On November 8th Mark Zanker returned to the Hawker Centre to give
another talk, this time on his experiences in the Red Arrows, the RAF
Aerobatic Team (RAFAT). He was introduced by Chris Roberts who told us
that Mark is currently a B747 Captain with Cathay Pacific and had had a
long and varied career in the RAF starting in 1981 at Cranwell and then
flying Hawks, Jaguars, Harrier GR3s and Harrier GR7s. (See Newsletter
44 for a fuller account of Mark’s operational career.)
Mark started with an excellent fast and furious Red Arrows promotional video then moved on to the Red’s epic South Africa, far east and Australia tour in 1995-96. They were due to display at a five day trade show in Langkawi, Indonesia, an island about the size of the Isle of Wight. The programme was to arrive on Friday December 1st, rest on Saturday and Sunday, practice on Monday and do the show on Tuesday.
On the Saturday Mark and two fellow pilots hired a car to see
the beautiful island but unfortunately, at a right hand turn at the end
of a long straight, a truck hit their car head-on but offset to one
side and the locked-together vehicles slid to a standstill near the
sea. Mark and one other had relatively minor injuries but their driver
was hurt most with a broken collar bone and short term memory loss. He
didn’t know what had happened or where he was and asked the same
questions repeatedly. All three were taken by fast ambulance through
heavy traffic to a brand new hospital where they were patched up and
’phoned the ‘boss’ at the golf club where he was relaxing. Display
possibilities were discussed.
The Reds do not have a spare pilot. This is not practical as he
would have to be competent and current in any of the nine positions.
However, three new pilots are introduced in October to train. So, the
new Red 3 would step in for the first half of the display, depart then
rejoin for the landing. The second half would be flown by eight
aircraft. Mark, although fit to fly, had a problem in that the oxygen
mask containing the microphone pressed on the stitches to his chin and
might open the wound. Oxygen wasn’t needed but the microphone was
essential. The solution was to borrow a throat mike.
British Aerospace had asked the Ministry of Defence to do a Red Arrows marketing tour to South Africa. The Hawk TMk1A could not carry drop tanks and had no in-flight refuelling system so its duration was about 2 hours covering 8-900 nautical miles. They would fly as eleven aircraft, including two spares, in a loose formation of three flights of three aircraft plus one of two, using the commercial air lanes. On each leg one pilot would be chosen to communicate with the air traffic control systems using the VHF radio while communications between the Hawks would use the UHF radio, and everyone would listen to both. On the way out on the Italy-Turkey leg Mark was the nominated communication pilot. The Istanbul controller asked “How many sheeps you are?” “Eleven”. The startled controller said that was not acceptable but up to four was!
Several displays were flown in the Middle East before the team flew from Addis Ababa in Ethiopia to Nairobi, a leg of 1hr 40min with no diversionary landing grounds, controllers or radar cover en route, so flying was just ‘by the book’. In the intertropical convergence zone which circles Earth near the equator, thunder storms in huge cells rising well above the Hawk’s ceiling, proliferate. Hail and icing conditions are a hazard in the clouds. However, Nairobi was reached safely but the weather there was poor so an instrument approach was flown with four sections.
At Pretoria the team spent three days at the South African Air Force base at Waterkloof before departing for Capetown where they displayed over the Waterfront . From there they went on to Durban following the Garden Route along the coast. Later in Sydney the Red Arrows were to boost ‘UK plc’ and Mark showed a video of an interview by Anthea Turner for GMTV. On Australia Day the team displayed over Sydney Harbour Opera House watched by a million people.
What, asked Mark, distinguishes the Red Arrows as a first class team? He then gave an example. The team was to appear at the 1994 Buoch International Air Show in Switzerland, where the airfield was in a steep sided mountain valley, together with the Patrouille de France and the Italian Frecce Tricolore teams, so it was going to be a competitive event on the Saturday. Ideally the teams would arrive on Friday so the site could be assessed ahead of the display. The French and Italians did and decided to truncate their displays due to the proximity of the mountains. The Reds left England on Saturday morning and on the way to Switzerland Red 6 experienced a control restriction so the team landed at Emmen. Red 6 took the spare aircraft but time had been lost so the team flew straight into their full display at Buoch which was completed successfully.
The French and Italian teams were stunned! How had the Red Arrows
been able to do this? Planning, meticulous preparation and the desire
to be best is the answer. They plotted their standard flight paths on a
map of Buoch and adjusted them to take account of the mountains. They
then transcribed the adjusted flight paths onto a map of Scampton which
they then practised using the lower thrust which would be available at
the high altitude of Buoch. It should be added that the team flew
straight back to England at the end of their display!
Mark finished with a video of the 1995-96 world tour which involved 1,100 sorties travelling 52,000 miles, or more than twice round the World at the equator.
During question time Mark gave more information. The team is always practiced in three display routines: ‘flat’ consisting of turning manoeuvres for low cloud base and poor visibility conditions, ‘rolling’ which excludes vertical plane manoeuvres, and ‘full’ which needs 5,000 ft of clear air and includes looping. During a display the leader can call for a change from one to another. Annual intensive training is carried out in Cyprus. For example Reds 1 - 4 fly 3 flights per day for 5 days per week for 6 weeks. Only the leader sees where the formation is going, all the others are concentrating on station-keeping with him, or a neighbour, by keeping two features (or sighting points) on his aircraft aligned.
The Hawk is a simple and reliable aircraft. Transit flights are made
with an engineer in the back seat, the Boss taking the Engineering
Officer. The Red Arrows aircraft have an easier life structurally than
training squadron aircraft. Asked about the Gnat, the Hawk’s
predecessor, Chris Roberts, who flew the Gnat with the Red Arrows, said
the Gnat was superior for formation aerobatics but the Hawk was far
better for the role because of its more modern design and technology.
The Red Arrows Gnats were cleared to fly with the electrically actuated
aileron angle limiter fuse removed. Maximum roll rate was then 540
degrees per second.
The vote of thanks for this behind-the-scenes look at the Red Arrows, a real privilege, was given by Frank Rainsborough. The talk was illustrated with many of Mark’s own photographs.