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The Red Arrows Meet The Wings Of Storm In Croatia On Exercise Springhawk

Croatian Language SchoolnewsletterThe Red Arrows Meet The Wings Of Storm In Croatia On Exercise Springhawk

Apr

24

The Red Arrows Meet The Wings Of Storm In Croatia On Exercise Springhawk

Amongst the UK’s greatest Ambassadors, home and abroad, and the most public face of the Royal Air Force [RAF], the Red Arrows are currently training in Croatia. Superfan, Jane Cody, could not resist a golden opportunity to find out more for the Croatian Language School.

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It’s not often you get to meet your heroes, albeit virtually, and this was an opportunity not to be missed. When I heard the Royal Air Force Aerobatic Team, better known as The Red Arrows, were back in Croatia, on Exercise Springhawk, I just had to find a way of getting an interview with one of the team. Flight Lieutenant George Hobday, otherwise known as Red 5, kindly stepped forward to send this journalist into her own happy loop and twist sequence!

Journey To “The Reds”

George joined the RAF in 2014 and, after elementary flying training, he went on to basic fast-jet training for a year. He then spent two years as an instructor of that same course: “That’s one of the key elements that helped me apply for this job – one of the criteria is to reach a certain level of instructional grading”. The other key elements include a minimum of 1,500 flying hours and the completion of a frontline operational tour.

After his stint as an instructor George progressed to advanced fast-jet training and then onto the frontline, flying Typhoons out of RAF Coningsby for three years, finishing in July 2023, having found out three months earlier that he had been accepted by the “The Reds”.

There are four newcomers to the team for the 2024 season although Red 1, Team Leader Jon Bond [“The Boss”], had an earlier stint in the team, a prerequisite for being Team Leader. Some years there are just two newcomers, but all fly right up front, closest to The Boss.

The Team

The front section, comprising Reds 1 to 5 is called Enid (after Enid Blyton, the author of The Famous Five) and George told me that, amongst the newcomers, is relative old-timer, Red 4, affectionately known as Uncle Enid, who keeps them all on the straight and narrow and guides the aeronautical freshmen. The rear section – Reds 6 to 9 – is called Hanna, in honour of one of the team’s founding pilots and early leaders. Red 10, who is crucial to the team but doesn’t fly in the displays, is safety supervisor, show commentator, pilot of the spare Hawk and flies the aerial photographer, officially known as a Visual Communications Specialist and a member of “The Circus” – see below.

Just as important as the pilots is the support team made up of a Chief of Staff, Public Relations Manager, Mission Support Flight commander, Operations Officer, Engineering Officers, an Adjutant and approximately 120 engineering technicians and other support staff known as “The Blues”. Of The Blues, ten engineering technicians and one visual communications specialist are chosen for “The Circus” with each technician allocated to a specific pilot and plane, servicing the plane before and after each display, and lucky enough to fly in the passenger seat, to and from shows and training locations (apart from, for example, long sea legs to Canada, where safety considerations and the extra safety kit do not allow for a passenger).

The Hawks

The distinctive Hawk jets are a rare beast in the forces as George explains:  “Many of the airframes were made towards the end of the T1 production line and have been kicking around since the late seventies. We don’t really have any old aeroplanes like that anymore where it’s got spinning, whirring instruments and hydraulic rods that you’re mechanically linked to.

Frontline aeroplanes are all flown by computers now. So you’ll put an input in and the computer will decide whether it’s possible or not, which is great when you’re trying to operate all the different bits of kit which you have on an operational aeroplane, like a radar and a pod with a camera on, and you’re trying to weaponeer as well as flying the aeroplane. It takes a lot of stress out of it – it just means you can do more things at once. But that sort of aeroplane wouldn’t really work in The Red Arrows because you don’t have the response you need. It’s a good thing that we have an old aeroplane – it makes it more challenging, but it makes it more possible. It’s that challenge that appeals to me – proper hands and feet flying if you like!”

