From two pilots to a mechanic, an avionics specialist and an official photographer, Sarah Freeman meets the Yorkshire talent behind the Red Arrows.
As a child, Si Taylor spent countless weekends and schools holidays at Church Fenton. His dad is something of an aviation nut and father and son would spend hours admiring the various planes parked up and taking off from the former RAF air base. The love of planes clearly rubbed off. Fast forward 20 odd years and Si, now 37, is in his second year with the legendary Red Arrows. If you happen to catch one of their displays, Si is one of the two pilots who together are responsible for this year’s heart-shaped finale. His opposite number is Bradford-born Tom Bould and the Red Arrows support crew has also welcomed more than its fair share of Yorkshire talent.
“I had thought about being a pilot, but I’d discounted it because like a lot of people I thought you had to have maths and physics,” says Leeds- born Si, who ended up studying economics at Loughborough University where he was able to indulge his other passion – rugby. “When I discovered that the entry requirements for the RAF were in fact much more flexible, that was it, I knew exactly what I wanted to do.”
It was 14 years ago that Si first took the cockpit controls and after initial training was selected to fly the Tornado GR4. Tours of Afghanistan and Libya followed and after transferring to the Typhoon FGR4 in 2012, he spent two years back on the front line at RAF Coningsby, deployed to the Falkland Islands and taking part in exercises in Oman, the UAE and Poland.
“I’m not sure I arrived with bucketloads of natural talent. What you quickly discover is that people mature at different rates. Some are brilliant in training, but then plateau and others really blossom when they are actually doing it for real.
“Flying a Tornado was incredible, but couldn’t be more different from a Typhoon. A Tornado is like driving a very fast car that doesn’t turn very well but you get used to it, you learn how it handles.
“As the years ticked by of course I was aware of the Red Arrows, but it’s such a privilege that I didn’t really dare to think that one day I would be lucky enough to get the nod. I just kept my head down flying jets and doing the job I was paid for.”
The Red Arrows was formed in 1965, an amalgamation of various RAF aeorobatics teams and it is renowned as the best in the world. With just nine pilots, each doing a three-year stint, getting the opportunity to wear that famous red suit is not easy.
“It’s a pretty aggressive selection process. You have to have reached a certain rating within the RAF and accrued a certain amount of hours, but that’s just the start,” adds Si. “Each year they do an initial trawl of pilots who they think might be suitable and come up with a shortlist of between six and nine candidates for just two or three spaces.
“Then you have to go out to Greece for a flying test and a peer group interview. The first time I applied a BBC film crew were making a documentary about the Red Arrows, so that helped pile on the pressure. You know that everyone you are going up against has the potential to be part of the squad, but they also have to fit with the rest of the team. Once you join you spend 24-7 with these guys so you have to get on.”
While Si’s initial application was unsuccessful, having been given good feedback and told he had only narrowly missed out he decided he would reapply the following year.
“It was second time lucky. The truth is the Red Arrows is not for everyone. The display season is pretty full on, so the chances are you will miss family birthdays, friends’ weddings, but obviously the rewards are pretty incredible.”
Once the new squad is finalised, September to March is spent on winter training, encouraging the new recruits and making sure they are au fait with the various manoeuvres. From April to May, the team heads out to Greece to put the finishing touches to that summer’s formations and only once it has been awarded public display authority do they get to swap their green suits for red ones.
“That’s a pretty special moment for any Red Arrow. You don’t get to keep them though. At the end of every season you hand them back, although to be honest by the end of the summer I’m not sure anyone would want them.
“There are basically two different teams within every squad. Everyone starts off as a formation pilot who do the first half of every show and then they hand over to the synchro pair, which at the moment is Tom and I. It’s a big responsibility, you don’t want the finale to be a damp squib, but by the time we get to the that first event it’s all perfectly well honed.
“If we are learning a new move, we start with a big safety margin between the aircraft and over the days and weeks we gradually move closer and closer.”
In September 2016, after a busy domestic season, the team embarked on its biggest overseas tour in a decade. The nine-week deployment to the Asia-Pacific and Middle East regions covered 20,000 miles. The tour took the Red Arrows to 17 countries – including visiting China for the first time in the squadron’s history and it’s estimated that the various displays were watched by one billion people.
“I know, it’s incredible,” says Bradford-born Tom, who studied aerospace engineering at Manchester University and after graduating joined the RAF. “We weren’t sure whether anyone in China would know who we were, but the reception was incredible and it’s at moments like that when you realise just what reach the Reds has.
“Like Si, I’ve always had a fascination with aviation and for a while I thought about being a commercial pilot, but by the time I finished my degree, the RAF was on my radar and that was it. Every RAF pilot learns an element of formation flying and the Red Arrows is really just about refining what you already know.”
While the pilots may get the glory, they wouldn’t take off without the Red Arrows support crew, known as Team Circus. Currently it includes Doncaster-born mechanic Corporal Jason Cawston, avionics specialist Corporal Louis Jelley and photographing the current cohort is another export from God’s own country.
Scarborough-born Hannah Smoker’s first brush with the aerobatics team was a flypast at Whitby Regatta and she recently became one of three RAF photographers attached to the world-famous aerobatics team. This year the 27-year-old has been flying in the back seat of Red 10, piloted by Squadron Leader Mike Ling, capturing images of the team in action. When not in the air she takes photos and video of them from the ground.
“At school I was never interested in maths or science or English, I was just mad keen on photography and film. I’m not from a military background, but after university I saw an advert for an RAF photographer job and friends encouraged me to go for it.
“At first I worked at RAF Marham and RAF Coningsby doing groundwork – pictures of visits, sports events, parts of the aircraft that were faulty. But to fly with the Red Arrows is just unreal.”
The Red Arrows has a support staff of 120 people, and those who tour with the pilots are known as the Circus Blues. Hannah, who belongs to Circus 10, is one of just two women in the team.
“I remember my first flight, a familiarisation trip in an RAF Typhoon, I was nervous of being sick or passing out, but it was so exciting. However, there are other problems. You’re strapped in tight so it’s very restrictive and you have to stretch a lot. It’s difficult to move your arms around, and the helmet, with visor down, makes it tricky looking through the viewfinder sometimes.
“I know from memories of the Whitby Regatta how amazing it is to watch the Red Arrows overhead, but seeing them up close is just incredible.”