BOOK OF THE WEEK
THE RED ARROWS
by David Montenegro (Century £20, 288 pp)
The next time you see the Red Arrows perform one of their incredible loops, forcing their Hawk jets high into the sky before swooping back down, savor the fact that each of the pilots has their butts tight.
Not for the reason that you or I might have tight buttocks under such circumstances, but to counter the effects of gravity.
At the bottom of a loop, the pilots “pull 4G”, meaning that the earth’s gravity exerts on them four times its usual effect. This can cause blood to pool in your lower legs, robbing your brain of this stuff and possibly leading to loss of consciousness.
David Montenegro describes the performance of the Red Arrows in his new book. As current commander, he knows how important it is to engage with the general public
Pilots manage this not only by clenching their buttocks (and leg muscles), but also by performing a special type of breathing that increases cardiac output. Oh, and they’re also wearing “anti-gravity” pants, which inflate with pressurized air to keep blood in your upper body.
All in a day’s work for the Royal Air Force aerobatic team, to give them their full name. The ‘red’ obviously comes from the color of the planes (they were originally yellow, leading to the less than ideal nickname ‘Daffodil Patrol’), while the ‘arrows’ referred to the old midges of the team, the Hawks’ predecessors, with their wings folded.
The Gnats were a joy to fly – pilots joked that you didn’t get into them until you “got them on” – but their fuel capacity was very low. For long flights, they had to be towed to the start of the runway to avoid wasting fuel taxiing.
David Montenegro’s book is perfectly enjoyable even if you’re not a… whatever the flying equivalent of “oil head” (“airhead” doesn’t really work).
As current commander of the Red Arrows, he knows the importance of engaging with the general public – having spent two spells as one of the pilots, he knows they are there to entertain people. Shows are scheduled to minimize the “empty sky” period when all aircraft are miles away preparing for the next maneuver. “If the crowds have time to lick their ice creams,” said a team leader, “we’re not doing our job properly.”
Pilots manage this not only by clenching their buttocks (and leg muscles), but also by performing a special type of breathing that increases cardiac output. Oh, and they also wear “anti-gravity” pants, which inflate with pressurized air to keep blood in your upper body.
Diamond Nine is the most famous formation, with Red 1 (the oldest pilot) up front, the other eight fanning out behind him (odd numbers to his left, even numbers to his right).
For the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee in 2012 they also added the Deep Diamond, with different planes at different heights to create a 3D effect.
The precision timing of the Red Arrows was shown the same year during the opening ceremony of the London Olympics. They always have a WHAM plan for the day (“What happens depending on the direction”) and the schedule for that day included flying over the stadium at exactly 8:12 p.m.
Such flyovers – like the one they will be performing along the Mall next month for the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee – require each plane to line up with a specific point on one of the others.
And when we say “specific” we’re talking about something as small as an individual bolt on a fuselage.
That said, flying in such a formation is at the low end of the Red Arrows scale. The really hair-raising stuff comes when you fly straight at one of your co-workers, each of you doing 400mph to create an effective speed of 800mph. Add to that the fact that you could be upside down – in which case the stick works the other way (push left to go right and vice versa) – and maintaining your reference points is “beyond tricky”. Don’t you like a bit of military understatement?
In their early days (the team was formed in 1964), the Red Arrows flew as low as 15 feet, with pilots at the time trained to fly at such heights in order to evade enemy radar systems.
These days they’re limited to 100 feet, but that was still low enough during a show in New York in 2008 to ensure they were going around the Statue of Liberty rather than over it.
Of course, nothing is ever completely certain, and over the decades ten pilots and one engineer have lost their lives.
In their early days (the team was formed in 1964), the Red Arrows flew as low as 15 feet, with pilots at the time trained to fly such heights to evade enemy radar systems.
Four of these pilots died in the same incident in 1971 (two in each of the two planes which collided during a training session).
Montenegro itself was involved in a collision in 2010, but managed to land safely and the other pilot survived thanks to his ejection seat.
The same technology saved another pilot during a 1980 demonstration off Brighton, when a yacht disobeyed a ban on sailing in the area and its mast took two feet off the wing of the airplane.
As the Red Arrows head into their 60th anniversary, it’s clear the team’s place in our hearts is secure. Virgin have named a train after them (optimist, Richard), and there’s a tradition of Blue Peter presenters taking rides with the team.
Even if, as pointed out by Jim Turner (a former member of Red 1), the presenters are doing better: “I don’t know why, they have a better stomach for that… They had few problems, whereas quite a few of the male presenters are airborne for ten minutes before they vomit and we have to land.