The Red Arrows: Ambassadors of the Royal Air Force & the United Kingdom
With a thundering roar, nine red and white jets streak overhead from behind the airshow crowd. The jets trail patriotic red, white, and blue smoke as they climb skyward with the crowd craning their necks as they look upward to get a better view. As the aircraft complete a loop, the smoke color changes to white and the nine pilots skillfully transition to a diamond formation. For approximately the next 30 minutes, the airshow crowd will be treated to a display of dynamic formation shapes, loops, and rolls by the Royal Air Force Aerobatic Team, the Red Arrows. Flying airshow displays and flypasts since 1964, the Red Arrows have become one of the most well-known and respected flight demonstration teams in the world. The team has represented the excellence of the British aviation industry, the Royal Air Force, and the goodwill of the United Kingdom at airshows and aviation events throughout the world throughout their existence.
The Red Arrows were formed in 1964 by the Royal Air Force (RAF). Before the formation of the Red Arrows, there were various aerobatic display flight teams within the RAF. The RAF, fearing its pilots were spending too much time practicing aerobatics and performing for audiences at airshows and base open houses rather than carrying out operational training, decided to form one dedicated team. The new team was called the Red Arrows, taking parts of two names from two previous aerobatic display teams, the Red Pelicans and the Black Arrows. Red also became associated with the new team because responsibility for the Red Arrows was transitioned from Fighter Command to the Central Flying School, which used red as its official color.
The first Red Arrows team was led by Squadron Leader Lee Jones. The first team used seven Folland Gnat T.1 jet training aircraft in its display. The first display of the new team was on May 6, 1965, at RAF Little Rissington for a press and media day. Three days later, the Red Arrows had their first official public display, at the National Air Day in Clermont-Ferrand in France. At the event, a French reporter confirmed that the name of the team was indeed the “Red Arrows”. On May 15, 1965, the Red Arrows performed in front of the British public for the first time at the Biggin Hill International Air Fair. By the time the first season ended, the Red Arrows had performed over 60 displays in Britain, Italy, France, Germany, Holland, and Belgium. At the end of the first season, the team was awarded the Britannia Trophy by the Royal Aero Club for their contribution to aviation.
In 1966, under the leadership of Squadron Leader Ray Hanna, the team was enlarged from seven aircraft to nine. This allowed the Red Arrows to expand their formation capabilities. On July 8, 1966, the team flew a display with nine aircraft for the first time at RAF Little Rissington. It was during this season that the famous “Diamond Nine” formation was developed. This formation has become a trademark of the team. Hanna was also one of the most influential team leaders in Red Arrows history and worked to improve the capability of the team. Hanna served for three consecutive seasons as Red Leader and then returned to replace Squadron Leader Timothy Nelson in 1969. Hanna was awarded a bar to his existing Air Force Cross for his considerable achievements with the team. In 1969, the Red Arrows were permanently established as an RAF squadron and became the official aerobatic team of the RAF.
On March 20, 1969, the Red Arrows suffered their first fatal crash in the history of the team. Flight Lieutenant Jerry Bowler was killed at RAF Kemble when his Folland Gnat hit trees during a practice flight while attempting to rejoin the formation. Bowler, flying at a low altitude at the time, was unable to eject from the aircraft before it slammed into the ground. In January of 1971, another tragic accident occurred. The Red Arrows “Synchro Pair” collided over RAF Kemble. Four pilots on the team lost their lives. “Synchro Pair” pilots Flight Lieutenant Euan Perraux and Flight Lieutenant Johnnie Haddock were killed. Also killed were two pilots new to the team for the year that were in the rear seats of the aircraft, Flight Lieutenant Collin Armstrong and Flight Lieutenant John Lewis.
In 1972, the Red Arrows visited North America for the first time with stops in the United States and Canada. The Red Arrows flew as part of the Transpo 72 exposition in Washington D.C. The display was witnessed by over half a million people. The crowd included U.S. President Richard Nixon. Later that year, the Red Arrows had to postpone a display for the first time in their history. The postponement occurred in Belgium when the aircraft carrying the support personnel for the team did not arrive at the display site as scheduled. In 1975, due to the aftereffects of the 1973 oil crisis, the Red Arrows flew the smallest display schedule in their history. In 1977, in order to help defray the rising costs of the Red Arrows flying displays, the Ministry of Defence began charging airshow organizers a display fee for Red Arrows appearances.
