to you when I get back here’. I said not to worry – take them as a birthday present. That was the last time I saw him.”

The Breitling Fighters made their debut at the Basel Watch Fair in April 1999, with the Kittyhawk, Buchón, Mustang and Corsair flying together in their new schemes, each repainted with a yellow nose and resplendent with the team’s crest beneath the cockpit. The team made its first UK appearance at the Southend Airshow in May, and then the Biggin Hill International Air Fair in early June.

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The team journeyed across the continent throughout the summer, eventually heading to Bern in Switzerland at the end of August and on to Hahnweide in Germany at the beginning of September; then it was back to the UK for Duxford’s big September Air Show the following weekend.

Ray in the P-40, Mark in the Buchón. Two masters of the art of air display flying locked in poetic air combat. The unbreakable bond so many speak of seemed to somehow manifest itself in their flying, the love and respect between father and son always bringing out the very best in one another.

The Goodwood Revival marked the final time father and son flew together. At the end of the month, the Old Flying Machine Company (OFMC) headed to Sabadell on the south-eastern Spanish coast for a Breitling-sponsored event. Mark set off in the Buchón on the 23rd, convening with Nigel Lamb and Steve Johnson at a hotel near Troyes, south-east of Paris, on Thursday evening before the three parted ways in their respective warbirds the next morning. Lamb and Johnson headed to an air display in Italy, and Mark set off on the second stage of his three-leg journey to Sabadell, where he planned to join his father and other OFMC pilots, including Keith Skilling, Louis McQuade and Alister Kay, on Saturday morning. As Mark arrived at the airfield on the morning of the 25th, the Buchón crashed violently on landing, catching fire on impact and coming to rest short of the runway threshold.

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Remarkably, Mark survived the crash. His injuries, however, were ghastly. He had suffered third degree burns to much of his body. His back was broken in three places, and his ribs had punctured his lungs. Had he survived, he would have been blind and paraplegic. On the evening of Sunday 26th, he succumbed to his wounds. He was 40 years old; a man in the prime of his life and the prime of his career. The date is struck through with a black mark in his father’s logbook.

“Father’s retirement following Mark’s death was a close-run thing”, muses Sarah. To have witnessed Mark’s crash, seen him put into the ambulance and to then have stayed by his side in hospital was unimaginable.  “That was almost it for him, but the Duxford Autumn Air Show was coming up and the Imperial War Museum wanted to do something for Mark to close out their flying display.  He was adored here, and everyone who worked here loved him to bits.  He was glamorous and charming and sweet and funny and kind and he was terrible with the ladies, but people forgave him for who he was.”

Ray decided he would lead the aerial tribute. “I suppose Father felt he had to be involved, he had to lead the thing”, says Sarah. “His whole mantra, and I guess it traces back to his air force days, was that life goes on, and is remorseless. And that was it really.”

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OFMC closed the flying programme – Ray led in the P-40. Nigel Lamb and Andy Gent flew the OFMC and the Scandinavian Historic Flight Mustangs, with Keith Skilling in the Corsair and Rolf Meum flying the L-39. They were joined for their first pass by Stephen and Nick Grey, and Robs Lamplough too. Under a gin clear blue sky, the two formations flew low over Duxford, the L-39 pitching up and out of lead vic-five to salute the missing man. The Mustangs flew together, then the P-40 and Corsair, before the L-39 displayed solo. To conclude, Ray led the Breitling Fighters quartet, now in their classic box-four formation, through a perfect routine. The supremely evocative flying played out to complete silence, save for the applause as the final four fighters landed. It was a mesmerising “eulogy written in the sky”.

“Father strapped himself in the Kittyhawk,” Sarah says, “they did what they did and it was beautiful. My father pressed on, and it broke his heart and it broke my mother’s heart. There’s a Spartan element to both of them though. Good for him, and my mother, for carrying on in the way that they did.

“The general public’s response to Mark’s death was amazing. The obituaries in the Daily Telegraph, The Times and The Independent were unexpected – we knew he had a profile, but we didn’t expect that. St Clement Danes, the RAF church where we held Mark’s memorial service, officially seats 600 people, but if you really then pack people in at the top, it takes 800. We had people standing on the pavement. We were just stunned. It was wonderful and extraordinary; we had government ministers, air attaches from Poland, Spain and most of the European nations… such was Mark’s reach.”

