Scarlet fever: Why middle England can't get enough of the Red Arrows

They're as British as roast beef and at this time of year, as sought-after as pop stars. Simon Usborne meets the Red Arrows - the ultimate frequent fliers
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The Independent Online

When, in September 2007, a national newspaper reported that the Red Arrows had been banned from displaying at the 2012 London Olympics for being "too British", outrage roared across the blogosphere faster than one of the team's Hawk jets.

Protest groups popped up on Facebook and an online petition at the Number 10 website gathered more than half a million signatures (it remains the third most popular petition on the site).

As the fallout threatened to embarrass the Government, Gordon Brown denied a ban, insisting he'd be "delighted" to see the Red Arrows over the Olympic Stadium. The reaction revealed how the ageing "Reds" remain as potent and cherished a national symbol as when they first took to the skies. As the unnamed pilot in the article put it: "The Red Arrows are as British as the Queen and London buses. They're a source of national pride."

But the RAF's daredevils first flew in different times. In 1965, 3 million British homes still did not have a television. The age of extreme sports channels and YouTube, in which stuntmen must push the boundaries ever further to get jaws dropping and hearts racing, was decades away. So why does the sight of nine old jets doing loop-the-loops as they paint the sky with smoke still turn grown men into awed schoolboys, and awed schoolboys into fanatics? Beyond providing holiday cheer and adding colour to pageantry, what are the Red Arrows for? And who are the fêted airmen behind the oxygen masks and flying suits?

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One of the biggest crowds to greet the Reds this summer is thronging the Dorset coast at Bournemouth, where ice-cream kiosks are raking it in at the annual Air Festival. Lifeguards on jet skis patrol the surf by the pier, which creaks with spectators. The scene resembles a modern-day Lowry, as holidaymakers and enthusiasts with long lenses stand almost motionless as they stare at the bright blue sky.

And then they appear. Flying like steel geese in a wide "V", a formation they call "Big Battle", nine red jets swoop over the cliffs. The roar of their Rolls-Royce Adour engines follows a second later before, in perfect synchronisation, the formation rears up vertically and, while banking to the right, effortlessly reassembles into the short diamond – the formation that has become the team's trademark. For the next 30 minutes the Reds roll, corkscrew and weave their way through 26 manoeuvres of increasing complexity and daring. The only sounds to be heard from the crowd are cheers, whoops and "ooh!".

One other voice booms over the beach, via speakers rigged on posts. Squadron Leader Graeme Bagnall flies the team's spare, 10th jet between shows and acts as their eyes on the ground during displays. He also talks spectators through the action, peppering his commentary with groan-inducing jokes. As the display draws to a close, Bagnall invites the crowd to visit the Red Arrows tent where, in about an hour, the pilots will arrive to sign autographs. The news causes a final, collective "Ooh" as children drag their parents in the direction of the tent.

By 3pm, the expanse of concrete leading from Bath Road to Bournemouth Pier and the beach is swamped. Hundreds of children clutch free programmes distributed by the Red Arrows PR team and blue-suited engineers on meet-and-greet duty. And then a ripple of applause turns into a cheer as the crowd spots the men in red climbing out of a people carrier. Wearing Oakleys or Ray-Bans (though, disappointingly, no Aviators) they stride into the gathering with the swagger of Apollo astronauts. And then they disappear in a tide of people, programmes and pens.

Jake Groves is about 4ft tall but his natty red jumpsuit makes him stand out. His father, Rob, bought it for him last year from the official Red Arrows shop. It comes complete with epaulettes and an embroidered diamond nine formation on the right shoulder. "I've got every Red Arrows thing you can get," Jake, 10, says during a breathless break in autograph-hunting. "I've watched them about eight times now and they're really good – outstanding. I really want to fly one but not straight away. But I wouldn't mind going in the back."

What does Jake's dad, Rob, think about his son's RAF ambitions? To be eligible, pilots must have completed at least one front-line tour of duty. "I'd be right behind him," he says. "It's early days but if he did it for the right reasons, great. He's very committed so I wouldn't be surprised if he did it."

Six-year-old Ashley James has come to see the Reds with his mum, Mikala. "He's been to every display here since he was about one," she says. "And his grandad takes him to the airport in the evenings. They sit for hours watching the planes." Mikala says she'd be "well chuffed" if her boy's obsession turned into a career but for now Ashley says he just "likes the tricks".

