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The National Aerobatic Team of Great Britain.

It's been a number of years - perhaps a decade - since I last attended an air show (put it this way - the Vulcan was still displaying). Still an early teen, I'd walk around the parked aeroplanes slowly, admiring these grounded creatures of the air but mostly would watch them once they freed themselves from their gravitational coils, dancing through the sky. The strongest but at the same time abstract memory of any of these shows is seeing the aerobatics of the Red Arrows. Abstract because while I remember few specifics of any of the displays of theirs I saw, I know they performed at virtually every air show I have ever been to.

The nine of them would arrive in their 'Diamond Nine' formation as always then break into their practised routine, drawing various shapes in the air with coloured smoke, forming and performing in a number of different and sometimes pictorial formations, again often with smoke. The brief etchings on the sky would hold for a few seconds then blur and seep away, like drawings in the sand before a rising tide. A pair of the group would always split off and play chicken with each other and interleave with the remaining seven, which always drew the most oohs and aahs from us... then the group would rejoin and end the show with some spectacular break. I can't remember what I felt at these displays but in retrospect it was and remains a great demonstration of what excellence can be achieved through collective skill, dedication and practice. Also I suppose it's a good advertisement tool for British Aerospace and recruitment tool for the RAF; apparently the latter used to be an ancillary raison d'etre for the Red Arrows.

Background

The immediate predecessors of the Red Arrows were the Yellowjacks. They operated from No. 4 Flying Training School in RAF Valley, North Wales, performing aerobatics and formation displays at RAF bases for a season in yellow-painted Folland Gnats. Their first appearance at RAF Culdrose in July 1964 was hugely successful and Flight Lieutenant Lee Jones, the group leader, was asked to set up a Gnat team to replace the current main display team - the Red Pelicans - the following year.

The ensuing team superseded the Yellowjacks and Red Pelicans in 1965. They operated out of the Central Flying School (as did the Red Pelicans); the Yellowjacks' Gnats were repainted in the training school's traditional red (according to Jones this was at least in part so the name Yellowjacks could no longer be used, as the commandant of the CFS apparently hated the name) and the display complement was increased from five (the number the Yellowjacks flew) to seven, with an eighth permanent reserve pilot. The team name came from the colour of the aircraft, the arrow-like shape of the Gnat and a commemoration of the so-far most famous British aerobatic team, No. 111 Squadron's Black Arrows. Thus, the Red Arrows.

Beginnings

The team were initially based at RAF Fairford in Gloucestershire as a satellite of the CFS. After practicing their routine through the winter of 1964-65 the Red Arrows debuted at the Biggin Hill air fair in May 1965; bad weather forced the team to fly a flat display (no rolls or loops) but nonetheless it was a great success.

The team went on to perform at a further 65 displays including shows in Belgium, France, Italy and Germany (this was before Germany banned formation flying). At the end of the season they were collectively awarded the Britannia Trophy by the Royal Aero Club for outstanding contribution to the field of aviation. The following year the group, under new leadership, flew at almost ninety shows and increased this again in 1967 flying at almost one hundred air shows.

By this point the team were still displaying with seven aircraft out of the pool of ten, but were now maintaining two permanent reserve pilots. In 1968 the format was changed to a team of nine aircraft with no reserves. The reason for this was considerable (and understandable) dissatisfaction on the part of the reserve pilots: they were required to fill any position in the team at a moment's notice and given that each position in the team is specialised and needs practice to perfect, reserve pilots were becoming more skilled than their full-time counterparts. Hardly surprising they'd be annoyed at their low showtime. Without reserves the team may fly with up to two members absent, but not without the Team Leader.

The nine-aircraft configuration soon became the staple of the team and the Diamond Nine formation they adopted soon after the change has become their trademark, the epitome of their precision formation flying. This is probably the most-recognised Red Arrows formation worldwide.

New Premises, New Aircraft

In 1969 the team moved to RAF Kemble where they stayed for a time, organising themselves as much like a standard RAF Squadron as possible; there was a Squadron Leader, Engineering Officers, ground technicians and administrative staff (this format is retained). Displays continued at an average of 60-80 per year until the end of 1979, by which time they had flown a total of 1,292 public displays including visits to 18 countries.

Once home the Red Arrows took scheduled delivery of 10 BAe Hawk T1s with which their Gnats would be replaced. That they were ready to display with the Hawks at the beginning of the 1980 season is a testament not only to the Hawk's worth as a successor, but to the abilities of the pilots and ground crews. The Hawks remain in use by the Red Arrows today and are the joint most-purchased training aircraft worldwide, with the Aero L-39 Albatros. The greater range of the Hawk allowed more flexibility in display routines and also made it possible for the Hawks to perform further afield with fewer stops, to such locations as the training field at Cyprus and display venues in North America.

Shortly, the Red Arrows moved from Kemble to RAF Scampton, which in 1983 became their permanent home. It is worth noting that this is the base from which Lancaster bombers of No. 617 Squadron flew the famous "dambuster" raids during WWII. The Red Arrows did move temporarily to RAF Cranwell (where the CFS had relocated to a few years previous) in 1995 when Scampton was closed for cost-cutting measures, but were back there by 2000 as a satellite of RAF Cranwell. The main reason was that practices were becoming problematic to organise around the increasing amount of air traffic at Cranwell.

