Now you see them…
The news that the Red Arrows wouldn’t be flying an aerobatic display at this year’s Farnborough International Airshow set the Twittersphere ablaze, and various aviation forums into meltdown. “What — exactly — is the point of the Royal Air Force aerobatic team,” thundered many an anguished spotter, “if they don’t do aerobatics at the UK’S premier airshow?” As is often the case, however, although this may seem a simple enough question, the answer is much more complicated.
Firstly, although the Reds did display at Farnborough in both 2012 and 2014, they flew a modified programme to ensure it fitted into the ‘Farnborough arena’. Furthermore, although the Breitling Jet Team displayed in 2012, it’s been a long time since any of the other major jet display teams (such as the Frecce Tricolori or Patrouille de France) appeared there.
The bottom line is that, even though this decision is probably partly linked to the Shoreham tragedy, the world has moved on, both philosophically and also physically.
I was born and raised in Camberley, and I can assure you that the area around Farnborough airfield has changed beyond all recognition over the last fifty years, and also that the population density has risen exponentially. Should anything happen, the opportunities for a safe off-airfield arrival are very limited and, by definition, a display by a team of fast jets has an element of danger.
When several aircraft are flying aerobatics in close formation — or approaching each other with a closing speed of around 750mph, there is clearly some risk involved. Indeed, although fast jet accidents are infrequent they do still occur. The Reds have lost two pilots and two Hawks in three separate incidents since 2010 while, in just one week last month, the USAF Thunderbirds, USN Blue Angels, the Russian Knights and the Patrouille de Suisse all lost aircraft. The Hunter disaster — and to a lesser extent the Gnat crash at Carfest — will have focussed the attention of the RAF and CAA in much the same way that the spectre of Ramstein still haunts German airshow organisers. On that terrible day of 28 August 1988, 75 people died when a display by the Frecce Tricolori went horribly wrong. After this tragedy airshows were completely banned in West Germany for several years, and even after the ban was lifted, very strict rules governing air displays remain in force. I remember being at Friedrichshafen for AERO about ten years ago and rapidly becoming disenchanted with what was being passed off as an airshow. Frankly, it was rubbish.
This is no reflection on the display pilots, it’s just that the crowd line was so far displaced from the crowd and the minimum altitude set so high that the entire show was actually a bit of a non-event. Then I sensed a frisson of excitement ripple through the crowd and heard eager murmurings of “Die Luftwaffe F-4?” “Ja, die Luftwaffe F-4!” Well, I thought, this might be worth seeing. I doubt he’ll do a display, but surely any fighter pilot worth his G-suit will at least do a decent run-andbreak, and maybe tap the burners around the corner.
The Phantom appeared in the distance on a very long final, flew a solid airliner-style fully stabilised approach straight down a three-degree glideslope — and landed. Impressive, it wasn’t — but then it really is a very different world these days.
When the DH110 prototype broke up during the 1952 SBAC show, John Derry and Tony Richards — along with 29 spectators — were killed. Flying obviously ceased while a fleet of ambulances attended to the injured, dead and dying but, once the runway was cleared of wreckage, Neville Duke took off in his Hunter and the show continued. He actually dropped a sonic boom over the crowd, and was universally lauded for doing so. That would never happen today; the show would be instantly stopped and almost certainly cancelled.
At Goodwood on 24 June for the Festival of Speed, I greatly enjoyed watching the Red Arrows display with all their grace, precision and power — and then I re-read a statement that I’d received from the team’s PR manager while researching the facts of the matter for this PTT.
Contrary to what you may have heard, the Reds will be flying at Farnborough. The statement confirmed that ‘the Red Arrows will be flying at the Farnborough International Airshow and engaging with both adults and young people on all three days that are open to the general public. However, the high speed and dynamic nature of the traditional Red Arrows’ display is no longer appropriate due to the large amounts of local housing, business areas and major transport links underneath the planned display area. In addition to the Red Arrows’ flypast with the new F-35 Lightning II aircraft on 11 July, further Red Arrows’ flypasts in different formations are now planned for 15, 16 and 17 July. These additional flypasts, together with more exciting opportunities for the public to engage with the Red Arrows team on the ground, and other RAF air and ground displays, will ensure the airshow remains a truly exciting, inspirational and entertaining family event. For the remainder of the display season the Red Arrows are looking forward to displaying as usual at multiple events all over the UK and abroad.’
On reflection, I think that the RAF has got this one right. See them at the right venue, and the Reds will continue to put on a show that is as thrilling and dynamic as it ever was. But it does have to be the right venue.
The area around Farnborough airfield has changed... On reflection, I think that the RAF has got this one right