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A Guide to the history of British Flying Sites within the United Kingdom
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The Red Arrows


Note: All pictures by the author unless specified.

At Bournemouth in Aug 2014
At Bournemouth in Aug 2014

Incredible though it might then have seemed to me, in 2014, (when this article was written), the Red Arrows RAF display team celebrated their 50th anniversary – under the threat of closure – from a British government which has been almost unique in having almost no future vision for how our country can develop. Being obsessed, or so it appears, with tinkering, adjusting the margins and so on, and, having absolutely no sense of pride whatsoever concerning what the British people have achieved over the last one thousand years, since the Normans invaded. (Please pick your own invasion - it doesn't much matter)


It seems to me astonishing, considering the immense amount of wealth now sloshing around in the UK, during an economic 'boom' time the likes of which have never been seen before, that anybody in our government can even contemplate closing down the Red Arrows. Doing so must surely signal to the world at large that the United Kingdom was now finished on the global scene; a spent force of no particular significance and having little if any influence?

At Bournemouth Aug 2014
At Bournemouth Aug 2014

Although not always the very best in the world, the Red Arrows have always been in the ‘top ten’ throughout their fifty year history. This said,The display I witnessed at the four day Bournemouth ‘Festival’ in 2014 must surely rank as being amongst their best ever display routine? Despite being reduced to an eight ‘ship’ team, which ruined the ‘plan’ elements such as the classic ‘Diamond Nine’ etc, their display was nevertheless truly sensational.


It appears that the first appearance of a dedicated RAF aerobatic display team arriving on the scene, at an air-show, occurred in 1920 at HENDON (LONDON). Except that in those days, or fairly shortly after, there wasn't just one team, but several drawn from 'front line' squadrons. This new concept soon gained ground and by the 1930s it was pretty much commonplace, at most major air shows, to have at least one and usually several military elements, contributed mainly by the RAF of course. These early team aerobatic displays were sensational and astounded the spectators. Indeed, there is an account of one squadron flying three Gloster Gladiators, in 1938, flying aerobatics “with their wing-tips” tied together. Obviously this desciption is 'over-egging the cake', but, having aircraft performing when loosely tied together with string has been a feature of many air-shows since.


It seems that after WW2, in 1947, the RAF formed an aerobatic team flying three DH100 Vampires, formed at RAF Odiham. It is claimed that by 1950, No.72 Squadron was flying a team of seven Vampires. Of special note it now appears that No.54 Squadron, also flying Vampires, in or shortly after 1970, were the first to use 'smoke' in their displays. Typically this involves injecting coloured petroleum based liquids into the 'jet' efflux in the tail-pipe, along pretty much the same principles of the'after-burner'. Needless to say, the two methods can be combined. And, indeed, for piston-powered aircraft, as often as not, the 'smoke' is injected into the exhaust gases.

Bournemouth 2014
Bournemouth 2014

Later No.66 Squadron developed a display routine with six Gloster Meteors and, I think I can just about remember seeing them at one of, if not the last air shows held at RAF Hendon? However, it was the team displays at the Farnborough air shows that I remember best in the early 1960s, especially the Hawker Hunters and English Electric Lightnings. The first Hunter aerobatic team was, it appears, a four-ship affair by No.54 Squadron in 1955, but in 1956 No.111 Squadron became the first official RAF team with Hunters painted in a overall black paint scheme. It seems that it was the French who, coined the term 'Les Fleches Noirs' on seeing them display - hence the sobriquet The Black Arrows and they took the world by storm. Apparently they first flew a five-ship team, but in 1958 they performed both a loop and barrel roll with, wait for it, twenty-two Hunters! It was an amazing spectacle as you might well imagine; nothing like it had every been seen before and -  it set a World Record. Which I believe still hasn't been beaten?


I can still vividly remember, at Farnborough and standing in line with the display datum point, a low level 'cross over' routine whereby one aircraft was approaching from the left, another from the right, and yet another approaching from dead ahead. What we most definitely had not expected was the fourth sneaky bugger, coming from behind and straight over our heads. I swear the entire crowd around us ducked and I for one very nearly turned the phrase, "jumping out of your skin", into a reality. It now appears that that display in 1961 was one of, it not the very last for No.111 Squadron as No.92 Squadron then took over the rôle 'trading' as the Blue Diamonds with a sixteen-ship team for the following season. Not perhaps unsurprisingly - with a blue colour scheme. 

