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The Red Arrows are recognised as being the best pilots in the world. Seth Rowden spends a day behind the scenes at RAF Scampton with Flight Lieutenant Ben Plank (Red 8) and the team to understand what it takes to reach such daunting heights . . . and unexpectedly learns the secret to their success
I am in the Guard’s Office at the entrance to RAF Scampton, about five miles north of Lincoln, when I hear the thunder of three Red Arrows overhead, chasing each other in close formation through a clear blue sky. Signing in, I tell the lady behind the desk that I am here to see Flight Lieutenant Ben Plank. She smiles and points as the last Red Arrow banks steeply up into the sky. “Oh, that’s Planky up there.”
He is just stepping out of his plane by the time I reach the squadron building, and invites me to sit in on his debrief. I find myself in a small briefing room full of old Ministry of Defence furniture, with four ‘Reds’: Team Leader Jim Turner (Red 1), Flight Lieutenant Chris Lyndon-Smith (Red 6), Flight Lieutenant James McMillan (Red 7), and Flight Lieutenant Ben Plank (Red 8).
Jim Turner leads the debrief, showing close-up video playback of the sortie I had just seen from the Guard’s Office. The other Reds affectionately refer to Jim Turner as ‘The Boss’. The video pauses every few seconds and each of the pilots call out ‘deep’ or ‘short’ along with other jargon I am yet to understand. I notice that they are criticising themselves on almost every manoeuvre. Far from berating themselves, this commentary is without ego or emotional connection.
“In a debrief, every single pilot will call something wrong with their position,” Planky says. “They will call, ‘five is wide’, ‘tight’, ‘short’ or ‘long’. This is one of the things we select people on. We make sure they can take criticism well and are hyper-critical of themselves. When you watch the debrief you will think the guys are just chastising themselves but, to be honest, you can look at any picture of any Red Arrow’s shape and there are always errors.”
Planky explains, “To be a Red Arrow pilot you need 1500 hours flying fast jets, which generally equates to about ten years of service, and you need to have been assessed as above average. We get about thirty applicants each year. The team, led by The Boss, will look through all of their flying reports. We also get some feedback from people who have worked with the applicants before, because they might not fit into the team. We need real team players. We are like a close-knit family.”
Although these pilots come from fast jet flying — where they are used to covering seven or eight miles per minute, one hundred feet off the ground —they are essentially beginners when it comes to the level of skill required to practice close-quarter precision flying with the Red Arrows. The learning curve is steep and there is no place for false modesty. Planky says, “We need to see what their starting standard is like and how quickly they can improve. We give them about a ten minute flying window to show their ability and assess how quickly they are improving. We are just looking to see what their basic handling ability is like and also what their learning curve is like. This job is pretty thick and fast.”
Coffee in hand, Planky offers to give me a tour of the squadron building. It is surprisingly small, with the upstairs being the domain of the display pilots. A long, narrow corridor runs the length of the building with arterial offshoots to a couple of small briefing rooms and the team office. Downstairs is the home of the blue jumpsuits; the engineers who work on the planes and the Dye Team who refill the planes with the diesel and dye mix that creates the iconic coloured smoke.
We move through the locker area where the Reds get changed between their practice sessions, of which they have three half-hour flights a day, and into the small aircraft hangar at the back of the building. Three Hawk Red Arrow planes are being stripped down, one undergoing a wing change. Planky explains to me that although some of the planes are thirty years old, every component on them has a life-span and they are kept in immaculate condition.
“Every time an engineer uses a tool they have to go to the tool shop and sign for it. So you can’t just take a toolbox and leave tools in the aeroplane, or a spanner in the air intake or something. On the few occasions I have known it, where there is a tool unaccounted for, the aeroplanes are grounded until it is found.”
That makes sense, considering they spend a large amount of their time in the air upside down. Before Planky is due back out for his second training session of the day we head up to the main briefing room for him to teach me about formations and positions. Although the Red Arrows are equal in rank, they are not all equal in ability, although, it would take a Red to tell the difference. However, by the start of the first display season every pilot is on top form.
