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This six-part series examines some of the most dangerous jobs in the world and profiles the men who risk their lives to put in an honest day’s work. This instalment throws the spotlight on the daredevils of the Royal Air Force, the elite Red Arrows aerobatics display team.

The Red Arrows are recognised all over the world for their breathtaking aerobatic stunts and bright red Hawk combat jets. But what many people do not realise is the rigorous training and risks attached to this prestigious job.

At Akrotiri Peninsula in Cyprus, the biggest RAF base in the Mediterranean, nine ace fighter pilots have been taking part in a gruelling five-month training session. At the end of this period, they will be judged on whether or not they are worthy of wearing the hallowed red suit. Six of the pilots are working to gain re-admittance into the squad, which is refreshed on a yearly basis. The remaining three men have been given their first ever chance of entering the elite unit. After 220 practice sessions, Wing Commander Jas Hawker, or ‘the boss’ as he is known, is still not happy that his new batch of pilots have achieved the pinnacle of perfection in their timing and positioning. “Our aim is to be the best display team in the world,” he says.

In the 44-year history of the squadron, there have been six deaths. Due to the high level of risk involved in the job, all potential Red Arrows must be experienced RAF fighter pilots who have logged at least 1,500 flying hours in high-speed jets. They must also have completed at least one combat mission over the course of their career. The Hawk jets reach speeds of over 400mph – often flying little more than 4ft apart.

When the day of the trainees’ assessment arrives, Air Chief Marshal Sir Clive Loader discusses the aim of the test. “I’m actually here to assure myself that the way the sorties are run and the safety of the team are as they should be,” he says. Fortunately, this batch of Red Arrows hopefuls passes the test with flying colours.

After their exam, the pilots are able to relax with their families. But it remains crucial that they keep their fitness levels up during periods of downtime. One of the biggest dangers faced by the Arrows is the gravitational force placed on their bodies during flight. To counteract this, the airmen tense their stomach and leg muscles in order to force the blood back up to their heads. Pulling a lot of Gforce eventually renders a person unconscious. The pilot will initially experience tunnel vision, which gradually worsens until they can only see black. “If you strain against it,” says Flight Lieutenant Damian Ellacott, “then you can force your vision back.”

After a successful debut performance at the Southern Airshow, the Red Arrows face perhaps their biggest challenge of the season. They are performing alongside three other aerobatics teams at a meeting in Canada. The Quebec International Airshow is one of the few chances the Arrows get to measure their skill and technique against other units. To add to the challenge, they must first fly to Quebec in their Hawks with no navigation or radar systems. The aircraft have small fuel tanks, which means the journey must be made in seven stages. The trip will take the Red Arrows across the wastelands of Iceland and Greenland, where freezing temperatures require the pilots to don protective clothing.

Four days and 4,000 miles later, the Red Arrows reach their destination, where they are introduced to three other elite aerobatics units, including the US Navy’s Blue Angels, who pilot state-of-the-art FA-18 Hornets, and the US Air Force Thunderbirds in their F-16 fighter jets. How will the Red Arrows measure up against this daunting competition?

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