In 1979, after flying over 1,200 displays in the Folland Gnat T.1, the excellent training aircraft was beginning to show its age. The Gnat was also being phased out of the RAF as a training aircraft. The Red Arrows decided to switch aircraft for the 1980 display season. The team took delivery and began training with the BAE Systems Hawk T.1A in 1979. Similar to the Gnat, the Hawk was an advanced training aircraft used to train fighter pilots. The Hawk also promised low operating costs for the Red Arrows, which had to be frugal with spending due to major cutbacks in the defense budget by the British government. The Hawk has been with the team since and has been used for Red Arrows displays in over 50 countries.
The 1980 season also marked a big change for the Red Arrows intense preseason training program. Beginning that year, the team moved part of its spring training for the display season to Cyprus Island, where better weather conditions allowed the team to perfect their display. This training was such a success that it has been continued annually. Currently, the Red Arrows use Hellenic Air Force Base Tanagra in Greece for this critical, four-week, spring training program. The Red Arrows moved to their present home base, RAF Scampton, in 1983. The 1993 season saw the Red Arrows embark on a tour of the United States. In 1995, the Red Arrows flew 136 displays, the greatest number ever flown in a season and the team visited Australia and Africa.
The Red Arrows became the subject of massive speculation during the 2004 display season. Rumors started in the British media that the team would be disbanded after a defense spending review discovered the operating costs for the Red Arrows to be over five million pounds a season. The speculation was a major distraction throughout the 2004 display season. After public outcry, the Red Arrows ended up not being disbanded, as the expense of the team was justified through the public relations benefits of developing business in the defense industry and recruitment for the RAF. The Red Arrows have also benefited many charitable organizations with appearances and fundraising events. Displays outside of Great Britain have also promoted diplomatic, trade, and cultural interest in the United Kingdom in other parts of the world. The 2006 season saw the Red Arrows fly their 4,000th display at the Battle of Britain airshow at RAF Leuchars. In 2008, the Red Arrows welcomed the first female pilot to the team. Also that season, a British woman paid over one million pounds at a charity auction to fly with the Red Arrows on a practice flight at RAF Scampton. By the end of 2009, the Red Arrows had flown over 4,200 displays in 53 countries.
Tragedy struck the Red Arrows during the 2011 season. Two separate accidents caused the deaths of two Red Arrows pilots, Flight Lieutenant Jon Egging and Flight Lieutenant Sean Cunningham. The accidents caused a major change in the display for the 2012 season. For 2012, aerobatic displays were flown with just seven aircraft. In 2013, the team returned to their full display of nine aircraft. The Red Arrows celebrated their 50th season as an aerobatic display team in 2014. To mark the occasion, the team returned to RAF Fairford for the Royal International Air Tattoo. For the entirety of the display season, the Red Arrows Hawk aircraft carried special anniversary markings on their tails.
After their 2016 display season in the United Kingdom, the Red Arrows embarked on a tour of Asia and the Middle East. Some of the countries visited included Pakistan, India, Malaysia, Vietnam, Oman, and Kuwait. The tour was also the first time the team visited China and Vietnam. While in China, some of the cities the Red Arrows visited and flew displays at were Beijing, Shanghai, and Hong Kong. In 2018, the RAF celebrated its 100th anniversary and the Red Arrows were a large part of the celebration efforts. The team carried special RAF100 markings on their Hawk aircraft for the 2018 display season. The team also participated in a special flyover of London, joining a host of other RAF combat, training, and transport aircraft in a celebration of 100 years of the Royal Air Force that was viewed by thousands of British citizens and members of the British Royal Family.
In 2019, the Red Arrows embarked on an 11-week tour of North America. The team performed at several U.S. and Canadian airshows and performed flypasts of various U.S. cities and landmarks. The visit marked the first time since 2008 the Red Arrows had visited the United States and the first time since 1993 they had toured the entire nation. Locations the Red Arrows visited in the United States included Boston, St. Louis, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, Forth Worth, Denver, New York City, and Washington D.C. In Canada, the Red Arrows visited Toronto and Vancouver. During their visit to both countries, the Red Arrows also conducted flypasts of major landmarks. Some of the landmarks that received flypasts by the Red Arrows included the CN Tower and Niagara Falls in Toronto, the Statute of Liberty in New York City, the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, and the Gateway Arch in St. Louis. The team also had the opportunity to fly and visit with the three North American military airshow demonstration teams, the U.S. Navy Blue Angels, the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds, and the Canadian Forces Snowbirds.
