I have never hung upside down in a plane before this week. Since I was a little boy, I have marvelled at the acrobatics of the Royal Air Force’s Red Arrows. Everyone in the UK knows about them. Every kid wants to be up there flying with them. This week, for me, that boyhood dream came true!
The Red Arrows are in the UAE right now for the Dubai and Al Ain Air Shows. They were also in Abu Dhabi to offer an early salute to the UAE on its 42nd National Day. Like the UAE’s Al Forsan, the Red Arrows are an elite, precision flying team – the very cream of the RAF’s fighter pilots. They are famous around the world as ambassadors for the United Kingdom, notching up nearly 4,500 displays in 54 countries, showcasing the speed, agility and precision of the RAF.
I was delighted that the Red Arrows could be part of the UK presence at these two important regional air shows, alongside the RAF’s Typhoon jet which is also displaying. They are a very visible British Government way of supporting the vision of the UAE in establishing itself as a leading global aerospace hub, and they complement the strong presence by over 120 UK companies at the air shows. I was really impressed that the Red Arrows also set out to inspire the next generation about flying. The team did a star-burst across a range of schools to talk to students about how they train, what makes the different colours in the smoke and even what they do for thrills when they are not flying jets upside down!
But there is one more way they reach out. They take a very small selection of civilians to give them the Red Arrows experience. In the UAE, along with a handful of Emirati VIPs, I had the chance to go. A quick medical to make sure those diplomatic receptions had not caused me too much harm, a lengthy teach-in on what happens if we need to eject (very rare, thankfully!) and I found myself with flying suit and helmet circling the Burj al Arab as we gently did 360˚ rolls through the air. The buzz was incredible. We flew in formation, just 2 metres away from the next jet. Wing Commander Neil Fraser, my pilot, was a calming voice as we banked and rolled on the turns. Whichever way up we were, the views were fantastic!
I have immense respect for these pilots – all the more so now that I have seen for myself how close they fly. After I had said my farewells, with profuse thanks, I noticed two of the pilots admiring my new stretched Jaguar flag car. They said their off-duty passion was high performance cars. So I took them around the airfield to give them a flavour of how an ambassador travels. Given the thrill of my life that I had just experienced, this seemed the least I could do!