The Royal Air Force Aerobatic Team - The Red Arrows... an iconic brand known widely throughout the UK and across the globe.
On Friday 7 July 2023, Gemma attended a corporate day with the Team - a select group of eight! Read more about how her day went...
6.30am, the alarm sounds, it’s time to get up. Today is not just any ordinary day though…. Today is the day that I get to go behind the scenes of the world famous and iconic Red Arrows at their new home base, RAF Waddington!
Being ex RAF and an ex team member of the Red Arrows, you’d think I’d be past the excitement by now but it never leaves you. Any opportunities to return to the team after you have left very rarely come round so just like a child on Christmas morning, I can safely say I was very excited to be returning “home” to a place I loved during my time in the RAF. It has been 5 years since my last visit to the team, which back then was at their previous home of RAF Scampton.
By 9am I was rolling my car up to the gates of RAF Waddington, welcomed by the guard and directed to a small holding car park. I was the 1st to arrive and met by one of the ground crew from the team. It wasn’t long until the other 7 visitors arrived and we were then being escorted up to the Squadron for our day to start.
As we made our way through the RAF base I took in everything and remembered back to the days that this used to be part of my daily routine. It was like taking a trip down memory lane. Then we turned a corner and arrived at the Squadron where the team operate from.
The 1st sight that greeted us were seven shiny “green & white” Hawk T1 Jets…… not quite what we expecting. Where were those iconic red jets?
It was at this point that we learnt our day was to be more unique as we were going to be treated to displays not only from the Red Arrows but also from the visiting Saudi Hawk Display Team too! What a treat!
Our first stop at the Squadron was the Aircrew tea bar where we were treated to a lovely brew and the opportunity to speak with some of the team members. This was followed by a tour out to the jets on the line where we had the opportunity of a photo with the pilots. An exciting start to the day for sure! An we not only had a line up of Red jets but a full line up of green jets too! Double the delight!
As we left the jets on the line we diverted into the Squadron Hangar and were taken on a tour by one of the ground engineers. You get to see just how much work goes into keeping these incredible jets airworthy. The hours the ground crew spend on these jets, maintaining them is insane!
Not only were we treated to a full tour of a jet and told all about the workings of the jet and the different elements of it, we were invited to climb into the cockpit and take a seat in the pilots seat! Wow! That’s all I can say! I mean, how often can you turn around and say you have sat in the front seat of a Red Arrows aircraft! This was an opportunity not to be missed!
After getting over the excitement of sitting in the jet, our group were shown round the ejection seat and taken through the details of this works and the safety equipment that they pilots fly with should they ever get into an emergency situation. It’s quite impressive to see!
Part of the kit a pilot wears whilst flying is a G-Suit… this helps the pilot combat the level of G-Force on the body whilst flying the various manoeuvres. Did you know that when we ourselves are stood naturally on the ground we are at 1G and when the pilots perform their incredible displays in front of millions of people they can pull up to an incredible 8G of force which is the equivalent of 8x their own body weight compressing them! This pressure pushes the blood from the top of their body to the lower extremities, so to combat this the G-Suits inflate around the pilots legs to keep the blood where it needs to be ensuring the plots remain in full capacity!
It's truly amazing to see what goes into the jets and keeping the pilots safe. It’s even more incredible to understand the level of work that goes into keeping these jets in the skies, some of which are still the original jets dating back to 1979!
After a tour of the hangar and jets, our visit continued and we found ourselves sitting in on the Pilots pre-flight briefing, a very rare opportunity indeed and something that most people never get the opportunity to witness.
During the pre-flight briefing the boss, Squadron Leader Tom Bould – Red 1 addresses the team and updates them on what they are about fly in their next sortie and provides any information that they may need relating to weather, air traffic control and any other important details. The team then go through a routine of the manoeuvres that they are about to fly, each taking it in turns to speak through their individual manoeuvres like a practise run through. The team also take this opportunity to go through any amendments that may need to be made to manoeuvres and safety points that they each need to be aware of.
On this occasion Squadron Leader Graeme Muscat - Red 10 would also be flying with the team and taking with him one of the squadron photographers in the rear seat of his jet. This is known as photo chasing and something that happens quite often as the team fly and display in order to capture some of the amazing in-flight photographs that you may have seen across the internet or in printed materials. During the pre-flight brief Red 10 will update the team on where he will be flying and the photo opportunities that he will be looking for. This ensures that none of the pilots are caught off guard by the photo chasing jet and they all know what is happening.
At the end of the pre-briefing the Pilots departed the room and headed to their preparation area where they donned their relevant flying kit and walked out to their jets to prepare them for take off.
Our small visitor group were then led outside to the edge of the aircraft pan where we could watch the pilots perform their safety checks, followed by the ground crew also doing relevant safety checks and removing chocks ready for the pilots to move off. Once the pilots were strapped in and the aircraft canopy closed, they started up the jet engines; what a sound that is and you never forget that familiar smell of AVTUR (aviation fuel). This really took me back to my days on the squadron and the countless times I have stood and watched those jets, start up, taxi and take off. It’s something that fills you with excitement every time!