Team Composition & Pilot Selection

Needless to say recruitment of RAF pilots for the Red Arrows is a hugely competitive process and it is not unheard of for there to be 60 or more applicants for each of the three positions that are annually vacated. To be eligible, a pilot must have flown for a front-line squadron for 1500 hours or 6 years and complete a 12-month selection and training course at Cyprus (which is also where the team now practice their routine during winter). New pilot intake is 3 per year; each pilot stays in the team in the same position for three years so a constant rotation of pilots is maintained. The Team Leader (Red 1) is required to have flown a previous rotation as a team member.

After the new team members have practiced together and with the current team members they must display for and be given Public Display Authority by the commandant of Chief Personnel and Training Command before they can wear the red flying suit of the Red Arrows and perform in public. All training sorties that the team flies have been videotaped since 1971 when the US-made black and white cine film that was used to record practices stopped coming because of a postal workers strike. These videos are used in debriefing to evaluate each team member's performance.

Although the team consists of a regular nine members there is a pool of twelve aircraft and a tenth "arrow": the Team Manager. This team member almost never performs with the other nine except in special circumstances; his regular duties include providing running commentary on the ground for the display routine and also acting as team photographer. During transit sorties between shows, he will fly in formation with the other nine aircraft and film formations from various angles. His other duty is acting as the Ground Safety Officer; he maintains radio contact with the team leader throughout public displays.

The other integral part of the team is made up of Reds 6 and 7: the Synchro Pair. It is these two that perform opposing manoeuvres in front of the spectators, crossing over mere feet from each other and intersecting with formations of the other seven aircraft. This takes place in the second part of the twenty-minute routines and means that there is always something going on in front of the crowd while the Team Leader is marshalling the other seven aircraft into the next flypast formation. The Leader of the Synchro Pair is always a third year pilot and has his choice of 'Deputy' (Red 7) from the team; Red 7 will go on to become the Leader of the Synchro Pair the following season, continuing the cycle.

Displaying

One of the most distinctive components of Red Arrows displays is their use of smoke. This dates back to the 1950s and No. 54 Squadron's team of De Havilland Vampires, who trailed white smoke during their formation flying and aerobatics by injecting diesel fuel into their aircraft exhausts. Although today this is hardly unique, the Red Arrows add their own spice to this by carrying red and blue dyes in the central drop tanks of their aircraft as well as the diesel fuel required to make the smoke. This is used to produce red and blue smoke as well as the white: the three colours of the Union Jack.

In 1988 an air show accident involving the Frecce Tricolori (Italy's National Display Team) in Ramstein, Germany, resulted in 70 deaths when three aircraft collided and one of them crashed into a crowd of spectators. Shortly afterwards most European countries banned aerobatics from taking place over spectators and Germany banned formation flying altogether. In response to this the Red Arrows introduced several guidelines which they would follow during their displays. Mostly these stated that no aerobatics would take place below 200 feet and not below 1000 feet when above the crowd. However the Synchro Pair were and are allowed down to 100 feet (except when inverted: the limit in that case is 150ft) when in straight and level flight parallel to the crowd. The Red Arrows were given waivers by most of Europe for their "Crowd Rear Arrival" and "Vixen Break" manoeuvres because both involved the aircraft either being in stable flight or not flying towards each other, so there was no risk of collision. However in 1999 the team dispensed with manoeuvres over the crowd altogether, allowing them to display in the Netherlands and France who had not granted the aforementioned waiver.


Sources:
  • March Andrew; "Silver Jubilee of the Red Arrows"; Royal Air Force Yearbook 1989
  • British Crown;
    • "Red Arrows History - The Early Days"; <http://www.raf.mod.uk/reds/teamhist1.html> (and following pages)
    • "30 things you didn't know about the Red Arrows"; <http://www.raf.mod.uk/reds/things.html>
    • "The Red Arrows"; <http://www.centralflyingschool.org.uk/Today/Rafat.htm>
    • "History of The Royal Air Force Aerobatic Team, the Red Arrows"; <http://www.raf.mod.uk/history/hreds.html>
    • "History of the Red Arrows"; <http://www.media.goldenjubilee.gov.uk/red_arrows_history.htm>
    • "No 4 Flying Training School; Background and History 1921-1981"; <http://www.rafvalley.org/Station/4FTS_History_9.htm>
    • "Red Arrows News Archive - April 1998"; <http://www.raf.mod.uk/reds/archive98apr.html>
    • "Frequently Asked Questions"; <http://www.raf.mod.uk/reds/faqs.html>
  • Aerotech News & Review 1996-2002; "Royal Air Force; Red Arrows"; <http://www.aerotechnews.com/phtoarc/webphot/RedArrows/Red.html> (probably copied)
  • Sefton MBC; "Red Arrows"; <http://www.southportairshow.com/airshow/archive/redarrow.htm>
  • The Doublestar Group; "Folland Fo.141 Gnat"; <http://www.warbirdalley.com/gnat.htm>
  • Fegan, Damien; (Untitled); <http://www.geocities.com/raf_redarrows/redarrowshomepage.html>
  • Preindl, Philip; "Red Arrows - RAF Aerobatic Team"; <http://www.airventure.de/reds01engl.htm> (and following pages)
  • dave@militaryairshows.co.uk; "Display Teams; Red Arrows"; <http://www.militaryairshows.co.uk/team1.htm>

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