Kids love noise and nothing could beat the 'Tiger Squadron'; the nine English Electric Lightnings of No.74 Squadron, when they performed a formation take-off and then, what appeared to be a vertical climb in line astern. This was utterly sensational and I can still remember the ground shaking beneath my feet, and indeed, still insist to credulous youngsters that the whole of Hampshire and Surrey was trembling too. I now read, in Wikipedia, that, "They sometimes gave co-ordinated displays with the Blue Diamonds", and imagine they may well have done this at Farnborough? Those years of the early 1960s were, I now believe, the zenith of the Farnborough displays as, near the end of the show, the RAF and Royal Navy filled the sky above us with endless squadrons of jets in close formation for hours on end, or so it now seems. Probably lasting around ten minutes to fifteen minutes?

Bournemouth 2014
Bournemouth 2014

Thank heavens some people were taking notes. It would not surprise me at all to now learn that the 'Tiger' Squadron I so fondly remember, was in fact the Lightnings of the 'Firebirds', No.56 Squadron. Apart from those squadrons of the 1960s mentioned above, 1964 saw the appearance of The Red Pelicans, a team of six BAC Jet Provost T.Mk4s and they then became the RAFs official display team. This was when the Labour Party came into power under the leadership of the Prime Minister Harold Wilson and Great Britain Ltd, we were told, was now facing bankruptcy to all intents and purposes.Quite possibly partly on account of having to pay the fuel bills for all those splendiferous Farnborough displays? 


Gone were the days when the RAF could field up to two major aerobatic display teams flying fighter aircraft. Now, all we Brits could afford was just one team of trainer types. However, this did have several advantages for the spectators at air shows, not least because front-line fighters then tended to need roughly half a County to turn around in, or, more than a County if you include Rutland. This meant that displays could now be 'tighter', more immediate, and of course the skill levels of the pilots had been in no way diminished. Indeed, when allowed a bit of imagination and ingenuity, these later displays were actually better. Which was certainly the case when the 'Yellowjacks' arrived with their five Folland Gnats from No.4 Flying Training School, (painted a sort of 'lime' yellow if my memory serves), and their 'twinkle roll' speciality was fantastic.


I once saw on the TV many years ago, an interview with presumably their squadron leader (?), and he had a great story to tell. Apparently the Folland Gnat had such a phenomenal rate of roll that the 'powers that be' had decided that an 'inhibitor' should be installed. To overcome this 'handicap' the Yellowjacks simply removed the fuse. Along the way a stuffy top brass type had seen a display and was appalled, ordering that "with immediate effect" all fuses must be in place for all future displays. And, the Yellowjacks, after giving the matter some serious consideration, happily complied when they realised that the directive did not state that only servicable fuses must be used. So they fitted 'duds' instead!

Bournemouth 2014
Bournemouth 2014

It seems there is still a degree of debate around exactly how the 'Yellowjacks' Folland Gnats came to be painted red. Perhaps the most plausible reasons are a combination of events? For example, in 1964 it was thought that amalgamating the various RAF teams into one cohesive assemblage, just one team in effect, made good sense as it was thought that the pilots were spending far too much time and effort (and expenditure of course) in rehearsals for displays rather than doing what they were really being paid to do, which was the 'Defense of the Realm'. I now suspect that virtually all RAF and Royal Navy aircrews, (at least), had come to realise that the 'Cold War' was just a complete fiasco, mainly dreamt up by certain individuals of questionable sanity in the corridors of power in the western world. It came as no surprise to most people in Europe; and I feel pretty certain about this, that it was inevitably and eventually a Russian of great intelligence, one Mikhail Gorbachev, who decided it was time to put an end to the nonsense.

So, (am I too far off the mark?), for many RAF aircrew of that period, perhaps one of the biggest personal benefits of being a pilot in the RAF, given a chance, was being able to 'show off'' at air shows.


Getting back to the  'Red' it was then thought that red was the most conspicious colour in a sky environment, (it is not, black is better), and it had then been adopted for most of the aircraft flown by the Central Flying School. Another factor was that the 'business' of providing a British aerobatic display team had been transferred from Fighter Command to the Central Flying School. Makes sense? The adoption of 'Arrows' is claimed to refer back to arguably the best known post WW2 display teams, the 'Black' and 'Blue' 'Arrows' and their Hawker Hunter aircraft. The rest, as they say, "is history". It is almost certainly an exaggeration, but, it does seem that when the 'Red Arrows' in their Folland Gnats, trailing mostly 'patriotic' red, white and blue smoke across our skies, (and several other peoples skies of course), they suddenly became an 'overnight success' and 'a household name'. 


