Swing com­man­ders

You need skill, ded­i­ca­tion and co-ordination to be a Red Ar­rows pi­lot... no won­der the Royal Air Force Aer­o­batic Team is made up of mad-keen golfers


The RAF’S best are mad-keen golfers

The Red Ar­rows are per­fec­tion­ists. You need to be when you’re hurtling to­wards each other at more than 300mph, be­fore break­ing off at the last sec­ond in a cloud of red, white and blue smoke.

With their trade­mark Di­a­mond Nine shape and com­bi­na­tions of close-for­ma­tion, pre­ci­sion fly­ing, the Royal Air Force Aer­o­batic Team has been wow­ing crowds since 1965. In this, the RAF’S Cen­te­nary year, they’re clos­ing in on 5,000 dis­plays, in 57 coun­tries.

Join­ing this elite group of avi­a­tors – and get­ting the chance to wear that unique, red fly­ing suit – takes vast amounts of skill, ded­i­ca­tion and train­ing. Dur­ing the win­ter, they prac­tise three times a day, five days a week, to fine-tune the forth­com­ing year’s dis­play. You need to learn from your mis­takes, how­ever small, and anal­yse ev­ery turn, ev­ery loop, ev­ery pass to see whether it can be done bet­ter, tighter, faster. Per­haps that’s why eight of the nine mem­bers of the 2018 team are mad-keen golfers.

“There are sim­i­lar­i­ties,” ad­mits Flight Lieu­tenant Mike Bow­den, known as Red 9 to his team-mates. “Golf is a fond pas­time for many of the guys. Ac­tu­ally, it’s more than that; it’s a great way to bond as a team, and mix with the pub­lic and spon­sors.”

Red Ar­rows pi­lots are the RAF’S best. Be­fore they can even think about ap­ply­ing, they must have 1,500 hours un­der their belts in fast jets – Ty­phoons and Tor­na­dos, Bri­tain’s front­line fighter air­craft. All of them have com­pleted op­er­a­tional tours

in Afghanistan and Libya, or been part of the Quick Re­ac­tion Alert in the UK and Falk­land Is­lands, pro­tect­ing UK airspace from un­in­vited guests.

Given the hand-eye co­or­di­na­tion, ded­i­ca­tion and train­ing re­quired to be­come a com­bat pi­lot – let alone a com­bat pi­lot who ex­cels enough to join the Red Ar­rows – I as­sume they’re all scratch golfers. “Er, no” says Flt Lt Matt Mas­ters – aka Red 8. “Fly­ing and golf take very dif­fer­ent skills. We don’t spend as much time on the golf course as we’d like to, but in the time we do spend there, we want to per­fect it. As a team that’s very close there’s clearly a lot of com­pe­ti­tion be­tween us, and nat­u­rally that comes across on the golf course, too.

“We want to be as good as we can be in the air, and on the course, but it’s not quite as easy as the pro­fes­sion­als make it look on TV.”

“There’s a good few of us who are at a fairly level play­ing field, and we all get out there to­gether; there’s some good ban­ter,” adds Flt Lt Bow­den. I just wish I had more time to play. This is quite a de­mand­ing job. But any down­time we do get, which we need be­tween sor­ties, we try to get out. ”

“Hav­ing said that, there are some sim­i­lar­i­ties be­tween fly­ing and golf,” ad­mits Flt Lt Mas­ters. “You need tenac­ity to suc­ceed. You’re not go­ing to pick up fly­ing skills straight away, on les­son one. You must want to do it, and keep want­ing to im­prove. A big thing is listening to peo­ple with more ex­pe­ri­ence than you. All that ap­plies in golf. You’re not go­ing to get the per­fect swing straight away. You need to lis­ten, learn, never give up.”

Their base at RAF Scamp­ton, just north of Lin­coln, is close to Gains­bor­ough Golf Club, where they’re all mem­bers. It’s also the club where Ping Eu­rope is based, and the team has an agree­ment with the com­pany for new clubs – plus golf bags with the iconic di­a­mond for­ma­tion on the front.

To­day, we’re at Scamp­ton with Stewart Golf, who have stepped in to sup­ply the team with be­spoke trol­leys – in­clud­ing two X9 Fol­low Sig­na­ture mod­els – with a cus­tomised red paint job, nat­u­rally. Flt Lt Bow­den chose the model, and told us: “We were play­ing in a char­ity event last year and were all there with our carry bags when some­one sug­gested we needed trol­leys. Stewart were in con­tact – it’s a Bri­tish man­u­fac­tur­ing com­pany, of which we’re huge sup­port­ers – and as soon as we found out the X9 Fol­low was avail­able in red we both agreed it would look fan­tas­tic parked in front of a jet. I couldn’t wait to get my hands on one.”

