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Peebles pilot a Red Arrow

Red arrows pilot Stewart Campbell

Red arrows pilot Stewart Campbell

 

Streaking across the sky, coloured smoke trails billowing behind them, the Red Arrows is the world’s most famous aerobatic display team.

Later this month, the pilots and their bright red Hawk aircraft will be enthralling the crowds at Scotland’s national airshow at East Fortune.

And if you could see the faces of the pilots behind their oxygen masks, the biggest grin would be across the face of Peebles pilot Stewart Campbell.

For the former Priorsford Primary and Peebles High pupil now has a job every fast-jet pilot would give their back teeth, right arm, or anything else you can think of, for.

With thousands of hours flying time under his belt since joining the RAF in 2003, Stewart became a member of the Red Arrows – or the Royal Air Force Aerobatic Team as they are more properly known – last August.

What made his selection all the more special for Stewart, a flight lieutenant, is that the 2014 season of aerobatic displays comes in the team’s 50th anniversary year.

Stewart, 34, who previously flew Tornado jets in Afghanistan while based at RAF Lossiemouth with 617 Squadron, will stay with the Red Arrows for three years.

Synonymous with precision flying, dramatic formations and loops and rolls, the Red Arrows will fly all over Europe as part of their 2014 summer tour, coming to East Lothian on July 26.

Stewart, call sign Red 2, used a break in the team’s hectic training schedule to speak to The Southern and told us how his love of flying had first started.

“I grew up in Peebles, where my mum and dad, Ian and Irene, and the rest of my family still live and, I guess, it was watching military jets out of the classroom window when I was at school that first captured my interest,” he told us on the phone from the team’s base at RAF Scampton in Lincolnshire.

The base is the original home of the legendary 617 Squadron – The Dambusters – which played such a critical role destroying German dams in the Second World War.

A graduate of Edinburgh University, Stewart, who is married to Claire, also from Peebles, says flying with the Red Arrows is a dream job for any RAF pilot.

“It is a fantastic opportunity and I’m loving every minute,” he told us. “I applied for the chance to join the team and was lucky enough to be selected.”

Stewart and his fellow flyers spend all winter training, right up to the end of May, and are now on the road for about four-and-a-half months, performing 85 full displays this year alone.

Stewart says one of the enjoyable aspects is getting the chance to meet members of the public once the pilots have touched down after a display: “Very much so – at the bigger events, where we can actually land, it’s great getting to meet people who have watched you fly and we always get a fantastically-warm reception.

“And getting to perform in a display at East Fortune, close to my home town, with family and friends in the crowd, is going to be pretty special.”

For the 50th season, the Red Arrows are concentrating on UK displays and the tails of the Hawk aircraft the pilots fly have been painted with a special commemorative design.

Since his first experience of flying in an RAF Chipmunk out of Edinburgh’s Turnhouse airport when he was just 14, Stewart admits a career in the air was always in the back of his mind – even though he studied PE at university.

Surprisingly, he doesn’t think being a Red Arrows pilot necessarily translates into an improvement in his ability as a frontline fighter pilot.

“The skills for this role are fairly specific, but it is a job most fast-jet pilots want to do at some point,” he told us.

As for the risk, Stewart says the amount of training the pilots do ensures the level of risk is kept to the absolute minimum, whether that be flying with the Red Arrows or on a low-level mission across the dusty plains of Afghanistan.

“Flying operational sorties in Afghanistan certainly had its moments, but generally speaking it was quite benign for those of us in the air.

“Flying a fast jet requires a considerable amount of concentration and quick thinking. So I found you never really had time to consider being scared.”

Training for a new Red Arrows pilot involves flying as a formation of just three aircraft to begin with, and building up from simple loops and rolls to more dynamic manoeuvres.

As the pilot’s skills develop, team members fly as a formation of five aircraft, then seven, eight and then, finally, nine.

The first “nine-ship” flight came half-way through the six-month training programme and was followed by around 117 practice displays prior to the first public show.

“Appearing at East Fortune is certainly going to be a personal highlight for me as it’s like my local airshow. I actually got the team to fly over Peebles on Sunday (June 29) and knowing my family was there, looking up was great. So a chance to put on a full display at my local show with family and friends in the crowd is going to be tremendous.”

 

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