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
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
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.