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The Red Arrows and me!


What is the connection between me and the RAF’s premier aerobatic team?

Added by Keith Bradshaw on 09 April 2024

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What, I can hear you ask, is the connection between me and the RAF’s premier aerobatic team? The answer is this year we are both celebrating a major anniversary, their 60th and my 70th. Being that bit older than them I can remember when they were just a gleam in the RAF’s eye and I saw them starting life as the Yellow Jacks flying Gnat trainers at Farnborough in 1964. When you reach a certain age and I think the biblical three score years and ten is as a good a time as any, it’s natural to think back over all the things that you have seen and places you have visited that have been lost forever. With the display season fast approaching air shows are today’s subject for this trip down memory lane.

A Harrier at Farnborough wasn’t unusual but in 1982 an Indian Navy Sea Harrier was. Photo: Keith Bradshaw

That visit to Farnborough in 1964 wasn’t my first air show trip, that had occurred two years earlier in 1962 when my mum and dad packed up the car and we set off from our home in Harrow to the far flung lands of Hampshire for the 1962 Farnborough public day. Our trip down the A30 was punctuated by an occasional clanging sound from under the car and eventually dad stopped to investigate. He quickly appeared red faced from under the bonnet with a spanner in his hand, the last remaining member of his tool roll which he had left under the bonnet after he had adjusted the fan belt the day before! That year at Farnborough there were three RAF aerobatic teams consisting of eight Lightnings of 74 Squadron and 16 Hunters of the Blue Diamonds from Fighter command.

The 16 Hunters of the Blue Diamonds. Photo: TSRL CCA-3

Training command got a look in, but to be honest five Jet Provosts from the Central Flying School were pretty weak against the fast fighters, even the Navy provided two teams, five Sea Vixens and five Scimitars. The Lightning display was the most memorable as the eight aircraft took off in line astern and as each one rotated the pilot pulled back on the stick and climbed vertically on a tower of noise and boiling air until out of sight, a moment never to be forgotten. Sadly the only camera we had at the time was a box Brownie with B/W film so I don’t have any decent pictures to share with you. The following year saw a visit to the first Biggin Hill Air Fair which was quite amazing for a nine year old, not just planes, including airliners such as a Hermes and Britannia, but an airfield full of stalls selling everything you could think of even cars! For many years Biggin attracted airliners, as in those days the airlines were not so busy at the weekend and I clearly remember an Anglo Air Cargo Boeing 707 doing some very low passes down the runway. Flying restrictions were not very tight back then. An Air Fair was also the first time I got to see Sally B. and Ray Hanna flying Spitfire MH434.

Sally B in her early natural finish paint scheme. Photo: Keith Bradshaw

The year would have been rounded off by a visit on Battle of Britain weekend to one of the many RAF bases that were hosting RAF at Home shows. For us it would have been either back to Biggin or over to Abingdon. For my childhood days that was the routine, Biggin in May, Farnborough every other year in early September and an RAF at Home show at the end of the month. Another show that later became a regular was the Hawker Siddeley open day at Hatfield as a family friend who worked there could always get us tickets.

1987 at Hatfield’s open day saw this 146 awaiting delivery to China. Photo: Keith Bradshaw

1968 saw a trip to Abingdon for the RAF’s 50th anniversary, this was back in the days when the RAF had many squadrons and an aircraft from each one was there other than the Lightnings of 74 Squadron who were in Singapore and the top secret intelligence gathering Nimrods from Wyton. I remember climbing into the cockpit of the new Andover and bashing my head on the roof. Little did I know that would be a precursor to a life of head bashing on aeroplanes !

An Andover at Middle Wallop in 1979, it was one of these that introduced me to cockpit head bashing at Abingdon the previous year. Photo: Keith Bradshaw

As the years passed my friends and I started to make our own way to the shows on special coach trips or as in the case of Biggin Hill a tube to London followed by a Southern Region electric train to Bromley and then a London Counties green bus to the airfield. Of course, once we had started work and obtained a car the world was our oyster and trips to the Fighter Meet at North Weald, the Great Warbirds shows at West Malling and Wroughton and the first Air Tattoo events at Greenham Common became annual pilgrimages.

