I took this pic of the Graduation Flypast at the RAF College on 23 July 1998 while hosting a television crew
Rather to my surprise I had no calls over the weekend. I rang John Turner first thing on Monday morning and he, too, had had an uninterrupted weekend. CFS Commandant, who had just returned from a business visit to South Africa, was in conference with the Team Leader. The Team Manager called into my office to tell me that he had put on hold all the 1998 publicity material. A whole week passed and although many rumours had started to circulate all around Cranwell, there was no official news. We were all a bit mystified that there had been no leaks to the media. I suspect that some of the pilots and ground crew thought that I was failing in my duties for not ensuring that the story had hit the headlines. Perhaps the MoD were disappointed by the lack of leaks? Or was I being too cynical?
On Wednesday 18 March I had a long conversation with Tom Rounds, the RAF spokesman in Defence Press Office in London. He was preparing a brief for the Minister for the Armed Forces about the 'nine to seven' decision. Tom thought that the decision made by the Air Force Board would be rubber-stamped by the Minister but he wanted my views on likely media reaction and how we should handle the inevitable media questions. I said that a form of words had to be found to indicate that the RAF needed the Hawks for pilot training and that we could not justify the use of 13 Hawks by the Red Arrows while the advanced flying training school at Valley was desperately short of aircraft for its daily training programme. It was up to MoD spokesmen to explain why we had got ourselves into that parlous state.
I also told Tom that whatever we PROs said, the aviation press at home and overseas would have a field day about the world's premier aerobatic team being reduced to second-class status. I said that our own local and regional media would certainly give a lot of coverage to the story and that might encourage the national media to follow up the story. National broadsheets would certainly report the news but probably concentrate on the shortage of training aircraft without dwelling too much on the Red Arrows’ aspects. The attitude of the tabloids was less certain. I thought the red tops would make a big thing about the Red Arrows being reduced in status in the eyes of the world. The story could run for weeks - well into the display season. I think I worried him - and that was my honest intention!
The very next day Simon told me that the Minister had reprieved the nine for at least a year. I wondered if my advice offered to Tom Rounds had had something to do with that decision. I didn't have to wonder for long because Tom telephoned me again that afternoon. He wanted to tell me himself the news that the Minister for the Armed Forces had been persuaded by the arguments I had put, and that it was the Minister who had rescinded the order reducing the Team to seven aircraft. Success for PR!
A couple of days later a copy of a letter that had been sent from the Minister’s office to the Air Force Board was widely circulated around Cranwell (and eventually many other RAF stations). The gist of the letter was that that the Minister could not agree to the decision to reduce the Red Arrows from nine to seven and that he felt sure there was another solution to the problem of the shortage of aircraft at the flying school at Valley. The minute was unclassified but such documents were not normally circulated at station and squadron level for everyone to read - but read it they did! It was an astonishing, and probably unprecedented, thing to happen. Who had authorised that leak? It had to have been someone in the Minister's office or in the Air Force Board secretariat; it was most certainly not I!
Another edict from our own Command HQ, handed down at the same time as the nine-ship reprieve, was that with immediate effect the Red Arrows must fly a crowd-front show and that seemed to me to be both vindictive and revengeful. As I saw it, the two most likely media questions that I would now have to answer would be: why have the Red Arrows fallen into line with most of Europe after holding out for nine years, and, why had it been left almost to the end of the new season's training to implement the changes?
Afterthought in 2017. The plan to reduce the Red Arrows from nine aircraft to seven was an excellent example of what I have always called the ‘Law of Unforeseen Consequences’. One hasty change to a hastily-formed plan almost always results in chaos. It is currently happening almost every day in the 2017 Government with decisions and counter-decisions about Brexit and almost every other manifesto plan.
The order to fly a crowd front show with immediate effect and at such a late stage of the winter training posed serious problems for the Team Leader. The winter training season was virtually over, the first nine-ship formations had been flown, and all that was needed was a few weeks in Cyprus to polish the routine. It was not a simple matter to delete those manoeuvres where aircraft flew over or towards the crowd because every show routine is an intricate sequence of manoeuvres designed to flow smoothly from one to another in both time and space. If the Team could no longer arrive from crowd rear, it would have to arrive from crowd left or right and that would mean changing the sequence and timing of all the subsequent manoeuvres. The second half of the show would need the most changes: all the Synchro Pair manoeuvres would have to be re-planned and re-timed - and if the Vixen Break could not be flown, some other manoeuvre would have to replace it. It other words, it would be necessary to design a new show from scratch and that, in turn, would mean reverting to practising with small groups of aircraft before gradually building up once again to nine-ship formations. The past three months of winter training were largely nugatory and it would be several weeks before the Team flew a nine-ship again. Could all that be achieved in time for the Commander-in-Chief to award Public Display Authority in early May or would the start of the season have to be delayed.
There could be no arguing with the crowd front order and on the day he received it Simon was sorely tempted to cancel that afternoon’s Out-of-Season Practice at Kirton Lindsey, an Army base about 10 miles north of Scampton on a former RAF grass airfield. I persuaded him to fly at least part of the show because I knew there would be a large crowd of army families and local school children to watch what had become an annual pre-season free event.
It was only a matter of two or three days before official requests came in for displays in France and the Netherlands so the news had reached the international stage very quickly from one source or another. The locals around Cranwell and Scampton, however, didn't notice the crowd front changes as quickly as they would have noticed a reduction to seven aircraft and that gave me a few days grace before I had to answer questions. Once again it was BBC Radio Lincolnshire and the Lincolnshire Echo that heard about the changes first, but neither organisation would tell me what their source was.