A BUMPY LANDING I was seven years old when I first became fascinated by flying. It was on a trip from London to South America with my parents. The sense of buzz in the airport, the smell of kerosene and the perceived glamour of flying – everything to do with aviation just captured my imagination. We were flying to Colombia but on the small internal fight from Bogota to Pasto, we had a very bumpy landing and I thought, this is the most exciting thing I have ever done in my life. I remember my mother gripping my hand for dear life.
It was the first time I had ever seen either of my parents scared, so I thought this must be really thrilling. That sowed the seed. I was taken to the Biggin Hill air show in England when I was about 11 and watched the Harrier, the Tornado and the Red Arrows and that was the final deal for me. I just wanted to do that.
THEORY OF FLYING I had a diverse education. I grew up in Beckenham, in south London, and went to school in nearby Dulwich. I joined the Combined Cadet Force but I was also interested in politics, history and theology. I had a key piece of advice from a career adviser, just to study something I enjoyed and found interesting.
A Royal Air Force career officer assured me the service wanted broad-minded officers and not just mathematicians and physicists, so I was awarded a flying scholarship and studied politics and theology at Manchester University. While enjoying all the culture and diversity of Manchester as a student in the 1990s, I also joined the University Air Squadron. I fell in love with the adventurous training and the squadron camaraderie. So I joined the Royal Air Force after university.
THE CREAM RISES I thoroughly enjoyed basic officer training and the flying training remains one of the most impressionable periods of my career. I could hardly believe I was being paid to do this, that it was my job. When I completed the first stage of my fast jet training, I did pretty well on the course, so I was selected to be a Creamy (a student selected to be an instructor).
It was not my ultimate goal to be in the Red Arrows. I was focused on being an operational fast pilot on the front line. It was my boss who suggested I apply to join the Red Arrows team during my first front-line tour. Only a pilot who has previously served with the team can return as Red 1 (as Montenegro has).
I am still most nervous when my parents are watching the show. It’s the same feeling you get as a 12-year-old boy when your dad comes to see you play football. That’s why my parents only watch one show per year.
TOUR OF DUTY This Asia tour is a 90-day deployment. We have never been to China before, so it’s a huge milestone in the history of the Red Arrows. Mine was the first UK military jet ever to land in China, so that and displaying at the Zhuhai air show is a major career highlight for me.
The team has done 56 countries in 52 years, so anywhere new is a positive for us. This region is one of the fastest growing in the world, in terms of aviation, and this is one of the major trade shows in the area.
There’s no time for sightseeing and we only have one day in Hong Kong. Having said that, we made it on time into Zhuhai, so were able to split the team and travel to engagements in Beijing, Shanghai, Wuhan and Guangzhou.
I just didn’t realise how many fans we have in China that have all been following us online for years. At the Beijing Institute of Technology, one of the press team had been streaming our presentation online and, at peak levels, he had 220,000 people watching.
FLYING THE FLAG It is not just our job to loop and roll and entertain but also to carry a message. It may sound like a cliché, but we can fly the British flag and represent all that is best about the UK and that means helping trade and industry, too. It’s not defence of the nation, but part of the remit of the Red Arrows is to communicate with as many groups at home and overseas as possible.
Probably 70 per cent of my job is about communications, not flying. The beauty for me is I don’t have to do much other than describe how I got where I am as part of the UK education system and the skills developed during my time in the RAF.
THE LONG HAUL We brought 12 aircraft and over 100 personnel with us. The Hawk’s flight endurance is only about 600 miles – that’s 1.5 hours of flying – so we have had to hop the aircraft to China. There have been 22 fuel stops in 15 countries en route. A journey of 9,100 nautical miles is quite a feat when you can only do about 600 miles on one tank.
It’s been a logistical challenge, too, and for me in the cockpit, it’s the challenge of dealing with huge weather systems. We don’t have the fuel, like an airliner, to re-route, so we got stuck in Ahmedabad, in India, for three days, waiting for the northerly portion of a monsoon to retreat. Our next show is in Hyderabad, in India, and then we have some official engagements in the Middle East before returning home to RAF Scampton [in eastern England].