Fifty years of the Red Arrows

Red Arrows Since the team was formed it has performed more than 4,500 displays in 55 different countries, including a recent first time display in Kuwait

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As the RAF's Red Arrows commence their 50th display season, take a look back at the history of the display team and the pilots who have thrilled spectators with their daredevil displays over the decades.

The year is 1965, the Beatles are rolling high in the charts, the mini-skirt is in fashion, England are good at football and the RAF's top fliers are set to embark on a journey which will see new standards in aviation excellence being set.

The Red Arrows began life at RAF Fairford in Gloucestershire, where a major celebration is planned at the 2014 Royal International Air Tattoo.

Since then the team has performed more than 4,500 displays in 55 different countries, including a recent first time display in Kuwait.

Highlights of the Middle East tour included the team meeting Prime Minister David Cameron in Dubai and flypasts over the city and its landmarks, such as the Burj Al Arab hotel.

But, back in the day, the team's fist performance was a more low-key affair.

The original Red Arrows team The first Red Arrows team began life at RAF Fairford in Gloucestershire

Led by Sqd Ldr Lee Jones, the team was unveiled to the media on 6 May, 1965, at Little Rissington in Gloucestershire.

This was a special display to promote the team. The first public display was on 9 May 1965 at Clermont Ferrand in France.

The Red Arrows' first UK public display was at Biggin Hill on 15 May, where the seven-strong team put on a 15 minute show in front of a crowd of about 40,000.

During the year, they performed 65 air displays in the UK, France, Italy, Netherlands, Belgium and West Germany.

The bar was now set for other display teams around the world to try and emulate.

Red Arrows flying over the Jordanian city of Aqaba, 2007 The Red Arrows famous diamond formation was introduced in 1968, when the team started performing with nine aircraft

The team officially became nine strong in 1968, after which the Red Arrows' diamond-shaped flying formation - the Diamond Nine - became the signature move.

Red Arrows history

Sqd Ldr Ray Hanna, 1966
  • The RAF had several aerobatic display teams in the 1950s and 1960s, but decided to disband them and form a single, full-time professional team.
  • The name Red Arrows was chosen to combine the appeal and expertise of two earlier teams, the Black Arrows and the Red Pelicans.
  • The formal name is Rafat, which stands for Royal Air Force Aerobatic Team.
  • The team originally flew Gnat jets but switched to the BAE Systems Hawk, which it still flies today, for the 1980.

Ian Dick and Dicky Duckett, who both went on to lead the team, joined in 1968.

Mr Dick said when he became team leader, his first directive from his commander was to "thrill the ignorant, impress the knowledgeable, but frighten no-one."

However, recalling a practice session, he said things did not always go to plan.

"I remember one classic occasion when I was coming out of a loop where we should have turned left - I had done it hundreds of times - but on this occasion I called right, although I did turn left," he said.

"A little voice behind me said 'you mean the other right boss'?"

"We were new boys together but flew on different sides of the formation - so we spent the year trying to miss each other," said team mate Dicky Duckett.

He said some of the highlights of his time in the team included flying at both the Monaco and German Grand Prixs.

"We didn't go that far in those days, although I remember when the team flew to America in the Gnats - they didn't have much of a range - so had to fly via Scotland, Iceland and Greenland to make it across the Atlantic."

The team has reached many milestones over the years, which include flying at important ceremonial and sporting events.

But for one pilot, Dicky Patounas, who is half-Greek, being given permission to fly over the Acropolis was the pinnacle of his career.

Red Arrows with former team members Dicky Duckett and Ian Dick (pictured 4th and 6th from the right) both led the team in the early days

The pilot, who joined in the late 1990s and led the team in 2005/6.

"No-one was allowed to fly over the Acropolis - it's an ancient building that you just can't go anywhere near - and I was able to fly right over the top with the Red Arrows," he said.

Scores of celebrities have also flown with the Red Arrows over the years, including racing drivers Lewis Hamilton and Nigel Mansell and Queen guitarist Brian May, who described it as an "amazing experience".

Red Arrows flying over the Acropolis The team was given special permission in 2005 to fly over the Acropolis

When asked if his hair fitted inside his helmet, he replied: "It's not the hair that's the problem - it's my ears."

The Queen guitarist was joined by West End and Broadway star Kerry Ellis as part of fundraising efforts for the RAF Benevolent Fund.

Flt Lt Ben Plank, who flew Brian May over the team's base at RAF Scampton, in Lincolnshire, also showed that even members of one of the world's most acclaimed aerobatic teams can make the odd mistake.

During a display in Shropshire last year, he pushed the wrong button and sent out blue smoke behind him, rather than red, meaning the team's red, white and blue colour-coded show went slightly wrong.

Flight Lieutenant Ben Plank with Queen guitarist Brian May Queen guitarist Brian May flew with the Red Arrows during a visit to RAF Scampton

However in 2011, tragedy hit the team with the deaths of two pilots in quick succession.

Flt Lt Sean Cunningham was killed at RAF Scampton after being accidentally ejected from his Hawk T1.

His colleague, Flt Lt Jon Egging, had been killed after completing a display at the Bournemouth Air Festival less than three months before.

Two fatalities so close together meant the safety of the team was questioned.

Following Flt Lt Egging's death, his wife, Dr Emma Egging, founded a trust in his name - with his mother Dawn, childhood friend James Godley, and Ben Plank.

Red Arrows flying over the Sheraton hotel in Doha The team's famous vapour trails are produced by pumping diesel mixed with coloured dye into the jet exhaust of the plane

The trust aims to help disadvantaged young people through engagement programmes and has just appointed television science presenter Professor Brian Cox as its patron.

Fast forward to 2014 and the team, including two new members, is ready to thrill spectators at events, including appearing at a D-Day commemoration event in Portsmouth, the Isle of Man TT and the British Formula One Grand Prix at Silverstone.

"We hope to entertain the public with the programme this year and hope the quality of the display lives up to the finest traditions of past teams," Sqd Ldr Jim Turner said,

"Ever since their first performance, the Red Arrows have promoted the excellence of the Royal Air Force and its skilled, well-trained people," he added.

Two Scots, Flt Lt Stewart Campbell and Flt Lt Joe Hourston, from the Borders and the Highlands, are the team's newest members.

"The 50th display season in 2014 makes this a particularly special time to arrive," said Flt Lt Hourston, who served in Afghanistan.

"Since day one of deciding to be a pilot I've always wanted to be a member of the team because of what it represents and the variety and challenge of the flying itself."

The first UK show of the year for the Red Arrows is on Saturday at Falmouth, Cornwall.

Red Arrows aircraft featuring new tail fin design The artwork featuring a red, white and blue design was unveiled earlier this year

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