The Red Arrows (official name: Royal Air Force Aerobatic Team) are the official aerobatic team of the UK’s Royal Air Force. Traditionally flying nine BAE Hawk T.1As, they are considered to be one of the best aerobatic teams in the world. Former members of the Red Arrows have formed The Blades and act as advisors to the Saudi Hawks.
For 2022-23, the Red Arrows are temporarily flying with a reduced formation. The departure of three pilots at three seperate points during pre-season training in 2022 forced the team to fly as a seven-ship (and later a six-ship) team that year, and limitations to training capacity meant the team could grow to no larger than eight pilots for 2023. They intend to return to full nine-ship strength in 2024.
The Red Arrows were formed in 1964 as an amalgamation of the RAF’s many unofficial aerobatic teams. The colour red is said to be inspired by the Red Pelicans, the arrow symbol from the famed Black Arrows and the team’s aircraft, the Folland Gnat, from the Yellowjacks. The team initially flew seven aircraft from 1965, but the spare pilot flew an additional solo display when he was available to do so. The first public display of the Red Arrows was in France, with their debut UK display following at Biggin Hill one week later.
In 1968, the Red Arrows became a nine-ship team. The team undertook their first tour to North America in 1972. They then received their present fleet of Hawk T.1s in 1980. The team’s busiest season came in 1995-1996, when they followed their 1995 European season with a world tour through the winter, which lead straight into the 1996 European season. It was the largest tour ever undertaken by a military jet aerobatic team.
On occasion, the team has been reduced from nine to just seven aircraft for an entire season; in 2012, following a pair of fatal accidents, and in 2022, when the team became embroiled in a scandal over the conduct of some individual members, causing multiple pilots to leave the squadron at short notice.
The Red Arrows have been based at several locations around the UK, initially being formed at RAF Kemble (now Cotswolds Airport). Their longest-standing base was RAF Scampton, which they left September 2022 due to the base’s closure. The team moved to nearby RAF Waddington, but will continue to use Scampton’s airspace for display practices for the time being.
They continue to fly the Hawk T.1, which has been retired throughout the rest of the RAF. In recent seasons, especially 2022, the jets have started to show their age, and many displays have been flown with one or more aircraft missing. With no easy replacement, the Red Arrows are officially due continue to fly the Hawk T.1 until 2030.
The Red Arrows’ display changes slightly each year, but is split into two halves, the first featuring nine-ship formation aerobatics. Many of these formations reflect historical anniversaries or topical events that year, for example Spitfire, Lancaster, Apollo and Concorde. The team’s signature formations are Big Battle and Short Diamond.
The aircraft then break into smaller groups for the second part of the show, which includes more dynamic manoeuvring by smaller groups of aircraft.
In the 1980s and 90s, this part of the display mainly included alternating seven-ship and two-ship manoeuvres, the latter being performed by Reds 6 and 7, the Synchro Pair. More recently, the manoeuvres have alternated between five-ship manoeuvres by Reds 1-5 and more complex two- or four-ship manoeuvres either by Reds 6-9.
Reds 1-5 are known as Enid, mainly performing formation manoeuvres and bomb bursts, with a minimum altitude of 300ft. Reds 6-9 are currently known as Hanna (formally Gypo; both names pay tribute to former Red Arrows pilots). Hanna performs more complex formation manoeuvres as low as 300ft and dynamic opposition passes as low as 100ft. Once or twice in each display, Reds 8 and 9 join Enid for seven-ship manoeuvres.
The Red Arrows’ full show requires a 5,500ft cloud base. If the cloud base is lower than 5,500ft, but higher than 2,500ft, the team fly their “rolling show”, with looping manoeuvres removed or replaced by flatter ones. If the cloud base is lower than 2,500ft but higher than 1,000ft, they can fly the even more limited “flat show”, in which formation barrel rolls are also removed or replaced. The team can switch between types of display mid-show to respond to changes in the conditions. Due to the frequent low cloud base in the UK, the Red Arrows have one of the most complete and entertaining flat shows of any jet aerobatic team.
Coloured smoke is used throughout the display. All aircraft can generate five minutes of white smoke and one minute each of red and blue smoke. Smoke oil is carried in an external centreline smoke pod under the fuselage.