In addition to airshow appearances and flybys, the Red Arrows visit highlighted the close alliance the United Kingdom shares with the United States and Canada. The alliance was highlighted through various public engagements and meetings with diplomatic and business leaders. In addition to these engagements, the Red Arrows visited schools to participate in STEM events that encouraged students to pursue studies in science and mathematics career fields. The tour, Western Hawk 19, also known as the 2019 North American Tour, gave U.S. and Canadian aviation enthusiasts the rare opportunity to see the team perform at airshows. The Red Arrows were well-received by North American airshow audiences, with some aviation enthusiasts traveling hours to an airshow location just to be able to see the team perform.
One of the most important elements of a Red Arrows display is safety, both for the pilots in the air and the spectators on the ground. The day before a display is to take place, the Red Arrows will fly a rehearsal performance at the display site. This allows the pilots to identify visual reference points on the ground and familiarize themselves with the layout of the location. Before each display, maintenance personnel with the Red Arrows thoroughly check each aircraft for any maintenance issues. They also communicate with the pilots about any maintenance issue an aircraft has. If the issue cannot be corrected before a display is set to begin, a spare aircraft brought with the team will be substituted for the display. In addition to spare aircraft, a military transport aircraft, usually a Lockheed Martin C-130J Hercules or an Airbus A400M Atlas, accompanies the Red Arrows to each display site. This aircraft carries additional spare parts to repair the Hawk aircraft and transports the Red Arrows support personnel to a display site. This aircraft arrives before the arrival of the Red Arrows jets so that the support team is in place and ready to service the Hawk aircraft the moment they land at a display site.
Once the Red Arrows takeoff to begin a display, the team makes a brief check of their aircraft and the weather conditions. Depending on weather conditions, three types of displays may be flown. A full Red Arrows display, called the Looping Display, requires a cloud base of 5,500 feet. If the cloud base is less than 5,500 feet but greater than 2,500 feet, the Red Arrows will perform the Rolling Display, substituting rolling and wing-over maneuvers for loops in their display. If weather conditions cause a cloud base less than 2,500 feet, the Red Arrows will perform the Flat Display, which is a series of flypasts and steep turning maneuvers. Because of the dynamic weather in the United Kingdom, all three display profiles are interchangeable and the team has all three memorized. This allows the Red Arrows to quickly change to a different display profile should the weather change or deteriorate during as display. Another safety measure is altitude, all maneuvers flown by the Red Arrows must be flown at least 300 feet above the crowd. The one exception is the “Synchro Pair” solo pilots, which can fly as low as 100 feet in level flight and 150 feet when inverted.
Similar to the U.S. Navy Blue Angels and U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds, the Red Arrows display is broken into two segments. During the first segment of the display, the nine pilots fly together in carefully synchronized aerobatic maneuvers, highlighting the teamwork required to fly nine jets in close formation, sometimes as little as six feet apart and at speeds of 350 miles per hour. For the second segment of the display, the nine pilots break up into two smaller sections for more dynamic display maneuvers. The first section of aircraft is nicknamed “Enid” and contains Red Arrows 1-5. The second section is known as the “Gypo” section and contains Red Arrows 6-9. The “Gypo” section also contains the famous Red Arrows “Synchro Pair”, the pilots known as “Red 6” and “Red 7”. The “Synchro Pair” perform various opposition maneuvers during the second half of the show. During these maneuvers, the “Synchro Pair” pilots fly straight at each other, often passing each other just a few feet apart. These maneuvers often thrill audiences at Red Arrows displays.
One of the most important elements of the Red Arrows display is their smoke. The Red Arrows are one of the unique teams to use colored smoke in their display program. The smoke is created by releasing diesel into the exhaust of the jet engine. The red and blue colored smoke is created by adding dye into the diesel. The diesel is stored in a pod on the underside of the plane that is divided into three tanks. Each tank houses either pure diesel or one of the diesel mixtures that is dyed. The smoke system holds enough diesel that each plane can produce five minutes of white smoke, one minute of red smoke, and one minute of blue smoke during the display. The smoke also serves as a safety aide to help the pilots determine wind direction during a display and provides a visual reference to their locations during the display.
Each Red Arrows team designs its own display formations and the sequence of those formations within the display. Some formations are used each display season. The display is carefully planned to meet all safety criteria set forth by the RAF and civil safety regulations. The use of smoke is also carefully choreographed in the display so that no aircraft runs out before the finale. For the 2019 North American Tour, the Red Arrows picked some special formations to honor significant milestones in aviation and RAF history. Some of the special formations flown in the 2019 display included the “Apollo” formation to honor the 50th Anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon Landing and “Concorde”. formation, a formation that resembled the shape of the revolutionary and iconic supersonic commercial airliner which first flew over 50 years ago.
