Once my 64th birthday had passed in 1999, I started reminding the Red Arrows' Team Leader and my Civil Service Line Manager that the time was approaching when they ought to start considering my replacement. Not that I anticipated they would have any difficulty in replacing me, I was not that indispensable, but I thought they should be made aware of the various options and have time to consider them. I could have been replaced by another RAF Retired Officer and, had I done nothing to prompt consideration of who my successor should be, I imagine that an RO would have been appointed. I knew of a couple of officers: one still serving but about to become an RO; another already an RO. Both, I believe, were keen on taking over from me.
Above: This is another pic by EJ van Konginsveld in 2000 and reproduced with his permission
Copyright EJ van Konginsveld © 2000
As I described earlier, retired officers like me were administered by a special department at the MoD and the understanding was that ROs nearing final retirement would ensure that their job specifications were written, and if necessary re-written, in such a way that the posts could only be filled by retired officers. A bit of a closed shop really! I had always been clear in my own mind that I would not get involved in such a restrictive practice. It may sound pompous and sanctimonious but, throughout my long RAF career, I had always believed that if job specifications were to be of any value they should be properly drawn up. The right and proper way of going about it was to decide what the job entailed, then write the specification to reflect the requirements and only then decide what manner of person would be best fitted for the job. That was something else that Wing Commander Denys Sutton had taught me back in 1962 when I was his Adjutant on 18 Squadron. As I explained on an earlier page of this volume, that was a principle that had certainly not been applied when I had been appointed as the RAF Scampton Public Relations Officer in 1989.
I may be thought ungrateful, and I occasionally felt rather ungrateful when considering the other options, but I had gradually come around to the view that the best sort of person to be the Red Arrows PRO in the new Millennium, (which of course really started not on 1 January 2000 but on 1 January 2001 as we had been taught at school 50 years earlier - that story is in volume 1), was someone who was professionally qualified in media work.
The fact is that since moving from Scampton to Cranwell and with the advent of a new, more media-savvy regime in the MoD public relations departments, my job had changed out of all recognition and I, even I, found it difficult to accept the changes. Instead of simply getting on with issuing a news release telling the media what I wanted to tell them, as I had done for years, now I first had to define the message that I, on behalf of the Red Arrows, was trying to put across. Was it a "Force for good", or "Aid to the community", or "RAF defending UK interests" or some other esoteric objective?
In my last few months I was now neither a Press nor a Public Relations Officer: I had morphed into a Corporate Communications Officer. Everything we CCOs around the RAF planned to do had to be 'on message' and capable of slotting into a neat pigeon hole in the MoD lexicon. For example, when I invited my local and regional media to come and meet the new pilots, as I had done at the start of every new training season for 10 years, I was supposed to consider what the message was that I was endeavouring to put across. To my simple mind the message was that I was introducing the new pilots to the media and thereby the public - and the media certainly never needed any further inducement to turn up.
In the middle of March 2000, I had a couple of telephone calls from two different reporters at the Mail on Sunday newspaper. An RAF source had apparently told them that the Red Arrows were flying off to Cyprus the next day because they had invented a new corkscrew manoeuvre that was so dangerous that the pilots needed to practice it in secret in Cyprus. I was intrigued. Although there was absolutely no truth in the story, the newspaper was entitled to follow up their information and I was interested to find out the basis for it. I thought at first that the manoeuvre in question was the Corkscrew, which had been around for several years, but it soon became apparent from the reporters' descriptions that their story referred to a new manoeuvre called, provisionally, Mirror Image Barrel Roll. This was a new manoeuvre for the Synchro Pair, whereby they started off from crowd right with Red 6 inverted close over the top of Red 7. The two aircraft then flew a synchronised slow barrel roll which means that Red 6 had negative 'g' applied all the way round. Only experienced pilots can really appreciate the difficulty of flying such a manoeuvre and the pleasure that it can give to the pilots executing it.
The tip-off to the Mail on Sunday could only have come from someone who had been watching the Red Arrows practise overhead Scampton - but that someone didn't know what he, or she, was talking about. I explained to the reporter that the Red Arrows went to Cyprus every year in Spring for final polishing of the new season's display routine and that there was nothing secret about that. "All the manoeuvres require skilled pilots," I told the Mail reporter. "There's nothing dangerous about the Mirror Image Barrel Roll, it just happens to be a new manoeuvre for the next display season - one that your informant has presumably never seen before and doesn't understand."
By this time it was common knowledge amongst the media and the general public, but not officially announced, that the Red Arrows would be leaving Cranwell and returning to Scampton sooner rather than later. All that remained to be decided was the date. Off the record, those within the Red Arrows knew that the move could not take place before the Spring of 2001 because the essential works services needed to renovate Scampton could not be completed any earlier and there were other associated unit moves into and out of Cranwell and other nearby stations that were financially and logistically interdependent.
A few days after talking to the Mail on Sunday, I was told that the latest Minister for the Armed Forces, John Spellar, would be making an informal visit to the RAF College at Cranwell on 29 March 2000. Such a visit was not all that unusual in itself because Ministers and other government officials regularly visited the College. What was a bit unusual was that the Minister had decided to give a press conference at the end of his visit. When a Minister decides to give a formal press conference, rather than front an off-the-cuff Q and A session, it's usually because he, or she, has something important to announce - something which needs a lot of publicity. Since virtually the entire Red Arrows Team, all the pilots and most of the ground crew, would be away in Cyprus on the date of the Minister's visit, it was assumed that his visit was nothing to do with them. It had also been assumed in London, naively in my view, that the media would obediently confine their interest to whatever the main subject of the Minister's visit was and not ask any questions about the Red Arrows. How ill-advised could the advisers be?
Surprise, surprise! The Minister's visit was changed at short notice. Instead of coming to Cranwell, he would instead visit RAF Waddington. Someone at MoD had presumably looked at a map and noticed that Waddington was more or less mid-way between Cranwell and Scampton. Unfortunately, RAF Waddington 'belonged' to RAF Strike Command and the Red Arrows to RAF Personnel and Training Command, so there were complicated protocol matters that had to be resolved. The Station Commander at Waddington found himself in the odd position of hosting a Ministerial visit when everyone knew that the main topic, certainly as far as the media were concerned, would likely be the move of the Red Arrows from Cranwell back to Scampton - and while the entire Red Arrows team and most of their senior supervisors were in Cyprus sunning themselves. Unsurprisingly, I was invited, not ordered, to attend the press conference at RAF Waddington to "help out with hosting the media"! I needed no second invitation: this was an occasion that I was not going to miss.
In the last two or three weeks before the visit, MoD issued several "Not for Release" versions of the Minister's speech. The final one of those final versions was issued by MoD to the media, embargoed until 12 noon on the day of the visit - by which time the Minister would have already delivered his speech. Nothing wrong with that - it fact it was quite a common practice. If nothing else, it ensured that names, appointments and military ranks were correctly spelt.