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Last Updated: Tuesday, 20 July, 2004, 10:04 GMT 11:04 UK
Why everyone loves the Red Arrows
By Jonathan Duffy
BBC News Online Magazine

They stole the show at this year's Bastille Day celebrations, are a fixture of British summer events, and are expected to survive feared cuts in this week's defence spending review. Everyone, it seems, loves the Red Arrows.

A word of advice to all those dewy-eyed schoolboys out there who dream of one day flying with the Red Arrows - learn your trigonometry.

There's no place for computers when it comes to performing aerial manoeuvres at 400mph while keeping to within a hair's breadth of the formation.

"It's all trigonometry," says former Red Arrows pilot retired Squadron Leader Dominic Riley, recalling how he would steer his scarlet Hawk jet into position through the Arrows' trademark loops and rolls.

"You pick reference points on the aircraft next to you and rigorously stick to them. You've got to stay within 18 inches of the formation. More than that and the people on the ground can see."

It's 40 years since the Red Arrows first took to the skies, transfixing the British public with their astonishing displays of daredevil precision aerobatics.

More pictures: The Red Arrows in flying formation

With Concorde, that other icon of British aeronautical achievement, now a museum exhibit, "the Reds", as they are known in RAF circles, have become a rallying symbol for anyone who still believes in the best of British.

Yet rumours that the Red Arrows themselves could be pensioned off have stalked the press in recent weeks, spurring one tabloid to launch a campaign to save them.

In fact, the squadron will almost certainly emerge from Wednesday's defence spending review intact. Despite the current trend for belt-tightening in Whitehall, closing down the Reds is seen by many insiders as a step too far for any defence secretary.

Not only can this airborne troupe reduce pokerfaced men to a state of boyish excitement, they are also credited with being one of the military's finest publicity tools.

As such, it's proved a handy bargaining chip for the Royal Air Force's perennial battles with its paymasters at the Ministry Defence, says aerospace analyst Andrew Brookes, who spent 30 years with the RAF.

The Arrows perform a number of set manoeuvres
They include the Corkscrew, the Heart, the Diamond Bend and the Vixen Break
"Every year or so, you're asked to suggest cuts and you put forward one or two things before offering them the Red Arrows, daring them to make this really embarrassing cut, and look like wallys. At that point, the minister backs off," says Mr Brookes.

Ironically, the Red Arrows were themselves born of an austerity drive, in the post-war defence cuts of the 1960s. Before the war, almost every squadron of the RAF had its own aerobatics team.

The Arrows started as a team of seven display pilots, flying Folland Gnat trainer jets. They were soon augmented by another two pilots, and quickly became one of the world's leading aerobatic display teams.

In the late 1970s, they traded their existing planes for British Hawk jets, which they still fly today.

The team's show season runs from May to September, and from about 450 requests received annually, they perform at about 85 full displays - for which event organisers are charged about 7,500 - and 35 flypasts.

The nine display pilots are backed up by a team of about 85 support staff, and their purpose is to be the public face of the RAF, both at home and abroad.

Andrew Brookes estimates the Arrows' annual running costs are between 15m and 20m, some of which is met by external sponsorship. So do they represent good value for money?

Red arrows pilot
Do know much about trigonometry
It's hard to find dissenters in the military world. Defence journalist Nick Cook says the difficulty is that they are an intangible benefit - in advertising speak, "below-the-line promotion".

But if their benefits could be costed, the Arrows would represent good value for money, he says.

"They're an internationally recognised symbol of Britain and the British aerospace industry," says Mr Cook, who says that in addition to their diplomatic role, they are a valuable recruiting tool for the forces.

Mr Brookes likens them to the Royal Yacht Britannia, which was scrapped by the government in 1997.

"People used to say Britannia was worth her weight in gold as a floating venue for making deals that were good for the British economy," says Mr Brookes.

"When you send the Red Arrows to Singapore or Dubai, their value is awesome. That's the sort of thing that will help clinch a deal."

Every season the nine pilots choreograph a different show
There are three variations, tailored to cloud height
Arms protesters, who have criticised the sale of British Hawk jets to Indonesia, saying they have been used to attack rebel groups, would be less approving of the Red Arrows' several visits to that country.

But Dominic Riley is adamant that not only are the Arrows a valuable asset, they are also a slender operation.

"There's no spare - it's all done on a shoestring. But that's the RAF way. They just get on and do it. If you did away with the Red Arrows you could never bring them back."

And has anyone stopped to consider what it would mean for trigonometry lessons in school?

