Will the Red Arrows behind the crowd manoeuvres stíll continue? - Tony Cunnane's Autobiography

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Will the Red Arrows behind the crowd manoeuvres stíll continue?

Almost from day one back in 1965, the Red Arrows had started their show by arriving directly overhead the crowd from behind. This so-called ‘crowd rear’ arrival was spectacular and it always surprised a large percentage of the crowd - those out of earshot of the public address system and those who had never seen the Red Arrows perform before. It also enabled the Team to demonstrate their claim to arrive on time, to the nearest couple of seconds.

There are a few seaside locations where the Team commentator and the expectant crowds are down at sea level while the aircraft approach from inland over cliffs and are invisible until the instant they roar overhead. This invisibility extends to UHF radio waves which will not bend around cliff tops and so the commentator has to rely on an accurate watch to start his opening announcement over the public address system: "Will you please welcome the Royal Air Force Aerobatic Team, the Red Arrows." If all is well, and it usually is, the word "Arrows" will immediately be followed by what is affectionately known as the ‘whoosh’ - the unmistakeable roar of nine British Aerospace Hawk jets passing close overhead. Apart from the traditional crowd rear arrival, there were several other manoeuvres where individual aircraft flew both over and towards the crowd and it was not just the Red Arrows doing it: most of the European display teams had similar manoeuvres.

But all that changed following an appalling accident at the USAF Ramstein base in Germany on 28 August 1988 during a display by the Italian Air Force Team, Frecce Tricolori. Three aircraft collided with each other whilst performing the Pierced Heart, one of their more flamboyant manoeuvres which involved aircraft approaching each other from several different directions. Three of the Frecce’s pilots were amongst the 70 dead and around 400 injured at Ramstein. Sadly the vectors of the crashing aircraft were towards the crowd and that accounted for the large number of fatalities and injuries. The Red Arrows were performing at Leicester and Cowes on that fateful day although they had displayed at Ramstein on 13 occasions between 1973 and 1987. The official Red Arrows end-of-season report for 1988 commented thus on the Ramstein accident:

"This accident immediately caused national and international reverberations about display safety and the future of formation and other display flying. It was of immediate concern to the Team since Farnborough was only a week away and any proposals to forbid the over-flight of spectators would have required such a major change to the display sequence as to preclude any further displays for the season. However, high level negotiations and a validation display in front of the Farnborough Safety Committee allowed the Team to display for that week and the remainder of the season within the United Kingdom without change to the sequence."

More or less immediately after the Ramstein accident the German Government had banned all formation aerobatics, a ban that was still in force on the day I retired. It was difficult to argue with the decision in view of the high number of casualties in Germany. However, some idea of the popularity of air displays in Germany can be obtained from the fact that up until the Ramstein accident the Red Arrows had performed 170 displays in Germany, a number which far exceeded the number of Red Arrows displays in any other single overseas country. The last two occasions the Red Arrows were seen performing in Germany were at Cologne on 21 August 1988 and RAF Wildenrath the day after that. It would have been nice to have had British, American, and French formation teams flying over the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin when the Wall came down and the two halves of that beautiful city merged, but it was not to be.

A further repercussion following the Ramstein accident was that some other European countries banned all over-flight of the crowd by display aircraft, whether singly or in formation. After much sucking of teeth in high places, the Red Arrows were authorised to continue flying certain over-the-crowd manoeuvres, provided the aircraft were in "a stable formation" or were diverging from each other. That decision was justified because of the trust the RAF placed in the skills of the Red Arrows pilots. However, the crowd rear arrival was changed so that the aircraft flew overhead at not below 1,000 feet above the ground. That change was no more than a sop to criticism from some quarters; the arrival was flown with all nine aircraft in a stable position relative to each other and there was no collision risk. Increasing the height by 500 feet made no difference whatsoever to the safety of the manoeuvre.

Above: If you wonder how close the Red Arrows fly to each other, check this out! This pic was taken by EJ van Koningsveld in Akrotiri in 1998. Image copyright EJ van Koningsveld 1998 © and reproduced with his permission.
When the Team was just beginning the work up for the 1998 Season, Squadron Leader Simon Meade, the Team Leader, had told us that it was his intention to introduce a totally ‘crowd front’ show for his third and final Season in 1999. He wanted to do that so the Red Arrows’ show would once again conform to European directives. We knew that Simon had originally wanted to introduce the crowd front show for the 1998 Season but the long and tiring Far East tour at the end of 1997 had put paid to that idea. However, with no major overseas tour planned for 1998, Simon felt confident that he would have sufficient time to produce a crowd front show for his final season. With the new 'crowd front' show, Simon felt certain that the Team would once again be welcome to display in France and the Netherlands.

For the 1998 season, which included the 80th anniversary of the formation of the Royal Air Force on 1 April, someone, I know not who, decided that the vertical fin of all the Red Arrows aircraft should be emblazoned with the legend '1918-1998'. Although this looked fine, apart from the fact that the figure 1s were represented by capital Is for some reason, I thought it was a mistake because every PR picture we took that year was dated and could not be used in subsequent years. If there's one thing display organisers don't like for their brochures, it is obviously out-of- date pictures. One lady visitor to the Squadron shortly after the first aircraft came out of the hangar with the new tail fins was heard to comment, "I never realised the Red Arrows had been going since 1918."

The week beginning 2 March 1998 was a very traumatic week for the Team. It began with great expectations. The first nine-ship formation practice of the 1998 Season was expected to be flown sometime that week, weather permitting. On the Tuesday afternoon just as Simon Meade was about to start the pre-flight briefing for the final seven-aircraft sortie of the day, he was called by the Adjutant, Warrant Officer John Howard, to talk to the Commander-in-Chief on the telephone. That in itself was quite remarkable. It was very rare for the Boss to be summoned during or immediately before a display briefing. Only operational matters relevant to the sortie about to be flown were allowed to interrupt briefings and even very senior officers understood that. The Adjutant had explained to the Commander-in-Chief’s aide that a briefing was in progress but the ADC insisted that the Team Leader should come to the phone immediately.

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