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In the wake of Mark’s death, responsibility for OFMC’s management and the Breitling contract passed to Nigel Lamb:

The first year following Mark’s death in 1999 was unquestionably the toughest of my working life.  Naturally, I did feel honoured but I knew I’d be unable to compete with Mark in terms of his passion for and historical knowledge of classic fighters.  Being in the company of father and son was like being embedded in some kind of aviation encyclopedia so I was concerned and made sure this was discussed openly with Ray.  Dealing with sponsors, running the business efficiently and having the flying experience seemed to be enough I guess. 

It was a traumatic time, and a lot of it’s a blur for me, to be honest. I spent a lot of time with Ray, sitting in his office discussing the future of the company. That couldn’t wait, and Breitling couldn’t wait. We were having those conversations and he’d just lost his son. He was impressive, so impressive – devastated, so emotional at times, but steadfast and an outstanding professional. Ray would’ve been very used to death in aviation, with the attrition rate in the RAF. He would’ve lost a lot of mates. Mark likely the same. Death was a neighbour. You lived with death and saw lots of people losing their life.

Nevertheless, to then lose your son and carry on flying is almost impossible to even comprehend. He was amazing. The ultimate professional in aviation, but at the same time devastated by the loss of his son. To process that shock and grief so publicly whilst leading the Breitling Fighters… I can’t imagine the pain he was in. In 2000, I could see he was a changed man. The way Ray coped was an inspiration to all of us. I would say it was 2001 and into 2002 when I saw the old Ray starting to shine through the cracks, but he was changed. It was only during 2001, when his smooth leading became even smoother, that I realised just how awful 2000 had been for him. Just an amazing man.

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Mark Hanna is buried in a quiet cemetery in Parham, Suffolk.  His headstone reads: ‘When a knight won his spurs in the stories of old, he was gallant and brave, he was gentle and bold’.

“I’m just so sad that having worked all those years towards the Breitling relationship, Mark wasn’t able to reap the really good years and that he lost his life at the end of the first year of the contract”, says Sarah. Between 1999 and 2004, the Breitling Fighters flew more than 2,000 sorties in 13 countries across Europe, completing around 600 display flights.  The widespread acclaim the team received from airshow enthusiasts and organisers alike during their five-year run was thanks in no small part to the foundations Mark worked so tirelessly to lay. “The success OFMC and Breitling enjoyed was a beautiful tribute to Mark’s perseverance in getting the company to that point.”

Ray pressed on.

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“I couldn’t imagine how upset Ray must’ve been during the years following Mark’s death,” Mark Linney says, “I mean, he was there, and witnessed it all. I said to him once, how do you resolve that? You seem to be so stoic about the whole thing. He turned around to me and said, ‘You know, Mark, in aviation, you’re bound to lose a few’. That was true, but surely more heartbreaking when it’s your own son. Perhaps he was the product of an air force career where he’d lost colleagues practically every week. Ray was never going to wallow; that was neither his character nor the way in which he was going to deal with it.”

Ray continued to lead the Breitling Fighters until 2004. The team was renowned for its seamless formation work – the rock steady vertical aerobatics, led by Ray in the P-40, belied the technical challenge of flying four types with different engines and different handling characteristics as one.

“This was our biggest challenge,” says Nigel Lamb, “not only because of the individual flying characteristics of the P-40, Spitfire, Mustang and Corsair but also the power differences.” In the classic ‘box four’ configuration synonymous with the team from 2000 to 2004, Lamb typically flew the Mustang, with Lee Proudfoot in the Spitfire and Keith Skilling the Corsair. “Ray chose the P-40 as the lead aircraft not only because he loved to fly it but also because the Allison engine made it the most suitable. He would set manifold pressure of 35 inches and leave the throttle alone. At high speed, the Spitfire’s drag had it on maximum display power whilst the Mustang, being very slippery, was well throttled back. At the top of a loop, it was the opposite due to the weight difference of Spitfire and Mustang. The Corsair had no power problems other than making sure it was never throttled back too much with the propeller driving the engine. To minimise engine wear on the Mustang and Spitfire’s Merlins during formation aerobatics, Lee and I focused a lot on changing our radius slightly to maintain position rather than using the throttle.”

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“Ray’s leadership was truly exceptional,” says Cliff Spink, who typically flew the Corsair when Keith Skilling was unavailable, “not least for his ability to appreciate exactly where the three of us were in the formation and how the ambient conditions would affect our performance. That he could fly so smoothly as leader whilst imperceptibly keeping check on the rest of us was quite remarkable”.

The company underwent a significant contraction in the wake of Mark’s loss, with most of the classic jets and a number of the piston fighters eventually passing to new owners and operators.

