Two Yorkshireman with possibly the coolest jobs in the country describe their ambition – and the hard work that got them there. They spoke to Philip Sedgwick – virtually

INDISPUTABLY, the Red Arrows are a British icon and arguably the best air display team in the world. As global ambassadors they drum-up a significant amount of trade for UK plc.

This year the team’s flying and engineering branches are led by two Yorkshireman. The boss and Red 1 is pilot, Squadron Leader Tom Bould and engineering officer or Circus 1, Flight Lieutenant Ben Ireland. Both men have strong family links to North Yorkshire.

As senior officer, Tom Bould is in charge of the day-to-day running of the Red Arrows, which doesn’t just include eight other flyers. Consisting of more than 100 mostly military personnel, the team’s pilots and ground crew, are supplemented by civilian support staff.

A “lead from the front” type who definitely knows his stuff, it was a visit from a Royal Air Force careers officer to his school in West Yorkshire that inspired Tom to pursue a career in the RAF.

Joining-up after university, he became a flying instructor locally at RAF Linton on Ouse and had his first taste of display flying as the Tucano Display Pilot, progressing initially to a Typhoon jet fighter squadron, then spending two years as a Red Arrows pilot, and later as a fast jet instructor.

Seeing the RAF’s equivalent of a job advert, he applied to take charge of the Red Arrows. On being told he was successful, he describes feelings of pride and trepidation. Every year, two to three of the pilots are replaced and roles reallocated. Due to Covid-19, this year, although he is the boss, Tom is the only new team member.

Middlesbrough-born Ben Ireland’s journey started as a lad when he saw the Red Arrows at Sunderland Air Show. Combined with his natural mechanical problem-solving skills, he was determined one day to join the RAF and become part of the Red Arrows.

Initially, joining the ATC Redcar, after being sponsored through university by the RAF, on graduating with a degree in mechanical engineering, Ben entered the RAF as an officer.

His first job was at RAF Leeming as armaments officer, responsible for all the explosive and weapons systems on the base. Always at the back of his mind was the ambition to join the Red Arrows. In November 2018, following a rigorous selection procedure, this dream came true.

A British icon: the Red Arrows are global ambassadors and drum-up a significant amount of trade for the UK plc. – MoD/Crown Copyright 2021

A British icon: the Red Arrows are global ambassadors and drum-up a significant amount of trade for the UK plc. – MoD/Crown Copyright 2021

Appointed junior engineering officer, he holds the title Circus 1. For the following year’s display season he took part in the successful tour of the USA, describing it as thoroughly enjoyable but very hard work, losing count of the number of hotel rooms the team stayed in.

Being a part of any display team is not a nine to five job, especially during the summer season when weekends off are a rarity. As with most military jobs, team members can be separated from their families, visiting far-flung locations at home and abroad.

Their gleaming red jets are Hawk training aircraft. They have no fancy digital aides, just three buttons to activate the red, white and blue smoke. Whilst on the road, mechanical problems must be cured by the travelling ground crew. Aircraft throw up problems – some are common faults which are easily rectified, others require serious consideration and problem-solving.

It is Ben’s say so whether or not an aircraft is fit to fly or when it can realistically be ready for a display. As senior officer, Tom has the ultimate decision but would never go against a recommendation from his engineering officer.

As a team they take safety very seriously. “As regards safety, it goes without saying: a fast jet flying is dangerous and display flying is even more dangerous," says Tom.

With old-fashioned flying skills needed for precision displays, pilots triangulate on Tom as Red 1. The further back in the formation, the harder it is to keep station; concentration and skill levels needed therefore, increase proportionately.

A good deal of their discipline relies on practice and clear instructions from Red 1 which are given in staccato tones. Often flying with closing speeds of up to 900mph, clarity is vital.

All pilots Reds 1-9 have a member of the ground crew as a rear seat passenger whilst travelling to displays. Known as “Circus” they are highly-experienced and extensively trained. Qualifying includes the need for knowledge of survival skills, high gravitational and aviation medicine.

Off duty, rank isn't a factor for the 18 travellers – they play cards, eat and chat together. As Red 1 and Circus 1, Tom and Ben are a team and get on well both socially and professionally.

Although the military community is a bubble, the Reds have not been immune from the effects of lockdown. Family and friends were affected and last year‘s flying season was greatly curtailed.

Presently training at home, the Reds soon travel to Greece for sunnier climes to attain their Public Display Authority – then the season can commence in earnest.

Venues are picked by the RAF’s events team. The display format is often weather driven, and Tom’s decision. Looking forward immensely to the new season, Red 1 is not giving away any secrets if the team's forthcoming “aerial choreography” will include any new moves.

Both men emphasise the red Arrows is a team effort – without input from pilots, engineers, the smoke team, admin, photography, PR or other support, displays could not take place.

Public support is vital and the team love meeting their fans. Often, more than 200 people are at the fence or patiently queuing at the stand to meet their heroes.

A British icon: the Red Arrows are global ambassadors and drum-up a significant amount of trade for the UK plc. – MoD/Crown Copyright 2021

A British icon: the Red Arrows are global ambassadors and drum-up a significant amount of trade for the UK plc. – MoD/Crown Copyright 2021

The partnership will end later this year when Ben is promoted to squadron leader, moving to the Ministry of Defence, although he hopes one day to return to the Red Arrows.

He says: “I find it very frustrating to hear anybody saying ‘I couldn’t do that’ or ‘I couldn’t be an engineer’. I always try to influence people to become an engineer or join the Air Force.

“It’s just a really good tool to say to people if you really want to do something, all you’ve got to do is choose to do it.

“Follow where it leads and put the work in. It all starts with ambition. Don’t discount yourself before you even try.”

Tom will be in charge of the Red Arrows for two more years. “The Red Arrows have been going since 1964 and are held in high esteem both at home and worldwide," he says. "We need to leave it in as good a place as we found it.

“If we can inspire somebody to achieve something whether that is joining the RAF or in life generally through their own hard work, then we have done our job.”