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Swooping Hawks

Mick Britton looks at the RAF's solo Hawk display over the years. Pictures as credited

It seems highly probable that no aircraft currently operated by the RAF has amassed more airshow appearances than the BAe Systems Hawk trainer, not only because this has been the mount of the Red Arrows since the 1980 season, but also because for most years of the three decades that have elapsed since it entered RAF service in 1976 solo display examples have been operated by Air, Support and Strike Commands. It is also a certainty that no other RAF aircraft type has been displayed in as many different colour schemes as the Hawk, which has appeared in the original red and white livery of Support Command, and variations thereof, such as the 'raspberry ripple' scheme, as well as the war paint of Strike Command, originally a two-tone tactical scheme succeeded by air defence grey. For a brief period in the early nineties there were even a couple of all-blue examples before the advent of the all-black livery that is now standard.

Hawk colours

For the first few years since its service entry the Hawk was displayed in the standard red and white training scheme with a black anti-dazzle panel on the upper surface of the nose. The first display ships came from the Central Flying School (CFS), the first unit equipped with the type, training instructors for Valley's 4 FTS. These earliest display ships were characterised by a small CFS crest located above the tricolour on the fin, and in one of these (XX164) Flt Lt Fitzsimmons won the solo jet aerobatic competition at the 1977 International Air Tattoo in the Hawk's debut season. Another such example was XX223, which I photographed at the 1979 Finningley airshow, one of the last shows where the Gnats of the Red Arrows were seen as by the following season they'd also re-equipped with the Hawk.

CFS Hawks continued to perform the display role for a few years, though the small crest was replaced with the blue and green diamond as seen on XX177 at the 1982 Binbrook show. However, by now other units had begun to appear, some in the same red and white scheme but wearing the palm tree and pyramid badge of 4 FTS on the fin, and a more menacing variety in tactical camouflage, operated by the Tactical Weapons Units (TWUs), nr 1 of which was based at Brawdy and nr 2 based at Chivenor. Within just a few years some of these had gone to air defence grey, testifying to their diversification of role from purely weapons trainer to a supplementary air defence role as part of the 'mixed fighter force'. Those assigned to this role were designated Hawk T1As, modified to carry a pair of AIM -9L Sidewinders to enable them to act as point defence fighters and capable of helping out dedicated fighter aircraft such as the F-4 Phantom and Tornado F3 in an emergency. One of the earliest 4 FTS Hawk display pilots of note was Flt Lt Charlie McIlroy, who fulfilled the role for a couple of years in the early eighties.

For all the variation in colour schemes due to their different roles however, the display Hawks were just standard aircraft taken from the flight line of their respective units, but in 1986 the first RAF display jets to appear in special colour schemes were that season's solo display Hawks. A Support Command pair from 4 FTS appeared with an attractive variation of the training red and white scheme with the Union flag adorning the entire tailfin, whilst the following year a Strike Command example from 1 TWU appeared with a grey scheme with yellow cheat line. Unfortunately, these were just one season wonders, and by the following year they had reverted to their standard colours, but they had shown the way forward and within just a few years other RAF display jets like the Jaguar and Tornado were also appearing in special schemes.

1989 proved to be the last time that a Hawk was displayed in the old tactical camouflage - it came 2 TWU, its pilot being Flt Lt Simon Meade, who would go on to be the 'boss' of the Red Arrows. An insight into his busy schedule was given in the Chivenor Air Day programme, which revealed that he was due to perform at thirty shows during the season, including two in France. He had at his disposal two dedicated display aircraft, one as a spare just in case of any problems. There was also a road team of seven engineers to maintain the two jets and two road managers responsible for the team's admin and organisation. His regular job was as an instructor on 151 Squadron where he arrived after a tour on the Harrier in RAF Germany and the BBC were filming a documentary of his display season.

For the next few years the Support Command Hawks would appear in a 'raspberry ripple' scheme, and those of Strike Command in air defence (or Barley) grey. Some slight variation of the standard 'raspberry ripple' was provided in 1991 when 4 FTS marked its seventieth anniversary by advertising the event upon its solo display aircraft. A completely new colour scheme for the Hawk was introduced in 1992 when Strike Command fielded two examples from 2 TWU in little black numbers, each with an enlarged badge of one of its two component squadrons (63 and 151) displayed on the fin that seemed quite radical at the time. That year's RAF Yearbook revealed that the idea of a black scheme derived from a conspicuity trial carried out by 63 Squadron the previous year that proved black to be the most effective colour for highlighting the aircraft. Who would have thought that within just a few years this would become standard for the whole fleet! That year's Support Command pair from 4 FTS continued in the 'raspberry ripple' scheme varied only by lettering on the white cheat line and Valley's Welsh dragon badge in a white disc on the fin. One of these, XX163, was subsequently lost in a crash at its home base the following year. In 1993, the unit broke with tradition by fielding XX226 in all black with yellow lettering on the side of the air intakes and an enlarged red dragon occupying the fin, leaving no room for the national marking.

