Very few of us will have been lucky enough to fly a jet aircraft and fewer still have had the privilege to do so professionally. Of the thousands of people around the world who are pilots, only the best of the best are trusted to represent their profession or their country as display pilots. Thrilling the crowds by flying unbelievably low and fast while pulling huge g-forces, the highly skilled display pilot is able to take an aircraft to the very edge of what it, and the pilot, can withstand with such precision that they can do it in tight formation with their team mates. Every death-defying display is planned, rehearsed and scrutinized in minute detail, with the pilots and their aircraft optimized for their display role. Advanced simulators are also used to rehearse the displays, which is both safer and less expensive than real flying.
The Royal Air Force Aerobatic Team, (The Red Arrows) and the United States Navy Flight Demonstration Squadron (The Blue Angels) are two of the most respected air display teams in the world. Similar in many ways, they both use the diamond as their signature formation, and have a pair of solo aircraft to perform the more aggressive stunts.
To be a Red Arrows or Blue Angels pilot requires more than 1,500 and 1,250 flying hours respectively. In both teams, the display pilots are chosen for their above-average flying abilities and outstanding personal attributes. The aerobatic displays are actually flown by the formation leader in each team, who guides the group around the sky and signals over the radio when to make turns. The other aircraft concentrate on staying in precisely the right position off his wingtip by lining up visual cues, such as wing edges, aircraft features and letters or symbols, and maintaining this exact picture to ensure they are in exactly the right place. The pilots develop a sense of where everyone is at all times, through rehearsal and repetition. They also develop a sense of where dangerous slipstreams (jet washes) are, as the jets generate turbulent air behind them. Standard procedures place the responsibility on each pilot to avoid collision in a specific order (the leader avoids nobody, they avoid him), adhering to clear exit instructions and routes, which are practiced in real flight and on special simulators.
Aircraft modifications are made to comply with the demands of aerobatic flight. The Red Arrows have a modified fuel delivery system to improve engine response time, while the Blue Angels fit a control stick spring system that gives the pilot far more feel and precision of control, by applying a significant resistive force to his inputs, and requiring the pilot to maintain a substantial 18kg (40lbs) rearward force on the stick to maintain level flight. Both teams also modify their aircraft to generate spectacular smoke trails for the display. To achieve this effect, oil is sprayed into the jet exhaust from special tanks fitted where there would normally be a gun.
The most obvious difference between the two teams is the aircraft they fly. The Red Arrows use the single engine BAe Systems Hawk T1A, which is the current fast jet training aircraft used by the Royal Air Force. The Blue Angels fly the aircraft carrier-based Boeing F/A18 Hornet, which is a current frontline combat aircraft with two afterburning engines. The Hornet has far greater performance than its counterpart. It is larger, more powerful, has an advanced flight control, radar and weapons system, and when not displaying, is almost twice as fast as the radar-less Hawk.
Red Bull Air Race
The ultimate motorsport?
The Red Bull Air Race markets itself as the ultimate motorsport. It’s similar to car auto-testing, in that the pilots follow a route through and around a series of obstacles. 20m (65ft) tall air gates are used for the 5-6km (3-4mi) course. These hollow tubes are held erect by air compressors and are quite delicate so as to avoid damaging the aircraft. Some gates must be flown between normally, and some must be negotiated while flying at 90” to horizontal. Time penalties are added for bad form, breaking rules, or clipping gates. The course is three-dimensional, so vertical turns (loops) are included.
The two aircraft that fly in the race – the Edge 540 and the MXS-R- are very similar in specs. Both are made from carbon fibre, their engines produce up to 35obhp, and the race rules limit them to a maximum of 12g during manoeuvres. The Red Bull pilots must wear special g-race suits and recline their seats by up to 40° to cope with the extreme gravitational forces. The pilots are all active aerobatic air show display pilots, and must fulfil minimum criteria set by the Red Bull Air Race Committee.
Dream teams around the globe
Aerobatic stunt teams come from all over
- Frecce Tricolori (Italian Air Force)
- Red Arrows(Royal Air Force-United Kingdom)
- Blue Angels (United States Navy)
- Snowbirds (Canadian Forces)
- Cartouche dore (French Air Force)
- Saudi Hawks (Royal Saudi Air Force)
Facts about Red Arrows
Servicing – Every Hawk aircraft is dismantled, meticulously inspected and tested every winter, which takes anything between 4 and 16 weeks per aircraft.
Smoke trails – Not just for effect, the smoke trails emitted by the aircraft are used to estimate wind direction, not to mention spot other Red Arrows during manoeuvres.
No copying – The Red Arrows’ perfectly symmetrical diamond nine formation epitomized the team so well, it became registered as an official trademark.
All in the name – The name ‘Red Arrows’ wasn’t a spontaneous choice. It was chosen to combine two earlier team names, the Black Arrows and the Red Pelicans.