The pilots say they recognise their youthful selves in their scores of young fans. "I remember watching the Reds when I was about five," says Squadron Leader Ben Murphy. He flies Red 6 and leads the so-called "Synchro Pair" – the twin jets that peel away in the second half of displays to perform some of the most death-defying stunts. "I remember looking up at them in awe, but it was very much a pipe dream at that stage. To actually be here doing it is amazing."

It's no accident that an RAF careers trailer is parked up opposite the Red Arrows tent. Ashley and Jake have both climbed its steps to nab some free stickers. "One question they always ask is 'How old do I need to be to become a Red Arrow?'" says Flight Lieutenant Andy Rolston. "I had a little girl of eight ask me that earlier today."

Rolston, who is on a three-year secondment to the careers service, says the Red Arrows are "absolutely essential" for the RAF. "They're a fantastic advert. But our job is to give people the right idea and make sure they're aware if they join up there's a good chance they'll go into operations." Rolston's team direct budding pilots who are interested in more than stickers to an official careers office. "You can't join the RAF here," he adds.

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The pilots are hailed as heroes by the pier, but when the Reds retreat from the crowds, it's pound signs they'll see in the eyes of a different set of admirers. The great and good of Bournemouth have gathered further along the coast to watch the show from the more rarefied setting of the VIP marquee. The editor of the Bournemouth Echo and his glamorous wife are chatting to business leaders while council executives talk shop over glasses of champagne. The Air Festival, which is in its second year, evolved from the one-day display the Red Arrows have been performing here for years. All agree it's now the biggest thing to hit the town all year. "We're talking about serious money," says Pam Donellan, the Chief Executive of Bournemouth Borough Council. "During a normal summer weekend we might bring in a couple of million pounds worth of business but this weekend we'll have a million visitors spending at least £30m. For seaside towns, which often have fairly fragile economies, the Red Arrows have a phenomenal impact."

Switch the setting from Dorset to Dubai, where the Red Arrows entertained defence ministries and arms dealers at an air show in 2007, or Jordan, where the team performed an unpublicised display in May to mark the 10th anniversary of the accession of the King Abdullah II, and it's easy to see why the Ministry of Defence justifies the team's estimated £5.6m budget at a time when the armed forces are facing swingeing cuts. The Red Arrows fly the flag not only for the RAF, but for the defence industry – and Great Britain PLC.

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Their role as national ambassadors is one the pilots take in their stride. They receive media training and are as well-rehearsed when they're hob-nobbing and signing autographs as they are upside-down travelling at 400mph. But ultimately, they're in it for the flying. The weekend before Bournemouth, the nine men (a recently-recruited first female pilot, Kirsty Moore, joins the team next year) are gathered at Manston Airfield near Ramsgate, Kent. The Reds use the runway here to access the Eastbourne Airshow, about seven minutes and 70 miles along the coast as the Hawk flies.

Arrows pilots go through a rigorous selection process before they're allowed anywhere near a red suit. There are only three spots available each year and each recruit, who joins the team for three years before returning to his squadron, must have 1,500 flying hours and be judged to be an "above average" pilot. They're used to flying Tornados, Harriers and Jaguars – some of the most advanced fast jets in the sky. The BAE Hawk T1 is a very different beast. Five were built in 1979. "We liken them to a 1960s MG," says Murphy, who flew a Harrier during the 2003 air assault on Iraq. "They're simple and compact but effective and great fun. On front line operations you probably spend 20 per cent of your time flying and the rest operating all the systems. This is job is the last 100 per cent flying experience in the Air Force."

Five minutes before the pilots brief and head off to do their thing, Wing Commander Jas Hawker is reclining on the wing of his plane in his Oakleys, listening to an iPod (Green Day). With his regulation close shave, Kiefer Sutherland snarl and Top Gun name, he looks like he belongs in his own comic strip. "This is the best job in the world," says Hawker, 38, a man of few words who is in his third year commanding the team. "But what a lot of people don't see is all the hard work that goes on behind the scenes."

Hawker is at the top of a team of more than 100 people tasked with keeping the Reds in the air. They deal with everything from paperwork to transport and PR, but one of the most sought-after jobs belongs to the five men of the Dye Team. They're responsible for one of the Reds' most famous trademarks – the red, white and blue smoke trails. The process devised to paint the sky with union colours is as endearingly low-tech as the Hawk jets. A tank, fixed to the Hawk's fuselage in place of a cannon, is divided into three compartments. One is filled with straight car diesel, while red or blue vegetable dye is added to the diesel in the other sections. By pushing one of three buttons on his control column, pilots inject the appropriate colour into the jet exhaust at the rear of the plane, where it vapourises instantly. The trails are more than for show, helping pilots locate each other and determine wind direction.

