The day that pilot Ian Smith made it into the intrepid Red Arrow team would have been a proud one for his father.
Derek Smith flew with The Red Pelicans, an aerobatics team often considered the Arrows’ founders, and, judging by his son Ian’s successes during a 30-year career in the Royal Air Force, it is obvious that flying prowess is in the blood.
Not only did Ian spend three years flying with the Red Arrows, but his military career – which saw him serve as a Squadron Leader and Jaguar pilot – also included stints in which he was deployed to Northern Ireland, Bosnia and Iraq.
He has racked up more than 6,000 flying hours and, as well as his military service, also spent a year in Saudi Arabia as team manager for the Saudi Hawks Aerobatics Team.
Given his wealth of experience, it is no surprise that his flying mates joke about “Smithy” having such conflicts as the Battle of Waterloo on his CV.
Now aged 48, he has been taken on as the new member of the Sywell-based Blades Aerobatic Display Team, only the third new pilot to be recruited by the squad since they first began in 2006.
Ian said: “After three years with the Red Arrows and a 30-year career in the Air Force, it is an extraordinary experience for anyone to come and fly with this company, which is becoming more and more successful. My responsibility is to be a good team member. I have known all these guys from old, for 10 or 20 years.
“As long as I can remember I have wanted to do this. My father led the Red Pelicans, and the Red Arrows were formed by the Yellow Jacks and Red Pelicans; so really he was in a founding half of the Red Arrows, although he did not fly with them himself.”
Each member of The Blades team is an ex-Red Arrows’ pilot and their task is to not only hold experience days for companies and individuals who would like the chance to fly with an aerobatics team, but also to perform displays at about 50 shows a year to audiences of about five million people.
Many Northamptonshire people in the Sywell area will be familiar with the sight of four Extra EA-300 planes tearing through the skies and performing death-defying feats in their practice sessions.
So far, Ian is only five weeks into his training sessions with The Blades, a process which, despite Ian’s impressive aerobatic ability, still needs to be taken slowly, stage by stage.
Initially, moves are practised in the air solo and then with one other plane, before the team is built up to its full complement of four.
Ian said: “My training has been dictated by the weather so far. We were supposed to be out this morning, but it was too windy. I had not flown an Extra 300 before I came here, but I was converted to type by [team member] Andy Evans. Ten years ago it was at the top of its tree as far as competition aerobatics goes and it is still a stunning aeroplane to fly. It has been a steady process with Andy and I have been practising forced landings and all of the procedures so if anything goes wrong I know how to cope; with any sort of flying there is some risk involved.”
But he added: “We would all do this flying for free if we could afford it as it is so exiting. There are very few opportunities in life when you can do something like this every week.”
According to Ian, the Hawks flown by the Red Arrows feel very different from the Extra EA-300s, but nevertheless, a start with the RAF’s famous aerobatics team is considered the best background for life in The Blades.
Blades team leader, Mark Cutmore, said: “We have four full-time pilots and two part-time pilots and the only proviso is that you have to be an ex-Red Arrow pilot, as otherwise it would take a huge amount of training. So, people come to us having had the Red Arrows as a boot camp.”
He continued: “It is not difficult to introduce a new pilot as we wouldn’t have that person if we didn’t know them.”
Those who have seen the Blades will be familiar with their stock sequences which invariably encourage gasps of empathetic fear from members of the crowd.
At one moment the pilots will be flying in a row, before breaking off into different directions, flying upside down, or looping around the other planes, depending on the arrangement. Often they will appear to fly directly at each other before breaking away at the last second.
Air sickness, caused by the forces on the body during aerobatics, may seem like a real prospect to those who know little of this kind of flying but, according to the team, the body adapts to coping with the kind of sensations which may leave others feeling queasy.
Mark said: “I have never felt sick in an aeroplane. I think your body gets used to it. There can be some parts of the routine which are difficult to learn and there are some manoeuvres that if they go slightly wrong it isn’t what you want and it is like being in a washing machine, then you might think you feel a bit queasy. But, before you know it, your body has got used to it.”
He added: “We do fly over 400 passengers a year and we make sure they know what to expect and where to look. We rarely have anyone who isn’t happy in the plane.”
All Blades manoeuvres are well-rehearsed and any changes to a routine are well-considered.
Mark said: “We have to think carefully about whether we do a change or not. If you change one manoeuvre, you change the manoeuvre before it and the manoeuvre after that, so before you know it you have a major change going on and petrol isn’t cheap.”
But how terrifying is it to be one of the Blades team; one of the people responsible for carrying out such awe-inspiring manoeuvres with the right amount of precision?
Speaking to The Blades, the answer seems to be: “Not very.” Their confidence in their own abilities and those of their fellow pilots seems to be unflinching.
Mark said: “Our job is to make the easy look difficult. But it is all smoke and mirrors, it is all very safe. We train extremely hard to get it right to the split second. There is no danger but from the perspective of the spectator it looks like we are going to collide. But safety is built into everything we do.
“We start simply and build up the skills from there. You improve and improve and then put it all together as a team.
“By the time we fly in front of the public, there is no danger at all.”