There may not be a scientific basis for this assumption but there seems to be a consensus that when asked to choose a “superpower” most people would plump for the ability to fly. Of course, a brief trawl of the internet reveals that a significant number would like to be invisible but I suspect many of these are boys who can’t yet reach the top shelf in newsagents. No, flying is the classic choice.
It is not something I had ever really understood. Yes, it would be handy for saving time and money on travel, but other people seem to be transported by the very idea of flying, and become dreamy or excited. Even Top Gun couldn’t
really get the point across, perhaps because I didn’t fancy Tom Cruise (rather
short and walks like a duck) or because they all seemed so very pleased with
Now I get it. Even on a grey, wet, cold day with poor visibility, if you are sitting in front of a former Red Arrow pilot as he executes a stall turn in formation you will be breathless – in a good way. And the good news is that anyone can do it.
The Blades is “the world’s only globally accredited aerobatic airline” and “airline” is the crucial bit as it means it can take passengers up in its Extra 300 stunt planes and show them an extremely
good time. The four-man display team has put on shows for luminaries from HM
The Queen to the Beckhams, as well as being a popular attraction at air shows
around the country. The shows are awe inspiring, if not unbelievable, and without joint founder Chris Norton, OBE, DFC giving a running commentary and
directing your gaze it would be impossible to take it all in.
Andy Offer, OBE and Chris first spoke about starting a business in 1995, but it was four in the morning on New Year’s Day, so nothing concrete. When it happened again it was becoming clear they were looking for the same things: “control of our lives, to run something of our own and see our families occasionally”. By then, both had served 20 years with the RAF and were ahead of many of their peers who thought them mad to leave but, as Chris explained, “The RAF is getting smaller and this is something we can grow.”
In April 2006, 2EXCEL was launched and the business is growing at speed. The display team pilots took 30 days (not the usual year) to retrain for aerobatics in a propeller rather than jet plane and now 12 pilots and two non-flyers are employed. The lack of dedicated ground staff seems to have engendered a new appreciation for RAF engineers.
The parent company has branches undertaking research for the police and military, while The Blades display team and Unforgettable Events handle its corporate offering. For a team-building event this is rather more enticing than canoeing in Wales. But, perhaps, not as well suited to stag nights as one might think. After The Blades treatment one man was heard to say, “My wife will think I’m having an affair – I’ll have such a grin on my face when I get home.”
Passenger trips usually take place before a display as the sight of what The Blades team is capable of can be a little daunting when you still have your own flight in prospect. The pilots all have distinguished war records and have flown with the Red Arrows – thousands of hours between them – but, “Being a brilliant pilot is not enough, the personal element is hugely important,” Chris explained. Indeed, a trip with The Blades is apparently good for curing flyers’ fears.
Former Jaguar pilot and Blades’ chief pilot and engineer, Andy Evans, says that he and former Harrier display pilot, Dave Slow, tend to take nervous passengers. “I took one woman up who was adamant she didn’t want to do any
aerobatics so we pottered out to fly over her hotel. By the time we got back she’d done a loop and a barrel roll and was begging for more.”
Andy loves “to land and see smiling faces”. The flying com-munity appears to be friendly and he is certainly immersed in it. He commutes to The Blades’ base in Northamptonshire from his Lincolnshire home by plane in half an hour, so his wonderfully gentle and sunny demeanour can be at least partly explained by never having to sit in traffic.
Unsurprisingly, all involved seem very happy in their work. Blade 1, Myles Garland, formerly a weapons instructor, a squadron leader by the age of 29 and leader of the Red Arrows “Synchro Pair”, describes it as being “as much fun, if not more so, than anything I’ve done. Seat of the pants stuff.” Andy thinks the show is “as impressive as the Reds”, and Mark Cutmore that it’s “the best I’ve ever done, the most challenging and rewarding”. Each seems to relish the chance to share his flying and it is an exquisite experience.
All of them had flown with at least one of the other pilots before joining The Blades so they can rely on their team. “Four people who went to war with me in Kosovo are here with me now. I’ve already trusted them with my life so putting on events together is not a worry,” Chris told me.
Having been issued with a pilot and a flying suit, and paid close attention to the safety briefing (parachute rip cord here…), I did take a moment and hope I wouldn’t be sick (paper bag tucked in webbing of parachute harness). There is no cause for nerves, of course. My pilot, Mark Cutmore, has displayed the RAF’s Jaguar and been Red Arrows’ deputy team leader. What we were going to do would probably be less taxing than the school run for him.
Once everyone is strapped in and the last pre-flight checks made, the four Extra 300s head out on to the grass runway. It seems the driver can’t see where he’s going on the ground so we have to travel in a serpentine to avoid
bumping into each other. No such problems in the air, for which I’m thankful.
The planes sweep into their trademark “Blades Box” formation with the certainty of being pulled together on strings. To look around then is astonishing. We are cruising 12ft apart, impossibly close to the next plane. It seems almost touchable but during displays (no passengers) the formation distance is a mere 6ft, which really is hard to comprehend.
A little light rolling to ensure the passengers are not getting scared or nauseous and then on to the manoeuvres. These, exciting enough on their own, take on another dimension when executed in formation. The stall turn is a case in point. Blade 4, “Cuttie”, and I were on the far right and breezily he told me to look left as we climbed. The other three planes were hanging vertically, apparently motionless, in the big blue sky like a row of spy-hopping whales. And then it dawned that we must be in exactly the same position.
I hardly noticed the G-force until Cuttie asked whether I was happy and I tried to give a thumbs up: while I’d been enjoying the view someone clearly tied very full cartridge bags round my wrists, which were reluctant to move. The Blades are happy experiencing forces three times more than the trifling 3-Gs that had me staring in disbelief at my inert arm but they still take it seriously, even once you’re back on the ground.
“Take care getting out, you might find your
legs are a little uncooperative,” I was warned. It took some effort to look nonchalant during the dismount, and I realised how tricky it would have been to “stand on the seat and then jump over the side” if things had gone wrong in the air. But by then the aerobatics happy pill was coursing through my veins, so it was no matter.
For more information visit The Blades