The exact display routine varies slightly each year, but is built from a collection of familiar manoeuvres which can be arranged in various combinations. Favourite manoeuvres include:
- Big Battle Arrival (crowd rear arrival in Big Battle formation, loop and change to Short Diamond)
- Wall Arrival (crowd-rear arrival in Wall formation, loop and change to Nine Arrow)
- Phoenix Bend (tight turn in Phoenix)
- Diamond Roll (barrel roll in Short Diamond, with all nine jets emitting smoke)
- Tornado (seven-ship turn from the left 45 to the right 45, while two aircraft barrel roll around)
- Five-Four Split (nine-ship loop and split into a 5-ship formation and a four-ship formation; both formations exit the loop from opposite directions, crossing at show centre)
- Detonator (five-ship bomb burst with white smoke, then four-ship opposition break underneath with coloured smoke)
- Palm Split (seven-ship upwards bomb burst and simultaneous two-ship opposition break underneath)
- Gypo Pass (two vs. two opposition pass and rolls)
- Goose (five vs. one opposition pass)
- Double Goose (two vs. seven opposition pass)
- Calypso (two aircraft roll into Mirror formation, then roll into Calpyso formation, then both roll inverted, then both roll erect)
- Revolution (five, seven or nine-ship twinkle rolls, either performed simultaniously or staggered in two sections)
- Carosel (one vs. one opposition 360 degree turns)
- Heart (three-ship heart and spear)
- Rolling Heart (flatter two-ship heart, without the spear, possible to fly under low cloud)
- Vortex (two aircraft barrel roll around a third, before an opposition break)
- Twizzles (five-ship pitch-up in Echelon, then break away at short intervals and perform staggered barrel rolls in Trail)
- Vertical Break (five or seven-ship quarterclover and downwards bomb burst)
- Infinity Break (five or seven aircraft approach in Battle; the leader pitches up to roll around both sides of the formation, followed by a bomb burst)
- Slalom (five-ship 420-degree turn in Line Astern, changing to Reverse Battle formation, slalom changing to Battle formation)
- Python (five-ship consecutive on-crowd and off-crowd barrel rolls in Leader’s Benefit formation)
- Corkscrew (two aircraft fly past inverted and two more barrel roll tightly around)
- Snake (five or seven aircraft arrive in Line Astern pull at short invervals into a loop in Trail)
- Rollbacks (consecutive tight, simultanious rolls from the inside to the outside of a Battle formation)
- Gypo Break (four-ship synchronised rolls, then a dynamic opposition break)
- Boomerang (one vs. one opposition pass, followed by Split-S or Half Cuban repositions and a second opposition pass)
- Twister (four-ship turn from the left 45 to the right 45 in Box, while one aircraft barrel rolls around)
- Vice-Versa (one vs. one opposition half aileron rolls, in which one jet starts inverted and rolls erect, while the other starts erect and rolls inverted)
- Vixen Break (seven-ship bomb burst, sometimes performed after a loop; usually the display finale)
- Centenary Pass (2018 season only: three aircraft draw the number “100” in coloured smoke, while the remaining six perform a topside pass underneath in Delta)
- Spaghetti break / Magnum break (nine-ship downwards bomb burst into the landing pattern; only performed when landing at airports where no crowd is present)
- Typhoon break (conventional break into the landing pattern; aircraft pass along the runway in Big Battle and peel away at 2 second invervals to turn onto the downwind leg)
- 26th March 1969: A pilot is killed when his jet hits trees during a practice display
- 16th December 1969: Two pilots eject following a warning of a fire from air traffic control; both pilots survive, although the warning was intended only for one aircraft
- 20th January 1971: Two Gnats collide during an opposition pass, killing four
- 17th May 1980: A jet clips a mast during an airshow at Brighton; the pilot ejects safely
- 21st March 1984: A Hawk hits the ground while practicing a loop in Cyprus; the pilot is injured but survives
- 31st August 1984: A Hawk crashes into the sea during a display at Sidmouth; the pilot is rescued
- 16th November 1987: Two Hawks collide during a training flight; both pilots eject, but one jet hits a house
- 22nd January 1988: A pilot dies while practicing the Rollbacks at Scampton
- 24th June 1988: A Hawk crashes and explodes during take off; the pilot ejects safely
- 17th October 1998: A pilot lands short of the runway at Cranwell and ejects safely
- 9th September 2003: A jet overruns the runway at Jersey Airport
- 23rd March 2010: Two Hawks collide during an opposition pass while practicing in Greece; one jet lands safely, the other crashes; the pilot ejects and sustains injuries
- 20th August 2011: A pilot dies when his jet crashes during arrival procedures at Bournemouth Airport
- 8th November 2011: A pilot dies when his ejection seat fires by mistake on the ground
- 20th March 2018: A jet crashes during an emergency landing exercise at RAF Valley; the pilot ejects, but his passenger, an engineer, is killed