Red Arrow Rookies

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20110119

Reports of a mid-air collision and the recruitment of the first female pilot to the team mean the Red Arrows have been in the news for more than just their extraordinary flying displays this year.

This programme goes behind the scenes to find out what it takes to wear that coveted red flying suit.

'Red Arrows' pilots are top guns, the best the RAF has to offer.

Controversial, perhaps, in wartime: some commentators think such key RAF resources would be better used in Afghanistan.

Others regard the morale-boosting and PR benefits of the team as a vital tool in the nation's armoury.

But how do these experienced frontline pilots adapt to their new role as stunt artists and RAF ambassadors after high-pressure tours of Iraq and Afghanistan?

Aviator Kirsty Moore (code name 'Red Three') and her colleagues were due to start the 2010 display season in May this year, but the Cyprus crash as well as volcanic ash have interrupted their training schedule and the first ten events were cancelled.

But the fans turn out in force as soon as their gruelling summer season starts.

At a 'meet the pilots' event at RAF Waddington, the crowds are as excited as if they were meeting Robbie Williams.

And when the pilots arrive, the queues of people are not disappointed - those red suits and aviator shades send a shiver through the throng.

Qualifications for Red Arrow pilots include at least one front-line tour of duty as a fast-jet pilot and a minimum of 1,500 flying hours.

New technology evens up the problems of withstanding the extreme G-forces the pilots have to endure.

It's no accident that most Red Arrow pilots are fitness fanatics: they have to be in order to cope with the gruelling physical demands of this kind of flying.

Pilates is easy - every flight is a kind of extreme abs workout, a technique the pilots use to help control blood circulation and prevent blackout.

There's no bunking off on a bad day because there are no reserve pilots (the injured pilot has been replaced by one of last year's leavers - he's been busy training over Lincolnshire with his synchro pair, to catch up in time for the summer season).

When summer displays are over, the team fly back to RAF Scampton in Lincolnshire (a few miles from the producer's home, as it happens) to begin training for the following year.

Back in green flying suits, they begin a tight training schedule with the next batch of rookie pilots.

In order to maintain and repair any hidden faults each Hawk aircraft is stripped down and dismantled in turn by the 'Circus': the engineering support staff.

Each member of the Circus is assigned to a particular pilot and travels with him/her to all events in case of breakdown.

There is a cost to becoming part of such an elite: Kirsty has been married for four years and has never lived with her husband in that time - weekends and holidays are all she gets with him.

On the other hand she expects her three year tour of duty to include a display at the 2012 Olympics.

There's a curious democracy about a Red Arrow flypast - anyone can request one - all you have to do is download the form, send it in and if they can fit it into a pre-existing flight plan, they will try to oblige - although it has to be for a public event (they don't do weddings and funerals).

An actual display costs serious money for the air shows that book them - and any overseas displays must be funded entirely by sponsors - essential when pressures on Defence budgets are only likely to increase in coming years.

This montage profile of the Red Arrows reveals fascinating detail and gives a human voice to an extraordinary and awe-inspiring team that is supported by a complex culture and history.

A look behind the scenes with the world-renowned Aerobatic team, the Red Arrows.