2011 UK Airshows

FEB 22 2011
Airshows >> UK: RedHawks Duo Spreads Its Wings

Think 'civilian aerobatic team' and high performance aerobatic biplanes and monoplanes spring to mind. Not so a diminutive French motor-glider from the Sixties with a tiny 39 horsepower engine. Therein is the RedHawks Duo's point of difference. Theirs is an aerobatic display with emphasis on grace over grunt.

The team, flying two red-and-white Fournier RF4Ds, were new in 2010 but immediately made an impression with a graceful formation aerobatic routine, choreographed to The Verve's 'Bittersweet Symphony', with calligraphic red wingtip smoke delineating their manoeuvres of waltz-like formation loops, barrel-rolls and stall-turns.

While the RedHawks team is new, the concept of displaying the Fournier RF4D in a formation aerobatic display is not. Back in the 1980s the Skyhawks Aerobatic Team of two, later three, RF4Ds was a staple of airshows and other events around the UK and Europe. They operated for seven years until the end of the 1990 season, the first few years sponsored by Unipart. The Skyhawks' style of near-silent formation aerobatics flown to Pink Floyd's 'Shine on You Crazy Diamond', was completely different to anything else. The term 'aerial ballet' became shorthand for describing their performances and the mood they generated.

It was this mood that RedHawks co-founder Bob Grimstead wanted to evoke, though he is keen to stress they're not out to ape the Skyhawks.

"We consider that we fly in homage to the Skyhawks, rather than copying them," Bob told Global Aviation Resource. "We do some things they never did, and we don't do several of the things they did. We fly to different music, we have coloured smoke, and we are not sponsored, so that has allowed us to use a rather more eye-catching colour scheme, but we do pay tribute to them in our name. All the other members of the Skyhawks and their predecessors, the Unipart Duo, have been tremendously helpful and supportive to us."

So how did the RedHawks come to exist? Bob and his team partner Matthew Hill, who leads the duo, have known each other for years. They met in the early 1980s at the Tiger Club at Headcorn in Kent. Bob, who'd been an airline pilot since 1970, started display flying with the Club's Turbulent Team in 1982 and by 1984 was leader.

Matthew takes up the story. "In 1984 I was invited to take an assessment formation flight with the Turb Team and Bob happened to be the current leader. After twenty minutes he couldn't shake me off so I was accepted, initially to ferry only. This progressed to Turb Team displays, then formation in the Stampe and Tiger Moth."

The pair flew together in the Turb Team for a while before Matthew went on to display with the Skyhawks in 1988-1990, a time he describes as "three of the best years of flying imaginable". During the 1990s Matthew flew Boeing Stearmans for the AeroSuperBatics wingwalking team (then sponsored by Crunchie) as well as display flying other historic aircraft, while also progressing in the airline world, flying for Brymon, British Airways and Flybe before moving to his current job as a Boeing 737 captain at Astraeus.

The pair remained friends during this time and, following Bob's retirement from airline flying in 2003, Matthew advised Bob to purchase an RF4D in which he could work up his aerobatics to display standard. From 2005 Bob appeared with his aircraft at events, initially in Australia and then in the UK, even performing at the Red Bull Air Race over the Swan River in Perth and the Thames in London. It was these experiences that led to Bob and Matt deciding to go to the next stage and form a Fournier duo. Bob went on to assist Matt and former Skyhawks engineer Bobby Warren in the re-assembly of Matt's RF4D, G-AWEK, and this led to Matt training Bob in formation aerobatics in early 2010 and the début of the RedHawks.

It sometimes takes a while for a new airshow act to gain bookings but not so with the RedHawks. During their first season they appeared at over a dozen shows including Duxford, Little Gransden, Sywell and Rougham as well as putting in appearances at non-airshow events including the Odyssey Music Festival and a trip to Cannes. Clearly the concept of a graceful, almost silent formation aerobatic display of loops, barrel-rolls and stall-turns set to music appealed to event organisers.

That grace, like many things that look simple, is actually much harder to achieve than is apparent. To understand why, the RF4D itself needs to be considered. The aircraft is a motor-glider (a glide ratio of 20:1, to be precise) and is powered by a Volkswagen-derived Rectimo engine developing just 39 horsepower. This, and its low drag, makes for a very efficient aeroplane. It cruises at 100mph despite the low power and has a ceiling of 19,000 feet, while also presenting good visibility and in-cockpit comfort for its pilot.

