Then we learned of another plot. The Red Arrows would, according to this new plot, move to Marham after all, as originally planned, but all the training flying would take place at Sculthorpe, a Norfolk base with a very long runway that had been used by the US Air Force for many years but was now inactive. We were not officially told of the new plot but the gist of it simply ‘emerged’. I called around all my RAF sources, official and unofficial, but no-one I asked could remember where the story originated – but they had all heard it! I had to assure sceptics on the Team, that I had nothing to do with the story!
The suggestion was that the Red Arrows would take off from Marham for the first slot in the morning, practice overhead the airfield at Sculthorpe and then land there. In the meantime, the ground crew would leave Marham as soon as they had seen off the Red Arrows, travel to Sculthorpe by road, aiming to be there in time for the Red Arrows when they landed about 35 minutes later. There was a major flaw to that plot that we at the Red Arrows could see immediately but no one outside the Red Arrows had apparently thought of it. The problem was that the distance between Marham and Sculthorpe as the Hawk flies is 15 nautical miles, about 3 minutes flying time, but the distance by road, narrow twisting Norfolk roads, is about 27 miles and would take very nearly an hour. Furthermore, no thought had been given to the provision of crash, fire and medical emergency teams at Sculthorpe during Red Arrows practices.
One day during all those machinations about the closure of RAF Scampton, I received a fax from a senior civil servant at MoD. The official told me that she was drafting an answer to a PQ (Parliamentary Question). The question was a common one: "How much does it cost to run the Red Arrows?" The PQ, addressed to the Minister for the Armed Forces, had come from a member of the public. Normally questions to Min AF didn't come my way: they were, as they say, well above my pay grade. The civil servant told me that she had been advised by "someone in the RAF" to ask me the question; that suggested to me that the "someone" either had great confidence in me or was merely passing the buck. However, an answer was required very quickly and, since the whole of the Red Arrows were on block leave at the time, I had to dream up a response pronto.
In my six years in the job up to that point I had been asked that same question by the media and members of the public countless times and the MoD had, from time to time, come up with widely different answers. The range of quotes, which I always kept handy on a file on my computer, ranged from a high of £34 million (in 1991) to a low of £9 million, a sum quoted in the House by the then Minister at the time of the original MoD ‘Options for Change’ announcement in 1990. There are two problems with answering such questions as that. Problem 1: you have to know which costs should be included in the calculations and which should not. Problem 2: you have to know why the question was asked and by whom.
The figure of £2.8 million, which the lady who had written to MinAF claimed to have seen attributed to an MoD person, was so much lower than all previous so-called authoritative figures that it really was not credible. The high quote of £34 million in 1994 was possibly arrived at by someone, or some faction, that wanted to see the Red Arrows disbanded. I faxed back to the civil servant as follows; I have slightly redacted my original text but not the facts therein.
"Quoting that figure of £2.8 million claimed by (name deleted) would surely lead to further questions if Min AF's reply got into the public domain because certain sections of the media are always looking for quotes about the cost of running the Red Arrows. Look at it this way. There are approximately 80 people on the Team, pilots and groundcrew. Using a very conservative average of £25,000 per annum each for their salaries and associated costs, that already accounts for £2 million of the £2.8 million. For what it is worth, and I offer this purely for your interest, when I am asked 'How much do the Red Arrows cost?' by a member of the public, as I frequently am, I reply that a better question to ask would be 'How much would be saved by disbanding the Red Arrows?'
“The RAF already have the aircraft, the pilots and the ground crew. If the Team were to be disbanded, the pilots and ground crew would not be dismissed; they would, almost certainly, be deployed on other duties and so there would be no saving there. The RAF already own the aircraft, they are already quite old and there is no other operational use to which they could be put. Therefore, the only substantial sum that would be saved by disbanding the Red Arrows would be the cost of the fuel they use. Usually my questioners accept this argument and, before you ask, I have no idea how much the fuel the Team uses each year costs. I leave you to put my words into Ministerial language!"
At about that time, I had what amounted to an heretical thought, which fortunately I kept strictly to myself. Had a decision to disband the Red Arrows been taken in the early 1990s when all defence costs were being scrutinised under 'Options for Change', I think the MoD might have got away with it – and I would have failed in the task given to me before I accepted the job of Red Arrows PRO. However, so much publicity about the Red Arrows was generated once the announcement that Scampton was to close had been made that it was then too late to tell the great British public that the Red Arrows would also be disbanded – however much they cost. There would have been an outcry – and not only in the UK.
There was an official announcement from MoD on 26 August 1995. The Red Arrows were to be based temporarily at the RAF College Cranwell for up to two years while the MoD searched for a permanent home for the Team. That curiously worded MoD release included the following, which I reproduce unedited:
"The team will not, however, be able to practise over Cranwell. Instead, they will be accompanied by fire engines and ground controllers to their old base of RAF Scampton, Lincolnshire, which closes next month, to practise their precision aerobatic routines. The team, which needs a six-mile wide, cone-shaped area free of all other aircraft in which to fly, were originally planned to move to RAF Marham in Norfolk, but other squadrons complained of a possible clash with training. After the transfer, a daily convoy of fire engines, emergency trucks and ground controllers will leave RAF Cranwell to drive the 25 miles to the deserted base at Scampton and stand by in case of problems. They will then drive back to Cranwell where the Hawks of the Red Arrows will land, and the crews return to their quarters."
Clearly that statement had been written by someone who had little idea about Red Arrows operations. Later that same day, another MoD press release added this:
"The aerodrome and buildings at Scampton won't be disposed of until 1998. Most of the family quarters will be retained by the RAF for people working at Cranwell and Waddington. The Arrows can only do their intricate manoeuvres over RAF premises in the interests of safety. Keeping the Scampton runway open as a standby will cost an extra £1.6 million a year."