Above: That's me posing with the Red Arrows' Adjutant at Bratislava, capital of Slovakia, in September 1992, where the Team was parked in the best PR spot - right in front of the airport terminal.
I learned over the weeks and months that complainants could usually be slotted into one of two main types. First, there were the one-off complainants who had been genuinely upset or frightened by some unusual air activity and, secondly, there were the regulars who complained frequently, usually about a particular type of activity. This latter type was much more likely to telephone and ask for the same officer each time. That type also knew what the answer was going to be but they felt they had to let the RAF know they had not gone away. The fact is that Community Relations Officers, even I, couldn't promise an instant fix for a complaint. At best we are only messengers; we don't control the activity being complained about.
I found that the most annoying complainants, and the least convincing, were those who tried to be too clever. For example, those who were familiar with RAF low flying operations knew that in most parts of the United Kingdom the minimum height above ground that was permitted for most aircraft types, excluding helicopters, was 250 feet. It was quite amazing how many complainants made exaggerated claims about aircraft height:
"It was definitely less than 50 feet."
"It was lower than roof top level."
"It was almost brushing the tops of the trees in my garden."
"I could feel the heat from its exhaust."
"I could see the pilot quite clearly inside his cockpit."
"I was in the RAF for 15 years, so I know what I’m talking about," said one particularly irritating individual. I replied, "I am a pilot and I'm now in my 40th year in the RAF. What's the point you’re trying to make, sir?" Stunned silence from the other end!
When regular complainants made ridiculous claims about the height an aircraft was flying, they were usually doing so because they knew the pilot would get into trouble if it could be proved that he was breaking the rules. In almost every other case what people were really complaining about was the noise or a perceived danger and those were perfectly legitimate reasons for lodging a complaint - but it did not necessarily mean that any rules had been broken. I was always far more prepared to listen sympathetically to a person who claimed to have been frightened by the unexpected passage overhead of a Red Arrow than a person who claimed the same jet passed overhead at tree top height. Exaggerated claims about the height, or lack of it, did not enhance the complaint and merely caused the person taking down the details to treat the claim with a large pinch of salt.
The pilots of the Red Arrows are highly disciplined and very professional. The type of flying they do is exciting enough without any need to break the rules. They fly in aircraft that are instantly recognisable and they are well aware that any misdemeanour will quickly be traced back to them. In all my time working for the Red Arrows I know of only two occasions when what I could only describe as a sudden rush of blood to the head persuaded a pilot to descend below the permitted minimum height and on both those occasions the pilots were disciplined and threatened with dismissal from the Team should there be a further infraction.
Estimating height by visual clues only is not easy, even for experts. A popular competition at air shows in years gone by involved guessing the height of aircraft flying over the display area. In practice, unless you have been specially trained to observe low flying aircraft, which you would have been if you were a member of the estimable Royal Observer Corps before they were stood down, you will make some very wild guesses. With all my experience I still would not wager very much of my own money on guessing heights. One yardstick I was able to use to help me was to compare the height of the aircraft above the ground with its wingspan. I know, for example, that the Hawk measures 34 feet from one wing tip to the other so I can easily visualise what a Hawk would look like if it really was flying at less than 50 feet above the ground. Even this method loses all accuracy when the height is more than three or four times the aircraft’s wingspan.
If there was one type of complainant I hated more than any other it was the name-dropper. When you've just been caught speeding, what's the point in telling the traffic policeman that you're a friend of the Chief Constable: is it not more likely to alienate the policeman? Even if you are a friend of the Chief Constable, is it remotely likely that he will intervene on your behalf?
I remember one Red Arrow who, wearing his red flying suit at the time, tried such an approach with a traffic policeman only to be told that the Chief Constable in question was already dealing with one of his own Detective Chief Superintendents who had been caught in a speed trap. There is always the possibility, of course, that the policeman was looking forward to telling his colleagues that he'd nabbed a Red Arrow, which is just one of several reasons why the pilots were encouraged to wear an anonymous jacket over their flying suits when out and about in their cars.
Name dropping is a futile tactic to employ and I never allowed myself to be brow-beaten, but low flying complainants are prone to employ the tactic.
"After the last incident your Station Commander sent me a letter assuring me that it would never happen again."
Who did they think drafted the letter that the Station Commander signed? Did they imagine I didn't keep my Station Commander informed of what I had done?
"I intend writing to my MP," was another common ploy.
"Thank you for letting me know," I would reply politely. "I'll inform the Station Commander." Sometimes, if I was in a benevolent mood, I would offer them the postal address of their MP.