The 85-strong team of engineers, known as Blues thanks to their suits, treat their machines like classic E-Types lovingly polished to be seen on sunny Sundays. But sometimes the aged planes play up. During their winter training, the team devises "loser plans" to ensure the show can go on in the event that a jet develops a fault. Before each display, Hawker, AKA "The Boss", asks somebody for a number between two and seven (if Red 1 drops out, the show is cancelled). Today, Nikki Wright, the team's civilian PR chief, picks seven, her lucky number. The team quickly talks through the plan for a "seven-out display" with necessary adjustments and changes to the smoke patterns. The team hasn't had a breakdown this season but, six minutes after take-off, the air tower reports that one jet is coming back early. Sure enough, it's Red 7, flown by Mike "Lingy" Ling. He looks like a boy with a broken toy when he climbs out of jet and walks across the Tarmac. "It's gutting," says Ling, who only half-jokingly accuses Wright of cursing his plane. "The switch for the airbrake was sticky and you can't display if the airbrake doesn't work first time." Ling makes up the other half of the Synchro Pair with Murphy. "He won't be able to do the heart now," Ling says, referring to the giant shape the team paints near the end of its display. "Yeah, it's not fair."

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It says a lot about the perfectionism central to the job description that Ling and the rest of the team are so disappointed about today's breakdown. After all, it's just one of some 97 displays they'll perform this season, which runs from late May until the end of September. The team gets one free weekend in that time and the Bournemouth Air Festival caps a 10-day period that has seen displays or flypasts at the Falmouth Regatta in Cornwall, the Eastbourne Airshow, the Galloway Country Fair, separate carnivals at Cromer, Weymouth and Dawlish, and the Fowey Royal Regatta in Cornwall. Before the team heads back to its base at Scampton in Lincolnshire, it will display over Denmark, Monaco and Berlin.

As Bournemouth demonstrates, event organisers and councils scramble for a piece of Red Arrows action. The RAF's events team receives more than 300 requests a year. Anyone is free to apply via the Reds' website or by post, and, inevitably, some applications are more optimistic than others. Among requests for flypasts at birthdays and weddings (the Red Arrows will only consider public events) recent applications have included a primary school fête and a fair at a village in Herefordshire (population: about 350).

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Back in Bournemouth, there's one question that is met with a universal response from children: what is your favourite manoeuvre? "This one!" they say, bringing their arms together and making their hands pass each other in a re-creation of the thrilling near-misses of the Synchro Pair. Danger sells, but the Reds have an excellent safety record. The last pilot fatalities came in 1971, when a mid-air crash during training killed four pilots (Hawk jets have two seats). But the aircraft's advancing years and the inherent dangers in flying jets little more than a foot apart at 400mph mean pilot ejections are not unheard of. Last September, a £5m Hawk being delivered to RAF Cranwell crashed into the control tower and ended up in a pile of bricks in the car park.

For another breed of Reds fan, the Aerobatics team means more than gut-churning dives, recruitment drives, or VIP schmoozing. Kenneth and Gladys don't have any Red Arrows merchandise but wear smiles broader than any at the Bournemouth autograph signing. They met as flight mechanics during the Second World War and always watch the Bournemouth display. But Gladys has never met a pilot – until now. "I thought I was going to pass out, I really did," she says, moments after shaking Red 6's hand. "I never thought I'd have the honour of even seeing one of them." Kenneth is almost as moved, and says, above all, the Red Arrows act as an important reminder. "We don't see enough of the Air Force on Civvy Street, do we: this is where we can meet them again."

Flight path: The Red Arrows story

1965: The RAF Aerobatic Team perform its first public display at Biggin Hill in Kent using Folland Gnat trainer jets. The Red Arrows replace the famed Black Arrows and the Red Pelicans.

1968: The seven-jet team is boosted with two new aircraft, allowing the Reds to develop their trademark "diamond nine" formation.

1971: In the worst tragedy to strike the team, a mid-air collision during training results in the deaths of four airmen.

1979: BAE Systems supplies its Hawk T1 jet trainer, which replaces the Gnat.

1995: The Red Arrows perform 136 displays and flypasts, a record for a single season.

1998: Founding Red Arrows Squadron Leader Ray Hanna is employed by Steven Spielberg, right, for the flying sequences in his film "Saving Private Ryan".

2002: The team flies over London in formation behind Concorde to mark the Queen's Golden Jubilee.

2008: They perform for the first time over New York. The jets have to refuel five times en route, including twice in Greenland.

2009: Flight Lieutenant Kirsty Moore becomes the first female recruit. She joins the team next year.

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