Singapore, a meeting with a Chinese delegation, and home to Cranwell - Tony Cunnane's Autobiography

A Yorkshire Aviator's Autobiography
Tony Cunnane
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Singapore, a meeting with a Chinese delegation, and home to Cranwell

After an all too short visit to the Philippines, it was off to Singapore. The Red Arrows appearances in Singapore caused a few problems. For a start the flying displays were very much secondary to the exhibitions in the main hall, quite unusual for an international show but imposed upon the organisers by the geography of the site. The airspace set aside for flying was over the sea front but perilously close to the Singapore International Airport at Changi. Viewing of the flying from the designated area in front of the exhibition halls was seriously hampered by an avenue of tall trees and had the Red Arrows and other display aircraft operated to their normal base heights many of the manoeuvres would have been hidden from the spectators. The display organising committee insisted that there should be no over-flight of the crowd at all and this meant that the Red Arrows would have to alter some of their manoeuvres, not least the standard crowd rear arrival which would have had them arriving over SIA's main runway at right angles.

By this time the 1995 Team (because it was, still, the 1995 Team,) had already flown 140 public displays using exactly the same choreography that had been approved by the Commander-in-Chief on Red Suit Day back in April 1995. Last minute changes to the approved display routine carry with them potential flight safety risks. Even flying to higher base heights has it problems because the Team Leader and the Synchro Pair have got used to the view they get at the lower height limit and there is a completely different perspective at other heights. To compound the problems, the organisers wanted the Red Arrows to occupy the stage for no longer than 15 minutes, a reduction of about 6 minutes on the standard show.

It is true to say that the pilots were extremely angry that these limitations and restrictions only came to light a few days before the first scheduled show. The show organising committee had been told well in advance, as are all Display Organisers, of the Team’s mandatory display parameters but they apparently decided to insist on the Singapore rules when the Red Arrows were already on the island. One can only surmise why they took that course of action. As the Red Arrows end of season report stated: "The whole episode highlighted the potential conflictions when a sponsored team performs on an international stage, and flight safety dictates that future sponsored appearances must be conditional upon an early acceptance by the display organisers of the Team’s modus operandi and in the absence of this, a clear option to withdraw, regardless of sponsorship interests."

An uneasy compromise was reached on this occasion because it was unthinkable that the Red Arrows should withdraw at such a late stage. To have done so would have caused a considerable loss of face for the organisers, embarrassment for the British companies sponsoring the Red Arrows, and huge disappointment for the thousands of spectators who wanted to see the Red Arrows. It is, perhaps, significant that the Red Arrows have never appeared at the Singapore air shows again, as far as I am aware.

I had one especially interesting encounter at Changi - with an official Chinese government delegation. A Chinese lady approached me and asked in beautiful English if I would go with her to speak to her Principal about the possibility of a Red Arrows display in China. She had come to me because she had seen the Red Arrows name badge on my flying suit. I followed her to a large exhibitor's tent for the Zhuhai Free Trade Zone in the People's Republic of China. "Ah", I thought to myself, "this could be interesting!"

I was introduced to a distinguished looking chap, who was surrounded by a clutch of dark-suited men. He told me that he was authorised to investigate the possibility of engaging the services of the Red Arrows for the Zhuhai 1998 Show in the Guangdong province of the PRC. I had never heard of Zhuhai but, of course, I did not say so. A minion (probably one of their PROs), handed me a handsome glossy brochure that explained everything in Chinese and English. It turned out that Zhuhai was an international airport fairly close to both Hong Kong (still British at that time) and Macau (then still a Portuguese settlement). Amongst a whole raft of questions, he wanted to know how much it would cost to hire the Team.

After a short chat and refreshments, I explained that I was only the public relations officer. I invited him to ask his principals to put in a formal request to the UK Ministry of Defence through, I suggested, diplomatic channels, so that the request could be dealt with quickly at the appropriate high level. I then went off to find Air Commodore Bostock who was with the Red Arrows pilots carrying out a pre-planned event on the British Aerospace display stand. I told the air commodore about my Chinese encounter. Initially he was a bit peeved with me for dealing with the PRC but he calmed down when I told him how the meeting had come about and how I had not made any commitments.

The overall statistics for the 1995 season and for the two overseas tours were impressive. The Team passed through 16 countries in four continents, Europe, Africa, Asia and Australasia, and the tally of countries in which the Team has displayed increased to exactly 50, with the first-ever displays in Qatar, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Australia and the Philippines. In all, each pilot travelled about 52,000 miles, the equivalent of twice around the Equator.

Postscript: A display in China did eventually take place in November 2016. Visit the Red Arrows Home Page here.

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