The crowd at the most recent Farnborough International Airshow could see the Red Arrows before they could hear them, a fast moving streak of crimson against the blue sky. Soon the elite Royal Air Force squadron screamed over their heads.
The Red Arrows, who came to Farnborough to celebrate their 50th anniversary, are the RAF’s official aerobatic display team and the U.K.’s answer to the U.S. Navy’s Blue Angels.
The Red Arrows in action. Image Credit: Ronnies Macdonald. Top Image: The Red Arrows sporting their 50th anniversary colors.
The team’s current aircraft of choice is the nimble single engine Hawk training jet from BAE Systems that can go as fast as 700 mph, just under the speed of sound. “Their Hawk T1 and T2 are the premier training aircraft in the British fleet and the Red Arrows can demonstrate its best qualities,” says Chris Hodson, the military program manager at GE Aviation’s composites and manufacturing plant in Hamble, U.K. “Everybody in the United Kingdom and the world wants to see the Red Arrows when they fly.”
But Hodson and his team also get to see the planes up close. The Hawk’s canopy, the forward-facing acrylic windscreen, and its 100-gallon external fuel tank are all built at the Hamble plant. “These products are very visible parts of the aircraft,” Hodson says. “You can see them at close quarters during their low level manoeuvers.“
The view from the cockpit of a Red Arrows Hawk TMK1. In addition to the canopy and windscreen, the Hawk holds cockpit displays and instruments, a heads-up display and mission management systems from GE Aviation units in Cheltenham U.K., and Grand Rapids, MI. Image Credit: U.K. Ministry of Defense.
Workers at the Hamble plant make canopy and windscreen assemblies by fitting cast and stretched acrylic over a metal canopy frame. The assembly is a complex part that includes a miniature detonating cord, which blows the canopy off the plane should the crew need to eject. It’s the one part of the vehicle the pilots hope they’ll never use.
The Hamble facility, which GE Aviation acquired in 2007, has been building parts for the Hawk and its predecessor, the Folland Gnat, since the Red Arrows formed in 1964. Hodson has been working on the Hawk since it first took flight 40 years ago in 1974. (Hamble also makes composite and metallic parts for the next-generation Airbus A350 and for the A380 double-decker.)
Red 9 flying a loop over the RAF’s base in Scampton, Lincolnshire, the home of the Red Arrows. GE makes the external tank attached to the belly of the Hawk jets. Image Credit: U.K. Ministry of Defense.
The Red Arrows are not the only ones to fly the Hawks. RAF pilots train with the latest generation of the plane before graduating to fighter jets. Some 18 military services around the world also use the aircraft.
The demand keeps the Hamble plant busy. “The Red Arrows promote the best of the RAF and of Britain’s aircraft industry and we are part of that legacy,” Hodson says. “That makes us very proud.”
The Red Arrows during practice. Image Credit: U.K. Ministry of Defense