1994 witnessed the arrival of a Hawk in the markings of a new unit to the display circuit, namely Chivenor-based 92(R) Squadron, whose display aircraft appeared in an attractive blue and white scheme recalling that applied to its last Phantom three years before. The year's offering from RAF Valley was XX334 in a watered down version of the previous year's scheme, minus lettering, with toned down (pale blue/pink) roundels but retaining the red dragon on the fin.

In October 1994, following several years of cutbacks to the RAF's frontline, the single surviving OCU at Chivenor was closed and the Hawk force concentrated at RAF Valley in three squadrons; nrs 19, 74 and 208 (Reserve). Hence in 1995 the only display Hawk on the circuit was fielded by 74(R) Squadron, which had XX235 and XX244 painted in a striking black and yellow scheme with the Welsh dragon on the fin. This was the logical culmination of the efforts from the two previous years and one of the most striking schemes to appear on a Hawk to date. However, it was to prove the last one to be seen for some years as the ongoing modification programme was severely stretching the Hawk fleet to the point where none could be spared for the display task.

Last of the best?
Flt Lt Dave Davies could be the last Hawk solo display pilot if MoD plans to further prune the display fleet come to fruition next year. Dave joined the RAF in 1998 and was selected for fast jet training, going to AFTC in Canada and eventually streamed onto the Tornado F3 with 111 Squadron at Leuchars. He has spent time on detachment in the Falklands and has experience on Quick Reaction Alert (QRA), chasing both airliners and Ilyushin Mays. It's Dave's final year of a three-year stint as instructor with 208(R) Squadron, and he wanted to finish on a high, volunteering for the display slot. "I'm not married, have no kids, so I was a good candidate!" This year's display will be slightly different to last year, but as Dave said "There's only so many manoeuvres you can do in the Hawk - you want to keep the display tight, you want to show off the performance but it's not particularly loud compared to Typhoon, but you try and make it as noisy as possible." Dave has just been selected to join the Red Arrows for the 2009 season at the first time of trying, so despite the solo Hawk disappearing will still be doing the job next year!

It was to be 2001 before a solo Hawk once again graced the display circuit. Fittingly the two examples wore a scheme of grey streamers commemorating twenty-five years of Hawk operations at RAF Valley (the streamers apparently being representative of the type's aerobatic prowess!). This scheme commemorated two anniversaries; the Hawk's twenty-fifth (on the port side of the fin) and RAF Valley's sixtieth (on the starboard side). The following year saw a reversion to the tried and trusted yellow stripe form, recalling the successful '95 scheme, but minus the red dragon. However this ship possibly suffered serviceability problems as it escaped my lens for the whole season. Every time I caught the solo display, it was flown by a standard 208(R) Squadron aircraft. The following year they came up with another interesting variation of the all-black scheme when the display pair appeared with vivid flames on the nose, recalling a similar scheme worn by a civilian Jet Provost a few years before, and a yellow dragon on the fin. By now we were back to two Hawk displays on the circuit, Strike Command having authorised one from 100 Squadron (now based at Leeming) in 2002. The display pilot was Flt Lt Dave Harvey, who performed the task for three years and for the 2003 season the two display ships wore the '100 Years of Flight' logo on the engine air intakes.

In 2004 the Valley pair wore a special half-Union flag on the fin and a logo to celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of the Hawk's maiden flight. To celebrate the eightieth anniversary of 4 FTS in 2006 the Valley paint shop really excelled themselves in turning out the display pair in a spectacular scheme, a successful marriage of the current all-black plumage and the earlier raspberry ripple scheme. It was certainly one of the most striking schemes worn by the type and was displayed to maximum effect by that year's display pilot Flt Lt Martin Pert. It was also to prove the final year on the circuit for 100 Squadron as its participation was scrubbed in 2007 at the eleventh hour after the Leeming paint shop had turned out a striking display aircraft in the squadron's blue and yellow colours to commemorate its ninetieth anniversary, even carrying the name of the nominated display pilot. Although we were deprived of seeing it perform a flying display, at least we had the opportunity to see and photograph it as it graced the static displays of several shows.

Better enjoy the displays of this year's solo display Hawk, with its enormous roundels painted on the underside and fin, as rumour has it that there is unlikely to be one next year as the RAF seeks to make further cutbacks. The Hawk has been on the display circuit now for over thirty years, and has consistently performed punchy displays, often seeming to be punching above its weight in the last couple of years as though to make up for the lack of a Harrier or Tornado on the majority of airshow programmes. If those pessimistic rumours do come to pass, at least we shall still see the Hawk flown by the Red Arrows - after all, they wouldn't dare disband them as part of the cutbacks, would they?


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