BOOK OF THE WEEK
THE RED ARROWS
by David Montenegro (Century £20, 288pp)
Next time you see the Red Arrows performing one of their incredible loops, forcing their Hawk jets high into the sky before plummeting back down, savour the fact that each and every one of the pilots has their buttocks tightly clenched.
Not for the reason you or I might have our buttocks clenched in such circumstances, but to counter the effects of gravity.
At the bottom of a loop the pilots are ‘pulling 4G’ — that is, the Earth’s gravity is exerting four times its usual effect on them. This can lead to a pooling of blood in the lower legs, depriving your brain of the stuff and possibly resulting in loss of consciousness.
David Montenegro describes how the Red Arrows perform in his new book. As the current Commanding Officer he knows how important it is to engage with the general public
The pilots deal with this not just by squeezing their buttocks (and leg muscles), but also by performing a special type of breathing that raises the heart’s output. Oh, and they wear ‘anti-gravity’ trousers as well, which inflate with pressurised air to keep blood in the upper body.
All in a day’s work for the Royal Air Force Aerobatic Team, to give them their full name. The ‘Red’ obviously comes from the planes’ colour (they were originally yellow, which led to the lessthan-ideal nickname of ‘Daffodil Patrol’), while the ‘Arrows’ referred to the team’s old Gnats, the predecessors of the Hawks, with their swept-back wings.
The Gnats were a joy to fly — the pilots joked that you didn’t so much get into them as ‘put them on’ — but their fuel capacity was very low. For long flights they had be towed to the start of the runway to avoid wasting fuel on taxiing.
David Montenegro’s book is perfectly enjoyable even if you’re not a…whatever the flying equivalent of ‘petrolhead’ is (‘airhead’ doesn’t really work).
As the Red Arrows’ current commanding officer, he knows the importance of engaging with the general public — having spent two spells as one of the pilots, he knows they’re there to entertain people. Shows are planned to minimise the period of ‘empty sky’ when all the planes are miles away preparing for the next manoeuvre. ‘If the crowds have time to lick their ice creams,’ said one team leader, ‘we aren’t doing our job properly.’
The pilots deal with this not just by squeezing their buttocks (and leg muscles), but also by performing a special type of breathing that raises the heart’s output. Oh, and they wear ‘anti-gravity’ trousers as well, which inflate with pressurised air to keep blood in the upper body
Diamond Nine is the most famous formation, with Red 1 (the most senior pilot) at the front, the other eight fanned out behind him (odd numbers to his left, even numbers to his right).
For the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee in 2012 they also added the Deep Diamond, with different planes at different heights to create a 3D effect.
The Red Arrows’ precision timing was shown the same year at the opening ceremony for the London Olympics. They always have a WHAM plan for the day (‘What Happens According to Management’) and that day’s schedule included flying over the stadium at exactly 20.12.
Such fly-pasts — like the one they’ll perform along the Mall next month for the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee — require each plane to line up with a specific point on one of the others.
And when we say ‘specific’, we’re talking about something as small as an individual bolt on a fuselage.
That said, flying in such a formation is at the easy end of the Red Arrows’ scale. The really hair-raising stuff comes when you’re flying directly towards one of your colleagues, each of you doing 400mph to create an effective speed of 800mph. Throw in the fact that you might be upside down — in which case the stick works the other way round (push left to go right and viceversa) — and maintaining your reference points is ‘more than tricky’. Don’t you love a bit of military understatement?
In their early days (the team was formed in 1964), the Red Arrows would fly as low as 15 ft, with pilots back then trained to fly at such heights in order to evade enemy radar systems.
These days they limit themselves to 100 ft, but this was still low enough during a 2008 show in New York to ensure they went round the Statue of Liberty rather than over it.
Of course nothing is ever completely safe, and over the decades ten pilots and one engineer have lost their lives.
In their early days (the team was formed in 1964), the Red Arrows would fly as low as 15 ft, with pilots back then trained to fly at such heights in order to evade enemy radar systems
Four of those pilots died in the same incident in 1971 (two in each of two planes that collided during a practice session).
Montenegro himself was involved in a collision in 2010, but he managed to land safely and the other pilot survived thanks to his ejector seat.
The same bit of technology saved another pilot during a 1980 display off the coast of Brighton, when a yacht disobeyed the ban on sailing in the area and its mast took two feet off the plane’s wing.
As the Red Arrows head towards their 60th anniversary, it’s clear the team’s place in our hearts is secure. Virgin named a train after them (optimistic, Richard), and there’s a tradition of Blue Peter presenters getting rides with the team.
Though as Jim Turner (a former Red 1) points out, the female presenters are better at it: ‘I don’t know why, they’ve got a better stomach for it … They have had few problems, whereas quite a few of the male presenters are airborne for ten minutes before they are throwing up and we have to land.’