One day, still in my very first week at Scampton, when I needed to write a letter to someone who had complained about a low-flying station aircraft, I drafted my response by hand and then took it to the station typing pool so that it could be sent out on official headed paper. I said to the typing pool manager that I would wait for the letter to be typed. She was astonished and told me that they would not get around to typing my letter for several days because they had a large backlog. I never went, or sent anything to, the typing pool again and for the next 11 years I used my own computer and printer and sent out everything I wrote from my own office. From time to time I did idly wonder what would have happened had I not been a proficient typist, a skill I had learned, on teleprinters, in my early years as a wireless mechanic in Ceylon.
When I visited the Red Arrows admin office for the second time, towards the end of my first week, I was shown an enormous pile of mail addressed to the Team from members of the public asking for information about the Red Arrows. It appeared that no-one was responsible for answering the letters and, in any case, the admin clerks were fully occupied with normal squadron administration. The backlog of mail from the public, much of it unopened, stretched back several months. Being generous by nature, I assumed that the Team Leader and Team Manager must have been unaware of this backlog.
Any visitors to the Teams’ HQ had been, up until my arrival, escorted by two young ladies, one with an arm in plaster and the other with a leg in plaster. The ladies were student officers from the RAF College at Cranwell who had been injured during their initial officer training. Injured students, not always female of course, were withdrawn from formal training until they were fully fit again. As a temporary measure, they were moved onto the Medical and Special Holding Flight which was, inevitably, known colloquially as MASH Flight, a term hated, and eventually proscribed, by the College authorities. Those two young ladies were, understandably, very keen on their job at the Red Arrows; they obviously enjoyed the relaxed atmosphere amongst the pilots well away from the strict discipline of the RAF College. However, I considered that using damaged student officers with plastered limbs to host public visitors gave out the wrong message to the public. By the time those ladies were fit enough to resume their officer training at Cranwell, I had made alternative arrangements.
At the start of my second week, when I had found time to visit the Red Arrows HQ only twice because of the growing pile of low flying complaints in my In Tray, I decided that I would have to do my own thing. I kept a low profile while I visited every section of the station and I also spent a day in London visiting the tri-Service Defence Press Office, manned almost exclusively by civil servants, and afterwards the Director of Public Relations (RAF). I asked the Scampton Admin folk for a railway warrant; to their credit, it was written out immediately without question – a first-class return ticket from Lincoln to Kings Cross. (In those days, squadron leaders and above were entitled to first class rail travel.) A Service car was laid on to take me to the railway station but they suggested I took a taxi for my return trip from the station to Scampton and add the cost to my subsequent expenses claim.
The Press Office staff, mostly civilians, greeted me politely but told me that Red Arrows PR was nothing to do with them – unless, or until, something newsworthy appeared in newspapers or on radio or TV. They reacted to events when they had to; they rarely publicised anything in advance in case it went wrong; they rarely told success stories afterwards since by then it was old news. As far as ‘Head Office’ was concerned, no news was good news. In any case, the Red Arrows were a purely RAF responsibility, they told me.
Next I made a courtesy call to the Director Public Relations (RAF), a serving air commodore whom I knew well from my earlier service. He told me, wistfully, when we met in his ground floor office in MoD Main Building, “No-one tells me anything about anything. I have no power. I simply wait here for the summons to the 6th Floor when something goes wrong and then I hope the lift is working; it usually isn’t. At least this job keeps me quite fit.” The 6th floor was where the Defence Secretary and the top military commanders had their offices.
It was already clear to me that, even 25 years after their first performance, the Team did not have a policy about public relations. PR was something that happened at major air displays during the summer when the Red Arrows and their aircraft were operating from the same airfield as the display; on those occasions, PR consisted of one or two red-suited pilots chatting to punters and autographing their programmes and gizzits, but little else. The Team Manager, Red 10, was the obvious man to deal with the media at public displays where the Team did not land, because he was the red-suited Commentator and safety man and, therefore, had to be present at every display.
So, after a frustrating first couple of weeks, I made my own rules without consulting or informing anyone! I visited all my local newspapers and regional radio and TV stations as far afield as Nottingham, Sheffield, Leeds and Hull to introduce myself in person. I was welcomed and given tours of newsrooms and studios wherever I went. It was patently obvious from many comments I received that there had never been any PR contact between the media and any part of RAF Scampton – except when, in the months before my arrival, there had been two serious flying accidents involving the Red Arrows and even then reporters had to prise information out of anyone they found willing to talk. I could not use a service car because, I was told, “There’s no budget for that sort of thing”, so I used my own car for all my visits. I submitted my monthly mileage claims direct to the appropriate Civil Service department in Gloucester – and they were always paid promptly and without question. What a good job I am honest!