Though Ray’s flying was as sharp as ever, there was a sense of finality to his last year – he’d led the Breitling Fighters’ climatic appearance at Wanaka in April, was given a solo slot in MH434 at Flying Legends and closed Biggin Hill’s International Air Fair in September with his classic Spitfire display, diving into the valley as he had done so many times before. His final display was at Duxford on 15 October 2005, leading Cliff Spink –  it was October’s Autumn Air Show, and the two veterans of the historic scene were paired up in Spitfires to round off the show-closing sequence.

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“It was always a delight to fly with Ray”, says Spink. “He was the most intuitive leader. It became instinct to look at his head when in formation, and that told you everything you needed to know about power, directional changes, pitches and so on. No radio transmissions. It was almost imperceptible. Just incredible. He was going well that day. It was a beautiful autumn day, clear blue sky, being led in vertical formation aerobatics by the master. He in his favourite MH434, me in my favourite TD248, under a setting sun. It was always a special day when Ray was leading you, but that does stand out. He invited me into the civilian warbird scene, and I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to be led by him during his last display.”

Ray Hanna died quietly at his home in Switzerland on 1 December 2005.

“My father died of an aortic aneurism, which is quite literally a broken heart”, Sarah reveals. “I suppose it’s a strange metaphor for it all. That was very unexpected, when he died. For me, it came as even more of a shock, strangely, than Mark. I’d been talking to him at 4.30pm on the day he died and he was perfectly normal, very enthusiastic about the stuff we were talking about. To get that call that night… Don’t be ridiculous. He was only 77. A good age, but not a grand age.”

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Keith Skilling remembers that “when Ray died suddenly, Sarah rang me and asked me to give a eulogy at his funeral. She said, you were one of Father’s best friends. I never knew that. He never let people get close to him. He told me several times, ‘I never let friends get close because I’ve lost too many’. As we were walking towards the wreckage after Mark’s crash, he stopped me and said, ‘Just wait here, Keith. I’ve been prepared for this day’”.

“I went to Mark’s memorial service in 1999,” says airshow commentator Jerry Mead, “and remember thinking how unfair it was that Ray had had to sit there in Spain and watch his son crash and burn without being able to do anything as the emergency services vehicles roared past. When we went to Ray’s memorial in 2005, it just felt like a natural closure to a very full and productive life”.

Ray is buried beside his son at St Mary’s Church, Parham, atop a hill overlooking the cemetery and beautiful rolling hills of Suffolk beyond. His headstone reads, quite simply, ‘Incomparable’. The word could apply equally to father and son. The Hanna flying legend.

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The following June, Biggin Hill closed its flying programme with an aerial tribute to Ray with Nigel Lamb flying a remarkable, emotional aerobatic display in OFMC’s Spitfire. “MH434; Biggin Hill; solo tribute to Ray Hanna”, he says. “Warbird display flying doesn’t get much better than that. I’d say that’s been one of the highlights of my OFMC flying. The valley became ‘out of bounds’ a long time ago but Ray’s disappearances seemed acceptable. In reality, a large part of the valley is unoccupied and on many occasions I had followed Ray into that exact area so, since ‘Tribute to Ray Hanna’ and ‘Don’t go down in the valley’ aren’t exactly compatible, it was entirely appropriate to follow suit.”

Ray’s death six years after Mark’s felt like nothing less than the end of a golden era.

The Hanna name has endured. Those who recall Ray and Mark’s peerless flying look back and smile decades hence; displays by the Hanna Spitfire evoke moments of contemplative reflection. The atmosphere in Duxford’s Hangar 3 is heavy with the weight of their names.

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“I’ll never forget walking past his office in the days after Mark’s passing,” comments Alan Cox, formerly of Plane Sailing, “and inadvertently glancing through the window, but instead of his enthusiastic presence, there was an emptiness which seemed to shroud the whole airfield. The place was never the same without him, but the amazing memories he gave us still bring smiles to countless faces all these years later. To me, that was Mark’s true legacy”.

Gavin Conroy’s meeting with Mark at Omaka in 1994 sparked his interest in warbirds. He now shoots them professionally and is a world-renowned photographer in his field. “Ray and Mark loved coming to New Zealand, and we loved seeing them. As we all know, they had that certain spark that would capture people and make them feel part of what they are doing. Meeting one of my warbird heroes is something I will never forget; no matter how many years go by or the number of airshows I attend, it always feels like things are not quite the same without Mark.

“The most amazing thing for me is that the same Mk XIV Spitfire is based at Omaka, where I work and fly, and every time I sit in this wonderful machine it takes me back to that time I first met Mark. For that, I am most grateful.”

