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SQNLDR RAY HANNA (RAF) 28.08.28 - 01.12.05

Ray has a laugh and a chat following his last spectacular display at Duxford October 2005. Photo Chris Farmer via B.J.M. & V. Aviation.


New Zealand-born SQNLDR Ray Hanna RAF (Rtd.) was still wowing crowds in Britain with his Spitfire only two months before his death aged 77 on 1 December 2005. In New Zealand he was best known for his support and contribution to the Warbirds Over Wanaka airshow.

He was the leader of the RAF’s Red Arrows aerobatic team in its early years, developing a level of expertise and panache in formation aerobatic flying that attracted universal acclaim and established ‘the Reds’ as the world’s premier team and star attraction at airshows worldwide.

During the 1950s and early 1960s, the RAF instructed various fighter squadrons to provide an official aerobatic team to participate in public events and provide welcome publicity.

The Hunters of the ‘Black Arrows’ and the ‘Blue Diamonds’ were extremely successful; but, with the loss of fighter Squadrons due to budget constraints, it was a wasteful activity to withdraw a Squadron from the front line each year. The Central Flying School was asked to provide an official team and, in 1965, the Red Arrows were formed at Little Rissington. Hanna was selected to join the team and within a year he became its leader.

Hanna was the ideal candidate to lead a group of individualistic and brilliant fighter pilots. An outstanding and experienced fighter pilot himself, his determination, modest authority, skill and professionalism proved an inspiration to his nine colleagues.

After an intense period of practice, flying their highly manoeuvrable, all-red Gnat aircraft, the team’s reputation for excellence on the airshow scene was soon established. In a very short time, the Red Arrows, together with the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight, had become the public face of the RAF, as it continues to be to this day.

Hanna led ‘The Reds’ for four seasons, displaying at almost 100 events each year. Their appearances included a tour of the Middle East, for which the short range of the Gnat necessitated numerous stops en route before arriving in Amman to perform in front of King Hussein. This exposure to tens of thousands of new admirers immediately launched the Red Arrows on the world stage.

Raynham George Hanna was born on August 28, 1928 at Takapuna. He was educated at Auckland Grammar School before taking flying lessons on the Tiger Moth. In 1949 he worked his passage to England by ship to join the RAF.

Hanna gained his pilot’s wings before the demise of the powerful piston-engine fighters such as the Tempest, Sea Fury and Beaufighter, and his opportunities to fly them proved to be the beginning of a love affair with these evocative fighters that was to last a lifetime. He joined No 79 Squadron in Germany, flying the Meteor jet in the fighter reconnaissance role, one of the most demanding for a single-seat pilot. This gave him the opportunity to indulge in authorised low flying, at which he excelled. Formation aerobatics was a routine for all fighter squadrons, and Hanna developed a passion for this form of flying.

His appointment to the Overseas Ferry Squadron provided him with the

opportunity to fly a wide variety of jet fighters. He ferried the early Hunters from Britain to India and the Far East; this involved flying over Pakistan, where he was often intercepted by Pakistani fighters, enabling him to indulge in mock combat when fuel reserves allowed.

On one occasion Hanna was returning a Vampire fighter to Britain when the aircraft’s only engine failed over India and he was unable to restart it. He eventually made a skilful crash-landing amongst a series of giant anthills close to a railway line. He waited for a passing train, which stopped for him; but the Indian guard refused to let him board since he was unable to pay the fare. Hanna finally offered his watch as payment; the guard scribbled out an IOU and allowed him to travel.

After qualifying as a flying instructor, Hanna became a member of the Meteor aerobatic team at the College of Air Warfare, and in 1965 he was selected to join the new Red Arrows team on its formation.

Hanna led the Red Arrows for four years, the longest of any of the team’s leaders, but in 1971 he decided to leave the RAF to begin a new career in civil aviation. Initially he flew the Boeing 707 for Lloyd International Airways, followed by seven years with Cathay Pacific operating from Hong Kong. In 1979 he headed a company operating executive Boeing 707s, which operated worldwide.

In 1981, together with his only son Mark, whom he had taught to fly when he was 16, Hanna founded the Old Flying Machine Company, specializing in the restoration and operation of classic ‘warbirds’ such as the Mustang, Spitfire and Kittyhawk. In addition to appearances at hundreds of airshows, Hanna and his son and their pilots were in regular demand by the film industry. Some of their flying sequences in the films Empire of the Sun (1987) and Memphis Belle (1990) were breathtaking in their skill and audacity. After seeing the stunning sequences in the former, Stephen Spielberg insisted that Hanna and his pilots should provide the flying elements for his film Saving Private Ryan (1998). Hanna also featured in the 1988 television series Piece of Cake, a drama about an RAF fighter squadron.

Hanna regularly shipped some of the company’s aircraft to New Zealand to participate in the Warbirds Over Wanaka airshow, recognized as the premier warbird flying event in the southern hemisphere. In later years he established a branch of his company in New Zealand.

In September 1999 Mark Hanna’s death in Spain, whilst flying a restored Me 109 fighter, was a devastating blow; but Ray Hanna vowed to continue their joint work, and the Old Flying Machine Company continues to be a major force today.

Hanna retained his passion for flying to the end, and six weeks before his death he was practising formation aerobatics in Spitfire MH 434. An internationally-renowned airshow pilot who was flying alongside him on that occasion has commented: ‘At every stage of a flying routine, one had utter trust in his skill and judgment - he was the doyen of display pilots.’ Hanna was never afraid to be blunt when the occasion demanded, but his intolerance of bureaucracy and all but the very highest standards was tempered by his great modesty, warmth and approachability.

For his leadership of the Red Arrows, Hanna was awarded a Bar to the AFC he had received earlier. He also received numerous international awards, including the Britannia Trophy. In 2000 the Air League awarded him the Jeffrey Quill Medal for his ‘outstanding contribution to the development of air-mindedness in Britain’s youth’.

Ray Hanna died on December 1. He married, in 1957, Eunice Rigby, who survives him with their daughter.

The Telegraph, London

The late and legendary Ray Hanna piloting MH.434, along with fellow antipodean, Carolyn Grace flying as Ray’s wingman in the late Johnnie Halton’s ML.407, thrilling the crowds at Biggin Hill September 2005. Photo B.J.M. & V. Aviation

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