Many Brits, if you ask them about aerobatic teams, will mention the Red Arrows before any other. This team has represented Britain and the RAF all over the world for almost forty years with precision formation flying and aerobatics stretching the abilities of pilots and aircraft alike. The pilots that have rotated through the ten-man Red Arrows team since its inception have between them performed at almost four thousand public displays in over 20 countries.

However the Red Arrows are not the only display team the RAF's ever had - unlike the US Navy the RAF seemingly maintained little control over the operation of aerobatic teams until the formation (heh) of the Red Arrows in the mid-1960s.

As far as I am aware the Blue Angels (and to a lesser extent the USAF's Thunderbirds) have been America's 'national' aerobatic teams for as long as America has had them; however Great Britain, although it has always had at least one aerobatic team since the early 1930s, did not initially maintain a 'national' team. Aerobatic/formation flying teams were always put on by individual squadrons with little or no central administration of their display routines or itinerary. Some did get some kind of official recognition however, and would be regarded as the national team for a time.

Hazy Beginnings

It is unclear exactly when the first formation display took place but it was definitely at an aerial pageant at London's Hendon Aerodrome, sometime in the early 1920s or 1930s. A three-ship team of biplanes - either Hawker Furies, Gloster Gauntlets or Gloster Gladiators - performed there, flying a series of rolls and loops with their aircraft literally tied together, using bungee cord. This was later repeated at the annual pageants by pilots from several other squadrons, although records are unclear on the specifics of this.

The first jet aircraft display in Britain was a small team of De Havilland Vampires (the first jet aircraft to be used by the RAF after the Gloster Meteor) from Hampshire who started displaying in 1947. Apparently there were several small teams of Vampires (!) like this by 1950, by which time No. 72 Squadron was flying a display team of seven aircraft and No. 54 Squadron was flying a five-strong team. Notably the latter were the first aerobatic team to use smoke in their displays, which they did by injecting diesel fuel into their aircraft exhausts.

Record Setters

Seemingly turning into an inter-squadron rivalry, it became a trend for squadrons around the country to have their own aerial display teams. When No. 54 Squadron's Vampires were replaced with Hawker Hunters they formed a new display team called the Black Knights. In 1955 they flew a 4-aircraft formation, pilots dressed in all-black flying suits. The following year, No. 111 Squadron provided the official display team, this time with their five Hunters completely black, save for the RAF roundels on the wings and fuselage. After performing at a French airshow they were dubbed Les Fl├Ęches Noires and subsequently became known everywhere as the Black Arrows. They are probably the most recognised British team to use front line operational aircraft; since about 1967 all British aerobatic teams have used training aircraft.

In 1958 the Black Arrows were increased to nine aircraft and stunned airshow goers when they turned up and performed rolls and loops in formation, a feat unlike any had seen since before the war. The team added new tricks and formations to their routines every year. The Black Arrows gained and so far retain their place in the record books by looping and barrel-rolling 22 aircraft in formation (with the help of No. 56 Squadron, who loaned them 13 Hunters with pilots) at the Farnborough airshow in 1958. This feat has never been equalled and with the cost of aircraft now, as well as pilot training and availability, it seems likely that this record will stand forever.

The Black Arrows continued to be the RAFs ambassador to much of the world for several years following until 1960 when they were replaced by the Blue Diamonds of No. 92 Squadron, flying a team of 16 blue-painted Hunters. Unfortunately, probably because they only displayed for two years, there seems to be no information about the Blue Diamonds beyond the fact of their existence.

Lightning Display Teams

In 1961 the Hunter was superseded as Britain's attack aircraft by the English Electric Lightning and in 1962 a team of them took over the mantle of showing off for the RAF from the Blue Diamonds. This team was named the Tigers, rather unimaginatively as it turned out since this was and is the nickname of their outfit at No. 74 Squadron as well.

As the first supersonic fighter to serve in the RAF, the British-designed and built Lightning was the perfect symbol of British prestige and engineering excellence; a team of nine impressed and deafened spectators with formation flying and aerobatics for two seasons. In the crossover year between the Hunters and the Lightnings the Blue Diamonds and Tigers toured air shows together, putting on a spectacular unified display before the Lightnings took over fulltime. The Tigers performed at air shows until about 1963 when No. 56 Squadron and their newly-formed Firebirds team (also Lightnings) took over.

Both teams continued the tradition of distinctive markings on their aircraft - the Tigers painted their stainless silver Lightnings black along the top of the fuselage with yellow and black tessellating triangles on either side of the RAF roundel on the nose. The Firebirds adorned theirs with red and white-chequered tails and a red and white arrow in front of the nose roundel.

Aerobatics by Central Flying School

In 1964 the management decided that it would be easier and cheaper to draw the RAFs main display team from a training unit instead of operational squadrons. In that year the Central Flying School was charged with providing the main display team and did so using Jet Provosts in a team they called the Red Pelicans. Several other training units also put on their own display teams using Jet Provosts, these being the Poachers, Swords and Macaws.

It seems however that although the Provosts put on a polished display, they were a bit soft compared to their loud, fast and powerful predecessors. The Provost was much slower than the Lightning and not as agile or attractive as the Hunter. From my limited showgoing experience their displays are not, to me, as exciting as displays put on by higher-performance aircraft (however I'm not a particular fan of the Provost so I suppose I'm biased). Some of the Provost teams including the Red Pelicans and Macaws still exist and perform regularly at airshows.

Perhaps seeing a gap that needed to be filled, Flight Lieutenant Lee Jones of No. 4 Flight Training School in RAF Valley, North Wales and formerly of No. 111 Squadron and the Black Arrows, set up a display team composed of 5 yellow Folland Gnat training aircraft. After his callsign and the colour of their aircraft, the team adopted the name Yellowjacks.

