The Red Arrows are perfectionists. You need to be when you’re hurtling towards each other at more than 300mph, before breaking off at the last second in a cloud of red, white and blue smoke.
With their trademark Diamond Nine shape and combinations of close-formation, precision flying, the Royal Air Force Aerobatic Team has been wowing crowds since 1965. In this, the RAF’s Centenary year, they’re closing in on 5,000 displays, in 57 countries.
Joining this elite group of aviators – and getting the chance to wear that unique, red flying suit – takes vast amounts of skill, dedication and training. During the winter, they practise three times a day, five days a week, to fine-tune the forthcoming year’s display. You need to learn from your mistakes, however small, and analyse every turn, every loop, every pass to see whether it can be done better, tighter, faster. Perhaps that’s why eight of the nine members of the 2018 team are mad-keen golfers.
“There are similarities,” admits Flight Lieutenant Mike Bowden, known as Red 9 to his team-mates. “Golf is a fond pastime for many of the guys. Actually, it’s more than that; it’s a great way to bond as a team, and mix with the public and sponsors.”
Red Arrows pilots are the RAF’s best. Before they can even think about applying, they must have 1,500 hours under their belts in fast jets – Typhoons and Tornados, Britain’s frontline fighter aircraft. All of them have completed operational tours in Afghanistan and Libya, or been part of the Quick Reaction Alert in the UK and Falkland Islands, protecting UK airspace from uninvited guests.
Given the hand-eye coordination, dedication and training required to become a combat pilot – let alone a combat pilot who excels enough to join the Red Arrows – I assume they’re all scratch golfers. “Er, no” says Flt Lt Matt Masters – aka Red 8. “Flying and golf take very different skills. We don’t spend as much time on the golf course as we’d like to, but in the time we do spend there, we want to perfect it. As a team that’s very close there’s clearly a lot of competition between us, and naturally that comes across on the golf course, too.
“We want to be as good as we can be in the air, and on the course, but it’s not quite as easy as the professionals make it look on TV.”
“There’s a good few of us who are at a fairly level playing field, and we all get out there together; there’s some good banter,” adds Flt Lt Bowden. I just wish I had more time to play. This is quite a demanding job. But any downtime we do get, which we need between sorties, we try to get out. ”
“Having said that, there are some similarities between flying and golf,” admits Flt Lt Masters. “You need tenacity to succeed. You’re not going to pick up flying skills straight away, on lesson one. You must want to do it, and keep wanting to improve. A big thing is listening to people with more experience than you. All that applies in golf. You’re not going to get the perfect swing straight away. You need to listen, learn, never give up.”
Their base at RAF Scampton, just north of Lincoln, is close to Gainsborough Golf Club, where they’re all members. It’s also the club where Ping Europe is based, and the team has an agreement with the company for new clubs – plus golf bags with the iconic diamond formation on the front.
Today, we’re at Scampton with Stewart Golf, who have stepped in to supply the team with bespoke trolleys – including two X9 Follow Signature models – with a customised red paint job, naturally. Flt Lt Bowden chose the model, and told us: “We were playing in a charity event last year and were all there with our carry bags when someone suggested we needed trolleys. Stewart were in contact – it’s a British manufacturing company, of which we’re huge supporters – and as soon as we found out the X9 Follow was available in red we both agreed it would look fantastic parked in front of a jet. I couldn’t wait to get my hands on one.”
They’ll get some mileage, too. During the display season, from May to September, the Red Arrows fly from Wednesday to Sunday, with Mondays and Tuesdays off. “In the summer we get to play about a dozen times a month,” says Flt Lt Masters.
“During the display season, we get a couple of days off each week and those of us who are keen meet up and play as much as we can. In the team there are seven or eight of us who are keen golfers, and we manage to play on some really nice courses. But there are one or two who, while they have nice equipment, are not equipped with the skills to get around a course in as few a shots as some of us!”
There’s a scene in Top Gun when Tom Cruise’s character, Maverick, looks around at his fellow pilots and asks his co-pilot: ‘I’m just wondering, who’s the best?’ It’s a question I put to the Red Arrows, but about golf. “I’d like to think I’m in the top two or three golfers on the team,” says Flt Lt Masters. “Red 9 (the use of call-signs is critical, because it means individuals can be critiqued by the team in a debrief without it getting personal) plays better than his handicap on a number of occasions
– they call him the bandit. A few us have realistic handicaps, and in the comps we play we all give each other a run for our money.”
In a typical season, the Red Arrows will make dozens of appearances across the UK – from airshow displays to flypasts over sporting occasions like the British F1 GP and occasionally the Open Championship or Ryder Cup.
En-route to these events the team often flies relatively low – 1,000 feet – to avoid other air traffic and any complications in flying through cloud in formation. Being that low also gives the golfers on the team the chance to spot some famous courses.
“I’m really guilty of spotting golf courses when we’re flying between displays,” admits Flt Lt Bowden. “Landing up at Prestwick in Ayrshire, you come in over places like Turnberry and Prestwick itself, and then landing at RAF Leuchars near St Andrews, you see all those courses on the east coast of Scotland and, of course, the Old Course at St Andrews.”
“We use the texture of the terrain quite a lot in our display routine,” adds Flt Lt Masters, “so we sometimes use golf courses to help us line-up for a pass. Sometimes we do wonder how much we put people off on the tee as we fly over! And if there’s a course near a display site and we’re staying overnight, we’ll try to get out for a round.”
After sitting in on two practice display debriefs, where each one – filmed from the ground – is microscopically analysed to see where every pilot can improve (we’re talking about being a couple of feet too high or too low, or a second too late on a turn, 100ft off the ground, at 300mph…) both men share another familiar trait that perhaps explains why most of the Red Arrows love golf. Whenever anyone asked Tiger Woods why he wanted to change his swing, he’d always say “I want to get better”. He was always on a never-ending search for perfection. The Red Arrows are the same. “Perfect in a Red Arrows display isn’t possible,” reveals Flt Lt Bowden. “It can always be improved.”
“Every now and again, towards the end of a season, we might get close,” adds Flt Lt Masters. “In the few times we’ve been close to a perfect display, the feeling you get can’t be described.”
What would be “perfect” in golf? An ace would be pretty special, even more so at Augusta National. When I offer both pilots that, or a perfect display, their answers are revealing.
“The ace,” because the perfect display isn’t possible,” says Flt Lt Bowden, without hesitation.
“Mmmm, that’s a tough question…,” says Flt Lt Masters. “An ace at Augusta… no, it would have to be a perfect display, because that’s what we practise for day in, day out.”