Curious about how they would get to Canada, later in the season, to join in the centenary celebrations of the Royal Canadian Air Force, I asked George about the range of these aesthetically beautiful, but relatively small jets. The quoted range is around 1,000 miles but they carry a lot of safety and other equipment on long sea legs and can’t fly so high, so they work to a range of around 800 miles. The route to Canada is therefore via Scotland, Iceland and Greenland.

A Year In The Life Of…

George explained to me how Exercise Springhawk fitted into to the Red Arrow’s calendar: “Springhawk is normally six weeks long and for the last few years it’s been Croatia for two weeks and then Greece for four weeks. Then it’s summer season which, this year, finishes in early October, after several weeks in Canada, with one final show in the UK – the Duxford End of Season Finale. Then we hand over to our successors so the people that are leaving the team spend a week or two handing over to those that are taking on their roles for the following season. Once that’s done we all take two weeks end of season leave and start afresh with a new team in November, for winter training on a new display at our RAF Waddington base.”

Croatia And Exercise Springhawk 

The first two things that struck me as possible impediments to training in Croatia were the north-east Bora wind and the mountains being close to the coast, until I remembered that the mountains take a step back around Zadar Zemunik airport, where The Reds are based. As for the Bora, that hadn’t been an issue so far but George did report some “impressive downpours” the previous weekend.

It is George’s first time ever in Croatia and he says “it’s been absolutely perfect – it’s beautiful, the weather’s been incredible, and the people have been really hospitable – military and civil.”

He goes on to explain what Exercise Springhawk is all about: “during winter training, for by far the vast majority of time, we’re practicing just at RAF Waddington. That’s great for finding our feet but, as the show matures and comes together, it’s good to try and practice at different sites because they all offer different challenges.  It’s a combination of things: lots of different sites, better weather and the fact that we’ve got a great relationship with Croatia – it’s always nice to exercise and build these relationships. We’ve been in NATO for 75 years now and Croatia is a valued fellow NATO member.

Just to give a few examples, we have strict safety guidelines which means we have to be a certain distance away from a crowd line. Practicing that at a coastal site is very different from when you’re over land – you can peg the distance much more easily on land because you have land features to go by, whereas over sea it’s a lot more difficult. You also get different wind conditions – typically in the UK you have a south westerly which gives us the prevailing conditions at Waddington which we get very used to practicing in. So, it’s getting used to having wind conditions from opposite directions and at different strengths. We get a bit of wind sheer that comes off the high ground out to the east over here – that’s useful to practice in as well. Generally though we’ve had very good conditions – not too breezy, plenty of sunshine, and if it has been cloudy, there have been plenty of gaps in the cloud, or the cloud has been high level.”

We talk a little about navigating by the islands, but unfortunately George doesn’t actually get to see that much of Croatia during Exercise Springhawk  –  “sadly I don’t get to look out of the window at the

islands as much as I’d like to”. All the manoeuvres are flown with reference to The Boss and so, throughout his flying time, George’s eyes are fixed on Red 1’s aeroplane, looking “through” Red 3 sometimes, to make sure he is in the right place, relative to The Boss. And of course, they can’t go and drink Zadar dry either, not that they would. Nor I suppose can they just borrow a Hawk for a casual trip along the coast for some aerial sightseeing. They do, however, get the odd day off and have enjoyed the Old Town of Zadar as well as a couple of great meals in restaurants that the locals recommended to them [Harbor and Butlers if you’re curious, as I was – both new to me although I haven’t been to Zadar for a few years. No recommendations being made by us or The Reds!]

I asked George if they had anything to do with their Croatian counterparts – Krila Oluje [Wings of Storm] and it just so happened that they would be flying with them the following day. George reports: “The two bosses got together to brief last week and we’ll all be briefing tomorrow. That’s very exciting and I’m hoping we’ll have some good photos for you out of that.” And they certainly did!

