Red Arrows: HIW interview Red 2 pilot Mike Bowden

As part of our feature on aerobatic displays in our latest issue, we were fortunate enough to speak with Mike Bowden, the current pilot of Red 2. He was keen to shed light on the rigours or training to become a Red Arrow pilot, and how they manage to pull off their jaw-dropping stunts.

What’s the selection process like to join the Red Arrows?

You need to have completed a minimum of 1500 flying hours and be rated as above average in your role, which is quite an achievement in itself (not many people in the Royal Air Force (RAF) ever manage to achieve this). You have to have done something operational, as you are always looking to promote the RAF as a Red Arrow pilot, representing everyone else that’s in it. Those are the basic criteria, which is then added to with a few other things. You have a flying report that includes reports on all of your operational flights, which gets sent to the Red Arrows. Each candidate’s report is evaluated and graded; the top 9 guys from this procedure will be invited to go to the selection week.

Putting on displays of such quality is down to a team effort; countless engineers work tirelessly to make sure the planes are ready and fully functional.

Can you tell me about the specific training you did for the Red Arrows?

It involves spending a lot of time flying the Hawk, the plane flown by the Red Arrows, which I had been fortunate enough to fly before. It was important that I refamiliarised myself with the handling and the instruments inside this aircraft, and make sure I was satisfactorily proficient in all of these aspects. Once that’s done you move over to the Red Arrow planes themselves and learn about the slight modifications that are made to them, such as the smoke system, and some of the procedures relating to the general handling. Very quickly you find yourself on the wing of the boss aircraft, practicing as many loops and rolls as you can!

Even though it looks similar, the technique we use is very different from the way we fly in formation on the front line, to make the planes appear as if they are moving as one. All our flying and formations are done off voice controls; throughout the show the boss is telling us what’s coming next so that we can coordinate our inputs on what he says. When you fly in formation on the frontline it’s all done by eye, you are literally waiting for the aircraft in front of you to turn before doing the same. If we were to do this in the Red Arrows, it would make the overall formation look very broken rather than the one moving wing we aim to produce. This forms the building blocks for the 6 months of winter training we do, after which we work on the more complex manoeuvres. We start doing these with 3 aircraft before eventually building it up to the full 9.


What’s your role within the team? Which position are you?

I’m Red 2 this season, so I sit directly to the right of the Boss. All even numbers are on the right hand side of the formation, and all the odds are on the left. Directly behind the Boss is what’s known as the ‘Stem’, which is where Red 6 and Red 7 sit, whom are better known as the ‘Synchro’ pair. The first year Red Arrow pilots typically are either Red 2, 3, 4 or 5, with the experience of one second year Red Arrow to help them. They make up what’s known as “Enid,” named after Enid Blighton’s Famous Five. The back 4 planes are known as “Gypo,” and once the second half of the show starts we split up into these 2 sections, so that as Enid complete a manoeuvre, the Gypo section come straight in to perform something different. Gypo will often break down to leave the Synchro pair to do passes at each other, while Reds 8 and 9 move between the two sections throughout the show.

We’ll never have a perfect show, after every show we have a thorough debrief in which we have to be very critical of ourselves and each other. We sit and discuss our performance, and we will never sit back and rest on our laurels. We have to be honest and open with each other, and call each other by our number rather than name during the debrief so that any criticism isn’t taken personally.

The Red Arrows are famed for their multi coloured smoke, which is used primarily as a visual aid for the pilots, but is great for spectators.

What’s your favourite manoeuvre to perform? 

The first half focuses on being part of the whole 9. As Red 2, I’m part of the foundation behind the Boss; if I was to react too quickly to his change in direction the aircraft behind me would do the same, and the whole formation would be ruined. The more exciting, dynamic moves come in the second half of the show, and I would say the most exciting thing I get to do as a first year Red Arrow is the roll backs. This is where I pull out of formation and perform a full 360 degree roll around Red 4 and then position ourselves outside of him, using different coloured smokes. The aim of the roll is to keep it as tight as possible, and will be followed by Red 4 performing the same manoeuvre around my aircraft. This is difficult because Reds 3 and 5 are also performing this manoeuvre simultaneously, and it’s quite hard to get the rolls to match, in terms of shape and timing.

How close do you get during these manoeuvres?

There’s a perfect position to be in during all manoeuvres, and to achieve this we aim to triangulate a position on the bosses aircraft. We use 2 reference points to put us in the right part of sky, which is standard for any formation flying. If we were away from that position we would mention that in the debrief. In close formation, we are typically 6 feet from each other, which is very close when you’ve got 9 aircraft all together doing dynamic manoeuvres. All we use to judge this is the human eye; there is absolutely no autopilot involved in performing any of our manoeuvres.

Red Arrows: HIW interview Red 2 pilot Mike Bowden
Two Hawks from the Red Arrows pass within feet of each other whilst practising the terrifying Gypo Pass as part of their display routine over RAF Akrotiri, Cyprus.

How strong are the g-forces you experience during some of the manoeuvres?

The Synchro pair pull the most G force, up to 8-G in some of the formation breaks that they perform. In Enid, the front section, we perform something known as the Detonator and the Vixen break, where we pull away at anything up to 6-G. There’s quite a lot of G force encountered when we rejoin formation, as we are all trying to get back in position quickly before the next manoeuvre. Anything up to 6-G is normal for this as well.

What’s the difference between the Hawks used by the Red Arrows and their military equivalent?

Ultimately they are the same aircraft. The training for the military is done in the same aircraft that the Red Arrows use, however there are now 2 versions used on the front line. One is the Hawk Mk 2 which is the more modern one, which is excellent preparation for flying a Typhoon, or an F-35 when it eventually starts to be used.

If you want to learn more about the amazing displays the Red Arrows and the Blue Angels perform, make sure you buy a copy of HIW Issue 75. We explain the technology and engineering behind aerobatic displays, and go inside the Hawk T1A and the F/A-18 Hornet. Pick up a copy of Issue 75 today from all good retailers, or order it online from the ImagineShop. If you have a tablet or smartphone, you can also download the digital version onto your iOS or Android device. To make sure you never miss an issue of How It Works magazine, make sure you subscribe today!

Plus, check out:

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Fly with the Red Arrows and the Blue Angels in Issue 75 of How It Works

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