The Red Arrows disturb some ostriches and emus at Exeter - Tony Cunnane's Autobiography

A Yorkshire Aviator's Autobiography
Tony Cunnane
Go to content

The Red Arrows disturb some ostriches and emus at Exeter


Above: This is one of my own photos at Exeter airport. At this event in Exeter the local media were there in force. I always tried to get the Blues, the ground crew, into the story, but I did not always succeed! The two red suits in this pic were the two engineering officers.

In the summer months the Red Arrows quite often operated out of Exeter Airport because it was a convenient staging post for displays in the south and west of England and because the airport authorities always made us feel so welcome. One particular man claimed that his ostriches and emus stopped laying eggs after the Team flew low over his exotic animals farm while departing from Exeter for a display at Middle Wallop. When I contacted him he told me that he regularly complained to the Airport authorities, especially about helicopter flights and the occasional Concorde charter flights.

The man acknowledged that he could not prove that it was the Red Arrows that had caused his birds to stop laying. He accepted my invitation, sent with the approval of the Exeter Airport manager because I couldn't invite people onto his airport, to meet us a few days later at a Civic Reception being held in the Airport Terminal. He brought three friends along and they all chatted amiably with our pilots and the airport staff. When one of the Reds expressed a genuine interest in the man’s exotic birds and animals, he immediately excused himself, went back home and returned later with a pack of 8 kilos of emu meat, or it might have been llama steak, I forget now, as a gift for the Red Arrows. I understand the man never again complained to Exeter Airport and for that the airport authorities were very grateful to me. A victory for PR if not for the animals.

Another group of complaints concerned the smoke used by the Red Arrows during displays. Strictly speaking it was not smoke at all; smoke is created when something burns. What the Red Arrows emitted was vapour, created by injecting neat diesel oil into the hot efflux from the jet’s exhaust pipe. Someone must have discovered, long before the Red Arrows were formed, that if you inject diesel into the hot air coming out of the back of a jet engine, the diesel instantly vaporises and creates a brilliant white 'smoke'. The red and blue coloured trails are made by adding small quantities of harmless vegetable dyes to the diesel oil before it is injected into the jet stream. The Red Arrows, and nowadays countless other display aircraft throughout the world, have always called it smoke and I don't suppose any amount of legislation about smoke emissions into the atmosphere is going to change that. "Reds, smoke on go!" sounds so much better than "Reds, vapour on go!"

There is no doubt that some people find the smell of the ‘smoke’ unpleasant although many others, including me and most of the ground crew, did not mind it. In 1989 and 1992 independent environmental surveys were carried out to check whether or not there were any health hazards from breathing in the Red Arrows' smoke. Both reports were inconclusive, but they made the point that the diesel and dye products exhausted into the atmosphere were diluted to such an extent that they were almost immeasurable at ground level. Some people did complain that their cars, their houses, and even their washing hanging out on the clothes line, had been covered by greasy flecks coming from the Red Arrows' smoke but those claims were never substantiated either.

However, one claim, from someone living near Scampton village, was different. The complainant telephoned me to say that some nasty greasy stains had appeared on his car after the Red Arrows had flown over during a practice sortie. Later that same day, several people on base at Scampton also reported greasy stains on their cars. There was an official inquiry and it was eventually proved that the deposits on that day had emanated from effluent coming out of the cooling towers at one of the large power stations near Newark-on-Trent. A fault had allowed some form of waste product to escape into the towers where it merged with the steam and was blown on the strong westerly wind towards Scampton. It was pure coincidence that the Red Arrows happened to be practising over the airfield at the same time.
The diesel oil is carried in the fuel tank bolted underneath the fuselage on the Hawk’s centreline. Within the tank are two small containers to hold the red and blue dyes. Expert fans of the Team know that there are three small tubes protruding into the jet pipe at the rear of the Hawk’s fuselage and it is from these that the diesel, with or without the addition of coloured dye, is injected into the jet efflux.

Left. This is the business end of a Hawk with the three pipes which feed the three colours into the hot jet efflux.

The Red Arrows do not use 'smoke' purely for cosmetic reasons. In their very first season white only was used. During the winter of 1965/66 all the Gnats were fitted with additional equipment which allowed the use of red, white and blue but the modification was opposed by the 1966 Team pilots on the grounds that the technical problems introduced were "of greater magnitude than any likely improvements to the display." Even when the pilots operated the correct switches, sometimes the wrong colours appeared and sometimes no smoke at all, making the display look messy and insufficiently rehearsed. They were overruled by higher authority and the three-colour system was used in the 1966 season although still with many niggles which irritated pilots and ground crew alike. The problems continued throughout the 1967 and 1968 seasons and the CFS Commandant eventually concluded that, "All the European aerobatic teams now use coloured smoke, with varying degrees of success, therefore it is considered essential that the engineering staff solve this problem." They must have done so because there were no more adverse comments about the smoke and three colours have been used ever since. It seems unthinkable now to have a Red Arrows display without the three colours.

There is no doubt that the red, white and blue patriotic trails greatly enhance the show but there are several other reasons for making them. For example, when the Synchro Pair are flying directly towards each other, at a closing speed of about 12 miles per minute, it is very difficult for one pilot to see the other, especially in reduced visibility, because the head-on aspect of the Hawk is very small. By smoking from each end of the display line, each of the pilots can see the other at a much greater range and the Team Leader with the main section can more easily keep track of where the Synchro Pair are. The main section often uses smoke cunningly to conceal a formation change from the public while single aircraft will often give a burst of white smoke on final approach to landing, especially in strong cross-wind conditions, to enable following aircraft to 'see' the wind and judge the turbulence.

/continued here or click here to go back to the top of this page

Back to content