Since the first aerial pageant at Hendon in 1920, formation aerobatics have been held in high regard by the Royal Air Force. In the barnstorming days before the Second World War no air display would be complete without the sight of two or more biplanes flying in close proximity, often tied together. With the dawn of the jet age, piston engine aircraft were replaced by the faster and more dramatic of the new front-line jet fighters.The first RAF jet team was formed in 1947 and consisted of three Vampires from the Odiham Wing in Hampshire. By 1950 72 Squadron was flying a team of seven Vampires and 54 Squadron, with their five aircraft, were the first to use smoke. This was achieved by injecting diesel into the jet pipe where the high temperature turned it to white smoke. Rivalry between the RAF fighter squadrons was high and it became the trend for each to form its own team. When 54 Squadron re-equipped with the Hawker Hunter in 1955 they put together a four ship team know as the Black Knights. In 1956, 111 Squadron (Tremblers or Treble One) became the official RAF display team with their five gloss black Hunters. After displaying in France they were applauded as Les Fleches Noires and they soon became know throughout the Continent as the Black Arrows. Two of those original aircraft remained in service until 1995, being used for groundcrew training at RAF Scampton. The RAF sold one to The Royal Jordanian Historic Aircraft Flight and the other to a private buyer in South Africa. In 1957 The Black Arrows were increased to nine aircraft. These were supplemented in 1958 by an additional 13 aircraft from other squadrons in order to perform a 22 aircraft loop and barrel roll at the Farnborough Air Show. This is the greatest number of aircraft ever looped in formation and remains a world record to this day. The Tigers, of 74 Squadron, became the official RAF display team in 1962 with nine Mach 2 Lightnings. At that time 92 Squadron, with the Blue Diamonds, and 56 Squadron, with The Firebirds, could also be seen on the display circuit. In 1964 six Jet Provosts of The Central Flying School (CFS) became the official RAF team, known as The Red Pelicans. The RAF were soon to realize that training aircraft were a much cheaper option to operate than the Lightning. The Squadrons, afterall, seemed to be spending more time at airshows and less time flying operational sorties. The Red Pelicans were not without their rivals and in that same year a five ship of yellow Gnats, known as The Yellow jacks, were formed at RAF Valley in North Wales by Flight Lieutenant Lee Jones. The Folland Gnat was the RAFs advanced jet trainer and its speed and agility made it the perfect machine for formation aerobatics. The following year Jones formed the official RAF display team with a seven ship of red Gnats and called them The Red Arrows. Initially The Red Arrows were based at RAF Fairford in Gloucestershire which was operated by CFS. The team was equipped with a total of ten Gnats although they continued to display seven until 1968. Each had its own three colour smoke generation system and a distinctive red, white and blue colours scheme. In that first year The Red Arrows performed 65 displays in the UK, Italy, The Netherlands, Belgium and Germany. At the end of that year they were awarded the Britannia Trophy by the Royal Aero Club in recognition of their outstanding contribution to British prestige in the field or aviation. Initially The Red Arrows employed a spare pilot, but soon found this practice to be unsatisfactory. The display routine is a complex one and any reserve pilot would be required to learn all the skills of his colleagues. Since he would rarely be called upon to fly in a display it would be difficult to keep him current and in time he would become frustrated. In the nineteen sixties much of the Central Flying School were located at airfields around the Cotswolds in the heart of England. It was there that the Team remained, moving from Fairford to Kemble, near Cirencester. RAF Scampton, in Lincolnshire, became the Headquarters of CFS, and in 1983 The Red Arrows were relocated there. With the end of the Cold war, Scampton fell victim to defence cuts and the airfield closed at the end of 1995. In February 1996, after returning from tours of Africa, Australia and the Far East the Team settled into their new home at RAF Cranwell, where they share the airfield with the Bulldogs, Dominies and Jetstreams of CFS. Although the public have always known them as the The Red Arrows their official name is The Royal Air force Aerobatic Team (RAFAT). This is the title that appears on the Squadrons crest together with the diamond nine and the motto Eclat, with means brilliance. When the team was first formed the original badge depicted seven red Gnats in Vulcan formation superimposed over the RAF roundel. Since 1968 The Red Arrows have performed as a nine ship display team and from that time the Diamond Nine shape has been their trademark. Number six and seven are known as the Synchronised or Synchro Pair and are well known for their breathtaking crosses in front of the crowd. The display routine has always been designed to keep the attention of the crowd and is split into two distinctive segments. Each year the team pilots create a display routine around this basic format. The complete routine lasts about twenty minutes, which some spectators think is not long enough. The team, however, believe in the philosophy that is always better to leave the crowd wanting more.
The first half of their display consists of aerobatic manoeuvres performed by all nine aircraft flying a variety of different shapes. Six and seven spend most of the first half in line astern on the leader, forming what is called the stem. In the second half the Synchro Pair split off from the other seven aircraft to perform their crosses, these are interlaced with the splits and rejoins of the main section. In previous years all nine aircraft would rejoin for the Parasol Break as the finale to the show.The Red Arrows fly as two loose formations of five aircraft when transitting between displays. The Team Manager flies the spare. For many years now the front five have been nicknamed "Enid" after the famous five books by Enid Blighton. Six to ten are known as Gypo which comes from the word Gypsy. Perhaps this was due to the appearance of some of the pilots. 1979 was the last year that the Team flew the Gnat. The British Aerospace Hawk became the RAF's new jet trainer and the Red Arrows converted to it during the winter of 79/80. The Team began the 1980 display season with the new aircraft and a brand new colour scheme.
Seventy-five support personnel are required to keep the Team airborn. Six of these are involved in administration and planning, commanded by a Warrant Officer.
The remainder are engineers, of which 25 are designated as First Line and 41 are Second Line. First Line are responsible for servicing the aircraft away from the home base. They are commanded by a Flight Lieutenant Engineering Officer (Eng 1), who flies, together with nine of his engineers, to the displays, and collectively they are known as Circus. The remainder, if required, will travel by road. Second Line are responsible for the in-depth maintenance back at base and are also commanded by a Flight Lieutenant Engineering Officer (Eng 2).
In the 32 years that the Team has been in existence it has displayed in fifty countries. They perform over one hundred displays each year and have totalled more than 3400 to date. The 1000th show was flown in the summer of 1977 at Greenham Common. Nine years later the 2000th display was achieved in front of holiday crowds at Bournmouth sea front. The 3000th display was performed over the estuary at Dartmouth in August 1995. The Team has always fulfilled its role in promoting a positive image of the Royal Air Force and as an aid to recruiting, but more recently they have been called upon to promote the British Aerospace industry through displays at home and abroad.
The Red Arrows, through the many displays they perform each year, have become a household name and there is almost no one in the UK that does not know who or what they are. It is true to say that following recent tours to Africa, Asia and North America they are also becoming a worldwide name. This is a rare position to hold and should ensure that the Team remains a useful asset for many years to come.
by Flt Lt Mark Zanker
Special thanks must go to all the Red Arrow pilots and special to:
all photographs by: EJ van Koningsveld ©