Both aircraft start first time with the BE2 on a prop swing and the Albatros on the Magneto exciter and we are off. We have just 5 minutes to get to Caterpillar Valley Cemetery for the NZ Commemoration of the Battle of the Somme. We have been briefed to be at the holding point to the west of the cemetery to await a flare to indicate two mins to run in. On arrival we are already late against the estimated time over the cemetery. My respect for the BE2 observers of yore is growing by the second as even at 55 mph trying to read a map when you are head and shoulders out of the open cockpit squinting through oil-smeared goggles is challenging – let alone having to defend yourselves with a pintle mounted Lewis gun without safety stops.
As our fuel margins are tight for the next leg to Abbeville, and we are now 5 mins past our briefed time over target, I point John at the Cemetery (our only means of communication) and off we go. We can see Keith in the distance hurtling to join us. I am now focussed on the wind direction, a brisk southerly, as shown by the flags behind the Memorial Stone. We do one orbit just to see how the land lies and can see the audience waving at us. I point to John that we need to extend upwind on the second orbit to drop the poppies and start adjusting the laundry bag for the drop. I imagined that the poppies would take some time to leave but in the event it was more like a huge suction pump when I opened the draw string and they all went at once…. .
At the start of the Battle of Somme on the 1st July 2016, some 400 Be2s are shown on the posted strength of the Royal Flying Corps. Long past their sell by date and their initial deployment with the British Expeditionary Force in Aug 1914, and soon to be earning their spurs against the Zeppelins in the skies over UK, the BE2 crews were the embodiment of the offensive spirit of the RFC demanded by their Commander, Brigadier Trenchard. You have to fly in one to understand the incredible sense of duty required to get airborne in a fragile construction of wood and linen powered by arthritic sowing machine which threatens to immolate the front cockpit occupant in a miasma of hot oil, let alone to go to war in one with the Eindecker and later the Albatros trying to kill you.
Fast forward to 15th September 2016, and I am sitting in the front cockpit of BE2e (A2767) at Albert Picardie Aeroport waiting to get airborne in one of the most incredible and moving flights of my life. My grandfather flew BE2s in 1916. My 5000 hours of flying RAF helicopters pales in to insignificance when you consider that the pilot in this occasion is John Bargh who has come all the way from New Zealand with his wife Penny to pay his homage to the NZ fallen and has 25,500 hours’ crop-dusting under his belt. John as almost everyone in New Zealand has a relative who volunteered to join the British Empire’s fight against the Hun. John’s grandfather fought at Messines Ridge and somehow survived the horrors of Passchendaele.