Planky, who is one of the most experienced pilots in the team, begins to shuffle around the magnetic Red Arrow planes on the white board in the main briefing room. “The Boss is Red 1 and he is the leader,” he says as he points to the plane at the front of the diamond shape. “Red 2 and Red 3 are the newest pilots and they are closest to The Boss. Generally, the further away you are from The Boss, the more experienced you are.”
The Synchro pair, Red 6 and Red 7, are famed for their dynamic opposition flying. Planky says, “The Synchro pair are the only positions not determined by The Boss. Last year I was Red 6, and picked Smiley [Flight Lieutenant Chris Lyndon-Smith] to be Red 7. There needs to be ultimate trust in opposition flying. It’s the most dynamic flying and you need to have trust, ability and you need to be on your game for that.”
They are about to go up again. The Boss, flying with Flight Lieutenant James McMillan (Red 7) and Planky (Red 8), will be trying a new manoeuvre. I sit in on the briefing before they go up. They clearly state the purpose of the sortie, planning what will be done, how it will be done, and establishing safe exit routes for if anything goes wrong.
I head outside to a patch of airstrip that forms the centre point of the display. As they begin taxiing towards to runway, Planky gives me a quick wave from the cockpit of Red 8. Within a few minutes they are up in the sky and enter a long, high loop only performed when the base cloud is above 5,500 ft. The sound of the engines ebb away as they reach the top of their arch, and trails of smoke hang in the air behind them.
The cameraman I am with hands me a radio, and we in listen as The Boss calls out instructions to Red 7 and Red 8. “COMING LEFT NOW . . . HOLDING THE BANK NOW . . . TIGHTENING . . .” The instructions are shouted, forced out clearly as their bodies are under massive G Force.
The formation moves low in the sky, straight towards us, before the planes twist and cross paths, exploding up high in a manoeuvre called Detonator, the smoke trails left behind hinting at the complexity of what just happened.
The formation regroups for Corkscrew. The Boss spins his plane upside down, mirrored by Red 7 who is following about six feet behind him. The smoke is turned on as Red 8 comes sweeping in, performing a loop-the-loop around the double trail of smoke, following Red 7 no more than three plane lengths behind. The trio split, and begin formation for the final manoeuvre of the training session.
Red 8 disappears off into the distance, almost out of sight, as The Boss and Red 7 make their way slowly back around and increase their speed to approximately 350 mph. Red 8 comes back into sight from the opposite direction. The two planes turn on their sides as they pass Red 8 coming the other way, the smoke trails left as indicators as to how close they came. This, Planky would later tell me, is all done by eye — a very experienced eye.
Later, as we are tucking into a box of fish and chips we had pre-ordered that morning, I tell Planky that I got to listen in on the radio during the sortie. He seems pleased and begins to tell me about how they communicate when they are flying.
“Everything the Boss does, he will say on the radio first,” explains Planky. “So he will say ‘COMING LEFT NOW.’ On the ‘N’ of now he will move his stick, and he moves his stick the same amount every time. He will say, ‘HOLDING BANK NOW.’ Then he will say ‘TIGHT-E-N-I-N-G’, which means he is turning. So we have timing issues. If the last guy moves on the ‘N’ of ‘NOW’, he will be behind. So when The Boss says ‘COMING LEFT NOW’, this guy is going to start moving on the ‘T’ of ‘LEFT’. The next guy out would move on the ‘E’ of ‘LEFT’, and I would go on the ‘G’ of ‘COMING.’”
I had seen how close they flew, watching from the ground, but I want to know how close it felt. Planky explains what it is like for the new members of the team. “I can get close. I can get close enough that he will feel me a little bit, with my jet sucking him in. That’s too close and I won’t let that happen. He won’t even see that I’m there, other than that in his head he knows I am behind him.”
This can be difficult for the newer members of the team to adjust to, having another plane so close to them, perhaps only six feet away. Planky alludes to this and explains theoretically, “I’m right behind Red 2 but I’m not looking at Red 2. I’m looking at Boss because that’s who my reference is. But I’m not stupid; this guy has only been here for a month, and he is good but I keep half an eye on him.”
