Red Arrows operations cause inconvenience for Cranwell's other flying units - Tony Cunnane's Autobiography

A Yorkshire Aviator's Autobiography
Tony Cunnane
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Red Arrows operations cause inconvenience for Cranwell's other flying units

A few days after the PROs meeting with Dr Reid, the current Boss of the Red Arrows, Simon Meade, told me to write to the RAF Director of Public Relations asking for a definitive statement of the role of the Red Arrows. Mission Statement was the new buzz phrase throughout the RAF. This might seem an odd request but the fact of the matter was that no-one had ever written down, as far as I or Simon could discover, a statement defining the purpose of the Red Arrows. Perhaps everyone had assumed it was self-evident? I wrote the letter to MoD but no Mission Statement for the Red Arrows had arrived by the time I finally retired nearly four years later - of it had, no-one showed it to me.

Throughout the Cranwell years the Red Arrows carried out most of their practices overhead Scampton airfield and that added, typically, 10 minutes flying time to each sortie - an increase of about 30%. The extra cost of that alone in terms of fuel used and aircraft life expended must have been considerable. To that sum had to be added the cost of maintaining the 9,000 feet of runway at Scampton in a serviceable condition for emergency landings, and the cost of providing Air Traffic Control services together with fire, crash and medical cover whenever the Red Arrows were practising over the airfield. For most of the time, the stand-by medical services were provided by one of the local NHS areas because RAF Cranwell could not provide them.

Whenever I went to Scampton to watch the Team practising, I always took time out to speak to the fire, crash and medical teams. Not surprisingly, they all enjoyed watching the Red Arrows. I remember talking to medical teams from as far as Nottingham, Grantham and Retford as well as our nearer neighbours in Lincoln and Gainsborough. They were all volunteers - and on overtime rates, presumably from MoD funds.

When the Team had been based at Scampton from 1983 to 1995, the entire Red Arrows squadron had been accommodated in 4 Hangar and everyone knew everyone else. At Cranwell the Red Arrows were split between two sites about 300 metres apart. The ground crew were housed in two side-by-side hangars because there was no single hangar available that was large enough. Those ancient hangars had been out of daily use for many years and they were not heated. A considerable sum of money had to be expended to bring the hangars up to an acceptable state for all-the-year-round aircraft maintenance. The pilots and administration personnel were accommodated in an old building adjacent to the Junior Cadets' Mess. The rooms in the HQ were small and there was nowhere really adequate for entertaining corporate guests, nor was there anywhere to display the Team's many trophies. Two external Portakabins had to be brought into use because there was insufficient room inside the main building for each of the pilots to have a desk space.

In the early part of the each winter training period, roughly October to the end of March inclusive, the new Synchro pilots' first sortie of the day had to be supervised by the Team Leader and, occasionally, by the Wing Commander and the CFS Commandant. Those three officers didn't have time to spare from their other duties to go the 25 miles by road north to Scampton through the early morning Lincoln rush hour to supervise the Synchro Pair and then dash 25 miles south to sit in on the debriefing. It was, therefore, agreed from the outset that the Red Arrows would have sole use of the Cranwell airfield for the first slot of the day. That was not too great an inconvenience to the other flying units at Cranwell because only rarely did they wish to start flying before 8.30 am. However, because most of the Synchro manoeuvres are orientated on specific points on the ground, their second sortie of the day also had to be flown overhead Cranwell so that they could benefit from the lessons learned in the first sortie, and that barred Cranwell airfield to all other traffic for another half hour mid-morning. That was definitely very inconvenient for the other users but they had to plan around it.

Every time the Red Arrows took off or landed, the circuit at Cranwell had to be cleared of all other aircraft movements. The main section, between five and seven aircraft depending on the stage of training the new season's pilots had reached, aimed to fly at least three sorties each day so this was an added irritation for the other flying squadrons who had to arrange their flying programmes to avoid those times. It became a common sight to see Cranwell's own aircraft queuing at the take-off point or orbiting clear of the airfield waiting for the Red Arrows to take off or land. More wasted time and fuel and more frustration for all the aircrew. It's a well-documented fact that frustration leads to accidents, in the air as well as on the roads. It quickly became apparent that, with the best will in the world, the effect Red Arrows' operations had on the other operators created a potential flight safety risk for everyone. All operators were reminded of this at regular intervals and, thankfully, the professionalism of all concerned ensured that there never was a serious incident.

About midway between Cranwell and Scampton by air are two important places that had to be avoided by the low flying Red Arrows: the Strike Command airfield at Waddington and Lincoln city centre. A one-way, clockwise, avoiding route was designed for the Red Arrows' transit flights between Cranwell and Scampton. Northbound from Cranwell the aircraft would fly to the west of Waddington and southbound, on the return to Cranwell, they would fly to the east of Lincoln. The circular route did have a valuable plus from the PR point of view - it reduced the amount of low flying and associated noise nuisance over nearby villages by half.

To enable the Red Arrows to debrief as quickly as possible after landing back at Cranwell following practices overhead Scampton, a live television link using an ISDN high quality telephone line was set up to relay pictures straight from the Team photographer's video camera out on the airfield at Scampton back to the flight planning room in the Red Arrows HQ at Cranwell. There the pictures were to be recorded onto a normal VCR and the tape would be ready for viewing as soon as the pilots came in after each sortie. For some inexplicable reason the company contracted to install and maintain the video link could never make it work reliably throughout the years we were based at Cranwell. One of the Reds, therefore, had to land at Scampton at the end of every practice to pick up the cassette from the video camera. Furthermore, because Red Arrows take offs and landings at Cranwell also had to be videotaped, a second airman had to leave his other duties at Cranwell twice each sortie to go out onto the airfield with a camera.

Those single aircraft landings at Scampton initially caused a lot of scare stories about flying emergencies and for the first few weeks I regularly received telephone calls from various media outlets asking what had happened. It never ceased to amaze me how many people were willing to sit around the Scampton airfield perimeter ready to telephone stories to the media. The scare stories stopped once I had briefed all the local media what was going on. That meant that some subsequent real emergency and precautionary landings at Scampton went unreported by the media and for that I was grateful. The practice of having to land one aircraft to pick up a video tape did, of course, gave even more ammunition to those people who continued to insist that it had been a mistake to move away from Scampton in the first place.

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