Red Arrows and Kosovo - Tony Cunnane's Afterthoughts

Tony Cunnane's Afterthoughts
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Red Arrows and Kosovo

Published on 01 February 2019 but written in mid-1999

From time-to-time during my 11 years as the Public Relations Officer for the Red Arrows, I was asked to submit an informal ‘article’ to the PR folk in the Defence Press Office in London summarising items of ‘potential news value’ – ie good news stories! What follows are some extracts from my May 1999 piece that I have just come across in my archives.

For lovers of trivia, the 1999 Season is the first that all the pilots in the Team have come from single-seat aircraft. The pilots are very proud of this fact although one of the new pilots did get a little bit of banter about his earlier tour on helicopters.

While the Kosovo conflict is still unresolved and still very much in the news, the BBC TV News caption writers still, almost daily, spell Air Marshal incorrectly (by adding an extra ‘l’). One way or another, the war is having quite an influence on Red Arrows’ operations, as would be expected. So far, we know of five air shows that have been cancelled and several more are on the verge of being cancelled or re-scheduled.

Some members of the public have found it surprising that the Red Arrows kept on practising for the 1999 Season as though the Kosovo conflict was not happening. However, it should not really have surprised anyone. All the Red Arrows’ pilots this year are from the Jaguar and Harrier forces, but they were not needed for operational duties. Neither were the ground crew, nor the aircraft, required for duty elsewhere. That being the case, what else would the Red Arrows do?

Old news now, but as it happens on the day that the shooting started the Red Arrows were en route to Cyprus for the annual Springhawk training period. On the sector from Emmen in Switzerland to Bari they were diverted by the Italian ATC to Gioia del Colle. The Team kept a very low profile whilst on the ground at Gioia since the operational crews were briefing for their first sortie against Serbia. Kate Adie and the rest of the media pack were asked not to film the Red Arrows as that would probably have led to all sorts of wrong stories being published. There was a long delay in departing from Gioia due to poor weather and it was not until after dark that the Reds eventually left for Cyprus. Folk who regularly ask why the Red Arrows bother to keep night current, now know why! The 11 Hawks breaking into the Akrotiri circuit at night apparently caused some concern and comment in the local Cypriot media - especially as their arrival coincided with the first televised news reports of the war on CNN and BBC World.

We all hope that things will soon have returned to normal and then the Red Arrows will be expected to perform during the coming season as immaculately as ever at displays all over Europe. There are displays currently scheduled for at least nine overseas countries: Jordan, Poland, Norway, Finland, the Netherlands, Belgium, Eire, Sweden, and Spain. There will, of course, also be displays in England, Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland, the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man.

While the Kosovo crisis was still leading the news bulletins that other trouble spot, Iraq, had tended to drop out of the news. I was reminded of this when an air mail letter from Baghdad dropped into my in-tray one day in April 1999 addressed simply: “Red Arrows England”. I quote, verbatim:

“Dear Sir, I am M Sc student in Mechanical Engineering. My high admiration and appreciation your Reed Arrows Team. I follow up with carefull attention the great victories gained by your team. Unfortunately I have no internet so it is difficult to keep up to date record of the recent developments. Kindly send me a collection of photographs of your team pilots, with their signatures and any other information you see important.”

It would be nice to think that Ahmad Jasim was just an ordinary student who likes to collect autographs, but you never know. Needless to say, I did not reply to the letter.

Requests for the Red Arrows to participate in various Millennium events have been coming in, in dribs and drabs, for several months. We politely declined one invitation to fly at midnight on 31 December 1999 even though I agree with the organiser that we would have considerably enhanced the celebrations in their particular village. The Teams’ Senior Engineering Officer, incidentally, assures me that the Y2K Millennium bug will not affect the hi-tech computers in our Hawks.

As you know, many requests for Red Arrows’ shows are sent direct to us at Red Arrows HQ but not all have been carefully thought through. One TV company telephoned me recently to ask if he could book the Red Arrows to perform live over Penzance during the two minutes of darkness when the total eclipse of the sun occurs on 11 August. When I suggested to the Director of the company concerned that the people on the ground might rather watch the once-in-a-lifetime celestial events than a performance by the Red Arrows that would need night vision spectacles to be seen, he gave in. Another request has just arrived from a Blackpool Council PR executive who wants individual aircraft to “zoom” along the Blackpool sea front at midnight on the final evening of the 50th post-war Blackpool Illuminations. ‘Can they fire red, white and blue flares as they have a sort of dog fight?’ I was asked.

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