In compiling and researching this article, I have resorted to 'Wikipedia' time and time again, and, for a basic account of the Red Arrows history in this Guide the next entry is quoted verbatim, as I don't believe it can be bettered. "The Royal Air Force Aerobatic Team (RAFAT), the formal name of the Red Arrows, began life at RAF Fairford in Gloucestershire, then a satellite of the Central Flying School (CFS). The Red Arrows moved to Kemble in 1966 after RAF Fairford became the place of choice for BAE to run test flights for Concorde. When RAF Scampton became the CFS Headquarters in 1983, the Red Arrows moved there. As an economy measure, Scampton closed in 1995, so the Red Arrows moved just twenty miles to RAF Cranwell, however, as they still used the air space above Scampton, the emergency facilities and runways had to be maintained. Since 21 December 2000, the Red Arrows have been based again at RAF Scampton, near Lincoln."

Bournemouth 2014
Bournemouth 2014

I will readily admit to being a tad cynical, but reading the history it does appear that the RAF have a proud tradition throughout their entire existence, of scouring the country for the most witless and ill-informed buffoons to manage their affairs at a very senior level. But of course, such people usually compare favourably to similar people employed in the Ministry of Defence, or the Air Ministry as it was previously known. However, at an operational level the RAF has been gifted with some of the most competent and capable individuals the world has ever seen. It might be noted that only a scant few have managed to rise through the ranks to take the top jobs, often against the odds.

It has been, mostly against this background of doubt and obfuscation over the years, that the Red Arrows have led a somewhat tenuous existence. In some aspects, far from being regarded as a 'leading light' for Great Britian Plc, there are some people at the top of our society today who appear to regard their existence as, "an unnecessary expense". I would dearly love these people to be exposed and named and shamed as they really are a disgrace to our society. Despite, especially in the south east during recent years, seeing an economic boom of unprecedented magnitude. Nevertheless the press and media still invariably insisted, (in 2014 at least), that we Brits were suffering from a period of severe austerity. Utter rubbish of course, but, nevertheless it provided a false perception of how the UK was actually getting along, and those managing the Red Arrows have to take this into account.

I very strongly suspect that not one of these 'ill wishers' has ever seen a display by the Red Arrows? Please let me just give this singular example of exactly why I think the Red Arrows must continue for the delight of the British people at the very least. Something very rarely witnessed at other major events when the contributors have fled the scene. It was estimated that around 1.2 million people attended the four day Bournemouth Festival of Air in August 2014 and the show was closed by the Red Arrows display. When it ended substantial amounts of people burst into spontaneous applause. Think about it, please. Obviously the pilots could not hear this applause, they were already miles away, but so many people were so inspired and delighted by what they had seen, they felt an overwhelming desire to express their feelings. And that, I reckon, is proof indeed (if any proof is needed) of just how powerful an effect the Red Arrows displays have.



Saturday, 31 May: Falmouth, Cornwall, UK

Tuesday, 3 June: Ramsey, Isle of Man, UK (Two displays)
Thursday, 5 June: Portsmouth, Hampshire, UK
Saturday, 7 June: Folkestone, Kent & Lymington, Hampshire, UK
Sunday, 8 June: Welshpool, Powys & Cosford, Shropshire, UK

Saturday, 14 June: Biggin Hill, Kent, UK

Friday, 20 June: Gilze-Rijen, The Netherlands
Saturday, 21 June: Gilze-Rijen, The Netherlands & Weston-Super-Mare, UK
Sunday, 22 June: Karup, Denmark

Monday, 23 June: Tallinn, Estonia
Friday, 27 June: Goodwood, Sussex, UK
Saturday, 28 June: Goodwood, Sussex & Stirling (Scotland), UK
Sunday, 29 June: Londonderry (Northern Ireland), UK

Friday, 4 July: Feltwell, Norfolk, UK
Saturday, 5 July: RAF Waddington, Lincolnshire UK
Sunday, 6 July: Silverstone (F.1 race), Northamptonshire, & RAF Waddington, Lincolnshire, UK

