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The Red Arrows were not the first RAF aerobatics team. An RAF biplane pageant was held at Hendon in 1920 with biplane teams from front-line squadrons. In 1938, three Gladiators flew with their wing-tips tied together. The Second World War largely stopped formation aerobatics, as planes were needed elsewhere.

In 1947, the first jet team of three Vampires came from Odiham Fighter Wing. Various teams flew the Vampire, and in 1950, No. 72 Squadron was flying a team of seven. No. 54 Squadron RAF became the first RAF jet formation team to use smoke trails. Vampires were replaced by Meteors, No 66 Squadron developing a formation team of six aircraft. Hunter aircraft were first used for aerobatics teams in 1955, when No 54 Squadron flew a formation of four.

The official RAF team was provided by No. 111 Squadron RAF ('Treblers' or 'Treble-One') in 1956, and for the first time the aircraft had a special colour scheme, which was an all-black finish. After a demonstration in France, they were hailed as 'Les Fleches Noires' and from then on known as The Black Arrows. This team became the first team to fly a five-Hunter formation. The Black Arrows' greatest moment was the loop and barrel roll of 22 Hunters during the 1958 Farnborough Airshow. This was a world record for the greatest number of aircraft looped in formation, and remains unbroken to this day. The Black Arrows were the premier team until 1961, when The Blue Diamonds (No. 92 Squadron RAF) continued their role, flying sixteen blue Hunters.

Red Arrows Gnat, the aircraft type used by the team from their formation in 1964 until 1979

In 1960, The Tigers (No. 74 Squadron RAF) were re-equipped with Lightnings and performed wing-overs and rolls with nine aircraft in tight formation. They sometimes gave co-ordinated displays with the Blue Diamonds.

Yet another aerobatics team was formed by No. 56 Squadron RAF, The Firebirds, with nine red and silver Lightnings. In 1964, The Red Pelicans, flying six Jet Provost T Mk 4s, assumed the role of the RAF's leading display team. In that same year, a team of five yellow Gnat trainers from No 4 Flying Training School displayed at the Farnborough Airshow. This team became known as the Yellowjacks after Flight Lieutenant Lee Jones's call sign, "Yellowjack"; the name was briefly 'Daffodil Patrol', but was quickly changed back.

In 1964, all the RAF display teams were amalgamated, as it was feared pilots were spending too much time practising formation aerobatics rather than operational training. The new team name took the word red from the fact that the Yellowjacks' planes had been painted red (as it was a far clearer and visible colour in the sky for safety reasons) and arrows after the Black Arrows; however some think red was a tribute to the Red Pelicans. Another reason for the change to red is that responsibility for the team moved from Fighter Command to the Central Flying School, whose main colour was red.

The Royal Air Force Aerobatic Team, the Red Arrows, was based at RAF Kemble, then a satellite unit of the Central Flying School, itself based at RAF Little Rissington, which was considered the "official" home base of the Arrows. Arrows' aircraft would frequently fly into Rissington for maintenance. When RAF Scampton became the CFS Headquarters in 1983, the Red Arrows moved there. As an economy measure, Scampton closed in 1995, so the Red Arrows moved just twenty miles to RAF Cranwell; however, as they still used the air space above Scampton, the emergency facilities and runways had to be maintained. Since 21 December 2000, the Red Arrows have been based again at RAF Scampton, near Lincoln.

 

Folland Gnat T1 on display in 2009 in Red Arrows markings at the former team base Kemble.

The first team, led by Squadron Leader Lee Jones, had seven display pilots and flew the Folland Gnat T1 jet trainer. The first display in the UK was on 6 May 1965 at Little Rissington for a press day. At the subsequent National Air Day display, three days later, at Clermont Ferrand in France, one French journalist described the team as "Les Fleches Rouges", confirming the name "The Red Arrows". By the end of their first season, the Red Arrows had displayed 65 times in Britain, France, Italy, Holland, Germany and Belgium and were awarded the Britannia Trophy by the Royal Aero Club for their contribution to aviation.

In 1968, the then Team Leader (Sqn. Ldr. Ray Hanna AFC) expanded the team from seven to nine jets, as he wanted to expand the team's capabilities and the permutations of formation patterns. It was during this season that the 'Diamond Nine' pattern was formed and it has remained the team's trademark pattern ever since. Ray Hanna served as Red Leader for three consecutive years until 1968 and was recalled to supersede Squadron Leader Timothy Nelson for the 1969 display season, a record four seasons as Leader which still stands to this day. For his considerable achievements of airmanship with the team, Ray Hanna was awarded a bar to his existing Air Force Cross (AFC).

After displaying 1,292 times in the Folland Gnat, the Red Arrows took delivery of the BAe Hawk in the winter of 1979. Since being introduced into service with the Red Arrows, the Hawk has performed with the Red Arrows in fifty countries.

On 9 September 2003, a Red Arrow jet veered off the runway at Jersey airport. The pilot, Flight Lieutenant Jez Griggs, ran the jet into a gravel pile and little damage was caused. No one was injured. Displays were not affected because the Red Arrows take a spare aircraft with them.In July 2004 there was speculation in the British media that the Red Arrows would be disbanded, after a defence spending review, due to running costs of between £5 million and £6 million. The Arrows were not disbanded and their expense has been justified through their public relations benefit of helping to develop business in the defence industry and promoting recruitment for the RAF. According to the BBC, it is highly unlikely that the Red Arrows will be disbanded, as they are a considerable attraction throughout the world. This was reiterated by then Prime Minister, Tony Blair, in 2007.

With the planned disposal of RAF Scampton the future home of the Red Arrows became uncertain. On 20 May 2008 months of speculation was ended when it was revealed that the Ministry of Defence were moving the Red Arrows to nearby RAF Waddington.

 


RED ARROWS DISPLAY TEAM GALLERY

Aircraft: BAE Hawk T1A

Country: Great Britain

Smoke Colours: Red, White, Blue

Team Members: Nine