One of my business partners is a company called Mission Excellence. It was set up by Justin Hughes and Jas Hawker, both of whom are former members of what is officially called the RAFAT (the Royal Air Force Aerobatic Team), known to the public as the Red Arrows, and referred to within the service as ‘the Reds’. When Justin and Jas invited me to RAF Scampton to spend a day with the Reds it promised fun and excitement. I took up the offer with alacrity. It did indeed prove to be fun and exciting - but also instructive.
The Red Arrows were formed in 1964. 2014 will be their 50th display season and they have remained world class throughout that long period. They fly the aging Hawk trainer, which is not the most exciting aircraft the RAF has available, but the Reds always thrill the crowd. Many professionals consider them to be the best in the world at what they do.
Each of the nine pilots does a three year tour, flying in a different position each year. Every year, nine new applicants are shortlisted, and of those, three are selected to join the team after a week of flying tests and interviews. It is existing flying team which decides who to take. This means that every year, the team loses its three most experienced members and takes on three rookies. Yet there are no discernable fluctuations in performance either from year to year or between team members. The Reds are the Reds.
There is a system at work here. Performance does not depend on individual brilliance or strokes of genius or a charismatic leader. Given the basic level of technical competence required to even apply, most applicants have the flying ability to do the job. In the selection process, they still look for the best pilots, but the critical variables are psychological and attitudinal. Step one is who gets selected. They are looking for people who want to be part of a top team rather than seek personal glory. Step two is what happens when they are in.
In the past few years, the system has been under stress.
Despite the obvious perils of high speed formation flying, accidents have been rare and fatalities even more so. One pilot was killed when his Gnat hit trees in 1969. The worst accident was in 1971 when four pilots were killed in a mid-air collision. Another two pilots were killed in 1978 and another in 1988. Then came 2011. At the end of a display in Bournemouth in August Flt Lt John Egging was killed when he blacked out because of g-LOC (g-force induced Loss of Consciousness) and his Hawk hit the ground. Then in November, outside the display season, Flt Lt Sean Cunningham ejected when his Hawk was on the ground at Scampton. He was blown 200 feet into the air, but his parachute failed to deploy. He died from the injuries he sustained on hitting the ground.
After Egging’s death a new leader, who had done a full tour with the Reds from 2005-7, took over. Morale had suffered, but a new leader meant a new start. Then came Cunningham’s accident a few months into the new leader’s watch. This re-set everything to where it had been, with the added problem that confidence in the equipment had been shaken. They were grounded for five weeks. They upgraded the level of experience in the engineering support team, revised maintenance contracts and increased oversight.
Every year at the end of training, the team has to be awarded a Public Display Authority for the following season. Only at that point do they swap their green service flying suits for red ones and become the Red Arrows. In 2012 they qualified as a seven ship display team, only using the usual nine for fly-pasts, which included the opening of the Olympic Games. It turned out, in the leader’s words, to be ‘a fantastic year’.
My visit took place shortly before the beginning of the display season. During the winter they integrate the new members of the team and work up the formations, and then transfer to Cyprus for a month where they can take advantage of more reliable flying weather before being awarded their Public Display Authority, upon which they transfer back to Scampton. During the practice season they fly three sorties per day, five days a week, which amounts to about 300 hours per season, relentlessly practicing the manoeuvres. It is how they transition from competence to perfection. The menu of formations and manoeuvres is set every year, but the actual display flown varies from day to day and is decided by the leader, Red 1, known as ‘the Boss’.
Each sortie consists of three elements: a pre-briefing; the flight – which is videoed from the point at which they fire up their engines on the ground to the point at which they switch them off after landing – and the debrief.
The pre-briefing is given by the Boss. He goes through the weather, use of smoke, fuel and the order of formations. Every formation has variations, and during the display he calls the variations actually to be flown. So although the elements are fine-tuned there is always some residual uncertainty about what precisely they will do in the air. All the pilots are known not by their names but by the number they fly in the formations, from 1 to 9. Red 1 asks each pilot by number for questions and each comments on how it went last time. It is very fast. Not a word is wasted.
