Watch the Red Arrows in flight! Video Credit: Supplied/UK Pavilion at Expo 2020 Dubai

At exactly 4pm on a sunny Friday, it took nine Red Arrows to stop a restless baby from crying; nine Red Arrows to make an Australian tourist to forget all about his hot dog; it took nine Red Arrows to send people clambering up the stairs of the Philippines pavilion at Expo 2020 Dubai to catch a glimpse of the aerobatic group of pilots who painted the skies red, blue and white….

Wing Commander David Montenegro… this crowd, the attention, these skies – they are all yours. Here you are, taking command of the clouds, calling them your home. A lot has changed since you joined the Royal Air Force (RAF) Red Arrows in 1999, especially since your passion for flying came when you took that vacation to South America with your family at a young age.

Despite all the thunderstorms and other terrible weather conditions your family and you had to endure during that trip, you told yourself: “This is a job I want to go and do.” And you did become a pilot. You are now the Wing Commander of the Red Arrows, leading a team which flies the BAE Systems Hawk T1, exclusively in red.

What is the Hawk T1?
Produced by British Aerospace, the Hawk T1 has a wingspan of 9.4 metres (30 feet, 10 inches). In terms of its build, the aircraft is 11.9 metres long (39 feet, 3 inches) and 4 metres high (13 feet, 2 inches). The maximum speed the aircraft can achieve is Mach 1.2, which is 1481.76 kilometres per hour, approximately. Made with a twin shaft turbofan engine, the Hawk T1 can achieve an altitude of 48,000 feet and can take off at a weight of 5,700 kilograms.

However, you were at a crossroads before you flew. You didn’t really know if you were destined for this. You graduated from university, and you took on several designations – a research employee, a chauffeur for a businessman – until you finally found yourself at the University Air Squadron in the UK....

“It was my first taste of service life, not just the flying but everything else that is wrapped up with camaraderie and training. And I was sold from there on, so I was really focused on a military career. I, luckily, on my third attempt, got into the RAF and I flew on my frontline aircraft, the Tornado F3, to the fighter variant.

Wing Commander David Montenegro, Officer Commanding, Royal Air Force Aerobatic Team Image Credit: Ahmed Ramzan/Gulf News

“I flew in the UK, flew a squadron in Scotland, and travelled around the world in that capacity. But I was very lucky at the end of my first seven or eight years as a fighter pilot that I applied as a volunteer to join the Red Arrows and got into this wonderful team. And I’ve been very lucky to do three tours on the team.”

From learning how to use your wings, to teaching your juniors how to find and master their flight, you gradually found yourself surrounded by bigger responsibilities at the RAF.

“I used to be an instructor on the Hawk. I’ve been very privileged to teach UK, Indian, Saudi Arabian students, which have come through to go into a fighter training world. The instructor sits in the back, student sits in the front, and the Hawk is a perfect aircraft to teach the final stages of training as a fighter pilot before you get on to your frontline aircraft. It cruises at around 400 miles (644 kilometres approximately) per hour, seven miles (12 kilometres approximately) a minute... it’s how we navigate. It’s a very manoeuvrable aircraft, but it’s quite forgiving, which is good when you’re learning how to fly a fast jet for the first time.”

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Health is a priority

However, not everyone speaks about the processes that go into being a pilot for the Red Arrows, especially since it doesn’t come easy. It is not just about taking control of an aircraft alone, but also taking control and finding the right balance and stability in your personal and mental health.

“To be a Red Arrows pilot, you need to have the necessary amount of experience. So, we classified 1200 to 1500 hours of flying time as a minimum. You need to learn one operational tool on one of our frontline aircraft in the Royal Air Force, and you need to have achieved a certain ingredient that’s good enough to then volunteer. But every pilot applies to join the team. We never force someone to join, it has to be your choice. And that’s really important because you’ve got to want to do this job. There are elements of this job that are very different to frontline flying in a positive sense.”

Wing Commander David Montenegro speaks to Gulf News about his flight amidst the clouds Ahmed Ramzan/Gulf News

A Red Arrows pilot can fly as long as his health permits. If they pass the annual medical test, a pilot should be able to fly seamlessly up till the age of 55.

“I would say in the mid-40s, fast jet flying becomes more of a struggle, particularly in a high G force. But if you keep yourself in good shape, you know, we have frontline pilots that are much older than me. And of course, they come with so much experience that they’re able to keep on and making sure that our new pilots learn from them, so it’s important that we don’t just have 18- to 30-year-old pilots in the cockpits. We’re very keen on making sure that we have enough experience in the course.