They’ll get some mileage, too. Dur­ing the dis­play sea­son, from May to Septem­ber, the Red Ar­rows fly from Wed­nes­day to Sun­day, with Mon­days and Tues­days off. “In the sum­mer we get to play about a dozen times a month,” says Flt Lt Mas­ters.

“Dur­ing the dis­play sea­son, we get a cou­ple of days off each week and those of us who are keen meet up and play as much as we can. In the team there are seven or eight of us who are keen golfers, and we man­age to play on some re­ally nice cour­ses. But there are one or two who, while they have nice equip­ment, are not equipped with the skills to get around a course in as few a shots as some of us!”

There’s a scene in Top Gun when Tom Cruise’s char­ac­ter, Maverick, looks around at his fel­low pi­lots and asks his co-pi­lot: ‘I’m just won­der­ing, who’s the best?’ It’s a ques­tion I put to the Red Ar­rows, but about golf. “I’d like to think I’m in the top two or three golfers on the team,” says Flt Lt Mas­ters. “Red 9 (the use of call-signs is crit­i­cal, be­cause it means in­di­vid­u­als can be cri­tiqued by the team in a de­brief with­out it get­ting per­sonal) plays bet­ter than his

hand­i­cap on a num­ber of oc­ca­sions – they call him the bandit. A few us have re­al­is­tic hand­i­caps, and in the comps we play we all give each other a run for our money.”

In a typ­i­cal sea­son, the Red Ar­rows will make dozens of ap­pear­ances across the UK – from air­show dis­plays to fly­pasts over sport­ing oc­ca­sions like the Bri­tish F1 GP and oc­ca­sion­ally the Open Cham­pi­onship or Ry­der Cup.

En-route to these events the team of­ten flies rel­a­tively low – 1,000 feet – to avoid other air traf­fic and any com­pli­ca­tions in fly­ing through cloud in for­ma­tion. Be­ing that low also gives the golfers on the team the chance to spot some fa­mous cour­ses.

“I’m re­ally guilty of spot­ting golf cour­ses when we’re fly­ing be­tween dis­plays,” ad­mits Flt Lt Bow­den. “Land­ing up at Prest­wick in Ayr­shire, you come in over places like Turn­berry and Prest­wick it­self, and then land­ing at RAF Leuchars near St An­drews, you see all those cour­ses on the east coast of Scot­land and, of course, the Old Course at St An­drews.”

“We use the tex­ture of the ter­rain quite a lot in our dis­play rou­tine,” adds Flt Lt Mas­ters, “so we some­times use golf cour­ses to help us line-up for a pass. Some­times we do won­der how much we put peo­ple off on the tee as we fly over! And if there’s a course near a dis­play site and we’re stay­ing overnight, we’ll try to get out for a round.”

Af­ter sit­ting in on two prac­tice dis­play de­briefs, where each one – filmed from the ground – is mi­cro­scop­i­cally an­a­lysed to see where ev­ery pi­lot can im­prove (we’re talk­ing about be­ing a cou­ple of feet too high or too low, or a sec­ond too late on a turn, 100ft off the ground, at 300mph…) both men share an­other fa­mil­iar trait that per­haps ex­plains why most of the Red Ar­rows love golf. When­ever any­one asked Tiger Woods why he wanted to change his swing, he’d al­ways say “I want to get bet­ter”. He was al­ways on a never-end­ing search for per­fec­tion. The Red Ar­rows are the same. “Per­fect in a Red Ar­rows dis­play isn’t pos­si­ble,” re­veals Flt Lt Bow­den. “It can al­ways be im­proved.”

“Ev­ery now and again, to­wards the end of a sea­son, we might get close,” adds Flt Lt Mas­ters. “In the few times we’ve been close to a per­fect dis­play, the feel­ing you get can’t be de­scribed.”

What would be “per­fect” in golf? An ace would be pretty spe­cial, even more so at Au­gusta Na­tional. When I of­fer both pi­lots that, or a per­fect dis­play, their an­swers are re­veal­ing.

“The ace,” be­cause the per­fect dis­play isn’t pos­si­ble,” says Flt Lt Bow­den, with­out hes­i­ta­tion.

“Mmmm, that’s a tough ques­tion…,” says Flt Lt Mas­ters. “An ace at Au­gusta… no, it would have to be a per­fect dis­play, be­cause that’s what we prac­tise for day in, day out.”


They’re reg­u­lars over some of Bri­tain’s big­gest sum­mer events, in­clud­ing The Open.

Each golfer on the Red Ar­rows has a bag em­bla­zoned with their i conic for­ma­tion.

Stewart i s a Bri­tish brand, car­ry­ing the Union flag on i ts prod­ucts.

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