Perfection is required from the minute they get into the cockpit. They taxi in formation, take off in formation and land in formation. In the air they operate as nine, then divide into a five and a four, and then a seven and a two – the ‘synchro pair’. I remember watching them when I was a child and closing my eyes as the synchro pair, Reds 6 and 7, raced towards each other at a combined speed of 800 mph on what looked like a collision course, streaming smoke, and then passing each other in an upward curve. It still takes my breath away. Red 6, a third year pilot, is the leader of the pair and flies on a set course. Red 7’s job is to miss him. Red 7 is a second year pilot, who is personally selected by Red 6. Watching the sortie was the girlfriend of Red 7, herself an RAF officer. It was their last week together before she took up her own new posting – to the Falklands. I asked her if she was nervous. ‘Just a little,’ she said, ‘but they know what they are doing.’
After landing they got together in the crew room for the de-brief. Red 1 began by asking for safety points. Every aircraft has a ‘box’ within which it has to stay. ‘Safe’ means staying within their boxes, which are six feet apart. Straying outside it raises a safety issue. There were none this time. The Boss then went through an account of his own errors before asking for other points from each pilot in turn. All the points were about themselves. After this quick round, they turned to the video and commented on each element, stopping or running back the video at certain points. Each team member called out his mistakes. This was done with reference to a ‘perfect position’, so as each formation was watched pilots called out: ‘deep/shallow’, ‘short/long’, ‘wide/tight’, timing ‘ahead/behind’. The Boss then made some overall comments on things where the team as a whole needed to tighten up.
On this occasion, the Boss’ verdict was: ‘a bit rusty’. They had not been flying for a few days and they noticed the difference. I did not, either when I watched them in the air or during the debrief. Even when they stopped the video and discussed something, I found it hard to detect the points they were concerned about. For me, one of the emotional highs of the display is when the synchro pair use red or white smoke to draw a heart in the sky and a third aircraft dives through it making a piercing arrow. When I saw it this time I got a familiar lump in the throat. The synchro leader rapidly dismissed his effort with the testy observation: ‘Sorry guys, the heart was just rubbish.’ The team has reached such a level that they are the only ones even capable of criticising their performance. The Boss summed up: ‘It was a bit disappointing, but a good effort’.
On the journey home I thought about the experience and three things struck me.
The first was the relentlessness of the practice. The team does not reach a plateau and stay there. It works at it, constantly. I was reminded of the time I took a passenger flight in a Hawk from 19 Squadron based at RAF Valley, where they do fast jet training. My pilot was an instructor with about 3,000 hours experience. At the end of the sortie, he did three ‘circuits and bumps’ - practice landings and take-offs – which is one of the most basic things trainee pilots learn. He had done thousands of them before. I asked why someone like him still had to practice doing this. He answered in two words: ‘perishable skill’. No matter how good you are you have to keep working at the basics. If neglected, the foundations of your flying skills can weaken.
That was why the Boss thought that even after only a few days on the ground, the Reds had got ‘a bit rusty’. By the time of my visit they had all flown the formations hundreds of times before. But the foundations had to be kept rock solid. As the basic components of any display they were standard operating procedures. Each pilot has to learn to play their part automatically, but remain alert. While each formation becomes routine, every display is slightly different. The weather may change. Honing the routine creates spare mental energy to deal with the non-routine and the unpredictable. Though the manoeuvres look thrillingly dangerous, the risk variables are known. They worry more about things like unfamiliar display sites. One of them told me that the ‘hairy bits’ are re-forming in bad weather and flying from one display location to another. For them, the more complex risks lie in what the public does not see.
