WHILE the Red Arrows were absent from this year's Bournemouth Air Festival, the iconic display team's longest-serving pilot admitted the town holds "a very special place" in their hearts.

The fan-favourite jets were unable to perform at the annual spectacular on the Dorset coast due to a landmark tour of North America.

However, Mike Ling, who left the Arrows last year after 10 seasons, performed as part of The Blades, delivering an aerobatic masterclass on all four days of the festival.

A large portion Squadron Leader Ling's period with the Reds came after Jon Egging's fatal crash at the 2011 Bournemouth Air Festival.

He said the event had been popular with pilots before Flight Lieutenant Egging's death and will always be cherished by the team due to the pouring of emotion from the public following the incident.

"Bournemouth does hold a very special place in every Red Arrows' heart," said Sqn Ldr Ling.

"Even before the tragic accident with Jon Egging in 2011, it was a great place to come and there was always support for the team.

"Those tragic events on August 20 eight years ago just really sealed the bond between the team and the town.

"At the town hall in the week following Jon's accident, I came down to visit Bournemouth and pay my respects to Jon.

"I went to the town hall and it was a time when there were a lot of painted lions all over the place. The lion at the town hall was absolutely covered in flowers for Jon. There was a book of condolence with thousands of signatures.

"It was very humbling and very warming to know these people were supporting the team and paying their respects to Jon.

"Since then it has been a great place to come back to and remember Jon.

"The memorial on the East Cliff is always a place I will visit when I am in town. It makes it quite a poignant place to display as we think about Jon."

Sqn Ldr Ling experienced the dangers of life as a pilot himself in 2010 when he was involved in a mid-air crash in Crete.

After ejecting from his jet, he was in hospital for weeks having suffered serious injuries to his legs, arms and face alongside damage to his lungs.

During his road to recovery, Sqn Ldr Ling was supported by the RAF Benevolent Fund, who provided him with a powered wheelchair.

Their support helped him quite literally get back on his feet and he is determined to ensure the charity can aid others in need.

"The wheelchair gave me some independence, which really did help me to get back on the saddle and in the cockpit" he said.

"The fund is a little unknown by a lot of people. We know along the south coast there are a lot of retired former air force members and we know a lot of them might be struggling who don't know the fund can help them in many different ways.

"We need to get the word out to them."

Anyone who was in the RAF, or knows someone who was, and needs support, can visit fund's website at rafbf.org or call 0300 102 1919.