World tour planning starts - Tony Cunnane's Autobiography

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World tour planning starts

The statement that the Red Arrows would move to Cranwell as a temporary measure had been made, I suspect, by MoD in desperation just four weeks before we set out for the Middle East and South Africa on the first part of the autumn tour. At least we would now have a home to come back to. It was agreed by the MoD department that dealt with Retired Officers that I would move to Cranwell and become Red Arrows PRO. So, after 6 years in post, I eventually got the job that I had applied for back in mid-1989.

As far back as December 1994, when everyone was beginning to come to terms with the impending closure of Scampton, the first hints of an extended overseas tour in the autumn of 1995, perhaps to South Africa, started to filter through to Rumour Control at the Red Arrows' HQ at RAF Scampton. Even though, post-Apartheid, South Africa was now legitimate in the eyes of the world and defence companies in many parts of the world were eyeing up sales prospects, it didn't seem even remotely possible that the Red Arrows could be going there. The tour rumours made a nice change from worries about the Team's future home and everyone started getting out their atlases (you remember the large, paper books - this was long before Google maps!) to work out how the Team might get there and how many intermediate stops might be required. The Hawks, without any air-to-air refuelling capability, would need to land and refuel roughly every 800 miles. The general consensus was that a journey down the western side of Africa wouldn't be possible for political as well as operational considerations, but a transit down through the Middle East and East Africa certainly looked possible and several countries looked particularly inviting.

I had been to South Africa as the guest of British Airways in 1992 when I had flown from London to Johannesburg and Cape Town and back on the flight deck of a Boeing 747-400. I had immediately been captivated by Cape Town and the prospect of a return trip with the Red Arrows was appealing. None of the Red Arrows had been to South Africa and I probably started boring the Team with my stories of how much they would enjoy it if only we could get there. The biggest problem was financial. How could the RAF justify sending 11 Hawks, one support Hercules and about 60 people, 6,000 miles in autumn when that was traditionally the time for saying goodbye to tour-expired pilots, welcoming the new pilots, and generally working up for the next season. Bearing in mind that the Red Arrows were established primarily to give public displays in the UK and those European countries where reciprocal military team visits were possible, it would be difficult to justify the cost of sending the Team to the southern hemisphere unless tangible benefits for either the RAF or what was becoming known as 'UK plc' could be identified.

As the months went by, it began to look more and more likely that the tour was on. The concept was the brain child of the Head of the Defence Export Services Organisation, Charles Masefield. DESO was a department of the MoD that acted as an intermediary, bringing together representatives of British defence-related companies and potential customers overseas. Mr, later Sir Charles, Masefield, reckoned that British companies attending major aviation exhibitions overseas would benefit greatly by having the Red Arrows as their star attraction. British Aerospace, the makers of the Hawk, and Rolls Royce, the supplier of the Hawk's Adour engine, were especially keen on the idea. Displays could be given in those countries where there were suitable international aviation exhibitions already planned, but the timing of those exhibitions meant that the Red Arrows tour would probably have to be split into two quite separate entities: one to Africa and one to the Far East.

By August 1995, the rumours had come to fruition but even then, no-one realised or even thought it really likely, that before the following Spring the Team would have travelled to, and displayed in, Africa, Malaysia, the Philippines, Brunei, Singapore and Australia - and moved their base from Scampton to Cranwell. The first official news of the tour was given out to the media in a News Release, issued by the Defence Press Office just six weeks before the date set for departure. In it the Chief of the Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal Sir Michael Graydon said:

"Since 1965, the Red Arrows have demonstrated a standard of excellence which the public in the UK has come to recognise as the hallmark of the Royal Air Force. Moreover, during their many displays abroad they have been outstanding ambassadors for their Service, for British Industry whose technical capability is epitomised in the Hawk aircraft which they fly, and for the UK. I am thus delighted that they have been chosen to represent the best of British Industry by undertaking this tour."

Charles Masefield cajoled and bullied sixteen defence-related companies to club together in a unique sponsorship deal and around £3 million was raised, or promised, before final flight planning began. The RAF financiers had worked out that £3 million would be sufficient to pay all the Red Arrows' costs over and above their normal European operating costs. There would be no commercial logos painted on the side of the Hawks, on the Team's flying suits, or on ground equipment; the Air Force Board had been quite adamant about that and the Red Arrows were delighted with that decision.

In all the news releases issued by me and my colleagues at Command HQ in Gloucester and in MoD London, we stressed that the tour would not cost the British taxpayer a penny. If we had really wanted to make the most of this, we could probably have proved that the tour would actually save the taxpayer money because we would be out of the country for about four months, with all our expenses being paid for from what we came to call the "Pot of Gold".

The Chief of the Air Staff issued an edict to the RAF's Director of PR that one of the main aims of the tour as far as he was concerned was to get a lot of good PR for the RAF in the UK national media. I attended numerous meetings in London about public relations and how we might achieve publicity for the Team at home. I pointed that it ought to be very easy to get huge publicity in the countries the Team passed through, but it would not be so easy to get the UK media interested. After all, it's not really UK national news if the Red Arrows give a display in Cape Town or Harare: there has to be something extra to attract the attention of the UK media.

It was decided at a fairly early stage that the best way of achieving maximum PR for the RAF and the Red Arrows would be if I were to travel ahead of the Team. That way I could liaise with the sponsoring companies' resident agents in-country and work with them doing publicity interviews and setting up press conferences before the Team's arrival. The big advantage of travelling ahead of the Team, from my parochial point of view, was that I could travel in comfort by civil airlines - and any flights exceeding 5 hours would be in Business Class.

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