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John Farley remembered Mark as “a character you might have expected to shoulder an ego. There were great expectations placed on him, being Ray Hanna’s son, and he took all of that in his stride whilst cultivating his own legend. That he did so without a shred of grandness or arrogance is a testament to the man. People liked him not because he was Ray Hanna’s son; they liked him because he was himI didn’t know Mark particularly well, but the all-too-brief time I spent with him left a lasting impression… A good man. A damn good man.”

“Sometimes I just get this little snapshot of a memory”, muses Nigel Lamb. “Mark sat on the wing, me sat on the cowling checking the engine coolant, chatting away. He was very pleasant company; very easy to like and easy to get on with. There was no side to him. One of my most endearing memories was when he gave me my cockpit brief to go solo in MH434. I was mega nervous – not of the flying or the complexity, but nervous of something going wrong while that aeroplane was in my hands.

“Mark was sat on the side of the cockpit, and he was giving me the full brief, filled with his own insight. Very, very relaxed. A man completely at ease with himself, with what he was doing and what he loved. Absolutely on top of his game.”

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Dave Southwood and Mark flew together for the sunset Spitfire display at the first Goodwood Revival in 1998. “He was in MH434, I was in The Fighter Collection’s Mk V,” he recalls, “and we flew this pairs display for the pre-dinner dinks for the black-tie dinner as the sun was setting. It was the kind of great fun you knew you’d have when flying with Mark, no two ways about it – low level and close enough formation to see the glow from his exhaust stacks. We landed and parked nose-in to the dinner marquee, and they immediately handed us both these chipped enamel mugs of Veuve Clicquot champagne. That has certainly stuck with me”.

Cliff Spink adds, “Those golden-hued memories do still come to mind often. Landing after a particularly stressful flight through poor weather, wandering over to Mark, who was still sat in the Buchón. The turn of the head as he removed his helmet, the flash of the characteristic grin and the quip, ‘Well, that was interesting!’ It was the slightly cheeky grin I’d first seen back in the Phantom days. That snapshot has endured”.

For Keith Skilling, “the memory of arriving at an aerodrome with Mark is pretty special. With the airfield in sight, he’d wave me in to tighten up formation off his wing. I’d look across and see this beautiful smile, a big row of white teeth grinning at me. He’d throw the map over his shoulder and off we’d go”.

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“The Hannas had this aura in the way they lived and flew”, laments Lars Ness.  “They did everything with a certain style – the way they looked, the way they dressed, the strength of their character, the way they flew – that had a flair that was lost with them.

“As a young pilot getting into the scene, I looked up to Mark a lot.  He was fundamentally good.  A genuinely nice guy with a kind heart and an incredible, unmatched passion for vintage warbirds.  You could walk into Mark’s office and soak it in.

“Sometimes it becomes very apparent that they’re not here anymore; they’ve left a void no one can ever fill.  I miss that.  I miss them both dearly, and I’m sad that Mark’s not here.”

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“I’m not sure you’d see a character like Mark Hanna now”, reflects John Romain. “He wouldn’t be allowed to be that person. I think that’s why a lot of people remember him the way they do. Mark was a guy who thrived with the freedom to fly the way he wanted to. He was his flying. I’ve often thought, what would he be doing now? What would a 60-year old Mark Hanna be like? I think, perhaps, he’d have ended up living in New Zealand flying happily from Wanaka at the end of the Breitling contract, maybe settling with a wife and a couple of kids, and he’d never have looked back.”

Romain first flew MH434 in 1991. Decades later, he occasionally has the opportunity to fly this most famous of Spitfires: “It brings back all the memories, all the people, some of whom have gone. You remember where you’ve been in them, the guys who flew them, the memories you have with them, and you start missing people. Guys like Ray and Mark… who we lost way too soon. You can see their faces, hear their voices – sometimes it’s like they never left. Part of them lives on with the aircraft, in a way. It’s funny, all vintage aeroplanes have their own smell, and you could put me blindfolded in MH434 and I’d know immediately.

“I had some very special trips in her with some very special people. Every time I sit in that cockpit, I think of Ray and Mark and the lives we lived all those years ago.”

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“I think of Mark often”, says Rolf Meum. The two had flown against one another, in Norwegian F-5 and RAF Phantom respectively, over Norway back in 1986, and had displayed – and fought – happily with one another in historic aeroplanes from 1989. “Mark wasn’t unique in his capabilities, but he had an amazing eye and a feel for the aeroplanes that made him an exceptional aviator. That he was as good as he was whilst being so generous and caring made him very, very special. He remains my finest opponent.”

