It comes as the RAF awaits its fate with the impending defence section Integrated Review – expected to be published next week (wb March 22). According to insiders, major decisions will include the scrapping of the Hercules transport aircraft, cutting the number of Boeing E-7 Wedgetail surveillance aircraft from five to three and axing the purchase of 90 F-35 fighter jets to leave just 48 while the RAF focuses on developing the new Tempest. Yet commanders are already facing increasing costs to maintain the ageing Hawk T1 jets used by the iconic Royal Air Force Aerobatic Team, now estimated at £15m a year.
And an urgent safety directive will add that to that the cost, with all Hawks to be fitted with an electronic Collision Warning Systems to the tune of £5m by next January, as well as High Intensity Strobe Lights which are to be fitted on a variety of aircraft including the Hawk for an additional £4m.
Though Ministry of Defence insiders have confirmed that the iconic team will not be felled next week, RAF sources insisted its days were numbered unless other streams of financial support could be found urgently.
“Given the financial challenges which the RAF and, indeed, all services are facing, and anticipating no sudden upsurge in budget, funding the team is becoming challenging to the point that we must consider either finding a new, additional and substantial stream of income or letting go,” said a senior RAF source last night.
The Red Arrows has arranged a raft of sponsorship deals with some blue-chip brands, ranging from BAE, Barbour and Breitling to Land Rover and Rolls Royce, worth just under a million pounds in total.
In normal times the team would perform around 25 shows a year charging £10,000-30,000 for thirty-minute daredevil spectaculars, which is paid directly to the MoD. It also helps to raise thousands of pounds for charity.
But it isn’t enough to allay current fiscal pressures.
“In 2010 our fuel bill was around £1million. This has jumped to £3 million, even with falling oil prices, and, while the budget has increased, those in the background who administer and run the team are permanently constantly struggling to keep the finances in order, the clock is ticking,” added the source.
In 2019 the Red Arrows, which boasts 11 pilots and more than 100 engineers and support crew, undertook a triumphant 11-week tour of the US and Canada – its biggest ever – and is seen as a pillar for Brand GB and recruitment.
There have been tragedies, too. In 2011 Red 4 pilot John Egging died after crashing his Hawk into a field near Bournemouth Airport following a display at the Bournemouth Air Festival.
Also that year Flt Lt Sean Cunningham died after the ejector initiated during pre-flight checks on the ground and he was shot 220 feet into the air. He died when the parachute on the Martin Baker ejection seat failed to open, and the company later pleaded guilty to a charge under section 3(1) of the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974.
In March 2018 a Hawk crashed at RAF Valley. Though its pilot survived, Cpl Jonathan Bayliss, an engineer, was killed.
Ten years ago two Hawks were involved in a mid air collision during pre-flight training in Crete but both pilots survived.
News that the stunt jets carried no collision warning systems – a basic requirement in all aircraft, let alone those that perform death defying stunts – was revealed in the latest annual Defence Safety Authority Annual Assurance Report.
“Hawk T Mk1 remains without a collision warning system, making the As Low As is Reasonably Practicable (risk requirement) and tolerable judgement difficult to sustain,” said the report.
It also expressed concerns about the maintenance of the ageing aircraft, highlighting a lack of overall governance with no single reporting officer or associated management programme in place.
In 2017 former defence minister Harriet Baldwin told the House of Commons that the Hawk T1 was likely to remain in service until 2030. By the time it is retired, the Red Arrows’ 13 jets will be fifty years old and the RAF’s longest-serving airframe.
While a series of reviews have been held to identify a replacement over the past decade, all have failed because of budgetary restrictions.
An MoD spokesman said: “We remain committed to supporting the Red Arrows who inspire the next-generation of pilots and are a great source of national pride.”