I must mention one complaint that I found difficult to take seriously. One day a lady living in a village close to Scampton called me one to complain about UFOs carrying out air-to-air refuelling operations overhead Scampton. "It really is very dangerous," she said. "If they have a collision at that height they could crash and wipe out most of Lincolnshire." I asked her to explain what she had seen.
"There were several small space ships orbiting directly overhead Scampton airfield last night about midnight. Suddenly their mother ship appeared and they took it in turns to refuel."
"What happened next?" I asked, writing notes furiously.
"When they had all refuelled, they flew off into orbit again and disappeared. The mother ship flew around for a few minutes before it also flew off into orbit."
Mindful of MoD policy, which at that time (the 1990s) required all reports of UFOs to be forwarded to them, I apologised to the lady. I explained that the matter was nothing to do with RAF Scampton since the space ships did not belong to the RAF and had not taken off from an RAF airfield. I said that I would inform the appropriate department of the Ministry of Defence in London. In those days there was a dedicated department that dealt with UFO sightings and that day I had my first and only contact with it.
Finally for this section about complaints, here is a story about another unusual one that came my way in 1998. I was told by a friend in the north east of England that stories were circulating in local newspapers in the Sunderland area to the effect that one of the Red Arrows had shed a turbine blade during the Sunderland display on 1 August. Allegedly the blade then struck the roof of a house and caused a considerable degree of damage. No-one had contacted the Red Arrows to lodge a complaint so I decided to contact one of the policemen who had been called in to investigate. He told me that a blade recovered from the roof space of the house in question had been identified as part of the metal blade fitted to a garden hover mower - it even had bits of grass still stuck to it. I was able to reassure the policeman that none of our aircraft had suffered an engine failure on that day.
I know from personal experience that if a jet engine throws a turbine blade there is absolutely no way the pilot would not know about it immediately. Had it happened that day to one of the Red Arrows pilots, he would have gone straight away for an emergency landing at Teesside International Airport. I passed my version of this story to the Sunderland Echo and, to their credit and my relief, they published it word for word and in full.
There was, however, a curious corollary to this story. Towards the end of that display at Sunderland, Red 6 had a glancing bird strike. He broke out of the formation and made what is called a precautionary landing at Teesside Airport. A precautionary landing is one where, although there is no immediate indication of a major problem, there is reason to believe that a problem may arise if the aircraft does not land as soon as possible. Red Arrows pilots always make a precautionary landing after a bird strike because it is possible that some of the bird's remains may have gone down the air intakes and that could lead to a failure of the engine shortly afterwards. On this occasion, however, a post flight inspection on the ground at Teesside showed that the bird had struck a glancing blow to the leading edge of the port wing. There were minor traces of blood but the wing surface was not even dented. It seemed to us that someone was suggesting that the bird strike, the precautionary landing, and the hole in the roof were somehow linked.
Whether the piece of hover mower blade caused the damage to the house roof or not was of no concern to the Red Arrows. The bird strike was a red herring - if you will pardon the pun.