What it’s really like to be a Red Arrows pilot

Being a Red Arrows pilot is definitely not an easy task. One person who knows this better than anyone is Michael Bowden, from Cardiff. He was a fast jet fighter pilot and then a Red Arrows display pilot, serving in the RAF for 17 years.

From flying around the Statue of Liberty, viewing below the heights of skyscrapers in Chicago to zooming over the polar ice caps in Greenland, Michael has seen it all. It all started with a childhood dream that was 30 years in the making, and he has now tried to channel the determination he developed during that time into his everyday life after retiring from the Reds.

He left the army in 2019 and has now launched a new home care business in Wales, but still carries the excitement he experienced with them, which has shaped his continued zest for life. For the latest Cardiff news, sign up to our newsletter here.

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Red arrows fly over Buckingham Palace

Michael and the Red Arrows’ Buckingham Palace flypast in London -Credit:mod/crowncopyright 2024

Former Red Arrows pilot Michael Bowden, in a red suitFormer Red Arrows pilot Michael Bowden, in a red suit

Michael Bowden pictured in the infamous red suit, which he dreamed of wearing since he was a child -Credit:mod/crowncopyright 2024

“Some of the positions you found yourself in and at some points you really had to pinch yourself and go – how do I do this and try to enjoy every moment of it because it really was incredibly special,” he said in an interview with WalesOnline.

Michael knew, after watching the Red Arrows fly past at an air show at St Athan in the Vale of Glamorgan at a young age, that this was what he wanted to do with his life. He said: “It was the first time my eyes were on the Red Arrows, and I was that little boy who looked up and said, one day I want to do that.

“From that day on it was a dream, where I thought, whatever it takes, I want to be able to do that because it looks like the coolest and most fun thing in the world ever, and that was the dream to this day put on a red suit.”

What is it actually like to be a Red Arrow pilot? One of the most important responsibilities that comes with the job is training. Michael noted: “You don’t just fall into a Red Arrows plane. Obviously you have to go and do all your schooling, which probably helped me a little bit further through my education.

Michael grew up in Newport and knowing exactly what he was aiming for, he made sure he completed his A-levels before pursuing a degree in computer science and mathematics in Cardiff.

And after going through selection in the Air Force, he was sponsored through college, with a job waiting for him at the end. After joining the Air Force as a pilot, he had to prove himself as a fast jet pilot by working a certain number of hours and flying another plane.

“And in my early twenties, after completing my advanced fast jet training in Wales, I was told that I had done very well, and that they would like to keep me there for a few years before I go to the front line to educate other people,” he said.

“I passed the grades in each of those stages to move on to the next course, flying a faster plane in each stage, which was quite intimidating as I was suddenly teaching colleagues in their early twenties how to fly a multi-million dollar supersonic plane had to manage the pound. aeroplane.”

No day is the same at the Red Arrows. But the time when they have more routine is in the winter, where they train five days a week, ready for the summer shows. When asked what moments stood out to him during his time with the team, Michael replied: “The first time you put on that red suit and realize you’ve achieved it, it’s a bit like a Formula 1 driver standing at the start .line and go and do what they have to do.

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“But there have been some incredible moments. We were the first military unit to be invited to Zhuhai, China to exhibit. We have exhibited all over the Far East and the Middle East and the Monaco Yacht Show provided an incredible backdrop in Europe, flying to America, over Iceland and Greenland and seeing all the polar ice caps, and coming out there, visible beneath the heights of skyscrapers in Chicago while people were having lunch and you were rushing by at over 500 miles per hour was amazing.”

But their work involves much more than just the glamor of performing in front of a large audience.

“It was always a childhood dream to become a Red Arrows pilot, but it is definitely a double-sided coin. Because you took part in operations in Afghanistan and supported troops of all different nationalities on the ground and knew it, you made a difference that day and there were times when you absolutely saved lives on the ground. There’s really nothing more fun than that.”

Coming to terms with tragedy, managing risk, and next steps

Planes circle the sky - The Red Arrows perform their 'Spaghetti Break'Planes circle the sky - The Red Arrows perform their 'Spaghetti Break'

The Red Arrows perform their ‘Spaghetti Break’ -Credit:mod/crowncopyright 2024

Michael said: “Flying faster planes is not a paper loop. You are flying a machine that can go faster than the speed of sound, very close to the ground and close to other aircraft.”

In any case, it is not for the faint of heart. During his time as a Red Arrows pilot, Michael came face to face with loss and endured all kinds of situations throughout his career.

He said: “There’s an incredible amount of safety built in, but obviously accidents are there, and have happened, and there’s been tragedy in the team over the years and that’s incredibly hard to deal with when it’s people you know, and people you have experienced. worked, but these things happen.

“There was a tragedy where we lost one of our engineers, and nothing can replace that feeling of loss. Obviously no one ever wants to end up in that position, but the most important thing in everything is that we take the lessons learned from tragedy and understand what changes need to be implemented and implemented to make the environment safer.

He added: “Every day you get on a plane and fly within five feet of another plane flying upside down at about 400 miles per hour. Fly 30 meters above the ground, upside down towards an opposition.

“If you pass them within 100 feet of another plane at the same speed, there’s no automatic, no cruise control. There is no system on the plane that tells us we are going to hit someone else or how to avoid that person.

“It’s completely mandrolic: it’s the sign that one human eyeball ultimately has in our hands and makes that plane do what it does. So it takes an incredible amount of training to get that show going and the big thing in the red is knowing that we’re never going to be perfect because there’s always room for improvement.

“You always strive to be the best you can be, knowing that every time we went out we could make it that little bit better. The debriefing was probably the biggest part of our process and we didn’t hide behind any mistakes.”

Now Michael is focusing his energy on a business he runs with his business partner Leane – Guardian Angel Carers Cardiff, with the aim of providing high quality care to people in the city. After his grandmother died after suffering from dementia after declining in a care home, he wanted to be able to provide care where people are cared for to the “highest standards”.

The worlds collided for Michael when a man who was also in the RAF suffered a parachute accident, leaving him paralyzed from the waist down and requiring 24/7 care for the rest of his life. Michael said his patient Rob Bugden remained incredibly positive, but his mental health took a turn for the worse, largely due to the poor level of care he received.

“I am incredibly grateful that we have been contacted. Guardian Angel Carers Cardiff are now providing his care and have given him the confidence, independence and attention to detail required in the care package that needs to be delivered. Especially for someone who needs a carer 24/7. 7 with them.

“He is back to his old self, feeling more independent, mentally stronger and has confidence and a completely open dialogue with us and the team. I believe this is a very good news story and how delivering quality, compassionate care in the comfort of People’s homes can really make a difference. As a company we are holding our heads high because we can do this and hope we can continue to spread the message.”

Two laughing men next to each otherTwo laughing men next to each other

Michael with Rob – Credit: Guardian Angels Cardiff

Michael added: “We really hope to make a positive difference to the families who need care, for themselves or their loved ones, in the comfort of their own home. We are already seeing the positive effects and hope that more families can be made aware of the level of service, trust, compassion and excellence we continually strive for.

“I will personally ensure that we use all the experiences I have gained throughout my career to continually improve in everything we do.”

For more information, visit the Guardian Angel Carers Cardiff website.

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