Another important part of the Red Arrows legacy as a flight demonstration team has been the BAE Systems Hawk T.1A aircraft used by the team since 1980. The Hawk is a tandem two-seat training advanced training aircraft used by the RAF since 1976. The Hawk is known for the distinct sound of its Rolls-Royce Adour engine and its reliability in operational service. Pilots praise the aircraft for its agility, especially its roll and turning rate. Another revolutionary feature for the Hawk is its cockpit. The rear cockpit is raised higher than the front, allowing the flight instructor to have excellent visibility from the rear seat when the Hawk is being used in the flight training role.
The T.1A variant used by the Red Arrows was originally designed to be used for weapons training. This version of the Hawk was modified to carry two missiles or gun pods on underwing pylons and a centerline gun pod. On the Red Arrows aircraft, the centerline gun pod has been replaced by a tank that carries the diesel used for the smoke in the airshow display. The engine is also highly-tuned for maximum performance at low altitudes. One disadvantage to the T.1A Hawk is that the aircraft has a limited fuel capacity. The lack of fuel capacity means the Red Arrows must stop to refuel several times to get to some display locations that are long distances away. For example, the trip to North America for the 2019 North American Tour required several fuel stops to get the aircraft across the Atlantic Ocean. The Red Arrows can also never fly a display in New Zealand because the Hawk, which doesn’t have in-air refueling capability, cannot carry enough fuel to reach the island nation from any starting destination.
The Hawk has been a major success for BAE Systems. Over 900 have been built and the aircraft has been exported and license-built in several nations both as a two-seat advanced trainer and single-seat light attack aircraft. A variant of the Hawk is also used by the U.S. Navy in the advanced training role. The specialized T-45 Goshawk is carrier-capable and is used for aircraft carrier training. Other nations using variants of the Hawk include Canada, Saudi Arabia, Finland, Australia, India, and Malaysia. Updated versions of the Hawk are still in production today by BAE Systems in the United Kingdom and are being license-built in India. Newer versions of the Hawk have upgraded engines, glass cockpits, and the ability to carry increased weapons loads. Some newer variants of the Hawk also have redesigned wings and center sections of their fuselage.
The Red Arrows would not be such a proud representation of the RAF without their personnel. Over 130 men and women make up the Red Arrows. This personnel includes public relations representatives, suppliers, logistics specialists, weapons technicians, avionics specialists, engineering staff, photographers, and demonstration pilots. Although most of the personnel on the team are active-duty personnel, there are a couple of team members that are reservists with the RAF and come from backgrounds as civil servants.
Nine pilots fly in the Red Arrows displays. To be eligible to be one of the Red Arrows, a pilot must have completed an operational tour in a combat jet, accumulated 1,500 flying hours, and be assessed as above average in their role. The selection process is extremely competitive, and more than ten pilots usually apply for each open position on the team. To be selected, a pilot must also go through a formal interview, a peer assessment, and a flying test. The pilots must also be prepared to be ambassadors of the RAF and the United Kingdom. They must have excellent communication skills and be prepared to participate in media work at display sites and public engagement events the Red Arrows attend. Finally, a pilot who flies with the Red Arrows must be in excellent health. During a display, a Red Arrows pilot can experience forces up to five times the force of gravity in several instances, with forces up to seven times of gravity possible during the “Vixen Break” maneuver.
Pilots selected to be part of the Red Arrows stay with the team for a three-year assignment. Three pilots are changed every year. This process keeps the level of experience consistent on the team. Three pilots will always be in their first year, three in their second year, and three in their third and final year on the team. To make communications simple within the team, pilots will simply be known by their position on the team. For example, “Red 1” is the Team Leader. The Team Leader is always a pilot who has had previous experience on the Red Arrows. After their time on the Red Arrows is completed, pilots return to an operational RAF combat or training squadron. For many of the pilots who have become Red Arrows, to be selected to be part of the team is the highlight of their career in the RAF.
The pilots joining the team for their first year will typically be assigned positions near the front of the formation, close to the leader. As their experience with the team grows, they will transition to positions further back in the formation. Due to the intense training required for the display, the Red Arrows do not carry any spare pilots on the team. If any Red Arrows pilot cannot perform, the team will fly an eight-plane formation. If for some reason Red 1 cannot fly, the team will not display. Two other important members of the team are “Red 10” and “Red 11”. Both are fully qualified pilots but do not participate in the display. Some of Red 10’s duties include bringing a spare aircraft to each airshow site, communicating with Red 1 via two-way radio during the display, announcing the display for spectators, and flying a photographer for air-to-air photographs of the Red Arrows. Red 11 is the officer in command of the Red Arrows. Red 11 has overall responsibility for the team and makes sure the Red Arrows are following procedures that allow displays to be undertaken safely.