A Day In The Life Of…

If the year sounds exhausting, try this for a day or two! George spoke to me at 6 pm, Croatian time, having just returned from the debriefing for his third trip of the day. His first trip was at 8:30 am and he was at work well before that for a briefing covering the weather for the day, any differences compared with previous days, anything special happening, and a briefing from the engineers on the jets – “eng, ops and met”. Then they go on to discuss the first trip of the day: the type of show will depend on the weather conditions – putting it in crude laymen’s terms – loops if conditions are good, rolls with medium cloud and flat with low cloud. Then, they keep everything fresh by going through a different type of emergency every time – how to handle different emergencies in different parts of the show, how to adapt the show if they are missing one man (they can normally carry on one down, unless it’s The Boss).

George explains what happens next: “after landing comes arguably the most important part of the cycle – the debrief. Every trip is filmed by a specialist team of photographers from the ground and the supervisor will give us comments from the ground. They’re partly there for safety but sometimes, even though something feels great in the air, it doesn’t always look right from the ground and they can help us with that. The debrief lasts about forty minutes and provides really good feedback from every trip that we can put into practice straight away on the next one.”

….. and then they do it all again…another two times!

Manoeuvres

The full programme for the 2024 show, in this special Diamond Anniversary Year, has yet to be unveiled but I’m pretty sure there’s something special in there to be revealed. George did tell me of one new manoeuvre – the Gnat – named in honour of the first plane flown by the Red Arrows, and one “old” manoeuvre, returning to the second half of the programme: the 5:4 Split, which starts from a Diamond 9 and then the front 5 and back 4 will cross over in an opposition pass to recreate the Diamond shape but pointing in opposite directions. I also learnt that Concorde is in there.

I asked George if he had any favourite manoeuvres: “It’s probably a bit of a cliché because everyone says this because it’s so spectacular, but it’s got to be The Tornado, which is where you’ve got seven aircraft at the front all smoking in a big arrow formation with Reds 8 and 9 looping round. The smoke patterns are really dramatic and the colour changes as you turn. It’s a crowd favourite for a reason. However, having now flown the manoeuvres, I’ve got an appreciation for the different levels of challenge. There’s one called The Phoenix, which perhaps is not so spectacular from the ground as The Tornado, but trickier, where you’ve effectively got seven of us in a row with The Boss at the front and three of us on each wing lying abreast. It’s really hard to get the widths and the depths right, partly because you’re so far away from The Boss.”

Closing Thoughts….

.. on life after the Red Arrows, George tells me that people tend to head off onto the frontline or into a training role to continue with flying. Usually, unless you come back as Red 1, or, occasionally, get called in to cover sickness, once you’ve completed your three years that’s it and your time is up.

…on Croatia: “They’ve been exceptionally welcoming. Zadar is a joint military and civil airfield so it’s been great working with both sides. It’s been good working with the Embassy as well. Everyone has been very hospitable and made our lives very easy in terms of providing the resources to achieve what we wanted to achieve. Hopefully we’ll be back next year and can see a bit more of the country on our days off.”

And, after I’d picked George’s brain until mine was nearly exploding, thanked him for his time, and was concerned about impacting too much on his off-duty time, he seemed genuinely delighted, after his challenging day, to have spent some of his scarce and valuable downtime educating another rookie on just some of the fascinating aspects of this amazing, but clearly extremely demanding, job he has: “It’s lovely being able to chat to people and share the joy and experience of the job. It is something to be shared; it’s a public facing role and I absolutely love the job and all aspects that come with it so it’s fantastic to do this kind of thing.”

And it was pretty fantastic for me to get such a vivid glimpse of a Red Arrow’s pilot’s life in Croatia, as well as a better understanding of how this incredible organisation manages to deliver, time and time again, the exceptional display performances and soft diplomatic skills abroad, that make us all so very proud of them.

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A huge thank you to all the Red Arrows team and particularly:

Flight Lieutenant George Hobday, for his time, patience and good humour during the interview.

Andrew Morton, Public Relations Manager, for all his help before and afterwards.

The Visual Communications Specialists for their amazing photographs, all of which are MoD/Crown Copyright 2024.

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You will be bound to want to find out more and the best place to start is here : Red Arrows | Royal Air Force (mod.uk)

 

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