Legendary aviators - Takeaways from the official history of the Red Arrows
Summer in the UK is synonymous with flypasts and displays from the Red Arrows, the UK's foremost aerobatics team, with many a high-profile event playing host to the crimson team. The official aerobatics outfit of the RAF since 1956, the Red Arrows have been wowing the crowds ever since, and this year, an official account detailing the workings of the pilots and planes has been released.
Written by Wing Commander David Montenegro, who has served as synchro pair pilot, Red 1, and now Officer Commanding, the book chronicles the Red Arrows from their beginning - when they were painted yellow rather than in their current iconic colours - through the rollercoaster of incredible overseas tours to tragic accidents, and finally a nod to the future of the team.
Both the book and accompanying audiobook, are stacked with detail but here are a couple of things that stood out.
It is understandable that manually flying these precision Hawks requires exceptional bravery and skill, but the element that makes it all work is perfect timing. The team manage their professional lives to the smallest degree, with fines handed out for being just one second late to a meeting, but its crazy to me that once in the air, the pilots manage their time with a regular stopwatch attached to the instrument panels in the cockpit.
Debriefs are short, sharp and to the point, to get through them quickly and efficiently, and key, I think, impersonal. The team go so far as to refer to each other by number rather than name during the discussion, so that it becomes mechanical, procedural, not personal.
Passing with flying colours
The book details the process of getting picked to join the team - from building up your military career with an aim towards the Reds, to the interview and selection process, the good news phone call and how the hard work really begins there. Endless, progressive training to build up those precision skills to fly in formation, not just accurately but more importantly, safely.
It is not just being a good pilot that gets you on the crew, being a good team member is a hugely important attribute. It was interesting to read that the synchro pair are made up of a leader and a second, and each year these positions rotate up and out. The second then becomes the leader, and it is their responsibility and sole choice to pick who will join them in the pair. The particular formations and tricks these two perform mean there has to be absolute trust between the pilots, and therefore no one questions the leader's choice, it is theirs and theirs alone.
Naturally, the pilots joining the Red Arrows are some of the best the RAF has to offer, and they continue learning over their three year stints to get better and better. Two roles - Red 1 and Red 10 - require something that isn't a natural requirement for a more normal RAF position.
Listening to the commentary from Red 10 is a big part of selling a Red Arrows display to the gathered crowds, guiding them where to look, explaining the forces and pressures on the pilot, describing just what an incredible feat of engineering and pilot performance it is. Commentating isn't something you'd expect to have to do if the dream is to fly fast jets, but it can make a huge difference to the image of the Red Arrows team.
Sometimes during the commentary, Red 10 allows the crowd to hear the radio transmissions from team leader Red 1, with that iconic and unique cadence on some of the calls. That's not just a pilot with a particularly cheerful personality, the specific ups and downs and vocalisations are drilled into the team, so they know at what part of each word they should be making their move. It might be on the U of Up, and the lengthy drawn-out style of the words only serve to add to the choreography.
Moving in the right circles
In a world rapidly crumbling under the pressure of climate change, having a display team raises many questions around sustainability, viability and ultimately worth. The only mention of looking to minimise the impact of the team within this book is a note on a project underway to make the smoke and dye eco-friendlier and more sustainable. There are no specifics and no obvious targets in place.
Montenegro highlights what the team bring to the country - encouragement for young people to get into STEM, a sense of pride in what we can achieve. There is also discussion about the global impact, the international relationships softened and affirmed, the soft-power support they provide against the harder military aspects.
But the key question raised in the book, asked whenever funding of the team is called into question, and with no clear answer: How do you quantify the worth of an aerobatic team?
And, not addressed but perhaps just as importantly: How can this team remain relevant and move with the times?
Listen to The Red Arrows on Apple Books