The Red Arrows also wear special uniforms. The bright red uniforms, one of the trademarks of the team, are not worn during the spring training period. Regular green flying suits, similar to those worn by frontline RAF pilots, are worn. The red uniforms are only worn once the display for the season has been approved by RAF officials and the Red Arrows have been awarded their Public Display Authority. The granting of the Public Display Authority usually takes place after the completion of the spring training program.
In addition to their red uniforms, the Red Arrows pilots also have other special equipment they must wear when flying their displays. The pilots wear a Mk 10 flying helmet that is individually fitted and that has a double visor system for protection. Each pilot also wears Anti-G trousers to help prevent blood from pooling in the legs during the dynamic maneuvers performed during the display when pilots are pulling a significant amount of g-forces. Each pilot also wears leather flying boots and gloves specially designed to be used when flying the Hawk aircraft. Finally, each pilot wears a life preserver specially designed for RAF aircrew. The life preserver is self-inflating and contains several survival aids including a beacon, mini flares, and a first aid kit.
The Red Arrows also have a large engineering and technical support team that accompanies the aircraft to display locations. The over 100 members of the technical and engineering support team come from various technical and support trades within the RAF. These personnel are known as the “Blues” due to the blue uniforms they wear while assigned to the team during the display season.
One of the most unique roles on the Red Arrows engineering and support team is the “Dye Team”. The “Dye Team” is responsible for carefully replenishing the pods that carry the diesel used to generate the colored smoke during a Red Arrows display. There are two dedicated dye teams and they travel with the team wherever they display, sometimes traveling thousands of miles in a display season. To replenish and mix the dye, the team wears special suits due to the fact the dye can stain clothing and skin. The dedicated efforts of the “Dye Team” ensure the famous colored smoke trails look right every time the Red Arrows perform a display.
Each season, nine members of the “Blues” are selected to be part of the “Circus”. Members of the “Circus” work with the same pilot for the duration of the season and are responsible for servicing that pilot’s aircraft and preparing their flight gear before each flying display. This helps build a bond of trust and communication between the pilot and his assigned “Circus” colleague. Unlike the rest of the support team, members of the “Circus” have the privilege to fly in the back seats of the jets during flights to display sites. Similar to the Red Arrows pilots, the members of the “Circus” are known by the number of the jet they are assigned to rather than their names. For example, the “Circus” member assigned to “Red 9” will be known as “Circus 9” within the team.
In recent years, there has been a concentrated effort by the Ministry of Defence to recruit more women into the technical and engineering roles within the Royal Air Force. In 2019, two women had positions within the “Circus” on the Red Arrows. It is expected that with a growing number of women entering the Royal Air Force in technical and engineering roles, the number of women assigned to the Red Arrows support team could grow in the future.
The Red Arrows will have some interesting challenges in future years. Their home facility, RAF Scampton, is set to be closed by 2022. In 2020, it was announced that nearby RAF Waddington would become the new home for the Red Arrows. In a study completed by the Ministry of Defence, RAF Waddington was the only RAF facility deemed suitable to meet the needs of the Red Arrows safely. Another challenge facing the Red Arrows will be procuring a replacement aircraft. The BAE Systems Hawk T.1A was set to be retired from the RAF by the year 2030. A recent Ministry of Defence spending plan outlined significant spending cuts and aircraft retirements for the RAF, including the retirement of all Hawk T.1A aircraft earlier than expected, in 2025. The plan calls for keeping enough Hawk T.1A aircraft airworthy for the Red Arrows to use for displays and spares until 2030. The Red Arrows themselves were under the threat of being disbanded due to the spending cuts as well, but corporate sponsors stepped in, providing financial support to help defray the costs of the team’s operations. These generous companies and their sponsorships have helped save the Red Arrows from disbandment in the immediate future. In the years ahead, the Red Arrows and the Royal Air Force will need to study procuring a replacement aircraft and more than likely, additional ways the cost of team operations can be reduced to keep the Red Arrows in existence.
In flight and on the ground, the Red Arrows represent the best of the Royal Air Force and the United Kingdom. Their flying display represents the modern capabilities of the Royal Air Force and the high standard the organization has for training and preparation with its personnel and aircraft. On the ground, the Red Arrows pilots and personnel have a level of character that makes them excellent ambassadors of the United Kingdom. Throughout the year, the Red Arrows hold various public engagements, many for charity, promoting the goodwill of the United Kingdom to schoolchildren, hospital patients, and business and government leaders. The Red Arrows, with their rich history and reputation for excellence, have become a part of British popular culture, both in the United Kingdom and throughout the world.