The Gnat had just come into service as a trainer, although the design was originally submitted by Folland for a combat role. The weapons capacity of the Gnat was small but it was very fast and manoeuvrable (able to perform a 360° roll in less than a second), making it an ideal aircraft for training and aerobatics. This team performed as the second official RAF display team alongside the Red Pelicans until the end of the 1964 season; the Red Arrows were formed immediately afterwards.


I apologise for the vague nature of parts of this writeup; although not desirable it's preferable to being wrong. Because of the large amount of sources for this writeup, there's huge scope for little mistakes on my part and there is considerable disagreement between sources on some areas, therefore I have just touched on them. If anyone can supply me with definitives for some of the more vague areas of this writeup I'll include them.

Thanks to toalight for doing just that.

Sources/Further Reading:

  • Andrew March; "Silver Jubilee of the Red Arrows"; Royal Air Force Yearboook 1989
  • (Author unknown) (Untitled); <http://www.geocities.com/raf_redarrows/redarrowshomepage.html>
  • Airventure; "Red Arrows Special"; <http://www.airventure.de/reds02engl.htm>
  • Cheek, Tim; "Duxford" <http://dspace.dial.pipex.com/town/place/gdg18/betweenwars.htm>
  • Skyflash; "The RAF Aerobatic Team the Red Arrows"; <http://www.sky-flash.com/reds8.htm>
  • North East Aircraft Museum; Daugherty, Brian; "De Havilland Vampires"; <http://www.neam.co.uk/vampire.html>
  • dave@militaryairshows.co.uk; "Display Teams; Red Arrows"; <http://www.militaryairshows.co.uk/team1.htm>

Black Arrows (54 Squadron), Black Knights (111 Squadron) & Blue Diamonds (92 Squadron)

  • Flightline UK 2001; "The Hawker Hunter at Airshows"; <http://www.geocities.com/flightline99/hunter50th.html>
  • North East Aircraft Museum; Daugherty, Brian; "Hawker Hunter F51 (E-419)" <http://www.neam.co.uk/hunter.html>
  • webmaster@classicfighters.com; "Hawker Hunter History" <http://www.classicfighters.com/Aircraft/PRIIGenHist.htm>
  • Eade, Dave; "Wattisham Squadrons; 111 Squadron: 'Treble One'"; <http://www.ffour.force9.co.uk/Wattisham/111sq/111sq.htm>
  • British Crown; "Squadron badges and histories; 78 to 111 Squadrons" <http://www.raf.mod.uk/history/h78to111.html>
  • Burke, Damian; "Hawker Hunter; History"; <http://www.thunder-and-lightnings.co.uk/hunter/history.html>
  • Eade, Dave; "The Wattisham chronicles; Part Three: Hunter heaven & Javelin jottings" <http://www.f4aviation.co.uk/Wattisham/Part%20three.htm>
  • Classic Fighters; "Hawker Hunter PR11 WT723"; <http://www.classicfighters.com/cf/aircraft/hhpr11wt723.asp?history_hunter<
  • feedback@rafweb.org; "Air of Authority - A History of RAF Organisation; No 91 - 95 Squadron Histories"; <http://www.rafweb.org/Sqn091-95.htm>

Tigers (74 Squadron) & Firebirds (56 Squadron)

  • Burke, Damian; "English Electric Lightning; History" <http://www.thunder-and-lightnings.co.uk/lightning/history.html> (also Firebirds)
  • IPMS Stockholm; "Camouflage and markings of No. 74 Squadron RAF"; <http://www.ipmsstockholm.org/magazine/1999/11/stuff_eng_profile_74sqn2.htm>
  • Parsons, Gary; "Wattisham Squadrons; 74 Squadron: Tiger Phantoms" <http://www.ffour.force9.co.uk/Wattisham/74sq/phantomtigers.htm>
  • Eade, Dave; "The Wattisham chronicles; Part Four: English Electric's finest"; <http://www.f4aviation.co.uk/Wattisham/Part%20four.htm>
  • Pearson, Bob & Banyai-Riepl, Chris; "The BAC Lightning: The Early Years" <http://www.cbrnp.com/profiles/quarter3/lightnings.htm>
  • Pasons, Gary; "Wattisham Squadrons; 56 Squadron: Phantoms & Firebirds" <http://www.ffour.force9.co.uk/Wattisham/56sq/firebirds.htm>

Red Pelicans (Central Flying School)

  • North East Aircraft Museum; Daugherty, Brian; "Hunting Percival Jet Provost T4"; <http://www.neam.co.uk/jprovost.html>
  • British Crown; "History of the CFS"; <http://www.raf.mod.uk/history/cfshistory.html>
  • Lock, Justin; "The Jet Provost T5A"; <http://www.jet-trainer.com/The_Jet_Provost_T5A.html>
  • Deacon, Ray; "Ray Deacon's Photographs - Page 3"; <http://members.aol.com/airfields2000/deacon3.htm>
  • (Author unknown); "Proud of Louth"; <http://www.madh.freeserve.co.uk/louth/louth07.htm> (Macaws)

Yellowjacks

  • Ristniemi, Kurt; "Gnat in Aerobatics"; <http://www.dlc.fi/~kurt/infnars/gnat/aerobats.htm>
  • The Doublestar Group; "Folland Fo.141 Gnat"; <http://www.warbirdalley.com/gnat.htm>
  • British Crown; "No 4 Flying Training School"; <http://www.rafvalley.org/Station/4FTS_History_9.htm>

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