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It’s a rare day off during one of the most intensive periods of these pilots’ lives – and they are desperate to get back into the air. The Scots, who served together in Afghanistan, are under intense pressure to perform. This time, though, Flight Lieutenants Stew Campbell and Joe Hourston are with the Red Arrows at their pre-season training base in Greece. The elite RAF flying squad is preparing to perform its 51st season. And time is short.
We’re stuck on the ground today for a Greek national holiday,
says Stew on the phone from the Hellenic Air Force Base in Andravida
We just want to fly.
The Red Arrows have just weeks to hone their skills before headlining at Scotland’s National Airshow. The highlight of the year at the National Museum of Flight in East Fortune, the high-octane event will also feature the RAF Typhoon display team and the RAF Battle of Britain Memorial Flight.
Each season, a nine-strong Red Arrows squadron, including three new recruits, must complete six months’ training before being judged fit to perform in public. At this stage, in the heat of the Greek sun, each pilot is focused on that goal.
The whole skill of this really relies on muscle motor memory
explains Stew, 35, who was brought up in the shadow of low-flying jets in the Borders town of Peebles.
I relate it to learning a musical instrument. Everybody is rubbish to start with, but if you do it enough, your fingers learn to do what they’re meant to without thinking about it. We’re trying to get to that stage at the moment.
Red Arrows pilots, recruited after a week-long selection process, must have completed at least 1,500 hours’ flying timeand a front-line tour to qualify for the job. Stew and Joe joined the squadron in 2013 for the Red Arrows 50th anniversary season.
It’s a crazy time because you never think you’re going to get to do this job, so when you do it comes as a bit of a surprise,
says Joe, 36, who is originally from the Black Isle.
It puts your life in turmoil for a little bit and then all of a sudden you dive into it head first.
Joining the Red Arrows for the allotted three years is more than a job, as Joe will testify. He and his wife had some stark choices to make before he applied for a place in the squadron. Their son, Hamish, was a baby when Joe joined the team. They now have a seven month old, Felix.
Before I even applied, we discussed what it would mean for family life,
You have to make sacrifices for the short time you’re doing the job.
The demands on Red Arrows pilots are considerable, and for good reason. Besides resulting in breathtaking performances, the training regime is designed to ensure the safety of the pilots and their public. Fatalities in the Red Arrows are rare. Ten pilots have died in the team’s 51-year history including Flt Lt Sean Cunningham and Flt Lt Jon Egging,who were killed in separate accidents in 2011.
The boys are always in our thoughts,
The team has restructured and moved on, but we won’t forget them.
Every Red Arrows pilot is acutely aware of his or her responsibility to achieve extremely high standards. Training is carefully managed in stages, with two, three, then four aircraft flying together, until finally all nine fly in formation.
The team aspect of it is the most important part,
You have to rely 100% on the people flying six or eight feet away from you. Trust is everything.
Both pilots compare the camaraderie of the Red Arrows to the bond they felt with colleagues on the front line. The pair served together in Afghanistan with 617 Squadron, also known as the Dambusters.
The whole point of us being in Afghanistan was to support the Army,
Ninety per cent of the time you are effectively CCTV, holding a camera above a place for hours at a time, but the few times we saw things that would save British lives made it all worth it.
With only one further season as members of the Red Arrows, what lies ahead for the pilots? There is talk of returning to their previous roles as RAF flying instructors.
I know one thing,
This will be the pinnacle of my flying career and nothing will touch it.