The second was the debrief. It is based on complete openness and unsparing self-criticism. It came from everyone, starting with the leader. Although general comments were invited, no-one in fact criticised anyone other than themselves. Sometimes the less experienced first years do not notice their errors, at which point a third year or the Boss would point it out. Jas, a former Red 1, told me that his ideal debrief was one in which he said nothing because everyone had the acuity as well as the honesty to criticise themselves. A symptom of the cultural preconditions for this process is the way they refer to themselves and each other by their number. For the purposes of the debrief that is who they are. There are no personalities. The foundation of learning is self-criticism.
In his book Outliers – The Story of Success, Malcom Gladwell popularised the idea that high levels of achievement in specific domains require 10,000 hours of practice. Gladwell emphasises the hours. Others who have written on the same subject emphasise the practice. This gets closer to the point. None of the Reds have spent 10,000 hours flying. Hours in the air matter less than what is done in those hours. In Talent is Overrated, Geoffrey Colvin claims that world class performance comes from ‘deliberate practice’. Deliberate practice can be repeated a lot but is also designed to improve performance, based on feedback and is mentally demanding. That captures more accurately what is going on inside the Red Arrows. It is akin to the continuous learning that the Japanese call kaizen, made famous by Toyota’s lean manufacturing method and now widely talked about and sometimes practised by other organisations. What happens on the ground in the debrief is as important as what the Reds do in the air, for that is what turns mere repetition into learning. Conscious perception on the ground is translated into a deliberate change in what a pilot does in the air, until it becomes an automatic motor response. The self-criticism creates individual learning which is directed solely at allowing the individuals to perfect the performance of the team. They can feel when they get it – it is safe, mellow and controlled.
Which brings us to the final point, a curious paradox. In the Reds, the individual is everything and nothing. Individuals work at their own performance, but the sole purpose of that work is to optimise the team. A single pilot’s failure to get spacing and timing right will spoil the whole team’s formation, but there is no such thing as an outstanding individual performance. In the debrief, no-one was singled out for criticism, but equally, no-one was given special praise. Everyone depends on everyone else for the result and indeed for his life, and the standard is absolute. An air display is often compared to ballet, but there are no prima ballerinas. Other performing arts and sports cultivate individuals, even within teams. Such individuals make up a good proportion of the celebrities who seem now to hold a fawning world in thrall. As individuals, the Reds are unknown to the general public. Perhaps the only individual to fly with them who could be said to be famous is Ray Hanna, but his name is known only in aviation circles. In those circles he is very famous indeed - but not many people know about it.
Jas has told me how after a display, they would enter the hospitality tent wearing their red flying suits and be mobbed by fans. It was like being a rock star after a concert. After the celebrity experience of autographs and photo opportunities, he would go to the dressing room, take off the suit and drive home in civilian clothes. Going to the supermarket in the evening, he was just another shopper. No-one would recognise him. No-one knows his name. His name was in fact on his flying suit above the words ‘RAF Aerobatic Team - The Red Arrows’. On taking off that suit, he became an ordinary bloke again. All the fame attaches to the team.
In business, there is no standard of absolute perfection we can aim at. However, there are a lot of teams who have to turn in a great performance every day when every day is different but contains the same basic elements. Some are delivering a service in restaurants or airlines; others are producing a product in a factory or software in an office; others are providing support for internal customers. They perform for real every day. Because real performance delivery is not classified as training, they often forget that each performance is a learning opportunity. It is relatively rare to use ‘real’ experiences for deliberate learning, carrying out something like a debrief at the end of a day or a shift. The Army carry out After Action Reviews after any event, be it real or an exercise. In business, that opportunity is often lost. Perhaps we should try to seize it.
Business teams might also try to cultivate the ethos which is so critical – making self-criticism a mechanism for improvement rather than an admission of weakness, and developing individuals to feel they are there to make a great team. Business organisations might want to ask themselves whether they might in fact be undermining the foundations of great teams by focussing their reward and development systems too much on individuals. Ultimately, the Reds fly for the personal reward of being part of a great team. That reward is considerable.