Friday, 11 July: RAF Fairford (RIAT), Gloucestershire, UK
Saturday, 12 July: RAF Fairford (RIAT), Gloucestershire, UK
Sunday, 13 July: RAF Fairford (RIAT), Gloucestershire, UK

Thursday, 17 July: Shrivenham, Oxfordshire, UK
Friday, 18 July: Farnborough Air Show, Hampshire, UK
Saturday, 19 July: Farnborough Air Show, Hampshire, UK
Sunday, 20 July: Farnborough Air Show, Hampshire, UK

Wednesday, 23 July: RAF Valley, Angelsey, UK
Thursday, 24 July: RAF Benson, Oxfordshire & Lyme Regis, Dorset, UK
Friday, 25 July: Sunderland, Tyne & Wear, UK
Saturday, 26 July: Sunderland, Tyne & Wear, plus, East Fortune, East Lothian (Scotland), UK
Sunday, 27 July: Sunderland, Tyne & Wear, plus, Cleethorpes, Lincolnshire, UK

Friday, 8 August: Cowes, Isle of Wight, UK
Saturday, 9 August: Newcastle, County Down, UK
Sunday, 10 August: Blackpool, Lancashire, & Whitby, Yorkshire, UK

Bournemouth 2014
Bournemouth 2014

Wednesday, 13 August: Minehead, Somerset & Falmouth, Cornwall, UK
Thursday, 14 August: Eastbourne, Sussex, UK
Friday, 15 August: Eastbourne, Sussex, UK
Saturday, 16 August: Eastbourne, Sussex, UK
Sunday, 17 August: Eastbourne, Sussex & Sywell, Northamptonshire, LAA annual Rally. UK

Wednesday, 20 August: Cromer, Norfolk & Weymouth, Dorset, UK
Thursday, 21 August: Fowey, Cornwall, UK
Friday, 22 August: Clacton, Essex, UK
Saturday, 23 August: Dawlish, Devon & Overton, Hampshire, UK

Sunday, 24 August: Dunsfold Park, Surrey, UK

Wednesday, 27 August: Torbay, Devon, UK
Thursday, 28 August: Bournemouth, Hampshire, UK
Friday, 29 August: Bournemouth, Hampshire & Dartmouth, Devon, UK
Saturday, 30 August: Bournemouth, Hampshire & Barry Island, Glamorgan, (Wales) UK
Sunday, 31 August: Bournemouth, Hampshire & Rhyl, Denbighshire (North Wales), UK

Monday, 1 September: RAF Scampton,Lincolnshire, UK
Friday, 5 September: Pangbourne, Berkshire, UK
Saturday, 6 September: Payerne, Switzerland
Sunday, 7 September: Newcastle-upon-Tyne, (Great North Run), two displays in the morning, plus, Portrush, Coleraine, UK

Thursday, 11 September: RAFA Air Display at St Peter Port, Guernsey & Jersey International Air Display, St Aubins Bay. Both in the Channel Islands of course, UK
Saturday, 13 September: Kleine Brogel, Belgium
Sunday, 14 September: Kleine Brogel, Belgium, and, later at Duxford, Cambridgeshire, UK

Saturday, 20 September: Southport, Lancashire, UK
Sunday, 21 September: Another display at 12.00 hrs in Southport, Lancashire followed another, at 18.00 hrs at Rennes in Normandy, north west France.

Monday, 22 September: Mahon, Menorca, Spain
Thursday, 25 September: Athens, Greece
Sunday, 28 September: Luga, Malta


What a great way to earn a living? Such an immense privilege for the pilots. Obviously, for example, a huge amount of logistical planning goes on behind the scenes, and just imagine how it must feel to be displaying in Southport, in northern England at midday and then displaying at Rennes, in France, just six hours later. But, doing something like this is both very complicated and very tiring for those Red Arrows pilots.

There is something else to be borne in mind here regarding flying sites for this 'Guide'. By the very nature of it, I have been searching for flying sites defined on a piece of land, or a particular area of water. I soon realised that major air displays conducted over sites without an airfield being involved, also counted. Indeed, with for example some 1.2 million people assembling over four days in Bournemouth to witness the air display along the coast, these sites also constitute something of considerable value to our unique heritage.

Without any doubt the Red Arrows have established themselves as being a 'World Class' jet aerobatic display team. If anybody reading this agrees, then please contact the press, the media, your MP and anybody else having influence, to express your view that the Red Arrows must be totally supported and kept flying.


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