Red Arrows

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The Cottesmore Aviation Group were kindly invited to visit RAF Scampton and the Royal Air Force Aerobatic Team (RAFAT), more commonly known around the world as The Red Arrows, in early July.


If the general public were asked to name an RAF display team, either The Red Arrows or the iconic Battle of Britain Memorial Flight would probably be named. However, the Reds are not the first RAF aerobatics team; in fact one of the first RAF displays at Hendon in 1920 featured display teams of biplanes, and this continued throughout the 1930s. By 1938 three Gladiators flew with their wing-tips tied together.

With the Second World War over, 1947 saw the first jet team of three Vampires flown by the Odiham Fighter Wing. Various teams flew the Vampire, and in 1950 72 Squadron (Sqn) was flying a team of seven. 54 Sqn became the first RAF jet formation team to use smoke trails. The Vampires were replaced by Meteors and 66 Sqn developed a formation team of six aircraft.

The legendary Hunter quickly became a display aircraft, when in 1954 54 Sqn flew displays using four aircraft. The next year they adopted the name The Black Knights; all the pilots flew dressed as Gollywogs.

The official RAF team was provided by 111 Sqn in 1956, and for the first time the aircraft had a special colour scheme, an all-black matt finish. After a demonstration in France, they were hailed as 'Les Fleches Noires' and from then on known as The Black Arrows. This team became the first team to fly a five-Hunter formation. The team's greatest moment was undoubtably the loop and barrel roll of 22 Hunters during the 1958 Farnborough Air Show. This is a world record for the greatest number of aircraft looped in formation, and currently remains unbroken. The Black Arrows were the premier team until 1961, when The Blue Diamonds from 92 Sqn continued their role, flying sixteen gloss blue Hunters.

In 1960, The Tigers of 74 Sqn were re-equipped with Lightning's and performed wing-over's and rolls with nine aircraft in tight formation. In 1962, they became the RAF's premier display team and occasionally performed co-ordinated displays with The Blue Diamonds.

Yet another aerobatics team was formed by 56 Sqn, The Firebirds, with nine red and silver Lightning's, presenting probably one of the most attractive schemes carried by a RAF display aircraft. In 1964, The Red Pelicans, flying a somewhat “tamer” six Jet Provost T.4s, assumed the role of the leading display team. In that same year, a team of five yellow Gnat trainers from 4 Flying Training School (FTS) displayed at the Farnborough Air show. This team became known as The Yellowjacks after Flight Lieutenant Lee Jones's call sign, "Yellowjack"; the name was briefly 'Daffodil Patrol', but was quickly changed back.

In 1964, it was decided to amalgamate all the existing RAF display teams, as it was feared pilots were spending too much time practicing formation aerobatics rather than operational training. The new team name took the word red from the fact that the Yellowjacks' planes had been painted red (as it was a far clearer and visible colour in the sky for safety reasons) and arrows after the Black Arrows; however some think red was a tribute to the Red Pelicans.


Initially, the new team were equipped with seven Folland Gnat trainers were chosen because they were far less expensive to operate than the front-line fighters of the era. In their first season, they flew at 65 airshow's across Europe. In 1966, the team was increased to nine members, enabling them to develop their Diamond Nine formation. In late 1979, after 1,292 Gnat displays, the team switched to the now familiar BAe Hawk trainer. The Red Arrows have now completed over 4,000 displays world-wide, in 52 countries, and are widely regarded as the world's most skilled and famous military aerobatics team.

The Royal Air Force Aerobatic Team (RAFAT), the Red Arrows, was originally based at RAF Kemble, then a satellite unit of the Central Flying School (CFS), itself based at RAF Little Rissington, which was considered the "official" home base of the Reds. The team’s aircraft would frequently fly into Little Rissington for maintenance but when RAF Scampton became the CFS Headquarters in 1983, the Red Arrows moved there. However, as an economy measure, Scampton closed in 1995, so the Red Arrows moved to RAF Cranwell, some twenty miles to the south; the air space above Scampton was still used by the team and as a result the emergency facilities and runways had to be maintained. The team returned to Scampton in December 2000.

The smoke trails left by the team are made by releasing diesel into the exhaust; this oxidises straight away, leaving a white smoke trail. Dyes can be added to produce the different colours. The diesel is stored in the pod on the underside of the plane; originally designed to carry a 30mm ADEN cannon, it now houses three tanks: one 50-gallon tank of pure diesel and two 10-gallon tanks of blue- and red-dyed diesel. The smoke system uses ten gallons per minute; therefore each plane can trail smoke for a total of seven minutes; (5 minutes of white smoke, 1 minute of Blue and 1 minute of Red is carried).

The success of the Red Arrows is dependent not just on the nine display pilots, but on a 100 strong team of dedicated personnel. Many of the Red Arrows’ pilots and support staff have recently returned from Afghanistan and Iraq and many will be temporarily detached on operations overseas during their time with the Red Arrows. As soon as they leave the Team, all will return to duties which directly support the Royal Air Force’s operational commitments around the world.

During our visit to the team it was suggested that prior to their departure on a winter tour of the Middle and Far East, the aircraft’s markings could be revised as they’ve remained unchanged since the Hawk’s introduction in 1979. The Red Arrows crest shows stylised aircraft in the team's trademark diamond nine formation, with the motto Eclat, meaning "brilliance" or "excellence". A visit to the team and its support personnel at Scampton readily backs this statement.

A "thank you" isn't sufficient for the hospitality we were offered. The more visits the group undertakes the more evident it becomes that the Royal Air Force really does enjoy meeting and interacting with the public and enthusiasts.


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© On Target Aviation 2008