For decades the Soviets had been seen as the number one enemy of the Western World and so there were many raised eyebrows when it was suggested that the Red Arrows should penetrate the Iron Curtain to visit Leningrad (as St Petersburg was then known), and give displays in Ukraine and Hungary. But that is what happened. It was a wonderful PR opportunity and it almost happened without me, their PRO!
The main brochure in Russian (below) was provided by British Aerospace as were several hundreds of stickers and other leaflets about the Team. The title of the front cover of the brochure translated literally from Russian is "Focus on the Military Aircraft Company 'British Aerospace'" with no mention of the Red Arrows. Well, BAe did desígn and pay for it!
I learned only two or three days before the Red Arrows' planned departure from Scampton that our Command HQ had gathered together a small party of UK media folk and was flying them out to Leningrad. I was neither consulted about the composition of that party nor invited to join it. Having previously worked several years in the secret signals intelligence world, I had at first assumed that there might still be a security block on my travelling to the Soviet Union. Adhering to the need-to-know principle, I did not delve into that, until it became clear that security nothing to do with it:because no-one had even thought of inviting me! Had I not pressed my case with the Commandant, and slightly exaggerated my ability to speak Russian, there is no doubt that I would simply not have been invited along on the tour. As it happened, the last minute addition of me to the trip caused extra worked for the Team Manager who had to alter all the transport, visa, and accommodation plots for the tour.
For many years the internal planning document issued by the Team Manager for every display or series of displays was known as the WHAM - an acronym for What’s Happening Manager. WHAMs not only gave full details of the planned flying programme and aircraft fuel requirements, but also all the other logistics details that might be needed both at home and down the route. Additionally, information on planned PR activities, entertainment, gifting requirements, dress codes, and hotel information were all there. WHAMs for overseas displays also included names and telephone numbers of local contacts at British Embassies and High Commissions. Everyone on the detachment, including the ground crew and the crew of the support Hercules, had his or her own personal copy of the WHAM so no-one had any excuse for not doing the right thing or for not being in the right place, at the right time, in the right form of dress.
This was to be the first time British operational military aircraft had flown behind the Iron Curtain. Details were difficult to obtain from the Soviets. The British Air Attaché in Moscow had described his efforts to obtain clearances and timings for the proposed shows as like "swimming in treacle". Almost literally at the last minute, the Red Arrows were given clearance to proceed by the Ministry of Defence in London but it was not the sort of clearance that gives one confidence.
"The Soviets haven't said you can't go so that's the nearest you are likely to get to an approval," said the Ministry of Defence official reassuringly, but not with conviction, from the security of his London office. "Just make sure you get air traffic control clearance before entering Soviet territory."
The primary purpose of the tour was to give air displays in Kiev, capital of the Ukraine and in 1990 still a reluctant part of the Soviet Union, in support of a British trade exhibition. Overall command of the detachment was vested in Air Vice-Marshal Mike Pilkington, an old friend of mine from much earlier in our careers when we were both flight lieutenants at RAF Mildenhall. Mike was then ADC to the Air Officer Commanding No 3 Group; now he was an AOC himself. The plan was to fly to Leningrad on day one and stay two nights. No display was planned for Leningrad because there was no suitable air show or other event to justify one, but a whole day in the northern capital was set aside for cultural activities.
The following day we were to fly south to Kiev, keeping well clear of the Moscow area. That was quite a disappointment because we all wanted to visit Moscow but the Soviets would not hear of it. Russians have always, throughout their history, been very protective of their capital city and to the Soviet military chiefs it was probably unthinkable that ten military single-jet 'fighter' aircraft, albeit unarmed training aircraft, plus a C-130 Hercules transport and an HS125 VIP transport, should be allowed anywhere near Moscow. You will notice, however, that both Moscow and Minsk were included on my Visa (above left).
There were to be one, possibly two, displays at a small civilian flying club near Kiev followed by time off to make appearances at the ongoing Anglo-Soviet Trade Exhibition in the city. Then it was off to Hungary for a display at Budapest International Airport before returning to Scampton via a refuelling stop at an RAF base in Germany. The display in Budapest was not part of the original plan but, since the most economical route home from Kiev passed through Hungary, an offer from the Hungarians to display at their capital's airport was readily accepted by the Hungarians.