Smoke on Go!
From aviation’s earliest days, daring pilots have dreamed up new ways of showcasing their skill and the agility of their airframe. The RAF once had several jet display teams, including the Black Arrows, the Blue Diamonds, the Red Pelicans, The Tigers and the Yellowjacks, to name but a few. In 1965, these teams were amalgamated into a single, newly christened outfit, the RAF’s official aerobatic unit, the Red Arrows, flying the Folland Gnat trainer.
On Saturday, 15th May 1965, nine brightly coloured red aircraft aligned themselves in a tight formation in the skies above Biggin Hill to make the Red Arrows’ public debut. In the 50 years that followed, the Reds have flown well over 4,500 displays, demonstrating British engineering, skill and showmanship to many millions of people.
Squadron Leader David Montenegro has been Red 1 – the Team Leader – for two years, having joined the Red Arrows in 2008.
His RAF career began in 1999, training first on fast jets, then as a Qualified Flying Instructor and subsequently flying the Tornado F3 in the UK, Europe and the Middle East. As he explains, joining the Red Arrows usually evolves out of a distinguished fast-jet-flying career.
“You need to have the experience,” he says, “so around 1,500 hours in fast jets and at least one operational tour. And then it’s down to volunteers and recommendations.” Around 30 apply to join the Reds each year, which gets whittled down to two or three pilots after a rigorous assessment and training period.
As Red 1, Montenegro is always at the front of the formation. “Everyone is looking at me,” he says, “they’re all referencing their aircraft to mine, even if they’re only eight feet away from each other.” The discipline is colossal, especially when Montenegro admits that he can “probably only see the front five aircraft. I can still sense when they’re having a good day, though.” The intense display season often sees the Red Arrows putting on five or six shows around the UK over a long weekend. The planes race between venues for a quick refuel, checkover and polish thanks to the travelling team of hand-picked engineers, and always, without fail, start their display at the precisely indicated time.
Flying wing tip to wing tip or doing fast passes at approach speeds of around 800mph is a challenging job. In 1980, the team switched to the BAE Systems Hawk. “Mostly, it’s exploiting the skills they have already been taught,” Montenegro says. “Our pilots often have vast experience of flying £60m operational aircraft awash with sensors. The Hawks are British-built, 30-year-old aircraft with virtually no modern technology whatsoever. They’re used to having 25–30 buttons on their control columns, but we have only three on the Reds –red, white and blue [for the smoke]. It’s pure mechanical engineering with no digital technology whatsoever. But we’ll get them to do things with the aircraft they haven’t done before.”
Perfect accuracy – and punctuality – makes for a spectacular show on the ground. “In my first year, we flew the Monaco Yacht Show – the British engineering there was a real eye opener,” says Montenegro, “then we turned around and headed up to Blackpool and did a display over Butlins.” The 120-strong Red Arrows team, based at RAF Scampton in Lincolnshire, continues to act as an excellent ambassador for the country, a much-loved institution that can only be joined by the best of the best.