The Royal Air Force (RAF) Aerobatic Team, colloquially known as the Red Arrows, is one of the most iconic symbols of the UK’s RAF. The display squad, which has wowed millions of fans across the world with its manoeuvres, rolls and incredible synchronisation, comprises nine BAE Hawk planes and their pilots.
The team is set to perform three awe-inspiring displays at the Bahrain International Airshow from November 9 to November 11, so Kristian Harrison sat down for a chat with Flight Lieutenant Patrick Kershaw, also known as Red 3, about the historic occasion and what it takes to become one of the ‘Reds’.
Please could you tell us a bit about yourself and your background, and how you came to join the RAF?
My introduction to flying planes came during my time obtaining my Business Administration degree at Leicester De Montfort University. I joined the East Midlands University Air Squadron whilst there and they sponsored me for my final year.
I was then selected to join the RAF and do my flying training as part of the fast jets category. I passed my training then did four years flying the Tornado GR4, including operations in the MENA region, before becoming a qualified instructor on the Hawk T1. I was selected to join the Reds in 2021 as Red 3 and this is my first display season. I’ve been in the RAF for 16 years now and I feel immensely privileged that I’ll spend three of those flying with the Red Arrows before returning to other operational duties!
What does it take to join the Red Arrows?
Firstly, you need a great amount of flying experience and to rack up 1,500 hours in a fast jet. There are more than 30 applicants every year for very limited spots, and then these are cut further to around 10. There are then intense assessments, not just of your flying capabilities but also how well you work in a team, before final selection.
Have you been to Bahrain before and are you excited about visiting?
I actually visited Bahrain very briefly in 2012 while I was taking a jet out to the Middle East as part of an operation, but that was just a brief stop at the Shaikh Isa Air Base. This time, we’re displaying over three days so I’m really looking forward to meeting some of the people that live on the island and getting out and seeing some of the sights and experiencing the country properly.
Can you tell us about the logistics behind getting the Red Arrows to Bahrain?
Despite some rumours to the contrary, we don’t ‘ship’ the Hawks abroad or even store them on a larger cargo plane which travels to our destination; we do fly the actual jets themselves by ‘hopping’ from country to country to refuel.
There will be six members of the crew flying in formation this time; throughout the UK summer air show season we had seven of the nine regularly flying, but unfortunately one has suffered an injury. He’ll still be coming out here but supporting from a logistics point of view.
Regardless, we’ll have a fun, exciting show with lots of red, white and blue to put out over Bahrain with a series of thrilling moves and aerobatics. As always, we will do a practice display beforehand and complete a full reconnaissance of the area and plan it beforehand so we aren’t on the back foot trying to work it out while we’re there.
Following on from this, how important are the wider Red Arrows crew, particularly the ‘Blues’ who are your engineers?
It’s hugely important to recognise all of the support staff that help the Red Arrows fly. On the surface you just see the pilots and the planes, but there’s 120 people involved; we are officially called the RAF Aerobatic Team, but realistically the team is a squadron as big as some of the front line squadrons we have.
It would be impossible to do as many shows as we do without the support. They truly are the unsung heroes. For example, the engineers will fill the planes with dye and service the jets while we’re being briefed. If we had to do it ourselves we’d have to cut our number of shows. When I take the red suit off, I’m just a person in the background, it’s the suit itself (and the plane of course) which represents the Red Arrows so we’re all just part of one big unit.
There’s also the people planning the tour and dealing with all the logistics back in the UK, which really highlights how much goes into these events and how the RAF can organise something across the world.
Let’s also not forget the people who help on the civilian side; the contacts at the embassy helping us sort the tour, the staff who process our jets on our stop-offs, the organisers of the air show and even the hotel staff who make our stay so comfortable.
The Red Arrows are an iconic symbol of the RAF. How important do you feel you are as an ambassadorial force to represent the UK both at home and abroad?
Hugely important! We showcase the RAF and its professionalism and expertise which is what the military do. After all, our motto is Éclat, a French word meaning ‘Excellence’. The ambassadorial role is huge as we represent the UK wherever we go and it’s a privilege to wear these suits for three years to promote the country, drive trade or to inspire anyone who has an interest in military and teamwork.
The Red Arrows strive for excellence with trust and teamwork, and I believe these qualities can inspire people across the world. We do many talks in schools and on the ground at displays and it’s an honour to hopefully inspire children on behalf of the RAF.
What’s your favourite manoeuvre and how do you say in such close synchronisation in the air?
To be honest, I really like the arrival because it’s the first time you appear at the site, coming from behind the crowd. You’re constantly looking at the leader Red 1 but you can also out of the corner of your eye see the crowd and their amazement as the heads turn. I like the barrel rolls and formations - every show is so much fun.
We all take our reference from Red 1 no matter where we are in the formation, and everything is incredibly timed on voice commands so we turn at exactly the same time. If we reacted to him moving instead then our brains would have to process the reaction time and it could be dangerous.
Finally, what does a Red Arrows pilot do during his downtime, both on and off tour?
We all have good camaraderie among the team, so on tours we go out for dinner together or go to the gym. In fact, four of us came through the ranks together so we’re a tight knit team and have a lot of trust in each other.
As for off tour, I don’t have a private flying licence but I still love planes, I can’t stay away! If I’m with my wife and we go somewhere with a plane museum, I always drag her there. My favourite story is that not long after I joined the RAF, we went to a museum and there was an exhibition featuring a flying simulator game which asked: ‘Can you be an RAF pilot?’ and she said I should try it as obviously I should do really well. Unfortunately a little kid next to me beat me and I was too embarrassed to tell him what my job was!