As we once again approach Display Season, it’s a reminder that unfortunately the Red Arrows had a crash a bit ago, with one of the pilots ejecting and suffering a dislocated shoulder.
Many of you may not know that the Red Arrows are just the latest in a series of RAF aerobatic teams. One of the more famous was Treble One’s aerobatic team The Black Arrows, who famously looped 22 Hunter aircraft in close formation, (a record that still stands today?).
Back in the 80’s when I was on Treble One Fighter Squadron, it was decided to reform the Black Arrows for the RAF Leuchars ‘Battle of Britain’ Open Day. As opposed to the light and nimble Hunter or Hawk aircraft, we were going to fly in the Phantom, which is basically a big ugly fighter aircraft, not known for its agility. The formation was going to consist of 5 aircraft and quite sensibly, rather than loops and rolls, was going to fly in a series of formations including, as befitting a Scottish based Squadron, St Andrew’s Cross.
It was all very exciting. We had to provide personal profiles for the official Open Day Programme, had our photos taken and eventually me and my pilot officially became Black 5. Come the day of the first practice, we were briefed on the things we were going to do and it looked like a good plan. We knew it was a good plan, as the Air Officer Commanding 11 Group had approved it.
We duly took off and flew out to our pre-booked exclusion zone over the North Sea. We did a few warm-up exercises, just to get into the swing of it and then the call came to close up for St Andrew’s Cross. All was looking good as we flew straight and level, but as we started our banked turn to port, it all started to go wrong and time went into slow-motion.
The front right aircraft started to slip back; so far that it started to scrape on the nose-cone of the middle aircraft, creating some spectacular sparks. (I began to suspect that things were not going well). It slipped back some more, until the stabilator became stuck in the air intake of the trailing aircraft. (This was definitely not good news). The front-right aircraft then pitched up violently, basically out-of-control and a second or so later the pilot ejected, so close I swear it warmed up our cockpit, leaving an un-manned (well the navigator was still in it at this point), uncontrolled Phantom now barrel-rolling over the formation.
Our break-out manoeuvre as the back-left aircraft was to roll to port. I reckoned this would have put us in collision with the other jet, so was not really a good move any more. After a couple of expletives I shouted “Bunt”, which means push the control column as far forward as is humanly possible. My pilot duly obliged and as we hung in our straps with the blood rushing to our eyeballs, I watched the un-manned jet just miss our tail and a couple of seconds later, the navigator ejected. We eventually all got back to Leuchars, though strangely, we were not allowed to fly at the airshow.
I’ll blog again about the immediate aftermath and other stories, which was total chaos, but here’s a quick snippet. At the subsequent Board of Inquiry, I was giving my eveidence and describing the events from my perspective. “First the plane slipped back and then there were sparks and then it slipped back some more”. “STOP !!” shouted the Inquiry’s scribe. All heads turned. “He’s just used 2 ‘ands’ in a sentence”. Respect to the Chairman, who calmly stated “He’s a Flying Officer, if he didn’t use 2 ‘ands’, I’d be sorely disappointed”.
So what lessons have I learnt?
Sometimes High Performing Teams get it wrong (Red Arrows), but it doesn’t mean they’re suddenly rubbish.
Sometimes it looks like a good plan (Black Arrows), but in fact it’s rubbish and will fail no matter how good the teams involved.
Inquiries can sometimes focus on trivia and miss the big points.
But despite my sympathy. I can’t let the Red Arrows of the hook. The Navigator’s Union (Unofficial Backseat Drinking Club), always used to refer to the Reds as the ‘Cream of the Air Force’.
The cream as everyone knows, is thick and full of clots.
Have a Great Weekend.