Each of the jets one by one were signalled by their respective ground crew member to pull forward from where they were parked and they each turned to form a single line as they taxied to the runway. As the jets rolled passed where we were stood, the pilots nodded their hello’s and some waved to acknowledge us. Our small group then walked back to the Squadron where we were able to watch the jets form on the runway and take off.
It's not everyday you get to stand so close to a live runway and watch as 8 iconic Red Jets line themselves up and get ready for take off. You can feel the vibrations through the air and the noise as those jets propel themselves forward is incredible. It’s almost indescribable the feeling you get!
Following take off, the jets had some missions to complete, including various flypasts in the local area before they returned to perform and display over RAF Waddington. As luck would have it, we had the perfect day to watch a display, clear blue skies and sunshine! This meant the team could perform their “Full” display, a rare occurrence sometimes with our typical British weather!
There are three types of display that the Team Leader (Red 1) can eelect to fly – full, rolling or flat. To carry out a full, looping, display the base of the cloud must be above 5,500 feet to avoid the aircraft entering the cloud at the top of the loop. If the cloud base is less than 5,500 feet, but more than 2,500 feet, the team will perform the rolling display – substituting wing-overs and rolls for the loops. When the cloud base is below 2,500 feet, the team will fly the flat display, consisting of a series of flypasts and steep turns. Each display lasts for approximately 20minutes.
One of my favourite manoeuvres performed by the team is the Infinity Break. Red 1 performs the infinity symbol with red smoke around the other jets with their white smoke on. As the infinity symbol is completed the team then perform a break manoeuvre.
As the Reds were performing their display, the Saudi Hawk Display Team had been conducting their pre-flight briefing and were getting ready to take to the skies. Their shiny green and white jets taxied past us, the pilots waving to acknowledge those of us stood in anticipation of the next air display of the day.
The Red Arrows finished their display, very shortly followed by the Saudi’s taking off. What a treat to get to see another display team in action! This had to be one of the best visits back to the Red Arrows!
We waited for a brief period whilst the Reds cleared the airspace and then to our surprise and shock, we were treated to a joint flypast of both display teams! A 16-ship! Oh my! Something you really don’t get to see every day at all! What an incredible sight!
The Saudis then took over the skies above RAF Waddington to show us what they were made of and give us an insight into their display sequence for the 2023 display season. This was also their opportunity to practise before the upcoming Royal International Air Tattoo, a huge military event based at RAF Fairford.
After the excitement of watching two display teams perform, our day wasn’t over, we still had more to come…… now was the very important flight debrief.
After every single flight the Red Arrows pilots come together once more in the briefing room to go over the sortie they have just flown and debrief it in minute detail. Each sortie is videoed by the team’s photographers and this video is then played back to the pilots in order for them to assess how that particular flight has gone and whether they need to make any changes or tweaks for their next sortie. It is very insightful being able to see this part of a pilot’s day to day routine and understand how critical of themselves they are in order to ensure that they give their best at every opportunity. This also plays a huge part in the safety of the team. Flying in close formation like they do requires dedication, full concentration and precision! There isn’t room for error. Did you know from wing tip to wing tip between the planes is only 6 feet! Now that’s close!
From the pre-flight brief, to the sortie and through to the full debrief, this process takes approximately 2hrs, with only 30minutes of that being airborne. And this happens 3 times a day for each of the pilots!
After the full debrief, all but one of the pilots left the briefing room to carry on the rest of their daily duties. Red 6, Synchro Lead, remained with our small group and took us through a presentation of the team and talked to us about the history of the team, how to become a Red Arrows Pilot and what is involved with getting the Team to display standard year on year!
Here are some interesting facts;
- The Red Arrows were formed in 1965 and originally flew the Folland Gnat, moving on to the Hawk T1 Jet in 1979.
- Since their formation in 1965 the Team have performed more than 4,900 displays across the globe.
- The Team were originally made up of just seven aircraft and formally increased to nine in 1968 and the Diamond Nine became the Red Arrow’s trademark formation.
- In late 2022 the team left it’s historical home, RAF Scampton after a 40 year presence there for pastures new and took up residence at RAF Waddington.
- The team is in its 59th year and have flown in displays in 57 different countries.
To become a Red Arrows Pilot you must meet certain criteria
- Have a minimum of 1,500 hours fast jet flying experience
- Have completed at least one frontline, operational tour
- Be assessed as being above average in their flying role
A shortlist of up to nine applicants are examined during a thorough selection week, and are put through a gruelling flying test, formal interview, media test and peer assessments.
Up to three new pilots are chosen each year to replace the three that have finished their tour. The Team Leader must have completed a three-year tour as a team pilot earlier in their career and is appointed in a separate selection process.
The Royal Air Force Aerobatic Team, the Red Arrows, is one of the world's premier aerobatic display teams.
Representing the speed, agility and precision of the Royal Air Force, the team is the public face of the service. They assist in recruiting to the Armed Forces, act as ambassadors for the United Kingdom at home and overseas and promote the best of British.
Our day now must now come to an end and it is time to say good bye. Coming back to the squadron and taking a trip down memory lane has been nothing short of amazing. Until next time…..