No wonder the Red Arrows are in a spin: ‘Boozy training exercises’, alleged adultery and ‘toxic’ culture revealed after three of the elite squadron quit or were suspended

  • Off-duty pilots from the Red Arrows were staying at a luxury resort in Greece
  • Following their stay one pilot was allegedly suspended and another has resigned
  • The RAF said they are investigating allegations of ‘unacceptable behaviour’
  • This summer, the Arrows have therefore been performing with just seven planes 

Drink flows all summer long in the seaside town of Chalkida, where thirsty visitors up from Athens rub shoulders with well-heeled tourists in bustling waterfront bars, restaurants and nightclubs.

And this year, the party season started early. It was early May when a distinctive group of 30-something British men began spending evenings in the Ancient Greek port, a place first mentioned in Homer’s Iliad.

They were usually to be found patronising its more upmarket hostelries.

These visitors were smartly dressed, well-spoken and with strapping physiques. Most wore designer sunglasses and chunky wristwatches.

To the delight of locals, they seemed happy to drop hefty amounts of cash.

‘They are often in here, maybe eight or nine at a time, and they do order very big rounds of drinks,’ one bar owner told the Mail.

‘Beers, negronis and old-fashioneds are their favourites. These men are not like typical British tourists, though. They drink and then, before it gets too late, they stop. These guys are usually the perfect gentlemen and we very much enjoy hosting them.’

Squadron Leader Nick Critchell (pictured), resigned in protest at the ‘toxic culture’ he believed was laid bare

Usually, but not always the perfect gentlemen, it seems.

For these well-heeled revellers were actually off-duty pilots from the Red Arrows, the Royal Air Force’s elite aerobatics team, along with hangers on from ‘the blues’, their in-house engineers and support staff.

They had come to Greece for a four-week series of training sessions named Exercise Springhawk that would set them up for a summer wowing the crowds at Europe’s biggest air shows.

Yet things soon went dramatically awry. The reason? An ugly late-night incident that, according to one military source, involved ‘alcohol and suspected inappropriate behaviour’.

It promptly saw one pilot sent home in disgrace, while another, Squadron Leader Nick Critchell, 36, resigned in protest at the ‘toxic culture’ he believed the whole thing laid bare.

Flight Lieutenant Will Cambridge (pictured), was suspended over an alleged affair with a junior trainee pilot which had also caused ructions in Greece

Another member, Flight Lieutenant Will Cambridge, 39, was suspended soon afterwards over an alleged affair with a junior trainee pilot which had also caused ructions in Greece.

The remaining seven flyers of the team, which likes to call itself ‘The Best of British’, are said to have been bickering ever since.

And this week, their ugly dispute became spectacularly public. It emerged that the RAF has launched a formal investigation into allegations of what it called ‘unacceptable behaviour’ by several Red Arrows pilots.

Many of their colleagues, with whom they must fly wingtip-to-wingtip at speeds of more than 400mph, are said to now ‘hate each other’.

Three have either quit or been booted out in recent months, forcing the team, whose most famous manoeuvres involve flying in a diamond-shaped formation of nine distinctive Hawk T1 jets, to scale back its routine.

This summer, the Arrows have therefore been performing with just seven planes.

The only exception was a high-profile fly-past over London, in which nine jets filled the skies above London with red, white and blue smoke to mark the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee.

Flight Lieutenant Damon ‘Damo’ Green (pictured), took an unusually timed decision to leave. His exact motive has not been revealed, with the RAF saying only that it was for ‘personal reasons’ 

It avoided cancellation because two commanders (who are not permitted to perform stunts but who are allowed to take part in fly-pasts) were temporarily drafted in.

Ongoing hostilities are ‘a disaster for the RAF’, one former pilot told The Sun newspaper this week.

‘The Red Arrows are their public face and the public love them but they have no idea what is going on behind the scenes.

‘That’s why the RAF have tried so hard to keep a lid on this.’