“You could compare Mark to a stage actor,” Lee Proudfoot adds, “capturing the audience’s imaginations with his flying, adding that derring-do that you didn’t always see. His flying was truly exciting, and you’d see people in the crowd stopping and watching. The perfect showman.

“You think of how many he must have inspired through his flying, and it’s very humbling. That could have gone to his head and changed him, but that wasn’t Mark. He had nothing to prove to anyone. A knight of the air in the modern era.”

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“When we finished flying for the day, we never really wanted to go home”, says Helen Tempest. “We’d either hang around the airfield for hours, or we’d go to someone’s house or out for dinner. After one airshow, a group of us ended up with Mark in Cheltenham having a picnic in the sun, drinking wine and laughing. You could transpose that to an after-airshow party, sitting somewhere drinking beer and laughing. They’re the memories that have stayed with me. Mark was just part of the gang. Too many of them aren’t here anymore.

“Aeroplanes sat on the ground are lumps of metal and wood. It’s what happens when they’re airborne that makes them wonderful. For me, airshows have always been outdoor theatre. There’s a real emotional magic to watching somebody flying really well. A lot of people can fly an aircraft and call it a display, but not many make it poetry. Mark was one of those. Mark and Ray and Sarah, with the company they built and the adventures they went on, and their tribe of loyal pilots who joined them… It was a golden time.

“Anybody who can inspire the next generation is doing something good. If there are engineers who want to keep vintage aircraft flying, people who just want to keep turning up to watch old aeroplanes fly, or a pilot who can say, ‘I’m now sitting in an aeroplane playing with the clouds because of Mark Hanna’… That’s what a legacy is. Inspiring the next generation to live their fullest life, as he did… That’s a lovely thing.

“Personally? I would love to have seen him growing old, happily married with a family. That would’ve been gorgeous.”

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“I still think of him a lot”, says Nick Grey. “I hear his voice in my head very clearly every now and then. He was a close friend, we had a lot in common and he taught me much. Quite often we’d end up at his place, get drunk and talk about fighters late into the night. That was his real love, and his whole life was about making the Old Flying Machine Company work as an outlet for that love. Ray and Mark Hanna were exceptional airmen and I am privileged to have known and flown with them.

“We spent a lot of time with me flying off his wing, him flying off my wing, or chasing each other in aerial combat. But it’s the conversations I remember and miss to this day. We had hundreds of chats just sat on the grass under a wing, dreaming about what comes next in our voyage of discovery through aeroplanes of that golden era.

“That was our thing. Fond memories...”

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Says Mark Linney, “A lot of people put Mark on a pedestal, and he deserved to be there – but he never sought to be adored.

“I was very privileged to know Mark. I often think about him. Whenever I go and see Eunice in Parham, I visit his grave for a moment. I’m not a religious man, but I get great comfort from standing there for a minute or two. He’s buried next to his father in a very tranquil location and I get the sense that he and Ray are truly resting in peace. I can’t say that I still visit the graves of many people 20 years on – that’s the kind of influence he had on me. He had a short life, but he did a lot in that life.”

Brian Smith shares that opinion. “Mark carved his own path, achieved a great deal in his time and did it all with great integrity. I don’t think the scene has ever truly recovered from his loss.”

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“Did Mark and Father change the world?” asks Sarah Hanna. “Not particularly. But my word, didn’t they make it a brighter place while they were here? Knights… Shining.”

Today, OFMC continues to operate Spitfire MH434 from Duxford, with a close-knit office and engineering team and a cadre of like-minded pilots.

“I don’t know that there was ever an end goal Mark was striving to reach,” she smiles, taking a moment to consider the thought, “and I’m not quite sure you could ever adequately describe what drove him. It was pure, inspirational passion for vintage aeroplanes.”

Mark Hanna – 06.08.59 to 26.09.99

 

Read the previous 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 Four – The Truly Great

With thanks to Sarah Hanna & Eunice Hanna, Peter Arnold, Steve Bridgewater, Paul Coggan, Gavin Conroy, Peter & Rich Cooper, Alan Cox, Alexis von Croy, Patsy Davidson, John Dibbs, Tad Dippel, John Farley, Uwe Glasser, Nick Grey, James Kightly, Nigel Lamb, Mark Linney, Phil Makanna, Gerard Morris, Jerry Mead, Rolf Meum, Lars Ness, Claudio Noe, Richard Paver, Lee Proudfoot, Michael Provost, John Rigby, Mike Rivett, John Romain, Mike Shreeve, Brian Smith, Keith Skilling, Dave Southwood, Cliff Spink, Barry, John & Helen Tempest, Simon Werry & Marc Wolff.