Interview – Joseph Merchant, Photographer

First of all I would like to thank you for your time, please intrudoce yourself to our readers. As I see your works your are a photographer and probably you were in the air force as well?

My name is Joseph Merchant, and I was a member of the Royal Air Force. The short story of my 53 year love affair with Biggin Hill Airfield in the UK is the following.

During 1954 I joined the cadet force (Air Training Corps) 56th Squadron based in South East London. After 3 months I, with 3 other cadets, were attached to the Royal Auxiliary Air Force at R.A.F Biggin Hill, what was to be 2 week ends turned into over 2 years until the Royal Auxiliary Air Force was disbanded due to defence cuts, a very sad time for me.

R.A.F. Biggin Hill had ceased its roll as a fighter base in late 1958 becoming a civilian airport 1st January 1959. My enthusiasm for flying lead me to take my private pilots licence in 1962 with one of the flying clubs based there enjoying many years on the airfield I loved. By 1980 I purchased one of the ex officers quarters on the south of the airfield and being so frustrated with British management I was longing to be self-employed working on the airfield. First I had a small social club followed by employing the aviation artist Kenneth McDonough to reproduce his work for prints and greeting cards. The sale of these products did not cover the cost of the rented office on the airfield and the price of advertising restricted my growth. During 1981 I came up with the idea of producing a girly calendar for the aviation world, restricted again by finance models were out of the question when one of the young female members asked “What do you want girls for Joe?” By the end of the evening I had two lovely girls and the obvious name for the calendar, Pilots Pals was born that continued for almost 20 years.

Not being a photographer I studied at night school expanding my knowledge in this art, by 1983 I have young female flying enthusiasts coming out of my ears wishing to be part of the team. I designed 3 uniforms for the girls based on the colours of 56th Squadron R.A.F, making it look like a real professional outfit. My camera work expanded working with the R.A.F for flight Safety, civilian aviation companies employed me for their advertising brochures, and the Pals were used for public relations as well as their willingness to remove their clothing for the calendar. The teams association with 56th Squadron lead to other units in NATO wanting the Pilots Pals to attend their air shows thus giving me further opportunities to shoot film for the calendar. I did introduce and encouraged worldwide photographers to join me in producing the only Pin-up amateur calendar in the world. After almost 20 years the production came to its end due to political correctness, no titillating female images were allowed in the work place. The team were proud of their achievements supporting our old soldiers and many other charities. The new management of Biggin Hill had little time for my fun loving club or the girls, all came to an end 2007 when I left England for Spain.

Wow, so you had busy years. What was the first reactions to your photos? Did you had any reactions from other NATO units?

Very busy not just photographing but planning the PR trips designing the cloths for the Pals both uniforms and their modelling outfits. The first reaction to the new project was more that I would have thought with requests for the 1983 edition that was never planned, back into filming for 1984. NATO could not get enough with invites to many units.

Was it easy to convince the ladies to…sort of drop their uniforms?

The Pals loved stripping off as most female do. I didn’t like taking a Pal on location without training or another Pal.

Any favourite photo from your project? A lady you fancy to work with?

My favourite photo “King & Queen” My favourite Pal. Samantha Moore.

Hardest jet, plane to shoot with? Also the luckiest?

The F111. I rejected the shot. Lucky to get the aircraft but not lucky the shoot.
When the Iron Curtian droped, you had many chances with countries from the East?

Never had any luck working with the Eastern block. I tried.

How did you felt when everything stoped, you knew there was no future of it?

The overprint orders were falling due PC hitting the UK. Bloody do-gooders were doing me a lot of damage and that included the government who stopped us using the Pals for flight safety. It was very sad end.

Now pin-up aviation calenders are not that common as I see it, but you can easily searh ont he net and you can find many good works. Do you do that as well? Try to see how others are doing this?

There are a few very good pin-up calendars on the US market but none like Pilots Pals the only international amateur calendar.

Are you in touch with any of your models? Did you became friends?

As I now live in Spain 4 of the Pals flew down for the launch of my second volume of my autobiography. Still in touch with lots more.

Well thank you! Any final words you want to tell us?

Czech „Pilots Pal” Martina Dejmkova. We were on tour visiting R.A.F. Valley and who should be there, a Czech Hind. Big surprise for the crew when seeing Martina in her uniform wearing the Czech flag.

One of my favorites from 1990 Pilots Pals calendar. Susan Jane Watts with the MiG 21PF G-BRAN

“Biggin Hill Airfield – Beyond the Bump II
Available from @ £12.00 plus P&P – 322 pages 276 images

Published in 4 colour 2015 by Pilots Pals
Continued from Biggin Hill Airfield Beyond the Bump I

The decision to work for myself, turning my hobbies into my income was a gamble that proved to be almost reckless. Nevertheless my desire to work on Biggin Hill Airport gave me many years of happiness. My interests in both aviation and photography would provide me with my income and many lifelong friends.

My position on Biggin Hill Airport and my fellow tenants would provide me with opportunities that perhaps would be out of reach to other photographers. Big names and organisations in the aviation world would be at hand and enable to help me produce the Pilots Pals calendars. This volume, the second part of my autobiography, seeks to record the highs and lows of life on Biggin Hill and the eventual very sad end to the social scene on this historical airfield. Joseph J Merchant.  ISBN 978-0-9929626-1-6

All photo by Joseph Merchant