Royal Air Force Red Arrows – flying the flag for Britain

27 Nov 13. Renowned at home and abroad for the fantastic role they play as ambassadors for Britain not to mention being loved by audiences across the globe for the spectacular aerobatic displays they provide the Royal Air Force Aerobatic Team (RAFAT) which is better known as team ‘Red Arrows’ are now into the second half of a five-week tour of the Middle East. Taking in countries that they will either display or visit such as Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Oman, Qatar, Jordan and Kuwait this long and very important tour of the Middle East region will mark the end of what has by any standards imaginable been a quite spectacular and very successful 49th display season for the ‘Red Arrows’.

Everyone knows the ‘Red Arrows’ and I venture to suggest that the Red Arrow, along with the bright yellow ‘Search and Rescue’ Sea King Helicopters, are the best known assets that the Royal Air Force has in the public’s consciousness. No matter where they appear, whether at domestic air shows through the summer months or abroad, the bright red BAE Hawk T1 aircraft enthrall, captivate and inspire audiences as they loop, swirl and whizz through the skies.

The ‘Red Arrows’ do a great deal more though than just captivate audiences and demonstrate the sheer excellence of disciplined formation aerobatic flying that are, quite rightly, to be considered as the best flying display in the world. Through the fantastic work they do at international air show events and goodwill visits the ‘Red Arrows’ also play a vital role promoting not only professional excellence that is at the centre of everything that the Royal Air Force does, but in defence diplomacy too. Indeed, the role and contribution that the ‘Red Arrows’ play in defence diplomacy, in projecting what Britain is today, of what it stands for in a world still dominated by geo-politics and of what it wants to be cannot be underestimated.

The importance and role that the ‘Red Arrows’ play in the defence diplomatic role when displaying overseas in support of British foreign policy and trade objectives may not always be easy to see but it has never been lost on Government or industry. Whilst it is true that having a Royal Navy ship alongside at a foreign port playing its role in hosting trade and other foreign policy related events is always of significant importance having the ‘Red Arrows’ displaying overhead to a VIP audience is something that foreign nations hosting the British military love to see.

The ‘Red Arrows’ are, in my view, to be considered as nothing short of a winner for Britain. In the less well understood role that they play in defence diplomacy they are an increasingly vital part of how the rest of the world will view Britain -a priceless asset – and one whose value to the nation is incalculable.

For British industry, and also for the Government particularly within the role this plays within international defence trade agreements made with other governments, the ‘Red Arrows’ may be regarded as being more important to the nation today than ever before. During the current Middle East tour many thousands of people will have watched the spectacular displays by the Red Arrows team. They will no doubt have been thrilled at the various precision formations undertaken, by the dynamic loops and the countless number of rolls.

RAFAT have been thrilling crowds, at home and overseas, ever since 1964 and next year there will be many celebrations to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the team’s creation. Yes, it is true that there has been the occasional sad incident over the years and that sometimes has been less than easy to explain but this team survives by its hard work, dedication, professionalism and the discipline of working together as a team.

At the Dubai Air Show earlier this month – and which I might add at this point was visited just ahead of the show opening by Prime Minister David Cameron and later by the UK Minster of Defence Equipment, Support and Technology, Philip Dunne plus Chief of the Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal Andrew Pulford – the Red Arrows performed on each and every day of the show. Next week they will be displaying at the Al Ain Air Show in the United Arab Emirates and the tour has also been used to as an opportunity for the team to visit many other States with a region that the UK regards as highly important and in which we as a nation have established many strong defence and trade links.

While the current Middle East tour by the ‘Red Arrows’ will undoubtedly have raised the awareness of British equipment, capability and helped to re-emphasise our foreign policy objectives, our important defence diplomacy role in conflict prevention and resolution it will also act to highlight Royal Air Force agility, adaptability and capability. British interests in the Gulf region continue to grow and the role that the ‘Red Arrows’ play in the building of trust cannot be underestimated.

As the primary air power ambassadors for the UK internationally and having flown more than 4.500 displays in 54 countries the ‘Red Arrows’ are to be considered a showcase for the excellence of the Royal Air Force. I have had the pleasure of knowing several members of the current team and at the Farnborough Air Show in 2012 I presented them to His Royal Highness Prince Michael of Kent including some of the one-hundred plus engineering, safety, support and administration team without whose hard support work and dedication the aircraft could not fly. Team manager, Squadron Leader Ruth Shackleton is to be commended for the extremely hard work which she and her team put in to ensure that an arduous and long tour such as this goes without a hitch.

For those who might wish to know more about how the ‘Red Arrows’ work and the nine display pilots who will have previously flown the Panavia Tornado GR4 multi-role aircraft, and most probably Typhoon as well, there is ample information available on the web. But for those who might wish to better understand how the superb BAE Systems built Hawk jets are able to undertake such seemingly impossibly close synchronised formation flying within an aerobatic display and with such breathtaking ease I can only but recommend they acquire a copy of Jamie Hunter’s ‘Red Arrows’.

Like all things in life we should not take the ‘Red Arrows for granted. Important as they are to all the areas of activity that I have mentioned there are those that fail to understand the real economic and political value that the ‘Red Arrows’ bring to Britain. While there is still plenty of life left in the Hawk T1 at some point in the future the aircraft will need to be replaced. We must ensure that whatever process is eventually chosen by Government takes full account of the value that the ‘Red Arrows’ bring to the nation. Force projection comes in many forms of course but in helping to project vital foreign and trade policy objectives to a wide international audience the ‘Red Arrows’ are not only unsurpassed they are to be regarded as vital to our economic and national interests.

Howard Wheeldon, FRAeS
Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd.
M: 07710 779785

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