Red, white and blue.
I saw them twice this week. The Royal Air Force Aerobatic Team, The Red Arrows. I must have seen them nearly fifty times in my life, of course.
I can picture a much littler me waiting on the clifftop somewhere along the long sweeping coastline of Bournemouth’s Poole Bay, perhaps holding dad’s hand or watching mum scan the skies impatiently – as least as much a child as her offspring in such moments. Waiting. Waiting for the minute-perfect arrival of the nine Gnats, then Hawks – WHAM! – suddenly streaking overhead in awsome precision and control, as their engines scream unrestrained excitement.
Or standing in the rain at one of the Hurn air shows, hoping the clouds would clear just enough for the chaps to do their magical stuff, hanging off eachother’s wings with the most exacting trust, to show faithful crowds what human skill can do.
It’s been said that the Red Arrows team have always enjoyed flying at Bournemouth. They’re very polite chaps, so I doubt they’d tell us it was high time we got them a new portacabin to sleep in at the airport anyway, but still. I can say from various experiences that, at least from very very low aeronautical speeds and from the more reassuring vantage point of Always The Right Way Up, this neck of the woods is a pretty one from the air.
And this weekend it seemed to be a perfect amphitheatre for aerial action as ever it was. Unprecidented rain and flooding and terrible visibility broke dramatically after Bournemouth Air Festival’s first apocalyptically washed-out day on Thursday, and Friday dawned bright and clear and warm – the bay twinkling blue from Needles to Old Harry’s, and clouds receding to the very roof.
That Friday afternoon I watched the team from Chris and Laura’s splendidly front-row vantage point in town, close to the very cross-over of the Lunatic Flying Straight At Each Other that they do, to bottom-twinging applause every time, and directly under the heart they draw a mile high in the sky for everyone with their smoke trails. Never else does burnt diesel bring a tear to the eye quite like this.
Then on Saturday, we took my aeronutty but currently house-bound mother out to our collective back garden on Southbourne Cliffs – on another day of impossible meteorological changearounds from miserable low cloud to glorious summer skies. And seeing the exact same display from the Arrows as the day before but from the edge of it was even more thrilling; when they peeled off across the town at the end of a wide manoeuvre, they were roaring right over our heads. Seeing the lead four start their Strip The Willow, or whatever country dance thing it is they do, from underneath was a lesson in flight precision – those chaps moved in such harmony it looked like CG. Unbelievable. Inspiring. Thrilling. Every time.
Someone behind us received a phone call. She was not the sort to hold in news, it seemed, and she leaned into our little gathering as we played festival radio and said simply: “One’s crashed.”
We looked at eachother. Then up at the clear blue sky again.
By now, you know the story. As much as we do. Red Four, Flight Lieutenant Jon Egging, came down in the pretty riverside fields along the Stour, just south of the airfield. Turning back off the runway as he peeled away in a final sunburst for the hardcore fans waiting to see the team land, his Hawk T1 just didn’t stay in the air, losing altitude fast as it arced towards the ground. Jon didn’t eject. He did put out a mayday, so he knew something was wrong. He appears to have instinctively stayed with his aircraft to ensure it went down safely away from the houses of Throop and Castle Lane.
The Red Arrows don’t do crashes. Flying since 1965, there have been only a handful of fatalities – and only in 1971 was that in an actual display. The loss of a pilot at the controls of a Red Arrow display aircraft is a shocking piece of news. Across the UK people are feeling it, and here in Bournemouth, flowers have been left piling up against the lion outside the town hall. Up the slope in the entrance of the old hotel building, the council has had to double the number of books of condolence opened to Flt Lt Egging’s family and to the Arrows’ wider family. People care about these people.
And it’s because they aren’t simply entertaining, of course, they’re inspiring.
What they do is about endeavor – about the pinnacle of human skills. We can’t imagine ourselves doing what they do, even as we daydream about it. And, as the primary marketing front end of the Royal Air Force, they are impressively effective brand ambassadors – those red white and blue trails do more to make people feel quietly proud to be British than almost anything these days. They are, in short, a comfort.
What comfort there is for Flt Lt Egging’s widow, Dr Emma Egging, must surely be partly found somewhere in that – in her husband’s skill, professionalism and bravery. In his service.
Every time you hear of another young life lost in the front line of our armed forces’ work, you probably find yourself thinking the same as me – why did we have to lose another life of that calibre? Of that self-control. Of that knowledge. Of that commitment to service. We need these people in society. Some might be tempted to say now more than ever.
We do need them. And no matter how bloody unjust their premature loss when it happens, nothing can stop them doing one of the most important things they do and can’t help but do. Because it’s precisely that calibre of person that will put themselves in harm’s way in order to serve, and in order to live life to the full. And in so doing, they do indeed inspire.
It’s cruelly ironic. Paying such a high price for being prepared to step up. But it’s these people who we will remember.
Red Four, you have certainly made your mark. On the sky, and on the mind’s eye.