Red Arrows: 'This is the coolest job in the world'
Pilots tell of life in the Red Arrows
Asked whether he's ever felt like Tom Cruise in Top Gun, Flight Lieutenant Joe Hourston can't help laughing. “I was saying this to a lad the other day, 'Do not let it go to your head'. The military is what it stands for and it's important to keep your feet on the ground.”
He's talking about the honour of being a member of the Royal Air Force Aerobatics team, the Red Arrows. It's a job that might not induce the level of hysteria Cruise is used to, but it does place those elite pilots, who get to wear the world-famous red suits, firmly in the limelight.
“It's a privilege,” says 35-year-old Hourston. “And humbling that so many members of the public will go out of their way to stand in a queue for hours just to meet you, because ultimately, we're just normal blokes in the military.”
If you've ever stood, neck craned, eyes focused on the sky, to witness the nine scarlet jets shoot by, the red, white and blue smoke billowing in their wake, then you'll know what a sight they are to behold.
But while the Red Arrows' precision flying and jaw-dropping displays are known around the globe, what goes on behind-the scenes has always remained a closely guarded secret — until now.
To celebrate their 50th display season, BBC Two has been allowed unprecedented access at every level, including to newest recruits Hourston and Flight Lieutenant Stewart Campbell.
“When I got into the Air Force, I knew I wanted to fly fast jets,” says Campbell (34), who joined the RAF in 2003. It was while flying as the RAF Tucano display pilot that he got to spend a lot of time with the Red Arrows “and from then on, it was my absolute ambition to join them”.
Although shortlisted, Campbell failed to make the grade on his first attempt. Rather than allow the rejection to defeat him, it “gave me a firm zest to go again” and he earned a place in the 2014 display team.
Hourston was fortunate to be successful in his first application. He started his officer training with the RAF in 2001 and then undertook jet training before becoming a flying instructor.
“The pinnacle always seemed to be the Red Arrows,” says Hourston.
Although both men are seasoned jet pilots (candidates will have at least 1,500 flying hours behind them), nothing could prepare them for the moment they first took control of a Red Arrow jet.
“It's bizarre. You think the biggest challenge is being selected, but the reality kicks in when you start flying and you realise how blooming hard it is,” says Campbell, who along with Hourston, has served in the Middle East. “It's the hardest flying I've ever done. Far more stressful than being in operations out in Afghanistan,” he adds.
As Squadron Leader Jim Turner (41) puts it, “Nine jets, six feet apart, going at about 400mph, can be a tense situation.”
To avoid conflict, pilots never refer to each other by name, but by their allotted ‘Red' number.
“For Reds Two (Campbell) and Three (Hourston), they've had the pressure of learning new techniques, and it's almost like learning how to fly all over again,” says Red One (Turner).
The team train three times a day, five days a week, starting as a three, then five, seven, eight and finally nine formation.
Given that every Red Arrow member serves the team for three years, both men are already thinking about their next career move. Campbell will either go back to the front line or go and instruct. “I'm just going to make the most of the next few years,” he says. Hourston, meanwhile, is nearing the end of his air force career. Can he imagine doing a normal nine to five job after reaching such dizzying heights?
“This is the problem,” he laughs. “You've got to be realistic with your ambitions, about what you do next, and just find something fulfilling. Because if you think of the coolest job in the world, this is it.”
- The Red Arrows: Inside The Bubble is on BBC Two tomorrow at 9pm