“Now we do a seven-day selection process, which is really long and the interview is quite tough. We have format elements of the week where we have a flying test, and a mock interview. This is a really important part of being a team member. But also looking at the individual character, we need someone that’s going to fit into the dynamic of the team. So, we don’t always pick the very best pilots, or the flight tests. We pick the individuals that are going to be able to join a team for three years, or even to be able to deal with a learning curve in terms of flying. So you do have to be really good.”

Apart from flying, a Red Arrows pilot also needs to be social.

“Meeting people all around the world, media engagements, school visits, interviews, communicating whatever the message might be, to a 4-year-old or a 94-year-old.”

A challenging, yet rewarding job

Watch the Red Arrows in flight! Supplied/UK Pavilion at Expo 2020 Dubai

Despite the level of training, “It’s quite a challenge, but it’s brilliant. That’s one of the best parts of the job”, you say.

Resilience is important to any job in the military, and one of the greatest challenges faced by the Red Arrows is something you term as cumulative fatigue – a kind one faces after days or weeks, sometimes even months of consistent training.

“We trained for five months, three trips, and three sorties every day, Monday to Friday. And once we achieve a standard that is good enough to go and just make public, we then move to display 60 to 80 shows in a display season. And as we are here today, you know, you can be in the Middle East, or you can be on the West Coast of America, and that takes its toll.

“So, I think that’s the area that we carefully plan in a programme to make sure that people are always going to have the right alertness levels. And what’s really important for me is that they enjoy the job, you know that we wouldn’t succeed as a team if people don’t really enjoy what we do here. But the mental resilience comes, I think, towards the end of the season, when I think people are feeling very tired. And like many military jobs, we are away from our families. And, you know, it’s not just those of us that are lucky enough to do this type of job. It’s always the support network that is difficult to get around as well.”

Red Arrows in formation

The Red Arrows painted the skies blue, white and red... Image Credit: Ahmed Ramzan/Gulf News

When flying as a formation in the first half are about six to 12 feet apart, wingtip to wingtip, which is quite close, but it is necessary because that’s trademark. In the second half, a synchro pair flies at around 700 to 800 miles an hour of enclosure speed.

“We train to make sure that it’s done safely. To make sure that when the public say that they get the ‘wow’ factor of what it is like to see, you know, two aircraft pass each other.”

In an event of an emergency, the Hawk T1 is equipped with ejector seats in the front and the back. If you can’t glide the aircraft onto a suitable runway, then there is the option to be able to always eject from the aircraft.

A day in the life of a Red Arrow
A typical display day in the UK, starts with a weather briefing in the morning around 8am. Then the team goes to the airfield, where the jets are parked. “You’ll go into a display that could be from the location of the aircraft, or that would be a transit across to a European location, and then enter a third sortie of the day, which could be a display. So, they’re long days, we can do up to four sorties, we don’t normally do more than three. You can do two displays in two different countries with a transit in the same day. However, our engineers start two hours before we arrive, and they often finish two hours afterwards. So their days are really long, while making sure the aircraft is fit to fly.”

Eating right

Long days and nights require a balanced diet as well. However, the Red Arrows aren’t restricted to any specifics when it comes to food, making it a purely individual choice. “I think some of the pilots are focused, you know, they look really closely at all of the calorie intake. It’s really individual, whatever you need, I think to sustain the ability to concentrate in the cockpit and to make sure that you’ve got the right energy levels at the right time is key. But, to make sure that you’re in the right place before any formation, transit or display, we always give the pilots enough time and minimum of an hour and a half, with no other engagement. And we call that ‘stepping into the bubble’ so that they can collect their thoughts, eat the right food, hydrate themselves and get themselves ready for flying.”

Watch the Red Arrows in flight! Supplied/UK Pavilion at Expo 2020 Dubai

Joining the Red Arrows is something that you hadn’t focused on, especially since you just wanted to become a frontline pilot. It was your ambition that fuelled you to get you to where you are today. “It was after my second tour on the tornado that my boss actually suggested it was somewhere I should go. I didn’t think I was ever going to make it through. Amazingly, I got shortlisted and then, I got selected. So I felt very fortunate, but I think often of the story where your seniors or your parents or whoever it is probably seeking more in you than you believe in yourself and really grateful for that.”