The source added: ‘There is something really rotten in this team. It should be the highlight of pilots’ careers to fly for the Red Arrows. But they have lost three this year. The hierarchy has to ask itself why. There are good people there who are trying to fix it but it is an unhappy place.’

Establishing who or what is to blame for this summer’s meltdown is tricky, since (as with many toxic rows) different factions offer varying versions of events and no one involved is speaking publicly.

However, it appears to have all kicked off during the second week of May. The Red Arrows had travelled to Greece to, as their PR team put it, ‘spend about four weeks … perfecting the 2022 display’.

Ahead of the trip, one pilot gave an interview to BBC radio, telling listeners that the team relied on the clear blue skies of Greece to fine-tune their training.

Though they were stationed at the Hellenic Air Force base of Tanagra, 40 miles north of Athens, the Mail has established that the pilots and their support staff were actually billeted at a luxury beach resort called the Negroponte Eretria, some 45 minutes’ drive in the opposite direction.

Rooms typically cost around £200 per night (though the MoD reportedly secures a hefty discount) and include access to an array of swimming pools, beach cabanas, gyms, football pitches, basketball arenas and a volleyball court adjacent to the Mediterranean where Red Arrows pilots were occasionally to be found recreating famous scenes from Top Gun.

The resort has a long-standing relationship with the aerobatic team, who return year after year, and photographs of their jets decorate its reception area.

The nearest big town, should they fancy a proper night out, is the aforementioned Chalkida.

Sources familiar with Exercise Springhawk said Red Arrows pilots, who are known by their ‘call-signs’ Red 1 to Red 9, were required to make three flights a day, five days a week.

The high-profile team, who have an important role in major royal and state occasions, found itself going into summer without two of their usual nine pilots. Pictured: the Red Arrows at the Midlands Air Festival on the first day of the Platinum Jubilee weekend

Although this left plenty of time for rest and relaxation, the high-risk nature of their work — there have only been 160 pilots since the team was formed in 1964, in which time 12 have died — meant they were supposed to adhere to strict rules governing alcohol consumption.

Specifically, a ‘bottle to throttle’ limit completely prohibits the consumption of alcohol in the ten hours before entering a cockpit, while anyone found reporting for duty with more than 20milligrams of alcohol per 100ml of blood (a quarter of the drink-drive limit) will usually face court martial.

Historically, the rules have at times been taken with a pinch of salt. As one RAF veteran of the early 2000s puts it: ‘Back in the day, when the Reds trained in Greece, they were notable for getting absolutely trollied in the bar and then taking off as a nine ship [formation] the following morning and doing some frankly rather impressive flying.

‘They are very much alpha males who have big opinions of themselves and used to be absolutely notorious for womanising, even the married ones.

‘It was as if, like some British holidaymakers, they simply forgot to pack their morals whenever they flew out to the Med.’

In recent years, however, things have changed dramatically. Today’s RAF is so hobbled by political correctness that its own (female) head of recruitment quit this week, reportedly over a de facto recruitment freeze on white men (in favour of women and candidates from ethnic minorities) which has allegedly been imposed in order to meet diversity quotas.

Against this backdrop, the culture of heavy drinking, not to mention the practice known in the forces as ‘pulling’ [women], has become controversial.

Some modern RAF pilots regard any drinking within 24 hours of flying as bad form. Those who hail from the old school of gung-ho flying regard such edicts as excessively puritanical. Each side takes an increasingly dim view of the other.

This ongoing debate appears to have led to particular bad feeling in the Red Arrows, with some team members becoming convinced that their colleagues were taking an unprofessional approach to their job.

In January, a member of the team, named Flight Lieutenant Damon ‘Damo’ Green, took an unusually timed decision to leave. His exact motive has not been revealed, with the RAF saying only that it was for ‘personal reasons’.

Things came to a more spectacular head following a late-night incident in early May. It’s said to have partly involved ‘drink and bad behaviour’ during a visit by three members of the team to a Chalkida bar.