Back to the magnetic planes on the board, and Planky is taking out a marker pen and begins to draw a rectangle around one of the planes. “The biggest issue we have is what we call a box. If you imagine an invisible box around the aeroplane, and that you can’t leave that box. That guy [pointing to the next plane along] knows that he is going to sit and hold his ground while you are moving about in your box. You come out of your box and you have got real problems.”
“You need confidence, trust and handling ability to hold your position as another pilot moves around a little bit. He is not going to hit you, he is just moving around a little bit. A less experienced guy is going to flinch and move out against the next guy, which breaks formation. That’s why we start in smaller groups.”
“We just chip away at stuff. We don’t ever bite off too much too soon.” I feel like he has just let me in on one of their biggest secrets to building the confidence of the new team members. It is as if they understand that confidence is not something that is inherent; that it has to be gained slowly, through continually overcoming small challenges.
Before his third flight, Planky takes me to see one of the planes in the hangar. The only high-tech addition to the Hawk’s interior is a GPS system, which Planky describes as being, “Essentially a Sat Nav so we can fly to shows.” And fly they do, all over the world, with perhaps the exception of New Zealand, which is just out of the 1,000 nm range the fuel tanks allow.
Planky crouches under the wing. “You can see the planes have been modified slightly, so what you can see here are the smoke pods. We have five minutes of white smoke, a minute of red and a minute of blue. When we put the show together we have to look at how often we are going to be smoking and what colours, because the guys will run out of colours at various points.”
“There is also a safety reason for the smoke. The Boss uses it to judge what the wind is doing so we can keep the formation away from the crowd. In the second half, Synchro uses the smoke to find each other as they are passing. It also looks nice.”
He points at the badge on the front side of the plane and says, “When you line up the wing tip with the badge on the side, you get a diagonal line. This is one of several marker points on the plane that we use to keep in position for various formations. If you look here,” he says, pointing at a rivet underneath the wing, “We use this individual rivet as a marker for one of the positions. The planes are moving around, but we try to keep half of this rivet visible under the wing.” So that’s how close it felt.
I am eager to talk to Planky about the approach to training that I had seen that day and, in particular, the process of building confidence to fly at this level. As well as natural ability, the Reds just have the right approach to training, which enables them to overcome things that would frankly scare most people.
“You need some natural ability, and you need to be able to handle the aircraft well. You also need to be confident. Most importantly, you need the ability to keep putting your hand up and saying, ‘I didn’t do this well enough. I messed this up.’ If you can do that, and if everybody in the team is doing that, then the team is always going to be getting better.”
Perhaps this is the reason that the Red Arrows are the best in the world: because they don’t measure themselves by anyone else’s progress. Planky says, “You need a desire for excellence. That’s what we represent. Our squadron motto on our crest is Éclat, meaning excellence. The whole Red Arrow’s raison d’etre is to showcase excellence. It is important that we are not just showing off trickery in aeroplanes at shows, but that we are also showing professionalism and excellence through hard work.”
As darkness descends outside the squadron building, I prepare to leave, and sincerely thank Planky for inviting me behind the scenes at RAF Scampton. Flight Lieutenant Mike Child (Red 9) offers me a lift back to Lincoln train station, which I graciously accept.
Mike jumps in his car, still wearing his green flight suit (the Red Arrows are not given their red flight suits until the display has been officially ‘stamped’ by a senior officer in March, prior to the summer show season). I speak to Mike on the drive back and he says, rather humbly, “We don’t change before leaving work. It’s OK at this time of year, but you get mixed reactions from people when you stop in at the supermarket on the way home in the red flight suit.”
I ask him what reaction he receives when he tells people what he does for a living. “I just tell them I am in the RAF. Usually I don’t even tell them I am a pilot. They often joke and say, ‘Oh, I suppose you’re a Red Arrow or something.’” I get the impression that he wouldn’t necessarily correct them.
He leaves me at the train station and pulls off again, synchronizing perfectly with the outer lane of traffic. I doubt they appreciate how skillfully he does this.