Add your comments to this story using the form below:

Having just watched the Red Arrows at the Royal International Air Tattoo last weekend - they are still the best! There were air display teams from Jordan, Switzerland, Finland, France and the USA and the Red Arrows were by far the best! Any move to finish their displays should be fought tooth and nail it would be a national disaster if their displays were ended.
Gill Webb, England

I love the Red Arrows - they absolutely take my breathe away with their acrobatics in the sky - I see them every year at the Southend Airshow and wouldn't miss them for the world!!
Lisa Clarkson, UK

I saw the Red Arrows along with the red-coats and mounted regiments at Bastille day and felt really proud of being British. They are something we should all be proud of in Britain.
Gavin Lee, Yorkshire

My maths is good enough to know that according to these figures, the RAF are charging around 637,500 for displays. If they were to charge what it cost to run them no-one could afford it. So never mind scrapping them, let's bring Concorde back instead!
John Airey, UK

Our neighbour was a Reds pilot in the early 90s and remains close friends with the current squadron leader. We live in a very rural part of NE Wiltshire and get the odd "arranged" fly-by, when they are en route to/from displays, complete with the red, white & blue smoke!
Jools, Wiltshire

Speaking as a Scotsman, what could be better than a little pride in being British? Let's celebrate the great union that is Britain and advertise it around the world. Show them the best, show them the Reds!
Matt, UK

As a young girl I dreamed of flying with the Reds. I now have a daughter who is 15 years old and is attending the Air Training Corps. Her passion, like mine, is the Reds. Other girls her age have posters of pop stars, my Emma has pictures of the Red Arrows and with that go her dreams of one day being part of the team.
Kim Young , United Kingdom

I went to primary school in the village next to RAF Leeming where the Red Arrows were based for a number of years in the 80s, and had the joy of watching them practise in our lunch breaks. Its something I've always felt lucky about.
Mark Stead, Knutsford, England

This is a bogus story. No politician would dare scrap the Arrows, it would be political suicide. If HMG want to save a few quid, might I suggest they scrap the royal train or the royal flight or the odd palace or an odd royal.
Paul Ed, uk

I am a member of the Royal Air Force. It is my opinion, shared by many within the service, that the RAF Aerobatic Team (RAFAT) is a luxury the service no longer needs nor can afford. The RAF does not need the RAFAT to support recruiting as this has been cut to the bone in anticipation of the defence cuts announcement on Wednesday. Nor does the RAF need the RAFAT for PR purposes as those attending airshows generally already support the services and the rest of the population (the vast majority) don't give a fig about the armed forces anyway. The significant costs associated with running the RAFAT could be better allocated to improving the lot of the average serviceperson instead of providing a five-star existence for a select few.
Withheld for Fear of Retribution, UK

I would dispute the "it's all done on a shoestring claim". A few years ago whilst attending a course at an upmarket hotel in Hampshire the place came to a bit of a standstill whilst the Red Arrows aircrew checked-in for the night. We knew it was they because of their special blue flight suits. On returning to my accommodation at the local RAF camp I made some enquiries and was informed there was plenty of spare accommodation on the camp. They may arguably be good value for money, but 'slender operation'? not compared with the rest of the RAF.
Ed, UK

Jingoistic rubbish... the Red Arrows are an anachronism, who wouldn't even appear in a list of the world's leading Air Force display teams. Their demise 10 years ago and the retention of the RAF display Vulcan would have been preferable.
Robert Pollard, UK

To say that the Red Arrows were themselves born of an austerity drive, in the post-war defence cuts of the 1960s and before that, almost every squadron of the RAF had its own aerobatics team, is not true - RAF squadrons hadn't had their own aerobatic teams since the 1930s. In the forties they were otherwise. In the 1950's, the RAF aerobatic team was formed with the BLACK Arrows flying Hawker Hunters - as anyone who saw them perform an unequalled 22 aircraft loop will testify.
Geoff, UK

Its worth remembering that the Red Arrow's Hawk's are fully combat capable. It takes a matter of minutes to take the camera off the belly & replace it with a 30mm gun pod. Sidewinder missiles, bombs & rockets can be mounted on the wing points. As well as great publicity for the RAF the squadron is a valuable military tool, manned by some of the best pilots in the world who take their skills back to their squadrons after leaving the Red Arrow's. Scrapping them would be insanity!
Peter, Nottingham (U.K)

20 Million a year, eh? So we can either massage establishment egos, sell a few more weapons to help people kill other people, and provide entertainment for nerdy men who haven't grown up, or we could provide increase resources, equipment and staff for a number of hospitals and schools. Tricky.
Andy, England

The Red Arrows are seen by almost everyone in Britain as visible evidence of how our taxes are spent on defence, as well as providing great entertainment to thousands of people very year. Surely 15m per year is a small price to pay for such a valuable promotional asset for the country, and its aerospace industries.
John, UK

It should be remembered that although they are a display team, they are a combat squadron as well. Should the need arise, a coat of camo paint, guns and missiles can be added to their aircraft.
Peter, UK

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