The Fighter Meet at North Weald in 1986 saw the much missed Navy Fairey Firefly in attendance. Photo: Keith Bradshaw

The Navy hosted a number of shows and the long trip to Yeovilton was always worth the effort as was their show at Lee-on-Solent and the open day at Fleetlands the helicopter repair yard. I well remember my dad taking me to our first visit to Lee-on-Solent. We set off early to avoid the traffic and arrived at the gate around 10.30 only to find out it was an afternoon show and the gates didn’t open till noon, still at least we were first in the queue !

A pair of French Navy Rafales at the 2018 Yeovilton Air Day. Photo: Keith Bradshaw

The event at Yeovilton always got good support from other Naval air arms as well as local helicopter manufacturer Westland. After along afternoon of flying the event was always rounded off with an airfield attack slot which I can remember in the past featuring numerous Wessex helicopters airlifting in troops and equipment whilst Sea harriers and Hunters provided air cover, with the demise of the aircraft carriers and the fixed wing elements the last event featured just a couple of Merlin helicopters and Hawk jets, a sad reflection on the early days. 

A Lynx helicopter displays its impressive flare deployment capabilities at a Yeovilton show. Photo: Keith Bradshaw

The Air Tattoo at Greenham Common became the major military show in the world and with Air Forces at the time having large numbers of aircraft the line-up was always awesome. When plans were announced to reactivate Greenham as a cruise missile site the Air Tattoo moved out to its present home at Fairford in 1985. Although still a massive show its glory days of huge static line-ups has sadly faded into history.

Greenham Common in 1981 saw the Italian Frecce Tricolori display team and their Fiat G91s display they shortly after replaced the Fiats with Macchi MB-339 aircraft. Photo: Keith Bradshaw

Another great military show was the RAF Waddington open day, with rare flying appearances in recent times of the AWACS, Nimrod R1 spy plane and the smaller Sentinel intelligence gathering aircraft. However, my lasting memory of Waddo is two-fold, both Vulcan based. It was here in 2008 I witnessed the first public air show appearance of Vulcan XH558 of the Vulcan to the sky group when it teamed up with the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight Lancaster for a formation fly by before its display proper. The other Vulcan memory was much earlier when Waddington was the home base of a number of Vulcan Squadrons. Their party piece at the airshow was a QRA demo with four aircraft scrambled from the QRA base at the end of the runway. Seemingly powered by black smoke the four tore down the runway with that magnificent Vulcan howl before pulling up into a tight turn away from the crown, as all four became airborne the leader then turned again onto a parallel path to the runway before turning halfway along and heading back towards the crowd. As each aircraft passed overhead the runway it again entered into a tight turn and climbed away, the noise was incredible.

Vulcan XH558 entertained the crowds for several years before is final grounding by BAE Systems and Rolls Royce at Doncaster airport. Photo: Keith Bradshaw

In the 70-80s the USAF still had a large presence in the UK and their bases opened up to the public most years, Phantoms and Voodoos at Alconbury, F-100s at Wethersfield, Phantoms and A-10 Warthogs at Bentwaters and Woodbridge not forgetting the F-111s at Lakenheath and Upper Heyford. How ever you remember those USAF Open House days the jewel in the crown was always the Mildenhall Air Fete, a show like no other with many rare aircraft making appearances such as the SR-71, U-2 and B-52.

Woodbridge 1976 saw this Phantom in the static line up. Photo: Keith Bradshaw

I can recall one year the B-52 took part in the flying display just before the Vulcan display flight had their slot. Well, the B-52 flew past, disappeared into Norfolk somewhere to turn round and then just flew back in the opposite direction before landing, of course the home crowd were whooping and whistling like only Americans can, then the Vulcan took off! Its display was conducted completely inside the airfield boundary, the RAF crew did not have the limitations the civilian crews would later have when the Vulcan to the sky group flew the last one. The Yanks fell silent and couldn’t believe it was a nuclear bomber they were watching being hauled around the sky like a fighter.