"It is delightful to fly, with very light control forces and great response," said Bob, who as well as being an airline pilot has also worked as an aviation journalist for 26 years contributing articles to a wide range of magazines. The RF4D, he says, is a "surprisingly capable solo aerobatic mount" that he says can perform not just basic-level aerobatics but more demanding intermediate-level figures.

All this certainly fulfils the aspirations of the RF4D's designer. The aircraft's origins go back to the early 1960s when French aeronautical René Fournier decided to create a "highly efficient personal transport" that would be cheap to operate but still provide good performance. The result was the RF3 motor-glider, with the RF4D being a strengthened derivative better suited for aerobatic flying. The 'D' stands for Deutschland - production of the aircraft was transferred from France to Sportavia-Putzer in Daimhler Binz, Germany, who built 155 of them. Over half still fly, 15 of them currently in the UK.

So, a brilliant little aeroplane. But the RF4D's low power and low drag present challenges when you want to perform formation aerobatics, as Bob explained: "Few other types fly aerobatics with less than 150 horsepower, and usually with 200hp or more. We have only 39hp and no inverted fuel or oil systems, so we have to fly very gently, with great rapport for our aeroplanes and conserving energy very carefully."

For this reason, Bob says that formation aerobatics in the RF4D is "the most difficult but satisfying thing I have ever done" - this from a pilot who's amassed nearly 22,000 flying hours in 250 aircraft types. He said: "I seem to spend most of our displays with the throttle pushed hard against its forward stop - thus my fuselage-side sticker Living Life at Full Throttle!"

Bob says the low power and drag means the interaction between leader and wingman, obviously important in any formation aerobatic display, is particularly crucial given the RF4D's low power and low drag. The leader is Matthew and Bob the wingman. "The lack of drag makes it very difficult for the formating pilot to drop back compared to the leader, and his minimal power makes it impossible for him to catch up if he does fall behind," explained Bob. "It is vital for us both to think ahead of the formation, anticipating one another and flying with empathy and consideration for each other." He added: "Thank goodness I am formating on Matt, because he is the steadiest, most competent, patient and thoughtful leader I could hope for."

Matthew explained the challenge from a leader's point of view. "Our little engines can only be considered as assistance once we start, so initial positioning is crucial," he said. "The speed at the top of most of our manoeuvres can be very close to the wind speed, so once we are in the 'bit' there is little room for correction if we get displaced by the wind. We do like to use all the axes to show off the machines, but this adds to the complexity of judging our positioning in relation to the crowd. Having cut my teeth on the RF4D in formation I am able to anticipate Bob's energy requirements and consequently fly so we both always have a little of everything in hand."

The RedHawks, then, aren't about power, grunt and speed, but rather precision and timing as Bob and Matthew use their experience and flying skills to get the best out of their aircraft. Bob thinks this, and the resulting display of what he describes as "wide, graceful, curvaceous manoeuvres" including loops, barrel rolls and stall-turns, is what gives the RedHawks a point of difference from the other civilian aerobatic teams in the UK.

"We are not deluded into thinking we can compete head-on with the big boys like the various Extra, Pitts, Sukhoi, Edge and Yak teams," explained Bob. "Instead, we aim to provide a necessary contrast, a comparatively quiet, calm and peaceful interlude during a hectic summer's afternoon if you wish. We also hope to give the poor commentator's voice a break, since we fly our routine to uninterrupted music. We have been surprised and delighted at the interest our act has engendered, particularly among youngsters and their mums, but also among spectators of earlier generations who clearly remember the Skyhawks with admiration and affection."

Looking ahead to the 2011 season, Bob says the team's aims are "to fly as many displays as possible, to meets hundreds of lovely people, and to have lots and lots of fun". This year's display routine will, he says, "feature more true formation work" than in 2010.

The RedHawks may not have the noise or power of a high performance warbird, fast jet or aerobatic aircraft but it's probably because they aren't those things that their display has a place at airshows - and at other events too, the team believing they will fit into any event, including agricultural shows or country festivals where noise is a particular issue. There'll certainly be many opportunities to see the team this year, with Matt saying that "we haven't lifted the phone yet and already a third of the season is filled".

It seems the RedHawks will be bringing their aerobatic grace to an event near you soon.

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