‘There’s a tradition, when the Reds visit Greece, that existing team members take turns to go out on the town with the new guys,’ says an insider. ‘It can be quite “lads on tour”, but some of the younger pilots these days don’t really approve. It definitely caused friction this year and ever since, the team, as a group, simply haven’t got on.’

Days later, Squadron Leader Critchell allegedly confronted his colleague Tom Bould, 41 — who, as ‘Red 1’, is the team’s current leader — over what he believed to be a ‘toxic culture’ within the Red Arrows.

Seemingly dissatisfied by the response to his concerns, he resigned in disgust, according to multiple reports this week. The RAF has disputed that version of events, albeit somewhat half-heartedly, claiming he left ‘for personal reasons to embark on a different career opportunity’.

The Red Arrows claim to act as ambassadors for the nation by ‘promoting the best of British’

Whatever the real reason, we know one pilot (whose identity has not been confirmed) was later sent home from Greece.

Not long afterwards, it emerged that Flight Lieutenant Cambridge had vanished from the team roster that is published on the Red Arrows’ website.

His social media feed also disappeared. Although the RAF refused to elaborate on the reasons, it was widely reported this week that the Oxford University graduate had been suspended over an affair with an unnamed female trainee colleague which had apparently been reported to his superiors during the team’s stay in Greece.

As a result the high-profile team, who claim to act as ambassadors for the nation, ‘promoting the best of British,’ and have an important role in major royal and state occasions, found itself going into summer without two of their usual nine pilots (there was time to replace Green with Squadron Leader Jon Bond).

Confirming that a wider investigation has been launched, the MoD said this week: ‘The RAF has a zero-tolerance approach to unacceptable behaviour and allegations will be thoroughly investigated to ensure the highest standards are upheld.

‘We will not be commenting on the individual circumstances of these moves, which have been made without prejudice and are a result of personal and professional [reasons]. We will however take action wherever wrongdoing is proven.’

It is an embarrassing state of affairs. Indeed, the head of the RAF, Air Chief Marshal Sir Michael Wigston, is said to be so ‘furious’ about the whole thing that he’s personally overseeing the probe.

The Red Arrows have performed approaching 5,000 times in 56 countries, including at the 2012 Olympics Pictured: The Red Arrows performing at the Blackpool airshow this month

It will look in detail at the entire culture of the team, with a remit that extends beyond the mere circumstances of the three recent departures.

Replacements for the two pilots that left are in training and should be ready for the 2023 airshow season.

New recruits are selected based on strict criteria: each must have clocked up at least 1,500 flying hours, be assessed as being ‘above average’ in their flying role and they must have completed at least one frontline tour.

Typically, a shortlist of between 25 and 30 potential recruits is whittled down to nine, who then perform at an annual ‘shortlist week.’

Here, they fly three times a day and undergo a formal interview and test to assess formation flying ability.

A lucky two or three are then offered places on the team — usually for around two or three years, before returning to other duties.

Officially the Royal Air Force Aerobatic Team, the Red Arrows were formed in 1964 when the MoD decided to amalgamate a number of units.

They have since performed approaching 5,000 times in 56 countries, including at the 2012 Olympics.

As they await their new pilots, the world’s most famous display team can be seen at air shows around Europe in a scaled-down ‘seven ship’ formation, an arrangement many enthusiasts regard as deeply unsatisfactory.

They note that the last time the Red Arrows were forced to adopt this arrangement came after the team’s first ever female member, Squadron Leader Kirsty Stewart, quit in 2012.

Reporters were told that her sudden departure was down to her having ‘lost her edge’ following the deaths of two colleagues. It later emerged that it had come amid rumours of an extra-marital affair with the flying team’s then leader, Ben Murphy.

The duo were hauled before RAF chiefs, but vigorously denied any romantic liaison.

Ironically, some two years later, it emerged that Stewart was now living with her former boss, to whom she’d just become engaged. Today, she’s known as Kirsty Murphy.

As they ponder the crisis currently affecting their most famous group of pilots, the RAF’s top brass must be hoping that the kerfuffle surrounding events in Chalkida can somehow have a similarly happy ending.

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