Asked whether he’s ever felt like Tom Cruise in Top Gun, Flight Lieutenant Joe Hourston can’t help laughing.
“I was saying this to a lad the other day, ‘Do not let it go to your head’. The military is what it stands for and it’s important to keep your feet on the ground.”
He’s talking about the honour of being a member of the Royal Air Force Aerobatics team, the Red Arrows. It’s a job that might not induce the level of hysteria Cruise is used to, but it does place those elite pilots, who get to wear the world-famous red suits, firmly in the limelight.
“It’s a privilege,” says 35-year-old Hourston. “And humbling that so many members of the public will go out of their way to stand in a queue for hours just to meet you, because ultimately, we’re just normal blokes in the military.”
If you’ve ever stood, neck craned, eyes focused on the sky, to witness the nine scarlet jets shoot by, the red, white and blue smoke billowing in their wake, then you’ll know what a sight they are to behold.
But while the Red Arrows’ precision flying and jaw-dropping displays are known around the globe, what goes on behind-the scenes has always remained a closely guarded secret - until now.
To celebrate their 50th display season, BBC Two has been allowed unprecedented access at every level, including to newest recruits Hourston and Flight Lieutenant Stewart Campbell.
“When I got into the Air Force, I knew I wanted to fly fast jets,” says Campbell, 34, who was brought up in Peebles in the Scottish Borders and joined the RAF in 2003. It was while flying as the RAF Tucano display pilot that he got to spend a lot of time with the Red Arrows “and from then on, it was my absolute ambition to join them”.
Although shortlisted, Campbell failed to make the grade on his first attempt.Rather than allow the rejection to defeat him, it “gave me a firm zest to go again” and with the support of his wife Clare, he earned a place in the 2014 display team.
Hourston was fortunate to be successful in his first application.
Brought up in Inverness, he started his initial officer training with the RAF in 2001 and then undertook fast jet training before becoming a flying instructor.
“The pinnacle always seemed to be the Red Arrows,” says Hourston, whose second child with wife Sarah is due in August.
Although both men are seasoned jet pilots (candidates will have at least 1,500 flying hours behind them), nothing could prepare them for the moment they first took control of a Red Arrow jet.
“It’s bizarre. You think the biggest challenge is being selected, but the reality kicks in when you start flying and you realise how blooming hard it is,” says Campbell, who along with Hourston, has served in the Middle East.
“It’s the hardest flying I’ve ever done. Far more stressful than being in operations out in Afghanistan,” he adds.
As Squadron Leader Jim Turner, 41, puts it, “Nine jets, six feet apart, going at about 400mph, can be a tense situation.”
To avoid conflict, pilots never refer to each other by name, but by their allotted ‘Red’ number.
“For Reds Two [Campbell] and Three [Hourston], they’ve had the pressure of learning new techniques, and it’s almost like learning how to fly all over again,” says Red One (Turner).
The team train three times a day, five days a week, starting as a three, then five, seven, eight and finally nine formation.
“We rely on each other so much. It’s important the bond is strong within the team, so we can trust each other and second guess what we’re thinking at any given time,” says Hourston.
Only when the Squadron Leader believes they’re ready will the team move from RAF Scampton in Lincolnshire, to RAF Akrotiri in Cyprus for further training. Then the Air Vice Marshall decides whether to pass or fail the team at the Public Display Authority (PDA).
“If the team should be failed, it’s always [for] something that can be easily fixed, because the team wouldn’t be attempting PDA if they weren’t ready for it,” says Hourston.
After every flying session, there’s a debrief back on ground, where weaknesses are exposed and mistakes analysed in forensic detail.
“I don’t think you ever finish the analysing process because you’re always wanting to make it better,” notes Hourston. “It’s not like you get to the red suit stage and can take your foot off the gas.”
The toughest, and therefore final, manoeuvre to master is the’ rollback’, whereby each pilot has to roll around another aircraft.
“It’s the one I was most nervous of at the start as there’s an opportunity for it to go badly wrong. Fortunately they came OK and it’s actually my favourite manoeuvre,” says Campbell, who reveals that before they take to the skies, each pilot will go ‘inside the bubble’.
“You learn that as soon as you start pilot training, and it’s certainly nothing unusual for sportsmen. It’s getting yourself into that zone to be able to do some high-end performance and trying to block out all the stuff that’s going on in your life.”
In 2011, the team lost two members, Flight Lieutenant John Egging, who died when his plane crashed at the Bournemouth Air Festival, and three months later, Flight Lieutenant Sean Cunningham died when he was ejected from his seat while still on the runway at RAF Scampton.
“They were both people I knew and tragic accidents that could happen to any pilot in the air force,” says Campbell who, unbelievably, given the speed they’re flying at, insists it doesn’t feel they’re moving that fast. “Apart from a couple of times in a really steep bank turn where you see the ground flashing past you a couple of hundred feet below, but the jet next to you appears stationary.”
Hourston agrees: “When you’re stood by the motorway, the cars are going by very fast but if you’re driving on the motorway at 70mph and there’s another car doing the same next to you, it looks stationary. That’s exactly the same process.”
A highlight for the two of them is flying down The Mall for the Queen, but there’s no chance to take in the sights or crowds. “We’re concentrating so hard on what we’re doing, and looking at the boss, so you don’t want to distract yourself,” adds Hourston.
Given that every Red Arrow member serves the team for three years, both men are already thinking about their next career move. Campbell will either go back to the front line or go and instruct. “I’m unsure at the moment. I’m just going to make the most of the next few years,” he says. Hourston, meanwhile, is nearing the end of his air force career. Can he imagine doing a normal nine to five job after reaching such dizzying heights?
“This is the problem,” he laughs. “You’ve got to be realistic with your ambitions, about what you do next, and just find something fulfilling. Because if you think of the coolest job in the world, this is it.”
EXTRA TIME - THE RED ARROWS
:: Since their creation in the Swinging Sixties, the Red Arrows have undertaken 4,500 displays in more than 55 countries.
:: There is a ‘Red 10’, who acts as the display’s supervisor and commentator at air shows.
:: The newest recruits will always be upfront with Red One and then pilots will work their way back in the formation as they become more experienced.
:: The Red Arrows don’t have substitute pilots, so the team reverts to what is called the ‘loser strategy’ if they’re a man down.
:: Each pilot is allocated a top-notch engineer who flies in the back of the jet, jumping out at any airfield in the world, ready to service the plane.
:: The Red Arrows: Inside The Bubble airs on BBC Two on Sunday, July 27