The Red, White and Blue Arrows

Harry Lye 10 October 2019 (Last Updated October 10th, 2019 09:42)

The Royal Air Force Aerobatic Team, better known as the Red Arrows, are one of the world’s premier display teams, having performed over 5,000 displays in over 50 countries. We look at the importance of their current North America tour and the history of the iconic display squadron.

The Red, White and Blue Arrows

On any usual year the display season the Red Arrows would be the headliners of the display season along the length and breadth of Britain. This year however fans of the Royal Air Force display team have had to turn their attention to the skies above North America to get a glimpse of the display team.

Leaving in a jet plane

Formed in 1964 the Red Arrows have risen to prominence as a flying symbol of the UK and the RAF. Starting in August of this year the Red Arrows North America Tour saw the iconic red jets travelling across the continent over 11 weeks flying shows in Chicago, Ottawa, New York and a host of other cities in between.  “The tour aims to promote the best of British and deepen partnerships with close friends and allies,” the RAF said before the start of the tour.

The best of British

“The aim of this North American tour is to inspire people of all ages and backgrounds through a world-class display of the best of British,” said Red Arrows Officer Commanding, Wing Commander Andrew Keith, before the squadron’s trademark Hawk T-1As set out from RAF Scampton in the UK to Halifax in Canada. The three-day journey saw the Red Arrows trailed by an RAF Atlas A400M transporter carrying equipment and support staff across the pond. As the Hawks are primarily used for training they are not designed for aerial refuelling, necessitating the need for stops in Iceland and Greenland during their transatlantic trek.

On the ground and in the air

As well as performing their trademark aerial displays, the Red Arrows took part in the ground engagement, championing the Royal Air Force and promoting British trade. In the air across North America, they have graced the skies of 21 cities in the form of full displays or flypasts, performing alongside their US Navy counterparts, the Blue Angels. This visit marked the first time the Red Arrows have touched down in North America for 11 years.

Battle of the birds

After an initial stop in Canada, the Red Arrows made their way down to Chicago for the Chicago Air and Water Show, the largest free air show in the US. Onlookers braved thunderstorms to see the Red Arrows perform classic aerial acrobatics manoeuvres like the ‘twisting tornado’ where two jets twist around the rest of the formation at speed. The air show saw the Red Arrows sharing the skies with the Lockheed Martin F-35 fighter jet, the Boeing V-22 Osprey vertical take-off landing aircraft and the US Air Force Thunderbirds.

Not just skill

Red Arrows displays change yearly but many of the manoeuvres that have made the team famous have stayed the same. The nine jets are supported in the air by Red 10, which communicates with the team leader and supervises the shows. Red 10 also provides commentary of the manoeuvres. The arrows continue training between display seasons. Over winter, pilots fly three sorties a day, five days a week to ensure they remain on the top of their game. After March the arrows usually jet overseas to continue training before the summer display season.

Hawks above the Hudson

A prominent stop on the tour for the Red Arrows was a flyover in New York City, where the Hawk T1-A jets flew in formation with the F-35 and the US Air Force Thunderbirds. Red Arrows team leader, Squadron Leader Martin Pert said about the experience of flying past the iconic skyscrapers: “To have the opportunity to fly along the Hudson in a fast-jet, with Manhattan’s skyscrapers lining part of the route and so many famous landmarks as a backdrop, was a fantastic, rewarding experience”.

From bug to bird

The Hawk T-1A has become synonymous with the aerial acrobatics squad but it hasn’t always been this way. The display team was formed through the merging of the RAF Black Arrows and Yellowjacks, adopting the latter’s Folland Gnat aircraft. The Gnat was popular among pilots and students due to its size and manoeuvrability, until it was retired in 1979. The Gnat saw the Red Arrows though 1,292 displays before giving way to the now iconic Hawk. Since then the Hawk has seen the Red Arrows through a 1995-96 world tour, the Queen’s golden jubilee in 2002, and a 2018 flypast over the UK’s capital marking the centenary of the RAF.

Trading airspace to promote trade

Red Arrows North America

Speaking before the North America tour kicked off, then Trade Secretary Liam Fox said: “It will include an integrated programme of trade missions and business engagement, involving both the display team and ground crew, and build on the experience of previous tours to provide even stronger support for our business objectives”.