The BAe 125, the 10 Hawks, and the Hercules eventually took off almost two hours late. The first leg was to the Swedish Air Force base at Uppsala, not far north of Stockholm, home of a Viggen Squadron, good friends of the Red Arrows. The BAe 125 and Hawks maintained loose formation at 31,000 feet and the flight was uneventful. The Hawks broke away at the latter stages of the approach to the airfield to do a typical break and landing while our aircraft made a more sedate approach suitable for VIPs.
Above: That's renowned aviation photographer Arthur Gibson and Roger Matthews the Reds' Doctor chatting in 3 Squadron HQ at Uppsala.
Apart from the pilots of No 3 Squadron, the British Defence Attaché, Group Captain Page, was on hand to greet and assist. The Swedes were fascinated that we were about to fly across the border into the Soviet Union. Air Commodore Latton told Mick George to get on the telephone straight away to the Soviet air traffic controllers in Leningrad to discuss arrival procedures. The Swedes looked at each other with raised eyebrows and Group Captain Page blanched. The Soviet border was only just across the Baltic Sea from Sweden, but it might as well have been at the other side of the world as far as telephones were concerned. It would probably have been easier to use the Prime Minister's hot line in Downing Street! Mick and the Air Attaché did their best but failed to make any contact with the Soviets. The Swedes looked at us with a "We told you so" sort of expression on their faces. There was nothing more we could do except take-off on the revised schedule and rely on radio communications once we were airborne.
Over lunch, the Commandant and Tim Miller managed somehow to persuade Doc Matthews, probably against his better judgement, that Martin Cliff was fit enough to fly his own aircraft on to Leningrad. It was important from a PR point of view for all nine Red Arrows to arrive together and it would have been embarrassing to explain why one of the display pilots was travelling in a transport aircraft. As soon as lunch was finished it was time to say farewell to the friendly Swedes and board our aircraft for the leg to Pulkova Airport, Leningrad. Tension and excitement had been steadily mounting for some time. We got to the take-off point and requested take-off clearance. We were held on the end of the runway at Uppsala for 25 nail-biting minutes, fuel reserves depleting, temperatures and tempers rising, before the Swedes somehow managed to obtain ATC clearance for us to proceed. Had there been just another couple of minutes delay the Hawks would have had to taxi back to the flight line to take on more fuel.
As it was, the departure was uneventful. The formation passed through several thick layers of cloud causing the Hawk pilots to work hard to avoid getting separated from the rest of the formation before we all levelled off at 31,000 feet in brilliantly clear skies. At 6pm Leningrad time, still only 3pm at Scampton, the Soviet border was very close and all the aircraft in the formation were sticking close together.
"Hope the IFF is working properly," muttered one of our passengers, referring to the Identification Friend or Foe radio transponder equipment that identifies aircraft to ground controllers. We giggled nervously at his little joke.
Penetration of the Iron Curtain, when we reached it, was an anti-climax. We had half expected a Soviet fighter escort to be waiting for us, but none was forthcoming. The Soviet air traffic controllers seemed to be expecting us; they understood English quite well as long as they were not asked anything complicated. From then on the pilots had to get used to measuring heights in metres instead of feet. The Leningrad weather was given as more than 10 kms visibility, cloud base 1,200 metres, runway in use 28 Left, runway surface dry, but thunderstorms threatened.
The formation had planned to fly a continuous descent from high level right down to airfield height but, frustratingly, ATC clearance was granted in steps so that, with only 24 nautical miles to run, the formation was still at 9,000 feet altitude and just skimming the tops of the cloud. Then, suddenly, the clouds evaporated, and all was clear below with no sign of the promised thunderstorms. The Hawks requested permission to pull ahead of the BAe 125 at this stage of the approach so that they could proceed independently for a run and break. I think the controllers never really did understand that request, but the Reds did it anyway, leaving dense trails of patriotic red, white and blue smoke all over the airfield. The Red Arrows had arrived!
The BAe 125 made a more sedate approach and, after landing a few minutes behind the Red Arrows, quickly caught up with them on the taxiway. All eleven aircraft then proceeded at a stately pace through the extremely crowded civil airport to a military dispersal several miles away where the Air Attaché, Air Commodore John Cheshire, and the Assistant Air Attaché, Squadron Leader John Elliott, another old friend of mine from Victor tanker days at Marham, were waiting to greet us.
The first thing that struck all of us was how friendly the Russians were. Their faces were beaming, and they were anxious to shake hands and to try out their few words of English. Fuel bowsers were instantly available for refuelling the aircraft, something that often does not happen at UK airfields. Customs and immigration officials were on hand to dole out reams of paper and even they were able to smile. Apparently handing out the forms was more important than collecting them in or reading what we had written on them. It was then that it dawned on us that we were being treated like VIPs, not like tourists or possible enemies.
The Red Arrows ground crew, who had travelled as usual in the back seat of the Hawks, set about the Hawks after-flight servicings while the pilots and other support personnel soaked up the atmosphere and signed autographs whilst posing for photographs. Eventually we were invited to board a fleet of military coaches which took us to the airport terminal at the far side of the airfield. There we met up with Air Vice-Marshal Mike Pilkington, who had travelled ahead of us in the 32 Squadron VIP Andover together with the few members of the British media and a PR team from British Aerospace. It was the first I knew about the British Aerospace team; no-one had bothered to tell me they would be there. I learned later that the British Aerospace contingent were tagging along for purely commercial reasons; I never met any of them and I never saw any of their PR output when I returned to UK.
"Hello, Mike," I said, without thinking, as the air vice-marshal and I greeted each other warmly on our first meeting in 25 years. "Long time, no see."
"You can’t call the AOC Mike," said one of the Reds, aghast at my breach of protocol.
"Oh yes he can," said the AOC with a grin.