The Red Arrows as part of the Trooping the Colour flypast © Phil Verney
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As above, so below: Bow’s skies through a photographer’s lens

From the jet-black Hercules of the Royal Airforce to Pokemon and Star War-themed Japanese liveries, you’ll be surprised to see the aircraft that streak across the skies of Bow.

Whether it be the familiar clatter of market stalls being rolled out on the Roman, the sound of delivery cyclists whizzing down Bow Road, or the rhythmic clopping of horses’ hooves around the East End, there’s rarely a quiet moment on the streets of Bow.

You might think you already know the neighbourhood like the back of your hand, but what about the skies above?

You don’t need to be a professional aircraft spotter to have noticed the countless aeroplanes and helicopters which sweep over our heads in their droves. What you might not realise is that every aircraft tells a unique story. 

Luckily, Bow-based photographer and self-identified aviation geek Phil Verney has dedicated his time to capturing the drama of our skies, from the life-or-death missions of air ambulances to celebratory flypasts by the Royal Airforce. When asked about his motivation behind documenting aircraft, Verney said:

‘There are two key aspects which excite me. The first one is how a changed perspective can help us to understand the environment around us, whether that be the police helicopter providing vital information to ground units, or satellites in space helping us to understand the impacts of climate change.

‘The second is wondering about all of the unique stories of the passengers on the planes. Is there someone on that plane who’s flying for the first time? Are they here to surprise a loved one? What major business deal might they have just completed overseas?’

Far from just transporting eager holidayers, the aeroplanes which traverse the vast skies of Bow are involved in serious and unusual journeys, often of national importance. 

While we associate the emergency services with the round-the-clock travels of fire engines, ambulances and police cars, our skies are full of air ambulances and Met Police helicopters embarking on heroic missions.

Among the birds and clouds, you may have spotted the blood-red helicopters of London’s Air Ambulance service, operating 24 hours a day from the roof of the Royal London Hospital

Founded in 1989, it is the only helicopter service in the capital providing emergency medical care. You might not know from just squinting up at the choppers, but each aircraft can reach any location within the M25 in under 10 minutes, delivering life-saving surgery to 10 million Londoners. 

The expert team of doctors and paramedics treat an average of five patients every day, performing open-heart surgery and blood transfusions for victims of road traffic collisions, industrial accidents, stabbings and shootings. 

While you might not spare a moment’s glance at the sky, cameras above are watching you. Eager journalists are always angling for the perfect photograph, and the best shot is often an aerial view. 

In 2018, Verney turned his lens on the journalists and captured a Sky News helicopter flying over Bow. The team was reporting on the sighting of Russian murder suspects in our neighbourhood. 

You may recall that in 2018, Bow was at the centre of an investigation surrounding the botched assassination of Sergei Skripal, a former Russian military officer and double agent for Britain’s MI6. 

In Salisbury, Sergei and his daughter, Yulia Skripal, were poisoned by a Novichok nerve agent. British authorities suspected the attempted murder was a part of an elaborate Moscow murder plot. 

While matters of high treason and international espionage seem worlds away from the streets of Tower Hamlets, the suspects accused of attempted assassination, Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov, were sighted in our area. Police believed the pair spent two nights at the City Stay Hotel, next to Bow Church DLR station, before heading to Salisbury to perform the alleged murder attempt. 

Fast forward to June 2022, both the skies and the streets of Tower Hamlets were united in celebration of the Platinum Jubilee of Elizabeth II. Over the Jubilee weekend, our borough was buzzing with street parties and live music as the community came together to commemorate the late Queen’s 70th anniversary of her accession to the throne.

You may have spent the weekend guzzling strawberries and cream at The Coborn, listening to the East London Community Band perform at Victoria Park, or perusing the special ‘Jubilant Jubilee’ exhibition collection at the Brady Arts Centre. While we were partying on the ground, the RAF were putting on an ariel show. 

To mark the momentous occasion, 15 Typhoon aircraft from RAF Coningsby and RAF Lossiemouth flew over East Village in a ’70’ formation in honour of the late Queen’s seven decades of dedicated service. No matter if you missed this trick of aviation – Verney captured the aircraft in all their acrobatic glory. 

This summer, Verney also photographed the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight (BBMF) as part of the Trooping the Colour flypast gliding over Victoria Park. Trooping the Colour is an annual ceremonial event to celebrate the sovereign’s official birthday, and can be traced back to the reign of Charles II. 

Between 1959 and 1965, the BBMF flight involved one Spitfire (PM631) and one Hurricane (LF363), though now it contains twelve historic aircraft: an Avro Lancaster, a C-47 Dakota, six Spitfires, two Hurricanes and two de Havilland Chipmunk training aircraft. The flight’s motto, ‘Lest We Forget’, honours the soldiers who lost their lives fighting for freedom in the Battle of Britain.

So sit back, relax, and watch from your screens the mystery and majesty of aircraft flying over Bow. As Verney suggests, ‘I think that an aerial view helps us to better appreciate the shared experiences of living together on Earth.’

A (not so) rare sight of two Met police helicopters © Phil Verney
A (not so) rare sight of two Met police helicopters © Phil Verney
Essex and Herts air ambulance on approach into Royal London hospital © Phil Verney
Essex and Herts air ambulance on approach into Royal London hospital © Phil Verney
Sky News helicopter covering the discovery that the Novichok suspects stayed in a hotel next to Bow Church DLR station before going to Salisbury © Phil Verney
Sky News helicopter covering the discovery that the Novichok suspects stayed in a hotel next to Bow Church DLR station before going to Salisbury © Phil Verney
A special 70 aircraft formation as part of the Queen's Platinum Jubilee celebratory flypast over East Village © Phil Verney
A special 70 aircraft formation as part of the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee celebratory flypast over East Village © Phil Verney
BBMF Battle of Britain Memorial Flight as part of the Trooping the Colour flypast over Victoria Park © Phil Verney
BBMF Battle of Britain Memorial Flight as part of the Trooping the Colour flypast over Victoria Park © Phil Verney
A special Star Wars livery from ANA (All Nippon Airways) © Phil Verney
A special Star Wars livery from ANA (All Nippon Airways) © Phil Verney
ANA Pokemon livery on approach into Heathrow passing over Bow A special Star Wars livery from ANA (All Nippon Airways) © Phil Verney
ANA Pokemon livery on approach into Heathrow passing over Bow A special Star Wars livery from ANA (All Nippon Airways) © Phil Verney
RAF Hercules Trooping the Colour flypast © Phil Verney
RAF Hercules Trooping the Colour flypast © Phil Verney
Flypast of the Red Arrows and the La Patrouille de France flying over Victoria Park © Phil Verney
Flypast of the Red Arrows and the La Patrouille de France flying over Victoria Park © Phil Verney
Busy skies - an aircraft departing London City and one on approach into Heathrow above Bow © Phil Verney
Busy skies – an aircraft departing London City and one on approach into Heathrow above Bow © Phil Verney
Emirates A380 flying through clouds on approach into London Heathrow Airport © Phil Verney
Emirates A380 flying through clouds on approach into London Heathrow Airport © Phil Verney
Plane on approach into London Heathrow Airport passing in front of the moon © Phil Verney
Plane on approach into London Heathrow Airport passing in front of the moon © Phil Verney

For more photo essays, read Market day on Roman Road snapped by zine-maker Wedgley Snipes. 

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