Written in April 1999
This is an article I wrote in 1999 to mark the Red Arrows’ 35th display season. Versions of this article were widely published in aviation magazines and regional newspapers during 1999. Please remember that many of the facts contained in it will now have changed.
I see from my diaries (which I will publish one day) that on 6th May 1965 I missed a very important appointment – my annual aircrew medical at RAF Gaydon, the old V-Bomber station on the A41 close to Leamington Spa. Mind you, I did have a good excuse for missing it: I had been sent on a very secret detachment to HQ FEAF (Far East Air Force). I am still not permitted to reveal what I was doing at RAF Changi, although I can tell you that I was accommodated in the imaginatively named “Fairy Point” Officers’ Mess – I doubt if the RAF would call one of its officers’ messes that these days!
On that same day in 1965 when, allowing for the time difference, on a veranda overlooking Changi Creek I was enjoying a few post-dinner drinks with a BOAC hostie who almost became Mrs Cunnane (you will have to read my complete diaries to find out more about that), the newly-formed Royal Air Force Aerobatic Team was proudly giving its very first public performance, to a group of media gathered for the purpose at RAF Little Rissington, overlooking the beautiful Cotswold valleys. Only seven pilots performed that day but since then there have been another 3,301 displays, mostly with nine aircraft, in 50 different countries, flown by over 100 of the RAF’s finest pilots. The most easterly display was at Sydney (151° E) on Australia Day in 1996; the most southerly at Cape Town (34° S) on 08 October 1995; the most westerly at Salinas (121° W) on 10 October 1993; the most northerly at Reykjavik (64° N) August 27 1970.
Displays in that first season took place at such well known active RAF stations as Biggin Hill (where the Team’s very first UK public display took place on 15 May ), Jurby, Wattisham, Bassingbourn, Tern Hill, and Shinfield Park. The Team’s first display in the Channel Islands was at Jersey on 16 September 1965. I mention the Channel Islands especially because the Red Arrows have displayed in the Islands every year since – the only venue to have been visited in each of the 35 seasons. One of these days I must go there. The display at Sydney on 26 January 1996 was watched, according to official Australian police statistics, by 1.2 million people; we claimed that as a world record for any air display, anywhere.
1999 will be the Red Arrows’ 35th Anniversary Season and, although there is nothing particularly significant about the number 35, anniversaries tend to be observed these days every five years, and why not? Who would have thought, back in 1965, that the Red Arrows would still be performing 35 years later? Certainly not anyone with an eye to history because the Team’s official End of Season Report for 1965 was a rather tatty document typed in fading ink (well, it is certainly fading now) on two pages of very thin foolscap (that was before the ubiquitous A4 came on the scene).
Below: This is a scan of all that remains of the official End Of Season Report for 1965.
The Team’s 10th anniversary season, 1975, “coincided with a period of economic stringency and a particular need to show economy in the use of fuel” – according to the end of season report. Only 56 displays were flown that year, the lowest since Year 1. The last Gnat displays were flown on 15 September 1979 at RAF St Athan, RAF Abingdon, and finally RAF Valley. 77 of the 113 displays in 1979, including the final Gnat display, were flown with eight aircraft only, after one of the pilots had been medically grounded. The 15th Anniversary, in 1979, seems to have passed unnoticed, perhaps due to the imminent demise of the Gnat. A grand total of 1,305 displays were flown in the Folland Gnat and the Team then converted onto the British Aerospace Hawk T1/1A which they fly to this day.
1983 saw the move from Kemble to Scampton. The move actually took place during the annual Springhawk detachment to Cyprus in March although the main engineering accommodation was not ready until mid-August and the pilots and administrative personnel could not move into their new offices until November. The 20th Season in 1984 seems not to have been especially marked. Coincidentally, that was the year when the Team first tried, and failed for financial reasons, to get the services of a full-time public relations officer.
Three weeks after I took up my appointment as the first PRO in September 1989, there was a grand air display at Scampton on 4th October to celebrate the Team’s Silver Jubilee, but I do not think there was any connection between the two events. It was certainly a baptism of fire for me and a really splendid show for those who made it to remote Lincolnshire! We believe it was the first occasion when six internationally known formation aerobatic display teams appeared on the same programme: the French, Italian, Swiss, Spanish and Portuguese, with the Red Arrows bringing the show to a triumphal conclusion. During the 25th Anniversary Display at Scampton, I watched as a charming young female reporter for the local BBC TV station waylaid the Leader of the Frecce Tricolori and asked him which Team was the best in the world. The Italian looked the lady in the eye and said disarmingly and without a moment’s hesitation, “Signorina, the Red Arrows are the best with nine aircraft, but we are the best with ten.”
I am often asked if the Red Arrows really are “the world’s premier aerobatic display team.” That is a phrase which often appears in the media, the UK media anyway, but it is not an appellation we have invented or encouraged, although I know it to be true.