Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, the Central Flying School (CFS) of the Royal Air Force (RAF) used a succession of training aircraft to demonstrate formation aerobatics at RAF flying pageants. This was recognised as a most spectacular way to capture the imagination of potential new recruits. In 1947, the first RAF jet formation team of three de Havilland Vampies was formed and marked the age of the jet in aerobatic teams.
Various aerobatic teams were formed by operational RAF squadrons in the following years, including the Black Knights of 54 Sqn, the Black Arrows of 111 Sqn, the Blue Diamonds of 92 Sqn and the Firebirds of 56 Sqn. In 1958, CFS formed a team with the Jet Provost aircraft, initially known as the Pelicans and subsequently as the Red Pelicans. Due to the unspectacular nature of the Jet Provost aircraft when compared against jets such as the Hunters and Lightnings, instructors at No. 4 Flying Training Unit formed a team with the Folland Gnat jet in 1964, known as the Yellowjacks.
This team was so successful that in 1964, the RAF decided to amalgamate its various display teams into a single premier unit – The Red Arrows. The name was taken from the Black Arrows team, and the red colour scheme was a tribute to the Red Pelicans. The Red Arrows flew the Gnat aircraft which had been used by the Yellowjackets. From then on, the Red Arrows were to become the official Royal Air Force Aerobatic Team (RAFAT).
The Red Arrows flew their first display to the press at RAF Little Rissington on 6 May, 1965, but its first public display was in Clermont-Ferrand, France on 9 May at a National Air Day display. Their first display in the UK would be on 15 May at the Biggin Hill International Air Fair. Initially based at RAF Fairford, the Red Arrows was established as a standard RAF Squadron in 1969, based at RAF Kemble.
After 15 years and 1292 performances in 18 different countries, the Red Arrows’ Gnat aircraft were replaced by the British Aerospace Hawk at the end of the 1979 season. The Hawk had become the RAF’s standard advanced jet trainer, and the Red Arrows accomodated the change as a flagship for the modern RAF. In 1983, the team moved to RAF Scampton, but had to relocate to RAF College Cranwell when Scampton was closed in 1995. In 2001, Scampton was reactivated again, and the Red Arrows have been based there since.
The team currently flies nine Hawk T.Mk.1 aircraft powered by the Rolls-Royce Turbomeca Adour twin-shaft turbofan engine. The aircraft is essentially the same as that used by the RAF for Advanced Flying Training, with the exception of smoke generation modifications and a slightly uprated engine for a faster response time.
A modified Aden cannon pod containing the oil and dye tanks is mounted under the fuselage on the centreline. This allows each aircraft to create five minutes of white smoke, and one minute each of red and blue smoke during a display. Over the years, the Red Arrows have created signature formations, and some of their famous ones include the Big Battle, Mange, Feathered Arrow, Concorde, Typhoon and Flanker.
During their displays, the team is supported by the Blues, which are the engineering technicians and support staff. RAF C-130 Hercules aircraft provide the airlift support to ferry the Blues and spare parts. Ten aircraft engineers are also chosen to form a team known as the Circus. Circus engineers are allocated a specific pilot for the entire season, and fly in the passenger seat and service the aircraft before and after each display. Pilots stay with the team for a three-year tour of duty, and usually go back to their frontline squadrons after their tour.
In 2014, the Red Arrows celebrated its 50th display season, and by the end of the 2015 season, they had flown 4725 displays in 56 countries worldwide. For their flypast in Singapore, this will be the fourth visit by the team with past appearances in 1986, 1996 and 2003. On 13 Oct, the famed Red Arrows Diamond Nine formation will once again grace the skies here.
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Red Arrows performance at LIMA 1995, Langkawi, Malaysia (Source: Gary Ng)