After completing my full-time service with the RAF in 1984, I spent a couple of very happy and enjoyable years in Oman working for the Sultan of Oman's Air Force (SOAF - as it was then called). Returning to UK, at the end of my contract and still only 51 years old, I looked around for something else to do. In due course, I took on a job working as a Retired Officer for the North and West Region of the Air Training Corps. I was based initially at the East Lancashire Wing HQ inside a Territorial Army barracks in Bury and later at the North and West Regional HQ at RAF Sealand just inside Wales but very close to Chester.
The North & West Regional Commandant, Group Captain John McMinn, and I were both employed as RAF Retired Officers (always referred to as simply RO). Unlike officers in the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve and Royal Auxiliary Air Force, ROs wore normal RAF uniform with no special insignia. Apart perhaps from the visible signs of advancing years, I was indistinguishable from any active service squadron leader. One of the perks of being an RO, although not everyone would see it as a perk, was that once appointed the individual could remain in the Service, should he or she so wish, until the age of 65. That always irked the Civil Service whose own servants were, at that time, required to hang up their equivalent of flying boots at age 60.
One of the very first things I was told when I was appointed to the RO post was that in the event of any subsequent changes to their job specification, it was incumbent upon each RO before retiring to ensure that only another RO would be qualified to fill the post – and that also got up the noses of the civil servants. I must confess that, when the time finally came for me to retire, I did not do that – for reasons that I will explain later. ROs did not get the same rate of pay as a serving officer of the same rank and seniority was paid. I used to tell anyone who asked that I worked for half pay; that was roughly correct, but I usually omitted to mention that I was also getting a pension for my 31 years served on the active list, and a tax-free gratuity from my service with SOAF.
Early in 1989, however, I was beginning to get homesick for Yorkshire. I have always believed that all exiled Yorkshire folk sooner or later want to return to God’s own county and if they don’t, then they should. Initially, just out of curiosity, I put myself on the MoD mailing list of RO job vacancies on the eastern side of the Pennines with a preference for posts in Yorkshire. The first pack of job descriptions arrived within a few days, and more continued to arrive weekly - but they were all for jobs at locations far removed from Yorkshire, so they were only of passing interest to me. The first vacancy in my chosen area did not come up until a couple of months after I had registered; it was for what was described as a newly-created post at RAF Scampton for a Public Relations Officer for the Red Arrows.
The essential and desirable criteria listed for the post fitted my qualifications not partly but exactly - serendipity perhaps or deliberate targeting? I was a retired squadron leader pilot with media experience; I was, or rather had been, an A2 qualified flying instructor, although it was by no means clear why that was important for a PR job with the Red Arrows; I had graduated from various staff college courses; and I had completed at least one staff appointment. It seemed to me that a job which involved working with, and writing about, the Red Arrows would be just my cup of tea. I knew that it was a job I could do, and enjoy doing, so that same evening I wrote out my application. However, before I had time to post it the following morning another, quite different, job specification arrived while I was having my breakfast. Those were the days when the first post arrived in time to be read at the breakfast table - even where I lived in rural Cheshire.
That second job description was for a Community Relations Officer (CRO), a retired officer post in the rank of flight lieutenant. It stated that 18 CRO posts had just been created, at major RAF flying stations dotted around the UK, specifically to deal with the increasing number of complaints from the public about low flying aircraft. The complainants in some parts of the country had, the vacancy notice claimed, been getting more and more vociferous and so the RAF had decided that a group of strategically-based CROs might be the answer. Those officers would get to know their local communities and would even visit some complainants at their homes to try and pacify them and explain why the RAF needed to fly at low level. I read that job description with only passing interest because I was not at all interested in a flight lieutenant post, nor did that type of work appeal to me.
I posted the first application, the one for the Red Arrows job, but added at the end under the heading ‘Further Comments’, that I was not interested in, and would not consider, the flight lieutenant CRO post at Scampton. To my great surprise, only four days later an invitation to attend an interview at RAF Scampton arrived on my desk at RAF Sealand, not at my home address where all previous correspondence had been delivered. I thought at the time that was almost indecent haste because I had already discovered that things did not normally move very quickly in the Retired Officer’s world. If my Regional Commandant, whose office was right next door to mine at Sealand, received a hidden copy of that letter, he never mentioned it to me, nor did I mention it to him in case the while idea fell through.
On the evening before the interview, I had a telephone call at home from a long-standing friend who was now a serving star-ranking officer at the Ministry of Defence in London. He had heard through the MoD grapevine that I was applying for what he described as ‘the Scampton job’. He also added that there were no other applicants for the Red Arrows job – and that was significant. I fitted precisely all the criteria in the job specification, and I was the sole applicant, so under Civil Service rules an interview was unnecessary: a simple transfer from Sealand to Scampton was all that was required. My MoD ‘confidant’ then told me something that was even more astonishing, but he first made me promise never to reveal his name. Now I was not only interested, I was intrigued!
When I had given him my promise, he explained that most of the publicity about the Red Arrows in recent months had concerned two serious flying accidents and as a result there was a move within the top echelons of the MoD to disband the Red Arrows. To counter that, the RAF wanted someone ‘reliable’ to handle the Team’s PR at station level to make sure that did not happen and my friend on the phone thought that reliable someone could be me. It was a bit like being back in military intelligence – Rudyard Kipling’s so-called ‘Great Game’: work under cover, play one side off against the other, never reveal your sources.
Since the interview was scheduled for the very next day, 6 May 1989, I had a disturbed night’s sleep. I was by then positively curious to find out what was really going on. Coincidentally, I knew the date was exactly 24 years to the day after the very first Red Arrows' public display: irrelevant, of course, but I thought it might be useful to drop that snippet into the conversation during the interview.