A complaint about the cost of a cancelled display - Tony Cunnane's Autobiography

A Yorkshire Aviator's Autobiography
Tony Cunnane
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A complaint about the cost of a cancelled display

There is no doubt that there are people who find the noise of the Red Arrows passing overhead or performing at an air display nearby intensely irritating and I can feel sympathy for them. When such a person formally complained I always pointed out that we were in the business of giving pleasure to millions and that the number of complaints was vastly exceeded by the number of compliments we got. I think it is unreasonable for someone to expect our activity to cease simply because they have complained, but some people do expect that. If you live close to a major football ground you would not expect the home team to move out to another location just because the cheering annoyed you. Or perhaps some folk would?

One of the most popular English locations for Red Arrows displays was, and probably still is, Dartmouth. The Red Arrows displayed there on 21 occasions up to the end of 2000, including their official 3,000th display on 23 August 1995. The displays usually coincided with the Royal Regatta and over the years the Red Arrows displays came to be seen as an integral part of the Regatta festivities. Of course, it is never possible to please everybody. A squadron leader serving at RAF Boscombe Down wrote to tell me of a letter to the Editor of a west country newspaper. It was called "Misdirected Arrows". The squadron leader thought that someone from the Red Arrows might like to reply. What follows is a verbatim extract from that letter to the editor (except that I have deliberately removed the date and name of the squadron leader, but I include the anecdote to explain the procedures):

"Saturday night’s poor splodge of colour upon an already predicted grizzly sky cost Dartmouth £3,500, merely because the Red Arrows took it upon themselves to fly over our much soaked bodies. The amateur plane that flew through a real storm overhead a few days earlier provided a more stunning display - for free. In this day of computer wizardry and laser aimed flight it was surprising that the crème brûlée of the RAF could do no better than stain the sky. If my radio could tell me at breakfast time that the skies would be miserable at 1800hrs, the RAF must have been well informed. That they decided to slowly ink our clean Dartmouth air was not to amuse 10,000 pairs of eyes, but so that they could claim their fee.

"Perhaps someone with a military background could explain to me, a mere local pleb, why the Red Arrows compared so poorly with infuriating low-flying jets which frequently intrude upon the peace as they perform their stunning feats in the more confined valleys of Dartmoor, the Lakes and most of our national parks. Sure those red fellows must have the brains to think up inspiring acrobatics for every type of weather. After all, we do live in a predominantly wet country. Take note Dartmouth paymaster: in this après-Thatcher market we ought not to pay them for such a bad breach of contract."

Wow! That told us. It was an early example of what, in 2012, became known as 'Plebgate'! The newspaper printed a reply from another local inhabitant:

"As far as your correspondent is concerned I could only laugh at his comments. Firstly, how can nine aeroplanes do aerobatics without being able to see each other. These aeroplanes are flown by humans and not, as your correspondent seems to think, by computers. Secondly, had the display gone ahead, 70 per cent of the action would have been above the cloud - not much use to the spectators. Had there been an incident I suspect that your correspondent would have been the first to write in to complain about the death and destruction in the town. My wife knew all the four pilots killed at Kemble airfield in the 1970s and had to attend their funerals, which is why safety first is a wise policy. In any case insurance can be taken out against cancellation, something I am sure the committee investigated."

That letter made many of the points that I would have made but not in the style I would have chosen. Instead, I thought it incumbent upon me to write an open letter to the Editor Here is an extract from my letter:

"The Red Arrows were, of course, fully aware of weather conditions at Dartmouth on 29 August. The Leader elected to fly to Dartmouth from Exeter Airport and, at the very least, make one flypast for the large crowds. In fact, conditions were such that he was able to make two flypasts before returning to Exeter. There were several television crews at Dartmouth and I know from their reports to me that the Red Arrows' very brief appearance was very much appreciated. The Display Organiser has not made any complaint as far as I am aware."

I have never heard the Red Arrows described as crème brûlée before: crème de la crème certainly! The fact is that the display organiser would still have been charged the Ministry of Defence fee even if none of the aircraft had taken off from Exeter and he knew that because it is clearly laid out in the contract. The fee represents part of the cost of taking the Team to Exeter Airport and, incidentally, it goes into RAF central coffers and does not come to the Red Arrows.

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