The Red Arrows have been thrilling audiences around the world for over half a century, presenting an unrivalled display of airmanship over 4,500 times. Flying BAE’s Hawk aircraft since 1980, the Red Arrows are based at RAF Scampton in Lincolnshire, and comprise a 120-strong team of engineers, maintenance staff and ground crew. The 2017 UK season saw over 60 displays around the country, before the impressive logistical exercise known as Exercise Eastern Hawk began in earnest in September, which Sunseeker supports as a ‘Diamond 9’ partner. As the Red Arrows’ Officer Commanding, Wing Commander Andrew Keith, notes, “overseas tours such as this are one of the key roles of the Royal Air Force Aerobatic Team.”
Eleven Hawks and a team of around 80 headed off for the month-long tour, starting with a dramatic flypast above the Cannes Yachting Festival. From there the Arrows headed to Athens Flying Week, further cementing the strong relationship between the RAF and the Hellenic Air Force. The carefully planned itinerary took the Arrows from Jordan, then on to Jeddah in Saudi Arabia, after stopping in Tabuk, home to the Royal Saudi Air Force’s own Saudi Hawks display team. From Jeddah, the team headed on to Kuwait and Qatar, then performed in Oman, Pakistan and Bahrain before heading back to Saudi Arabia for a final display in Riyadh. On many legs, the engineers travel in the Hawks themselves – the so-called ‘Circus’ team – so they can ready the aircraft at each destination.
“We fly the show, we practise and train for all winter,” says Red 8, Flight Lieutenant Mike Bowden. One key consideration is climate. “It does make a difference;” Flight Lieutenant Bowden confirms, “in Kuwait it was 43 degrees – the hotter the air, the thinner it is and the less well a jet engine performs. But it’s a testament to the aircraft that it does so well.” Bowden recalls a spectacular hour above Jordan with the country’s entire airspace given over to the Red Arrows – “it shows the regard and trust that we’re held in.”
There is of course an important geopolitical dimension underpinning the logistics and aerobatics. The BAE Systems Hawk is an important British export to the region; the aircraft is already a mainstay of the Royal Saudi Air Force, and the Red Arrows are a high profile element of the ongoing GREAT Britain campaign. Yet for the pilots, acting as national ambassadors is all part of a day’s work, albeit a very different skill to flying wingtip to wingtip at hundreds of miles an hour.