The Mildenhall 1986 display was graced with this EF-111 Raven from Upper Heyford. Photo: Keith Bradshaw

Another regular visitor to the Air Fete was the Vikings of the West German Navy with a pair of F-104 Starfighters, their party piece was for one to make a very slow pass in front of the crowd to draw your attention whilst his mate came in very low like a bat out of hell to pass alongside the other aeroplane just below the speed of sound, always made me smile !

The German Navy Vikings display team with their two F-104 Starfighters. Regulars at the Mildenhall show they are seen here at another event at Alconbury in 1980. Photo: Keith Bradshaw

The aviation content at Mildenhall was always second to none, as was the food and hospitality. Another event which had a great family atmosphere was Shoreham and some excellent shows were put on there before that fateful day that changed the world of air shows forever, when due solely to pilot error a Hunter crashed onto the A27 killing a number of people. Along with many new restrictions the CAA banned all swept wing historic jets from flying at shows and thus the likes of the Hunter disappeared overnight. A much happier Hunter related event took place in 2001 when the airfield at Kemble hosted the 50th anniversary of the Hunter’s first flight and attracted 15 Hunters from around Europe, a great show as were all the Kemble events. Sadly, all shows there were stopped by the council following noise complaints from residents.

A Hunter from Switzerland, ‘Papyrus’ was one of 15 Hunters at Kemble in 2001 Photo: Keith Bradshaw

Another event that I must mention was the Army Air Corps days at Middle Wallop. Today all the Army can field is the Wildcat or Apache helicopters, however back in the day Wallop was home to Chipmunks, Austers, Beavers, Souix, Scouts, Skeeters and Alouettes and the air show made good use of them. During lunch all the helicopters would disappear and at the start of the flying display the commentator would direct the crowd to look out to the hills in the distance as slowly rising above them would come a very long line of lights and the helicopters would approach the crowd head on in line abreast with their landing lights on, very impressive.

1999 saw a 1950’s themed event at Coventry featuring many airliners such as this DC-6. Photo: Keith Bradshaw

When Coventry airport was the home of Air Atlantique and their Classic fleet a couple of shows took place featuring several old airliners such as the DC-6, DC-4, DC-3, Bristol 170, Convair 440, Electra and many other aircraft from the 1950’s These shows were a real nostalgia trip but following the breakup of the Classic Flight, the re branding of Air Atlantique following the retirement of its owner Mike Collett and of course the plans to close Coventry airport these shows drifted into history.  There were many one-off shows at various venues, some I remember quite well such as my local airfield at Elstree having a flying day, mainly supported by the based flying clubs the event went on into the evening with a planned ‘flight by searchlight’ when the local Army cadets would train their searchlight onto a circling aeroplane. Well darkness fell, the plane took off and the searchlight came on but it never found the plane! But I had seen for the first time ‘The wall of death’ in the fairground so the day wasn’t completely wasted.

1978 saw St Athan near Swansea open its doors to the public. This AEW Shackleton was one of the many aircraft on display at the Maintenance Unit. Photo: Keith Bradshaw

RAF bases also opened their doors occasionally, who can forget Binbrook and the Lightning, St Mawgan and the Nimrod, Coltishall and Jaguars, Gaydon and the Varsity, the maintenance base at St Athan and of course what is now the closed Doncaster airport, Finningley and the Queens Silver Jubilee review of the RAF where along with a conventional flying display there was a mass flypast of 103 aircraft plus a huge ‘25’ in the sky formation flown by a large number of Jet Provost. All these stations have now long closed along with many others around the UK.

A Belgium Air Force F-84 Thunderstreak visiting the open day at Upper Heyford in 1969. Photo: Keith Bradshaw

With the exception of Abingdon, which hosts a small charity event at what is now an Army barracks, all these great shows have one thing in common, they are all sadly no longer with us. Like everything in life nothing lasts for ever and I guess when me and the Red Arrows are no longer around we would have least of been able to say, during the heyday of UK air shows, we were there.


Keith Bradshaw


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