Armed Forces Day, Stirling: We talk to the Red Arrows

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For me personally, the sleek jets of the Red Arrows flying in formation, with their unmistakable blue, red and white trails, are an awe-inspiring sight. They’ve been a feature at many of the most important celebrations and commemorations of recent times; from the anniversary of the Battle of Britain to a flypast over Edinburgh to mark the London 2012 Olympics.

This year marks the Red Arrows 50th season of aerobatic displays, having first taken flight back in 1965. They’ll be sure to win over a whole new generation when they take to the skies over Stirling for this year’s Armed Forces Day on Saturday 28 June.

Flight Lieutenant Stew Campbell, 'Red 2'

In the run-up to the event, we spoke to Red Arrow pilot Flight Lieutenant Stewart Campbell from Peebles in the Scottish Borders. He has over 14 years of military flight experience, including time spent with the historic ‘Dambusters’ 617 Squadron, the squadron which single-handedly undertook a daring mission to destroy German dams in the Second World War. Most days he answers to ‘Red 2’.

Q: What was your first experience of flying like? Can you remember how you felt?
Terrifying! It was an air experience flight in a RAF Chipmunk out of Turnhouse when I was a member of the Air Training Corps (circa 1994 aged 14). I’d never even flown in an airliner by this point in my life so flying was a completely new experience. I vividly remember enjoying the view of Edinburgh and the Pentland hills. This was also the first time I ever experienced aerobatic flying – it was exhilarating.

Q: What was it like to have been part of such an illustrious squadron as the ‘Dambusters’? Was it daunting given its history?
Awesome. It was a real privilege and honour to be a member of such a renowned squadron. It was never daunting to be a member of it; I was always extremely proud to wear the 617 Squadron colours and always tried my best to maintain the squadron’s reputation for excellence.

Q: You flew sorties [combat flights] and missions in Afghanistan. What’s it like to fly in a combat zone? Were you ever afraid? How did you deal with the experience?
Flying operational sorties is what the job is all about. If all we did was train and never do, work would become frustrating. Flying operational missions was incredibly satisfying. Of course we do a lot of training at home before going out on combat sorties but nothing fully prepares you for the real thing until you’re up there and doing it with people relying on you, often with their lives. Our role in Afghanistan was to directly support the troops on the ground. Every time we flew, we helped safeguard our troops – that was very rewarding indeed. Flying a fast jet requires a fair bit of concentration and quick thinking. As a result I found you never really had time to consider being scared whilst flying. The situation none of us wanted to get into was to eject from the aircraft behind enemy lines. Fortunately that never happened.

Q: What’s the best part of a typical day in the Red Arrows?
Running in for a show with the team and pulling up for the first loop after flying over the crowd from behind. I’ve been in the crowd many times in the past myself and felt my spine tingle as the team suddenly appeared overhead – to know I’m giving that same feeling to others is awesome.

Q: Aerial displays look fairly dangerous – how much extra training do you have to have before you’re allowed to fly in the Red Arrows?
Our training period prior to the public seeing us fly as a team lasts six gruelling months. It’s without doubt the most intense period of flying I have been through and incredibly demanding. During this period, we generally fly three training sorties a day, Monday to Friday, from our home base of RAF Scampton (also the original home of the ‘Dambusters’ in Lincoln, England). We begin flying as a formation of just three aircraft and build up from simple loops and rolls to more dynamic manoeuvres. As our skills, improve we begin to fly as a formation of five aircraft, then seven, eight and then finally nine. Our first ‘nine ship’ this year came approximately halfway through this six-month phase. Once we reach this point, the whole show has been put together and we simply practice it over and over until we reach the required standard to display to a public audience (see what it’s like in the cockpit in the video below). This year, we flew around 117 displays prior to our first public show.

Q: If you could only fly over one part of Scotland for the rest of your life, where would it be and why?
Without doubt the west coast of Scotland. I’ve been fortunate to travel extensively around the world, yet for me, the beauty of the Scottish west coast is unrivalled anywhere. In the future, I’d dearly like to spend my time flying in this part of the world if the right job crops up.

Q: When you’re not in a cockpit, where’s your favourite spot/thing to do in Scotland to relax?
Be outdoors. My wife and I are keen mountain bikers, runners, walkers and skiers. We enjoy nothing better than being in the hills when the weather is kind!  If I had to pick one area I enjoy going back to time and again it would be Glencoe. The scenery is so dramatic and exciting; it’s a truly magical place to me.

Event Information
As well as the Red Arrows, a multitude of vintage and current service aircraft will take to the skies. There will also be tanks and military vehicles on display as well as a parade of military personnel and over 2,000 veterans through the streets, starting from Stirling Castle’s esplanade at 11am.

This year’s event coincides with the poignant 70th anniversary commemorations of D-Day, when troops from Scotland, England, Wales, Northern Ireland and the Commonwealth stormed the landing beaches of Normandy.

For more information about the event, including live entertainment and music, visit the Armed Forces Day website.

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David Walsh

David is a Media Editor at VisitScotland. You'll most likely find him vagabonding around Scotland with a camera in hand; that or a dram of the finest single malt.